Making Music In The Money Business
“The [music] business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
“Just so you know, we like to kick the backs of seats and harass the people in front us,” the mouthpiece behind me chirps as I sit down.
“Just so you know, I’m a black belt,” I reply without turning around.
“I wear a black belt, too,” Mr. Funnyman scoffs, to the delight of his mentally deficient buddies.
“Yes, but mine is real.”
With that the man who only minutes earlier had his legs draped over my seat in the Bridgestone Arena – home to the Nashville Predators hockey team and, on this night, the 2006 Country Music Association awards – changes his tone completely. Although I’m currently a music journalist, I’m seated with radio personnel (most of whom are really nice folks). The three stooges behind me are well-behaved for the remainder of the evening.
If you have ever watched an awards show on television, you’ve probably wondered how much better it would be in person. The performances certainly sound better live than they do on tv (we have the technology to send land rovers to Mars, but we still haven’t figured out how to get a good mix for the television audience at home), but that’s about it. You know what happens when there’s a commercial break on TV? Nothing. Except for a bit of chatter among attendees, it’s thumb in your arse time.
Brooks & Dunn are hosting tonight’s awards. They come out and warm the crowd up a bit before the show goes live, not with music but a few jokes and instructions. Someone from the cheap seats yells out something indecipherable and interrupts Kix Brooks while he is speaking. Without missing a beat Kix, poker-faced, says, “I remember my first beer.” The nearly full arena laughs in unison. There are no more interruptions from the cheap seats.
The highlight for me comes not during the show, but outside the Bridgestone Arena afterwards. As thousands upon thousands of attendees pour out of the massive hockey palace and onto the legendary Lower Broadway strip in downtown Nashville, I stop to take it all in. Out of the corner of my eye a man standing about twenty feet away catches my attention. He sticks out from the legion. I walk over to get a closer look. As I suspected, it’s Dean Dillon.
Anyone who knows anything about songwriters knows the name Dean Dillon. Those who don’t have likely heard his songs. The man has had dozens of songs cut by George Strait alone, including number one hits like “Ocean Front Property,” “The Chair” and “Easy Come, Easy Go.” A recording artist himself at one time, Dillon is the pen behind “Tennessee Whiskey,” made famous by country legend George Jones, and later brought to an entirely new audience thanks to Chris Stapleton.
It would take an entire essay to list Dillon’s catalog of hits and explain the importance of his songwriting voice to country music. Needless to say, he’s one of the most successful songwriters in country music history. Seeing him in the flesh, casually standing with a few friends (including George Strait’s manager) I’m reluctant to bother him.
I watch Dillon’s group while the crowd filters past unaware one of the greatest songwriters in history, the guy who writes a lot of the hits they love, is standing among them. I decide I have to talk to him (I’ve written about him, but we’ve never met). There’s no way I’m going to let the opportunity slip by. I walk over, stick out my hand and mumble something about being a music journalist from Canada and a huge fan.
The man with the unmistakable moustache and long hair, which is covered by a white stetson, is kind and warm. There is no artificiality, no attitude. I say something stupid about the Country Songwriters Hall of Fame and how he should be in it. Dean smiles and nods. “You’re already in the hall,” I correct myself. He nods again. We chat for a few minutes. I thank him for all the great music and slip into the mob and out onto Broadway.
While driving through Louisville, Kentucky, I notice a massive billboard off in the distance. It reads: Saturday is the real Lord’s Day. The original day was changed by the anti-christ. I’m in the bible-belt, and the billboard belongs to the Seventh Day Adventist Church.I wonder if the sign owners have ever studied the scriptures (at the very least the book of Romans)?
I stop for lunch and the waitress seats me next to a table of mostly older folks who have just come from church. After their meal the table of seven hold a discussion on what I assume is the preacher’s message from earlier in the morning. It appears the preacher’s sermon was on gambling and buying lotto tickets. Apparently the preacher warned his congregation about the evils of scratch tickets. I’m sure he trotted out the well-worn “money is the root of all evil” line, too (actually, the love of money is the root of all evil).
The discussion continues and the eldest lady of the bunch says something about playing the lotto and gambling for fun. A slightly younger man (her son, by the way he talks) assures her it’s okay if she’s just doing it for fun, that the preacher was talking about trying to get rich through the lottery. I think about Jesus and his words about judging by what we see; how God judges by what he sees in the hearts of his followers.
I don’t know if gambling or buying lotto tickets is a bad thing or not. I think perhaps preachers should spend more time talking about the grace and love of God rather than whipping up lists of rules no one including themselves can follow.
At a traffic light, an SUV in front of me has a cross on the back windshield with a black child kneeling in prayer on one side and a white child on the other. The sticker strikes me as more powerful than a sermon on the evils of lottery tickets or a hell-fire and brimstone billboard.
“Making Friends, real friends, in Nashville is hard.”
These words of wisdom come from my producer friend, Ted. We are sitting in his studio recording demos. This is only our second time working together. We bonded during our first demo session a few months earlier when, during the mixing phase, his mother passed away. The only reason he was able to finish those sessions he told me then, was because of my song “September’s Child.”
“September’s Child” was written a few weeks earlier. I’d penned the song late one evening after hearing police had found the body of missing teenager Jennifer Teague. The story had been all over the tv and internet for weeks. Teague left work one night after her shift at a fast food restaurant in Barrhaven (a suburb of Ottawa) Ontario, Canada. She never arrived home. As the days passed, it became clear the story wasn’t going to have a happy ending.
