Select Writings

In 1999, I began a creative journey that afforded me the opportunity to write about the one thing I loved most in the world, music. Not only was I going to be able to play it, I was going to get paid to write about it! It was a huge blessing and, for the next fifteen years, I would write and publish close to twenty-five hundred articles, music reviews and features for different media companies and magazines, including Performing Songwriter, Paste Magazine and CMA Closeup (magazine for the Country Music Association).

During what was one of the most creative times of my life, I wrote five and sometimes six days a week, covering everything from hard rock to gospel (and everything in-between). My journey began with, one of the first websites dedicated to all things music. I learned by studying writers who possessed a style to which I aspired. Their writing, along with the hundreds of music writers I’d read during my youth in the slew of rock mags I perused daily, was grafted onto my creative tree. 

That first writing job with lead to a ten year stint penning music related content for ArtistFarm, a project that was the brainchild of rack-jabber Anderson Merchandisers, then the largest retail distribution company in the United States. ArtistFarm provided music reviews for the website (which back in the day was getting around 50 million hits per month). Of course, only a small percentage of that traffic was there to read reviews of the latest CD releases, but it was still a huge audience to draw from. The ArtistFarm gig was good. I think the only genres I didn’t cover were rap and hip-hop. 

During this time, I also spent a few years writing for the long defunct, which boasted 500,000 hits per month at one point. CR provided me with an outlet to write about my favourite roots, Americana and country artists. Fellow CR writer George Peden, a radio DJ from Australia, was also one in a long line of scribes whose work not only inspired me, but made me a better writer. Sadly, CR bit the dust in 2004 and disappeared with nary a whimper. 

If I were to write the pieces below today, I’m sure I would approach them differently. But I offer them in their original form, warts and all.

Every week record store shelves are filled with releases from new artists hoping to make it big. Some explode out of the gate and then, like shooting stars across the late night sky, burn out just as fast. Some stall on the starting line and disappear with only a whimper. A lucky few manage to grab hold of the magic carpet and ride it for all it’s worth.

Newcomer Eric Church stands poised on the brink of stardom, and if they wagered on such things in Vegas (and who knows, maybe they do), the odds would definitely be in the North Carolina native’s favour to break big. Church, a rough-cut renegade from the outlaw school of country music, is one-part Waylon Jennings, one-part John Anderson, and one-part Bruce Springsteen.

A hillbilly poet with a throaty vocal delivery, Church lives and breathes the words of his songs. Life in the singer/songwriter’s world isn’t always pretty, but it’s as real as the dirt on his scuffed up boots. Every track on Church’s debut album has his stamp on it. With help from capable co-writers like Jeremy Spillman (Trace Adkins’ “Arlington”) and Deric Ruttan (Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin'”), Sinners Like Me is all killer and no filler.

Hard driving guitars play a big part in the overall sound of Sinner’s Like Me. Church, with some of Nashville’s premiere studio musicians at his side, tears up the floorboards on “Before She Does,” a number fried in heaping amounts of southern rock. “Two Pink Lines” owes a debt to hardcore troubadour Steve Earle. Guttural acoustics weave in and out of John Mellencamp-like electric riffage, while smoking harmonica blasts fill the holes between Church’s desperate lyrics that feature a guy, a girl and a pregnancy test.

With the force of a tropical storm, Church unleashes the dogs with “How ‘Bout You,” his first single, which is currently clawing its way up the Top 10. Barreling bass, electric banjo, and a thundering beat match the singer’s intense growl. “If I shake your hand/ Look you in the eye/ You can bet your ass it’ll be the truth,” Church offers. “Lightning” follows a convict as his death sentence is carried out. The poignant track is lump-in-the-throat good.

The fiddle frosted “Can’t Take It With You” and the clever “Pledge Allegiance To The Hag” keep the momentum rolling, but it’s the title cut that wins out in the end as the album’s strongest track. The instrumentation, the lyrics, and the vocals all lock together and bring to life a moment of songwriting perfection.

