5 Q's: Jake Brown, author of "Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Music’s Greatest Hits"

Today, "Five Questions" are put to Jake Brown, whose new book is Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Music's Greatest HIts. The book, published by BenBella Books is available now on Amazon and fine books stores everywhere.



Why do you think the “storyteller” model has continued to thrive in country music?

Because it most closely mirrors the real lives of the listeners.  That has always been one of the key ingredients to why a country song can be re-recorded and re-invented through the years by so many different generations of artists and still be fresh enough to the ear of a new listener, say a teenager, to make the song hit # 1 again and again.  Examples from the book would include songwriter Wayne Carson’s “Always On My Mind,” which Willie Nelson most famously made a hit of course, but has also been taken to the top of the charts by Elvis Presley, new wave group The Pet Shop Boys, and John Wesley Ryles.  Or “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which co-writer Jeff Silbar recalls in his chapter was originally taken to # the top 10 on the adult contemporary chart by Lou Rawls and Gladys Knight and the Pips before going to the top 5 on the Country singles chart by Gary Morris, and then to # 1 by Bette Midler in 1989 in the song’s most famous recording.  Or “I Fought the Law” by Sonny Curtis, which the Bobby Fuller Four went to the top 10 in the 60s, and went on of the most covered songs in rock history, from The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Bruce Springsteen, Social Distortion, and by country superstar Hank Williams Jr.

There are countless examples of this trend throughout the book, and that art of story telling is also one that has remained distinctively alive within country, transcending whatever other trends were driving the times because the songs continue to stand up so well.  Craig Wiseman, who has written 21 # 1s, calls the country song “a 3 minute movie,” and that is a brilliant description for why the 200 hits we discuss in this book all have a universally common thread – along with being chart-toppers – of also being so able to reflect the real life experiences, emotions, etc in the stories they tell.  Another important key to the success of the these songwriters has been to do within the lyrics to their songs what another monster hit writer featured in the book, Dallas Davidson – whose recent # 1s include “Play It Again” by Luke Bryan and Lee Brice’s “I Don’t Dance – calls “speaking the language,” which means being dialed in to talking in songs like the real-life listeners do, offering “Oh my God, this is my song!” as one such example from the latter Bryan hit, which spent 8 consecutive weeks at # 1 this past summer.

Any theories why it seems to have been largely abandoned by much of today’s pop and rock music?

Having written for years in the rock genre, and specifically in authorized co-writing situations with some of the BEST songwriters in the genre – Ann and Nancy Wilson of HEART and Joe Satriani being two examples – and now with some of the biggest country hit-writers here in Nashville, I think the one universal thing they would say – whether it sounded cliché or not – is that the SONG COMES FIRST.  That sometimes means abandoning any notion of its hit potentiality, while its fair to say within this book that there was a very healthy awareness among the songwriters I interviewed of when they were onto something special that had the potential to be a hit.  So its not as though they were unconscious of that aspect, but at the end of the day, its about writing for the sake of writing.  Numerous writers hammered home that point: from John Rich to Dean Dillon to Dallas Davidson to Rivers Rutherford, just on and on, that while it’s a job, its not something that anyone got into expecting to get rich off of.  It has to start out for the love of the song.

As far as theories on pop or rock, I would point to the one-hit wonder tsunami we have seen the past 10 or 15 years, in both genres.  You have your Katy Perry’s and Pinks who hang around in pop and examples of that in rock, but the majority of these bands are one-hit wonders because they don’t have the consistency of memorable songs to build a catalog on.  There’s obviously the politics of radio too, and how social media can influence a song becoming a hit without the benefit of major radio rotation to break it, but within country, its always been about the quality of the hit as much as it has how big the star singing it was.  That kind of goes to reinforce the point of this book, which was to focus autobiographically on the stories behind the songwriters’ lives and how their life experiences influenced and inspired what became these timeless country hits, the soundtracks to generations’ of fans’ lives.

Why do you think the tradition of artists and performers covering other people’s songs has continued in Nashville?

Because the quality of the songs hold up so well, expanding a bit on my earlier answer.  Its one of the best-kept secrets outside the immediate world of Country that, historically-speaking, for generations and generations, there has been this amazing community of songwriters working behind the scenes composing the majority of country’s biggest hits.  That in turn allows them to not be so necessarily married to one star who might have recorded a song and made it famous so that another can’t come along in that same generation or the next with their own rendition, and also top the charts.  It’s a trend VERY unique to Country music, and one we were eager to explore in-depth in the pages of this book from the perspective of the hit-writers themselves.

Your book is largely centered on more contemporary country songwriters. How do you think they stack up with the legends that came before them?

I would point out that, in fact, we have within the book a healthy representation from some of the biggest hit-writers of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as well as the past 25 years from the 1990s on.  BMI Icon winners like Tom T. Hall and Dean Dillon, Whisperin Bill Anderson, whose hit-streak began back in the late 1960s, Sonny Curtis, who goes back to the 50s, Tom Shapiro – NSAI’s Songwriter of the Decade winner , who began writing hits in the late 1970s, Jeff Silbar, Bob DiPiero, Wayne Carson, Freddy Powers’ work with Merle Haggard, these are all guys who also co-wrote songs with legends who have now passed who we just physically weren’t able to interview for the project.  Still, these writers I mention above recounting their collaborations or early years writing under the tutelage of masters like Hank Cochran, etc, gives country fan some insight into those writers’ processes as hitmakers too.  Then we have those writers who started their careers in the 1990s, writing some of the biggest hits of that decade and continuing through the Millennium:like David Lee Murphy, Rivers Rutherford, Lee Thomas Miller, Neil Thrasher, and then the co-writers of the Millennium’s biggest country stars’ catalogs of Greatest Hits, from Chris Dubois and Kelley Lovelace’s co-writing relationships with Brad Paisley to Brett James’ longtime co-writing relationship with Kenny Chesney, etc. Lastly, I’m particularly proud to have chapters written with the biggest hit-writers of today’s generation: Dallas Davidson, Ashley Gorley, etc.  So we feel like we have just enough for every country music fan in this book, no matter their generation..

Push comes to shove, what is the one “story” song you’re taking with you to that proverbial desert island?

There are honestly too many to pick any one, they really are all “my babies,” as many of the songwriters said to me in this book when I posed the same type of question to them.  I more had favorite categories of songwriting stories: I would have to say my favorite strain of song story throughout the book were those happy accident moments when a song seemed to almost “write itself.” Songs from the book that fell in this category would include hits like Kenny Chesney’s “There Goes My Life,” Rascal Flatts’ “Banjo,” Jason Aldean’s “Fly Over States” and Porter Wagoner’s “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” etc. I also loved the examples where these songs connected so directly into making a difference in the lives of listeners, and there’s profound examples of that with hits like “Jesus Take the Wheel” by Carrie Underwood, “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw, “Blessed” Martina McBride, on and on.  I also liked some of what I like to call “Rocky” stories behind hits that had journeyman paths to # 1, where they were put “on hold” for literally years after they were written before finally seeing the light of day on record: Ashley Gorley pointing out that it took two ½ years passing before “Play It Again” got cut and went to # 1, “You Look Good in My Shirt” by Keith Urban, which Tom Shapiro shared took 6 years before it was finally cut, and “You Save Me” by Kenny Chesney, which co-writer Brett James revealed took nearly 7 years to get from written to recorded before it went to # 1, or the aptly-titled “The Impossible” by Joe Nichols.  Those were definitely some of the highlights.