I sat down and played a chord progress on my guitar. “September’s Child” came out in less than an hour. I made a work tape and put in my desk drawer. I was heading to Nashville in a few weeks, but I didn’t plan on demoing the song; it was written as therapy and as a prayer. I figured it would sit in a drawer and likely never see the light of day. But the more I read about Jennifer’s story – Ottawa reporter Earl McRae kept in close contact with the family and updated the story frequently – the more I felt I had to do something.
The last thing I wanted to do was benefit or profit in anyway from someone else’s pain. I decided I would record the song and, if they were willing, send it to the family through McRae. The demo Ted recorded during our first session, which was sung by vocalist Matt Dame, a former police officer turned country artist, was emotionally charged.
After Ted’s mother died, he and his wife laid down beautiful harmonies to shade Matt’s powerful lead vocal. As Ted later explained, the song’s chorus: “Hallelujah, go in peace sweet child, your memory will always remain/I know we’ll meet in heaven one day, and together we’ll sing Hallelujah,” helped him deal with his mother’s death.
Upon my return to Canada, I contacted Earl McRae and told him about the song. Since he’d grown close to Jennifer’s father while covering the horrifying story of her murder, he offered to listen to it. I emailed McRae an MP3 and asked if he would be willing to reach out to the family and see if maybe they would like to have a copy. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, or if the family would even want to hear it.
After listening to the track, McRae contacted Jennifer’s family and sent them a copy. He phoned me a few days later to say he wanted to do a story for the Ottawa Sun. I politely declined. I didn’t want any publicity. Earl insisted. “Jennifer’s father thinks I should write something about the song.”
After agreeing to a telephone interview, I explained to McRae how uncomfortable I was at the thought of gaining any kind of attention because of “September’s Child.” It wasn’t created or recorded for that purpose. He assured me the story would be written in a sensitive manner. We set up a day and a time to do the interview. I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, which was evidenced by the noticeable knot in my stomach in the days leading up to the interview.
During our telephone conversation Earl informed me Jennifer’s father had asked if it would be okay for him to contact me. Earl would give him my phone number if I agreed. I gave the okay and not long after the story appeared in the Ottawa Sun (with a link where people could go online and listen to the song), Mr. Teague phoned me. It was one of the hardest calls I’d ever taken.
The conversation was brief. I offered my condolences and tried my best to say something comforting. Mr. Teague thanked me for the song and encouraged me to share it with the world. I told him I didn’t want to benefit in anyway from his family’s tragedy.
“I don’t believe that’s what you would be doing,” he said.
I wasn’t sure, but I told him I would consider it.
A few weeks after the story ran in the Sun, I received an email from another gentleman in Ottawa who asked if he could have a copy of “September’s Child” (the online link in the article allowed people to listen but not download the song). The man told me his wife had terminal cancer and only a short time left; that he listened to the song online often. He said it helped him deal with his grief. That day a CD went out in the mail.
A month or so passed before I received another email from the gentleman thanking me for sending the song. His wife had passed away; “September’s Child” was played at her funeral. He wanted to send me something as a thank you. I said there was no need, his finding solace in the song was reward enough. A few weeks later a card and a check arrived in the mail. I still have both (I never cashed the check).
Ted is moved as I recount the events that happened with “September’s Child.” Our conversation, like most conversations, bounces from topic to topic. I mention I’m having a hard time navigating the Nashville music community and making friends. I share the story of a couple of singers I’d been working with. Both at one time had been signed to major label deals but got lost in the shuffle.
I met and befriended these singers just as they were losing their record deals. They gave me their phone numbers, emails, etc. We had lunch and hung out. The minute these two singers found themselves back in the game, they quickly turned their backs on me, reneged on their offers to co-write and, in one case – after a very awkward phone call – made it clear we were not friends (this after telling me to call whenever I was coming to town).
At the time of our discussion, Ted was on the verge of becoming a very successful producer, he’d been working with one particular artist for years, trying to break him nationally. The two had enjoyed a top ten hit early in their partnership, but thanks to label politics they’d been stuck in the weeds waiting for another shot for years. As we continued working together, and as he and his artist’s star began to rise, Ted always made time for me.
Even once he became a big success and no longer had time to work on my demos, Ted proved to be a good friend when I needed it most. His advice was more valuable than the songs we recorded together. On one occasion Ted refused to blow off our scheduled lunch even though he’d just found out his artist, who was sitting in the #1 slot on the singles chart, was going to have the #1 album the following week.
He was riding high, but Ted took time out that day for lunch and to encourage me after a very rough meeting with an industry mogul the previous afternoon. Mr. Mogul told me I was a great songwriter, but my songs would never get recorded. His reasoning? I refused to write the “Nashville way,” a paint-by-numbers style of writing that worked well for many, but was of little interest to me.
During our meeting, Mr. Mogul, who was an old lion trying to prove he still had a little roar left in him, rebuked my comment about music being an artistic expression. “It’s never been about art,” he barked. “It’s about filling the spaces between commercials on the radio.” I was gutted. Mr. Mogul continued, “Only one or two songwriters in town can write alone and have any success. You’re close to being a Nashville songwriter, Todd, but you need to be molded.” (By him of course.)
Sitting in the Tin Roof, I recount these words to Ted. He laughs. Knowing Mr. Mogul personally, Ted tells me the guy “likes to rattle young writers.” His words make me feel better, but I’m ashamed to admit that up until the day Mr. Mogul passed away, I held a grudge. Maybe Mr. Mogul was trying to prepare me for the harsh reality of the music business, but by the time we’d had our meeting, I’d already received a few metaphorical blows to the head in Nashville.
Interestingly enough, the day Ted gave me the real friends pep talk – further explaining how most people trying to make it in Nashville will be your friend until they have something going on (or think they have something going on) – I’d hired a friend to sing on two of my demos. This guy was the first person I’d met in Nashville. I was travelling down every three months, and we became very close. I was the first person he told when he lost his record deal.