New artists come and go, but the ones that carve out lengthy careers are the ones who stay real in their life and in their music. If the planets align just right, and God is smiling down, Sinners Like Me will send Eric Church on that long magic carpet ride.

(Album review originally appeared on, July 2006)

Dean Dillon Bio

There are songwriters, and then there are poets; artists who magically weave melodies and words into three and half minute masterpieces that outshine the paint-by-numbers songs that often clog up the airwaves. Dean Dillon is the latter. The Tennessee native hitchhiked to Nashville in the early 1970s in search of country music glory and wound up being one of the most successful songwriters to ever set foot in Music City.

Dillon’s earliest break came when, at the age of 15, he won a contest that landed him a regular spot on Jim Clayton’s Star Time Variety Show in Knoxville, TN. The singer-songwriter finished high school and then struck out for the bright lights of Nashville. A short-lived stint on Plantation Records, under the name Dean Dalton, produced the single “Las Vegas Girl.” In 1976, Dillon landed the role of Hank Williams in Opryland’s Country Music Show, USA. The theme park gig indirectly helped Dillon secure his first publishing deal.

Although it was writing songs for others where Dillon’s future lie, the young singer was hellbent on making it as a recording artist himself. Between 1979 and 1981 Dillon released twelve singles for RCA Records. Three of the songs reached the top 30 on the country charts, including “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” which climbed all the way to number 25 (and later became a number one hit for George Strait). Despite the single’s success, Dillon’s RCA material would sit on the shelf for decades before being released.

In 1981, at the urging of RCA label-head Jerry Bradley, Dillon teamed up with singer-songwriter  Gary Stewart for the first of two duet albums. Stewart and Dillon were cut from the same hard-living, honky tonk cloth; it was a match made in hillbilly heaven. Brotherly Love (1982) and Those Were The Days (1983), both released on RCA, failed to light up the charts, and the good-timing duo went their separate ways.  

It would be five years before Dillon landed in record bins (and on the charts) again, but the wordsmith was far from inactive; during this time he continued to pen songs for other artists. 1988’s Slick Nickel, issued through Capitol Records, produced the minor hit “I Go To Pieces,” which clawed its way into the top forty. A second album for Capitol, 1989’s I’ve Learned To Live, spawned two singles that failed to make any significant noise on the charts.

Dillon moved over to Atlantic Records for Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind (1991) and Hot, Country, And Single (1993). After the latter failed to produce a hit single, Dillon devoted his full attention to writing songs for other singers. 

In 2002, Dillon was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2007, the Tennessee native returned to the recording ranks with the independently released Dylyn, a ten song collection available via his website. Perfect Day, another website-only/digital release, arrived in 2009.

As a songwriter, Dillon’s compositions have been recorded by a wide range of artists, including legendary country singers George Jones, Keith Whitley and Vern Gosdin. New country stars like Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack and Toby Keith have also found chart success with Dillon compositions. George Strait has recorded more than fifty of Dillon’s songs.

(Originally appeared on Later portions appeared on Dean’s website)

Fifteen Questions With Bobby Braddock

Anyone familiar with the business of songwriting knows that most professional tunesmiths remain anonymous throughout their entire career. Save for other songwriters and liner note junkies, few people know they exist; and most wordsmiths actually prefer it that way. That’s why some of these writers are easily impersonated (or their songs are claimed by others as their own creations).

As a teenager, I had the privilege of meeting the man behind “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” or so I was briefly led to believe. My father, who is going to probably pick up the phone and give me an earful when he reads this, a musician, met a fellow picker and writer who, undoubtedly hoping to impress my dad, boasted that he wrote the classic country track, one of my father’s favourite songs. As a music junkie and a skeptic (a wild combination), I wasn’t totally convinced, but Dad, he bought the tale sinker, line and hook.

Now you must understand, this was back when most records and cassettes didn’t include the names of songwriters in the liner notes, so my dad wouldn’t have known if Bobby Braddock had written the track, or Elmer Fudd. Still, one might have been curious as to why this guy couldn’t play any other ‘great’ songs he’d written, or back up his claim in any way. Perhaps a fake award or two would have been a nice touch to make his story more believable.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for dear old Dad to find out his new picking partner had a small problem with telling the truth. A bit of research confirmed that Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman had actually written “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Said picking partner quickly and silently disappeared from our lives.

I was reminded of this story recently while preparing questions for my interview with Mr. Braddock. I just had to share the tale of misappropriated songwriting credit with the legendary writer. It was no surprise to me that the man behind Toby Keith’s tongue-in-cheek “I Wanna Talk About Me” found the story somewhat amusing. After he stopped laughing, Braddock kindly answered the following questions.

Todd Sterling: How would you describe your writing style?

Bobby Braddock: Can’t say. I’m too close to the trees to see the forest.

TS: Where do you draw inspiration from?

BB: Emotion. Personal experience. Words, the way they sound, what they say—hopefully, something that’s never been said before, or at least a new way to say it. Personal relationships, for sure. Harlan Howard once said a relationship isn’t a failure if you get a hit song out of it.

TS: When you write a song, do you ever write with a particular artist in mind? 

BB: Not usually, but sometimes.

TS: There are purists who think that a writer sells him or herself short when they write a commercial song as opposed to a deep, artistic one. What’s your take on the art vs. commerce debate; how can a songwriter feed both sides?

BB: I think ‘commercial’ just means people are going to buy it. Therefore, most of the music that has influenced us is ‘commercial’. It’s entirely possible to write something wonderful and profound that a lot of people will buy, and, conversely, it’s possible to go down deep inside yourself and come up with something really bad.

TS: Can you talk about “He Stopped Loving Her Today” for a minute; maybe give readers a bit of insight as to what inspired the classic? During the writing of the song, did you at any time stop and think that maybe you were on to something special?

BB: I wrote this with the great Curly Putman. He says I brought him the idea of a man loving a woman so much that it took death to put out the fire. We put together quite a bit of it one afternoon, then I finished it at home that night. A couple of years later, producer Billy Sherrill wanted to record it on George Jones but he asked for an additional verse, one about the woman returning for the funeral. 

Coincidentally, Curly and I had done that initially and discarded it. So we wrote three or four versions of the verse before we came up with one that 

Billy accepted. I never thought the song was all that special until Billy played the Jones recording for me, and I realized for the first time that it was something significant. I’ve always felt that the vocal and the production elevated it mightily. I do think the character in the song is a terrible role model; he should have gotten on with his life.

TS: Who are your three favourite writers?

BB: I would probably give you a different answer on a different day. My favourite all-time country writer is probably Bob McDill. I also love the songs of a guy in Nashville named Don Henry. I may be prejudiced, but I love my daughter Lauren’s songwriting; when she was eight, she wrote, “If I was a cloud, I’d have baby raindrops, and they’d feed the treetops,” then when she was an adult, she and Don Henry turned it into a song. 

My favourite country song of the past decade is Rodney Crowell’s “Please Remember Me.” Matraca Berg has written a couple of my favourite songs. Of the legendary writers, I would have to include Irving Berlin, Lennon and McCartney, Paul Simon, Randy Newman and, back to country, we mustn’t forget Hank Williams. 

Leiber and Stoller wrote all those great rock ‘n’ roll classics; so did Chuck Berry. And tomorrow I might come up with a completely different list. Oh, some people may think I’m kidding, but I think Eminem, despite all his anger, is a genius lyricist.

TS: If you could write with anyone, who would it be?

BB: Maybe write lyrics to a George Gershwin melody, or music to William Shakespeare’s words.

TS: Can you name the one song you wish you’d written, and why? 

BB: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—great royalties.

TS: There are creative people who can’t function unless everything around them is just right. Do you have a certain ritual when writing? Does everything have to be in its place – your coffee cup, your slippers, your pen?

BB: All I need is the inspiration and hope that it doesn’t come when I’m just heading out the door for an appointment or something.

TS: Some writers claim they’re just a channel through which songs flow; they just tune in and the material comes. What are your thoughts on this?