A few years later, when things were going really well for my ‘friend’ – he was touring and playing guitar for a huge country star – I would get a hardcore reminder of Ted’s real friends talk. At one point Mr. Guitar player told me I was one of his best friends. He often touted me and another guy as his only real friends. We hung out every time I was in Nashville. He would call me back home in Canada.
While doing a television appearance with his artist, Mr. Guitar Player fell in love with the personal assistant of the TV show’s host. It was a quick courtship and soon Mr. Guitar Player and the assistant were engaged. I was happy for him. On my next trip to Nashville, we hung out and I listened as he told me about the upcoming nuptials. Ms. TV Show Host was planning the wedding and paying for it; the wedding would be featured on a future episode of her tv show and in her magazine.
Although he told me all the details of the wedding, my ‘friend’ failed to mention the date. No big deal. I would make time and, if necessary, plan my next trip to Nashville around it. About a week after returning home, I called to see how Mr. Guitar Player was doing. We talked about music, how the tour he was on was going, songwriting, the usual stuff. Then I asked when the wedding would be taking place.
“We’re getting married in two weeks,” he said.
“Wow. I was just down, but I will make a special trip.”
There was a pause. “Ah…yeah, there won’t be room for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Ms. TV Show Host has only given me so many seats, and I have to invite…” (Mr, Guitar Player listed off the names of all his famous acquaintances.)
“So I’m one of your best friends, but I can’t come?”
“Ms. TV Show Host only wants family and…”
“Dude, that’s not completely true. I have cousins I’m not able to invite.”
“Is (the famous artist he was working for) invited?”
“But you just work for him, you’re not even friends.”
In its prime, Studio 19 played host to everyone from Beatle Ringo Starr to country giants Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks. Co-founded by guitarist Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley) and Bill Connor in the mid ’60s, the Studio moved to Franklin, Tennessee, in 2015. The original building became a parking lot, but before the walls came tumbling down, I had the pleasure of recording three projects there, including my 2014 album Road Songs.
My first project at Studio 19 was an EP I co-produced on an aspiring country singer from Canada. It was the first project I’d produced recording with a full band live off the floor. Nashville is overflowing with talented players, engineers and producers, so the process was smooth and painless. Up to this point my recording experiences in Music City consisted of demo sessions. The five song EP was my first foray into album quality master recording.
The insight and knowledge gleaned working on that first EP at Studio 19 helped when it came time to record Road Songs. I’d be lying if I said the first day of recording my own album didn’t have me a tangle of excitement and nerves. Despite my years of traveling back and forth to Tennessee and working in studios, this was my project, something I’d dreamed about for decades.
It was October 2013. The plan? Record a five song EP, have it mixed, mastered, pressed and released in time for Christmas (we almost made it, it was released in February 2014). I was playing live a lot, and people were always asking if I had a CD for sale. I was eager to finally be able to say yes. For years I’d paid other singers to perform my demos, Road Songs was a chance for me to showcase my songs with my voice.
The sessions were relaxed thanks to my co-producer Scott, with whom I’d been working on demos for a number of years (we also co-produced the five song EP on the aspiring Canadian artist in 2011). Scott reassembled all but one of the musicians who’d played on the EP project in 2011. By the time the sessions started, Road Songs had grown to six songs.
We began the first day laying down the bed tracks (the instrumentation) to “My Kind Of Country,” a contemporary honky-tonk song that had just the right amount of rock and roll sprinkled into the mix. The band, with me singing along, blasted through the track a couple of times. After settling on an arrangement, we cut the song in about 45 minutes, overdubs and all. It became the template for the rest of Road Songs.
By the end of the day, all six songs were completed, with scratch vocal tracks that would be rerecorded in the coming days. My only instructions to the band before the red light came on was that I envisioned the project being a mix of country, rock and honky tonk. I thanked the guys beforehand for using their skills and knowledge to bring my songs to life. We went over each song in the control room; the musicians made notes on their charts and then we all piled into the big room and let loose. It was galvanic.
Since I was trying to keep one foot in the songwriting world and promote myself as an artist to radio and other entities, my focus was split between recording the songs simply for myself and pitching them for other artists. For instance, when I sing “My Kind Of Country” live, the opening lines are: “I’ve got a skull tattoo with a cross in a crown of thorns/I sing songs about girls, pickup trucks, guitars and God.”
For the recording I sang, “I’ve got a skull tattoo with a ring in both my ears/I sing songs about girls, pickup trucks and old John Deeres.”
This was a small misstep on my part. The difference is negligible, but in the years since I’ve learned not to tailor my music for anyone but myself. Had the song simply been a demo to pitch to other artists, this approach would have worked. The best thing I could have done was record both vocal lines and have two separate mixes created, one for the album and one for pitching.
It was a valuable lesson, one that was driven home a few days after we’d finished recording all of the tracks and vocals. While playing at a songwriters’ night at a club with Scott, I decided to play a new song I’d just written called “Jesus Is A Harley Man.” After the round was over, while I was putting my guitar away backstage, an older gentleman approached me. He shook my hand and introduced himself. His name was Billy Henderson. I had no idea who he was.
“Your song ‘Jesus Is A Harley Man’ isn’t just the best song I heard tonight, it’s the best song I’ve heard in a long time,” Billy said.
I was stunned and grateful for the encouragement.
“Don’t worry about trying to write what Nashville wants, or what you think people want to hear. Keep writing songs like that one; songs from the heart.”
I joined Scott and his wife at a table and told them what Mr. Henderson had said. “We should have recorded “Jesus Is A Harley Man. A stripped down acoustic version,” I said. It was Wednesday night, and I was flying out late Friday.
“I’m busy tomorrow, but if you want to come by my home studio and record an acoustic version of the song Friday morning, we can do it,” Scott offered.
Back at my hotel room, I looked up Billy Henderson online. It turned out Mr. Henderson was a well-known songwriter, the man behind songs for Travis Tritt, Jason Aldean and Billy Ray Cyrus, among others. He’d also co-wrote the #1 hit “Ten Thousands Angels” for Mindy McCready. Thanks to him, Road Songs became a seven track CD.
The Wild Horse Saloon is electric with anticipation. Media, label people and the general public (who are contained downstairs at the famous Nashville venue – best not to mix the unwashed with the washed) are buzzing like neon. Tonight is a big night. Newcomer Eric Church, who is making waves with his first single “How ‘Bout You” and his debut album Sinners Like Me, is set to perform.
An early supporter of Church’s, I penned a favourable review of the singer-songwriter’s album in which I referred to Church as being as “authentic as the scuffs on his boots.” A mutual friend passed my review on to Church, who sent me a message thanking me for the support. The North Carolina native was humble then, before massive success turned him into a megalomaniac who clearly buys into his own hype.
Before the fame and money turned Church into a freight train of conceit and arrogance, the young artist hit a nerve with the listening public and critics alike. His brand of country-rock with – at least in the beginning – shades of traditional country music, set him on a crash-course to becoming a saviour for the genre, a role he relished and played up, along with his faux outlaw persona.
On this cool, late autumn evening in 2006, Church is still trying to make his bones, to prove he’s worthy of all the good press and the hype surrounding him. In a surprise move the singer opens his own showcase in order to later pay tribute to one of his heroes, Merle Haggard, who is being honoured at a venue close by. Church switches spots with up-and-comer (and label mate) Luke Bryan in order to give himself time to do both his show and perform at the Haggard tribute.
The multi-level Wild Horse Saloon is built in a way that patrons in the upper levels can look down at the stage and main floor. The whole place is built in a sort of horseshoe pattern so there isn’t a bad view in the venue. I’m on the top floor, perched a few feet from the bar in the centre of the balcony, the sweet spot sound wise. I’m more interested in listening than seeing.
With the twelve track Sinners Like Me, Church proved he could write songs that connect in a big way (with help from guys like Brett Beavers, Deric Ruttan, Casey Beathard and Jeremy Spillman, among others). The test on my authenticity meter would be his live show. Anyone can go into a studio with a handful of great songs and a half-assed voice and crank out something that sounds good. The real challenge is recreating that same music live.
Church takes the stage and quickly proves he’s the real deal. His band is a tight knit unit that rocks hard; they recreate the record perfectly. The minute Church steps to the mic and spits out the first lines to the opening song, anyone left doubting the man’s talent is silenced. He’s on fire, blasting through tracks from his debut, a few covers (at one point the band breaks into AC/DC). The highlight is “Lightning,” a stripped down tale of a death row inmate living out his final moments.
Earlier in the year, Church was kicked off pop-country trio Rascal Flatt’s tour for playing too loud and past his allotted time. After seeing him and his band perform, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the clean-cut and slick as grandad’s Sunday hair Flatt’s boys being put off by Church’s hard edged sound. Likely it was the fact that Church and his band made Rascal Flatts sound even wimpier than they already do.
A few years after the Wild Horse show, I penned a second review of Sinners Like Me for AllMusic.com. In it I wrote, “If you look up the word authentic in the dictionary, you just might see a picture of Eric Church.” I meant it. By then Church was three albums in and, although his head was swelling to gigantic proportions, he still appeared to be more interested in writing great music than becoming a rock star.
I drive up to the booth at the American border. It’s a Saturday evening in early spring. I’m on my way to Nashville to record some demos and pitch a few songs. I hand the border agent my passport. He asks where I’m going.
“Tennessee,” I say.
“I need you to be more specific, Mr. Sterling,” agent says in a sandpaper drawl.
“I’m going to record some demos and pitch songs next week.”
Agent looks at me suspiciously. “Who pays for your recording sessions?”
“I need to see documentation from your company stating your business in the US,” agent says, taking on a darker tone.
“I am my company. There is no documentation. I’ve crossed dozens of times to do the same thing with no issues.”
Agent puts in a call to the main building. Another agent comes out. They talk in the booth, I can hear first agent tell second agent he doesn’t believe I’m really going to do demos, that I am probably being paid (I wish). I’m told to wait. Two more agents come out from the main building, unappeasable, hands on guns like they’ve caught someone on their top ten most wanted list.
Second agent on the scene comes out of the booth and directs me to pull my car into a garage in the customs building. Once inside, he tells me put the vehicle in park and get out.
“Leave your cellphone in the car,” an agent who looks like he has watched too many Rambo movies snaps.
“I have to leave my cellphone?”
Rambo gets pissy. “Your phone can stay in Canada if you’d like.”
Rambo and his posse immediately surround me and start drilling me with questions. They are giving me serious attitude. I calmly try and explain my intentions once I get to Nashville, but Rambo interrupts me and says if I don’t change my attitude I won’t be going anywhere.
“I told the agent in the booth…”
“You’re not talking to him, you’re talking to me now,” Rambo barks. “I wasn’t in there, I don’t know what you said.”
I point to another, smaller agent who also appears to have a Rambo complex and say, “he was in the booth.”
“I didn’t talk to you,” little Rambo says.
I am moved to another section of the garage and told to remove my jacket, empty my pants pockets and pull them inside out. I comply. Little Rambo asks me what I will be doing in the U.S. I tell him the same thing I told the agent outside, the same thing I tell the border agents every time I go to Nashville.
“Do you have any music with you?”
“I have 60 promo copies of my album. To give to friends and hand out on Broadway.”
A third agent, a goofy looking prick, pipes up and says, “where’s the manifest?”
“Manifest? These are promo copies. I’m giving them away.”
Goofy Prick says, “you can’t give them away.
“No. How do we know you aren’t going to play on a street corner and sell them for five bucks?”
“Because I don’t need to do that. I’m working on getting my songs recorded by other artists.”
“Will you be performing in Nashville?” little Rambo jumps back in.
“No. I’m not allowed to make any money while I’m in the U.S. I know I’m only allowed to perform at Open Mics and Songwriter Rounds.”
Goofy Prick gets in my face, posturing wildly and says, “you know, do you?”
“Yes. I’ve been doing this for many years.”
“I just started working here today!” Goofy Prick screams.
“Cool,” I say. (I thought he was serious; that it really was his first day.)
“Yeah. I don’t know anything about immigration issues!” He’s furious now. “I’m a US customs officer. I know the law! You can’t perform at open mics or anywhere else!”
“But I don’t get paid.”
“The bars are making money. I’ve been down [to Nashville] and witnessed songwriters playing on the street and then setting up booths afterwards to sell their CDs.”
“I’ve been down dozens of times, and I’ve never seen anyone do that.”
“Really.” Goofy Prick says with a condescending grin.
“Yes. I’ve never seen anyone do that.”
Little Rambo tells me that if I lie to them I can be charged and spend up to six months in a U.S. jail. I can also be banned from entering America for life. Again I explain my plans. None of them seem to want to hear what I have to say.
“This is your last chance to tell me the truth,” little Rambo says, “after this, if we find out you’re lying, you will be charged and deported or jailed and barred for life.”
Big Rambo motions for me to head up a set of stairs leading into the customs building. Goofy Prick is in tow. As I climb the long staircase, little Rambo shouts from below, “What’s this?” He’s holding my phone. “You just got a text that says “good luck with your performances in Nashville.” You lied to us.”
“Who is the text from? I ask.”
“Someone named X.”
I explain that X must have meant my recording sessions. The agents are even more angry now, and excited because they think they’ve caught me in a lie. I’m certain at this point they all have raging (micro penis) hard-ons. Their exhilaration is disturbing on so many levels.
“How do you think this looks?” Little Rambo asks.
I sigh and shrug my shoulders.
I’m taken inside by Rambo and Goofy Prick and told to sit on a very uncomfortable wooden bench. After about ten or fifteen minutes, a door opens at the end of the building and I’m called down. Another agent introduces himself and shakes my hand. He’s the first person to not act like a complete asshole since I arrived at the border.
I’m escorted to a room. The agent who was in the booth when I hit the border accompanies me and Nice Agent. Again I’m questioned on why I’m entering the U.S. and warned of the dire consequences if they find out I’m lying. I explain that I’ve been going to Nashville for more than a decade to record demos and to pitch my songs, without ever having a problem. I continue to remain calm, but after a round of good cop/bad cop, my nerves are beginning to fray.
Nice Agent informs me it is illegal to pitch songs in Nashville as it constitutes working in the United States. No matter how much I try and explain that I’m spending money while I’m in Nashville, not making money, the agents can’t wrap their heads around it. Nor can they explain how pitching songs and not getting paid is working in the United States (other than because they say it is).
Nice agent informs me I have been travelling to the U.S. illegally for years (although I’ve been forthcoming with border agents every time I’ve crossed, and no one ever made much of a fuss). Nice Agent asks about X’s text. I explain that X is an older acquaintance who likely doesn’t understand the music business; that he must have been referring to my recording sessions.
I’m warned (again) what will happen if I’m lying. If they find out I’m lying, I will be charged, blah, blah, blah. I tell them I understand. Nice Agent warns me that he will check my Facebook (including any posts I’ve deleted) and call every bar and record company in Nashville to see if I have ever been paid to perform. “If I find out you have, Todd,” he says, “you will be charged.”
“That’s fine,” I say. “You won’t find anything.”
At this point, I don’t even want to enter the United States anymore.
After another round of good cop/bad cop, Nice Agent takes me out to the holding area and disappears. He reappears about 15 minutes later to ask me my height.
“Isn’t it on my license?”
“You don’t know your own height?”
“How much do you weigh?”
“I have no idea.”
“Sit tight. I will be back to get you in a few minutes. You’re not under arrest, but I’m sending you back to Canada. You will not be able to enter the U.S. again until one of your business contacts sponsors you into the country. I’ll explain it all once I’ve fingerprinted and photographed you.” He disappears for about ten minutes. When he returns he leads me to a room with a jail cell and computer equipment.
“Why am I being fingerprinted and photographed?” I ask.
“Since 9/11, anyone who is refused entry into the United States has to be fingerprinted and photographed.”
“So this will be a permanent mark on my record.”
We go through the process and I’m escorted back out to the waiting area. Nice Agent leaves me sitting all alone. When he returns about twenty minutes later, he tells me to follow him. I’m taken out to the lobby, where my passport, license, belongings and phone are returned to me. I’m given paperwork for Canadian Customs explaining why I was detained and denied entry into the U.S.
Nice agent hands me off to Goofy Prick, who has calmed down considerably (likely after relieving his hard-on while I was being interrogated) and is nicer now that he’s not in the presence of big and little Rambo. He escorts me out to my car.
Back on Canadian soil, the Canadian border agent shakes her head as I relay what happened on the American side. She is kind and tells me it could have been far worse. She then shares a harrowing story of her own that happened while she was flying to the United States.
It takes a year of hoop-jumping and bullshit before I can return to the U.S.
Standing stage right at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee, listening to Vince Gill wrap his high lonesome vocals around “Go Rest High,” a touching ballad written for his late brother, I am surprised to find myself overcome with emotion. The performance by Gill is the perfect end to a perfect evening, one that started off with Josh Turner being induction into the Opry.
Out of all the new artists to come out in early the 2000s, Turner is definitely the most deserving of being a member of the Opry. He not only plays, writes, and sings real country music, he loves the country lifestyle and what it stands for. Turner is a role model and traditional torch bearer cut from the same cloth as Randy Travis, George Strait and Don Williams.
Earlier in the evening, before Gill brought the house down with his tear-stained performance, Turner was in fine spirts as he confidently strode onto the Opry stage. Knowing what awaited him later in the televised portion of the show, the singer didn’t appear to be the least bit rattled. He and his band performed hits like “Firecracker” and “Your Man” for the fevered audience of all ages.
Folks had come from far and wide to witness country music history. During the televised portion of the show, the Opry’s Pete Fisher presented Turner with a beautifully carved miniature replica of the WSM microphone and stand that sit centre stage at the Opry. Fisher then gave a speech about the importance of Turner’s role and responsibility to the institution, its members and fans. Turner humbly accepted his statue and acknowledged his commitment to the Opry and to country music.
After the induction, the media is directed to a press conference in the Opry Museum. A few minutes later Turner comes out and takes questions from journalists who ask such riveting questions as “How does it feel to be a member of the Opry?” I’m content to just stand back and watch Turner conduct himself in a level-headed and professional manner. Three days earlier I attended a #1 party for a new artist who appeared to be having trouble dealing with his newfound fame. The contrast between Turner and this other artist, who is close to Turner in age, is staggering.
After the press conference, there is a reception in one of the Opry House studios. (“The same studio where Hee Haw was taped,” I’m told by one of the hostesses.) Josh is presented with a few gifts by the Opry and his record label, including a large cake that will later be devoured by the guests (after all have partaken in a tasty Cracker-Barrel catered buffet). Some of Josh’s family are here, including his parents, his brother and his only living grandparent.
Pulled from one person to the next, Turner remains composed, but he’s beginning to look a little weary from what has already been a very long day (a day that won’t end for another three hours – after he and his band play the Opry’s late show). Still, the singer takes time out to greet everyone. I manage to snag him for a few minutes and we talk about his upcoming album.
After the reception, I’m given a tour backstage at the Opry and left to wander around and mingle. I run into “Whispering” Bill Anderson. I tell him how much I love “A Lot Of Things Different,” a song he and Dean Dillon wrote for Kenny Chesney. I see Bluegrass legend Del McCoury at the side of the stage and talk to him about his right hand picking technique, which he continues to practice while we talk. Even Little Jimmy Dickens spares a few minutes of his time.
After Gill’s performance of “Go Rest High,” I go back to his dressing room. Tired from a long night of hosting duties that began over four hours earlier, Gill, all alone in the room, is nonetheless jovial as I tell him how much his performance moved me. We visit for a bit before I head to the front of house to exit. The Opry stage is dark, the theatre empty save for the ghosts of country music past.
“Do these people write these songs?” Dad hollers.
“Yes. Be quiet, remember what I told you before we got here?”
Here was The Bluebird Cafe`, an historic venue off the beaten path in Nashville. A place where songwriters gather in what is called a round, an event where wordsmiths sit in a circle in the middle of the small room, facing one another while they perform. Beyond the circle are tables filled with patrons eager to hear the hits that came from the pens of these (mostly) obscure figures.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to see creative powerhouses such as Gretchen Peters (“Independence Day”), Tia Sillers (“I Hope You Dance”) and Mark Selby (“Blue On Black”) at the Bluebird. This night is special, though, not just because one of my favourite songwriters Jon Randall will be performing, but because my Dad – after years of suffering from a debilitating illness – was well enough to make the trip to Nashville with me.
The Bluebird is legendary for being ground zero for many famous writers and artists, none bigger than Garth Brooks. The place is also famous for being a quiet venue. The rules of the club are posted at the entrance. On each table are cards with the Shhhh! Policy written on them, which reads as follows:
“The Bluebird Cafe’ is a listening room and while the performers love the audience to applaud, laugh and often sing along, too much conversation during the show distracts other listeners and is disrespectful to the songwriters who form the backbone of our music community. We encourage talking before the show, between sets and after the show but ask that during the performances, audience members keep their voices low and talking to a minimum.”
I’ve been in the Bluebird and witnessed a waitress warn noisy patrons they would be asked to leave if they didn’t stop talking, so when Dad blurted out his question, I nearly had an anxiety attack. We were only about a third of the way through the evening’s event, a charity show featuring Randall (“Whiskey Lullaby”), his wife Jessie Alexander (“Mine Would Be You”) and Doug Johnston (“God, Save Us All From Religion”).
Before we entered the Bluebird, I explained the rules to Dad in the parking lot. I also explained to him that the performers we would be seeing are the writers who pen songs for big name artists. Unable to get a table, Dad and I sat in the pew section, which contains original pews from the Ryman Auditorium, the iconic venue that was the original home to the Grand Ole Opry.
After his outburst, Dad settles down and seems to be enjoying the show. A few songs and stories later, during a performance, Dad once again shouts out, “do these guys write these songs?” I almost swallow my tongue. “Dad! Shut up,” I whisper. “You’re going to get kicked out. And if you do, you’re going to be waiting in the car for me, because I’m not missing any of the show.” Dad nods. I feel like the parent for a minute. At this point in his recovery, Dad is still having problems with his memory.
Thankfully we make it to the end of the show. The final song comes down to Jon Randall. His wife Jessi makes a request, but Jon shakes his head, gets on the mic and says, “I want to sing this one for my friend Todd, from Canada.” I look over at Dad. He’s beaming. Little does he know I talked to Jon when we first arrived at the club (while Dad was making his usual first stop anywhere he goes, the washroom) and asked him to the play the song.
I’m in Louisville, Kentucky, exiting Jillian’s night club after a long and sweaty night of music from legendary Oklahoma roots rockers Cross Canadian Ragweed and country young gun Dierks Bentley. On my way out of the venue I run into Bentley and a few members of his entourage. The club, long since deserted, is filthy; empty beer cups and garbage cover the floor.
Earlier, after a blistering set by Cross Canadian Ragweed, I figured Bentley had his work cut out for him. CCR looked like an almost impossible act to follow, but Bentley was more than up to the challenge. Despite playing a few corporate shows earlier in the evening, he and his band did not disappoint. The singer-songwriter tore up the floor boards on Jillian’s stage. He was a man possessed, his band locked in tight behind him.
When the concert was over, I went backstage and spent time with Bentley’s soon to be ex-bassist (and former girlfriend). We’d become friends after I wrote a piece on her debut album, an album that was shelved not long before its official release date. We were corresponding often during this dark period in her life (she also lost her publishing deal around the same time). When she found out I was in Nashville, she invited me to come up to the show in Louisville and put me on the guest list.
“Hey,” I say to Bentley as we walk towards one another. Bentley, drunk off his ass, stops to extend his hand. At this time in the young singer’s career he has a reputation for being a drunk, a womanizer and an asshole. None of these things come as a big surprise to me, anyone in their twenties experiencing the kind of success Bentley is experiencing would likely be acting in similar fashion.
On the cusp of breaking beyond sweaty concert halls to bigger venues, Bentley is perilously close to being swallowed up by his success. We shake hands, and I introduce myself. “Right. Right. I know who you are,” Bentley stutters, barely able to stand, let alone talk. I smile, wondering if it’s natural for young artists to be full of shit or if it’s part of the media training record labels put them through before they send them out into the world.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, on Nashville’s historic Lower Broadway, is the quintessential honky tonk. Named for original owner Tootsie Bess – a singer and comedian – the venue has played host to up-and-coming singers and songwriters for more than six decades. The walls are covered with photos of famous patrons and performers. Willie Nelson is said to have gotten his first break as a songwriter after a performance at the venue.
In my early days of travelling to Nashville, once business was taken care of, I was down on Lower Broadway soaking up the music and the atmosphere. The floorboards in places like Tootsie’s are not only soaked with beer and liquor, but the blood, sweat and tears of performers past and present. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been knocked back a step or two by the talent of an aspiring singer, musician or songwriter in places like Tootsie’s.
Tourists who go to Nashville will hear performers, both male and female, pour their hearts and souls out on the strip. These aspirants often blow the acts on the radio at any given time away. This is not an exaggeration. Many nights I sat nursing a cold drink, gnawing on the delicious chicken fingers at Rippy’s (which sits almost directly across the street from Tootsie’s), listening to artists who made many of the auto-tuned entertainers ruling the airwaves and the charts sound like they had yet to remove their training wheels.
On Broadway you will witness singers and songwriters who have the right stuff, the undefinable ‘it’ factor. Despite their talent, most of these performers, for one reason or another – industry politics, age – never make it. Many are hometown heroes who lit out for Nashville with stars in their eyes and hopes of making the transition from big fish in a little pond to worldwide stardom. For many music is like breathing.
I once saw an amazing duo at Rippy’s. One guy played acoustic guitar and sang lead, the other played a Telecaster and sang harmonies. Despite the stripped down sound, these gentleman oozed talent. The twosome had it all: looks, golden voices and instrumental skills that matched the best in music city. I was bolted to my seat for their entire set, but I knew they would never get a record deal. They were both in their late ’40s, which is antediluvian in the music business.
The main bar at Tootsie’s on a good night is packed tighter than Dwight Yoakam’s lower torso in his skinny jeans. Finding a place to sit is almost impossible once the sun goes down. The stage, the size of a postage stamp, is always jammed with aspiring musicians and singers. The raised platform is so small players are literally facing every which way in an effort to not knock one another over while they play the latest radio hits and country classics.
In the early days of my Nashville journey, I spent more time on Broadway and always made it a point to go to Tootsie’s, not just for the atmosphere, but because you never knew what was going to happen there. In recent years my time on the strip has been limited, traded for places like 3rd And Lindsley, located far from the noise of Broadway and the new breed of honky tonks owned by the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton.
One evening at Tootsie’s sticks out in my mind. The place was packed. A big shot, who had his own roped off section next to the bar, opposite the stage and facing the street, called out a song for the musicians to play. Mr. Big Shot offered $50 for the tip jar (players and singers on Broadway don’t get paid, they pass a tip jar around) if the assembled gang could perform the song, the title of which has evaporated from my once waterlogged brain. The band talked amongst themselves nervously. No one knew the song.
“I’ll put $500 in the jar if someone can get up there and sing it,” Mr. Big Shot yelled out.
With the stakes raised, a search was on for anyone who could sing the song. Finally someone jumped up, a friend of the players perhaps, and the band fumbled their way through a verse and a chorus before the wheels came off. Mr. Big Shot got up, held a $50 bill high for all of Tootsie’s patrons to see and dropped it in the tip jar.
Although I never witnessed it, others tell the story of a well-know recording artist/singer-songwriter holding court in the same area one night. This particular artist had a reputation for being a huge jerk-off (which is exactly how he acted the one occasion I met him at an industry function). Mr. Big II reportedly sat at his table with a large pouch of cocaine and openly shovelled the white powder up his nose as shocked patrons looked on.
“Weapons Of Mass Distraction,” a song I had on hold for Alan Jackson when the Georgia native was still ruling the charts, was inspired by an evening at Tootsie’s. One of the girls behind the bar was blessed with perfect skin, beautiful blue eyes, a desirable figure (“skinny at the hip, big on top”) and a smile that could bring about world peace.
My phone rings.
I couldn’t believe the Hall Of Fame Songwriter behind #1 hits like “I Don’t Remember Loving You” (John Conlee), “Golden Ring” (George Jones and Tammy Wynette), “Time Marches On” (Tracy Lawrence), “People Are Crazing” (Billy Currington) and what many believe to be one of, if not the greatest country song of all time “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” was calling me. I could barely contain my excitement.
At this point in my music journey I’d been travelling back and forth to Music City for a little over a year, although I’d been writing songs since my early teens. Braddock was the first pitch to ever call me back. Most pitches go unanswered. I learned early on not to go looking for good news; if someone is interested in your material, they’ll make contact.
Pitching songs in Nashville is not for the faint of heart. Over a sixteen year period I was blessed with some amazing pitch meetings, but those were few and far between. Most of the meetings I was able to wrangle often went something like this:
Label Exec.: “Todd, come on in. What do you have for me today?”
Me: “I have a couple of new things I would like to pitch for artist Y.”
Label Exec.: “Have a seat.” Extends hand; takes CD, inserts disc into CD player. Hits play. Song one blasts from the speakers for thirty seconds. “Nope.” Click. Song two plays for maybe fifty seconds. “Nope.” Click. Song three makes it to the one minute mark. “Nope.” Label executive ejects CD, hands it back to me and says, “thanks for coming in. See you next time.” The odd pitch meeting lasted longer, but most went exactly like this one.
My shortest appointment was at Sony Nashville in 2004. The female executive I was meeting was also a judge on a nationally televised singing competition. Her office smelled like perfume, condescension and conceit. Queen Bee didn’t turn around or even acknowledge me when I was escorted into her office by her assistant, she simply reached back from behind her desk.
I placed a CD in Queen Bee’s outstretched hand. She took it and, without a word, slid it into her massive stereo system and hit play. I was pitching three songs. Each made it to around the ten second mark at most. Queen Bee hit eject and – again without turning around or saying a word – handed me back my CD. I was in her office less than three minutes.
My brush with Queen Bee may have been my shortest pitch meeting, but it wasn’t the worst. That one came in 2006, at what was then a very prominent record label, publishing and media company. The office building this company owned was impressive. The place housed a recording studio, was multi-level and had a grand entrance with a steep stone staircase that stretched from the street below up to the front doors. There was a fountain out front with life-sized horse statues.
Once inside, I went to the security desk and gave my name and who my meeting was with. Security got on the phone and announced my arrival. I was told to “go on up.” I’d pitched at this company before to another executive who would greet me at the elevator and lead me to her office. This day I was left to wander the hall until I found the door with the right name on it.
Arrogance among the gate-keepers in Nashville is nothing knew. Most of the people tasked with finding songs for their artists were kind and encouraging to me, especially since a great many of my appointments were secured by other well-known industry contacts who had vouched for me, but there were a small number of tin gods, like the man I met this day, who seemed hell bent on letting the ‘little people’ know their place.
The son of an industry giant, Mr. Arrogance did little to disguise his messiah complex. He made Queen Bee at Sony seem humble.
“What’s this?” Mr. Arrogance snapped when I hand him two discs.
“I brought eight songs. Four on each disc. I thought maybe we could go through them quickly.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“A few years.”
“You never, ever bring more than three or four songs to a pitch meeting.”
“Yes, I understand, but I really feel that each one of these songs could be a good fit for…”
“I don’t have time to listen to eight songs. Pick one of the discs.”
“The first one.”
Mr. Arrogance quickly skipped through the four songs. “Nothing here.”
I thanked him for his time and got up to leave, but Mr. Arrogance told me to sit back down.
“Listen. The next time you come here or go to another pitch meeting, bring your three or four best songs. Doing what you did today makes you look like an amateur.”
“I will. Thank you.”
I got up to leave a second time, but Mr. Arrogance – in his expensive pink dress shirt – wasn’t finished. “Todd. I want you to know I say all of this with love. I’m just trying to help you.”
“I appreciate it.”
My dad, who’d accompanied me to Nashville, was waiting outside, soaking up the sun on the giant stone staircase.
“How did it go?”
“I don’t think I’m cut out for this business.”
I tell him about the meeting. It wasn’t what Mr. Arrogance said so much as the way he said it. He was right, I should have only shown up with four songs at most (and I knew that). I was just so geared up about pitching for this particular artist – a personal favourite – I had trouble picking songs. I really thought all eight were a potential fit and, given the fact very few execs listen to more than half a song, I figured we’d get through most, if not all of them.
Dad shook his head, put his arm around me and said, “piss on him. I think you’re a great songwriter.”
“Mr. Braddock, how are things in Nashville?” I try and play it cool.
“Good. I’m Calling about ‘Man Of Steel’.”
(I’d recently sent a copy of “Man Of Steel” for the Blake Shelton record Braddock is producing.)
“’Man Of Steel’ is a great song, Todd. I don’t think it’s a good fit for Blake, but I wanted to call and tell you I really like it. You shouldn’t have any problem getting it cut.”
Getting “Man Of Steel” cut hasn’t been as easy as Mr. Braddock believed it would be. Over the years the song has been pitched for a number of artists, but so far no one has recorded it. One music industry heavy weight (another Hall of Fame songwriter who also owns a publishing company in Nashville) contacted me via email not long after Braddock’s phone call. “Regarding ‘Man of Steel’, he wrote. “I wish I could find something positive to say.”