BB: Some people claim that God writes their songs, but I think if God were to write a song, it would be so dazzling that we’d all fall down in awe. The creative process is a great mystery. Anytime we can unlock one little door in the great house of mystery, it’s a real accomplishment. Sometimes it does seem that the great ideas are sort of floating around, waiting for someone to reach up and grab them. If that’s true, I think it would help if the person who does this knows what he or she is doing. 

Often the great emotions —joy or sorrow—can trigger a song. I’ve found that writing down an affirmation at bedtime sometimes works, such as “I will write a great song when I wake up,” or “I will find the right ending for this song tomorrow.” You literally sleep on it while your subconscious goes to work for you—incidentally, this is also effective in knowing what to say to persuade or influence someone, or even in finding a lost object such as a billfold or keys.

TS: People are constantly picking apart the way things are done in Nashville. What do you think is the biggest problem in Nashville? What, in your opinion, is the solution?

BB: The biggest problem in Nashville—and it’s probably true in any other place, it’s just that it’s Nashville I’m most familiar with—is that people are resistant to something radically new that comes along, then when it turns out to be big, everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon.

TS: You’ve produced Blake Shelton’s last three albums. How do you approach the production side of things as opposed to the songwriting? Do you have to consciously turn off the songwriting switch in your brain, or does being a songwriter enhance your abilities as a producer?

BB: I have to totally separate the two. The first reason for this is to avoid a conflict of interest. I once voted one of my songs off Blake’s album. My cardinal rule is to be as objective as I possibly can. I’ve championed songs written by people I don’t personally like, and I’ve broken my own heart having to pass on songs written by people I love. 

During the producing process I have to make myself stand in line with all the other songwriters. So I don’t pitch Blake many songs; in fact, he gets on to me for not pitching him enough. But I come up with a lot of the arrangements for the things we record, such as the piano intro and string outro on “The Baby,” and the piano and violin parts on the current single, “Goodbye Time.” That’s songwriting, it’s melody writing. 

The hard part is it’s creativity on demand. I have to be able to count on myself to do it. The easy part is working with some of the greatest musicians in the world, people whose creativity shines through.

TS: What advice would you give someone who wants to make songwriting a career?

BB: First of all, you probably need to want to do it more than anything in the world. If you really believe in yourself, and have good reason to think that you’re good, based on what others tell you (family and friends don’t count), then be prepared to sacrifice and be patient. If you REALLY believe in yourself, don’t give up. Those who are successful in any field are those who are prepared to keep on keeping on.

TS: What are some of the biggest mistakes new writers make?

BB: Lack of patience, and the inability to judge their own material. I would suggest that a writer be true to himself or herself (DON’T try to write more of what everyone else is writing), but also know where the market is; in other words, it’s fine to write left (or right) of centre, just make sure you know where the centre is for reference.

TS: How would you define success?

BB: I guess success is excelling in that which is really important to you. But I would like to add this thought. I’ve been asked to share my views about the art of songwriting, apparently because I’ve written some well-known songs or because I’m thought of as a good songwriter. 

But if I really knew what it took, I would never have a bad year, or a bad month. I haven’t had a #1 song in nearly three years, so what do I know? 

I just recently produced a #1 song, but the one I produced just before that was a flop, so what do I know? 

If I REALLY held the key to the secret of the hit song, I’d get it right every time, and I don’t. The truth is it’s a crap shoot, and all we can do is try our best and hope and guess.

(Interview originally appeared on, February 2005)

Where Have All The Ugly Singers Gone? 

Where are all the ugly people in mainstream music? I know ugly people exist, because I see them walking, driving in cars; they’re in malls, restaurants and movie theatres (although they’re much harder to find when the lights go down). They haunt the halls of office buildings, fill up the pews in churches and even couple (I know, the horror). Yep, ugly is alive in well in the real world, but not in the plastic worlds of major label LA, Nashville or New York. 

When was the last time you saw a video from a new artist who didn’t look like he or she just came from their day gig at a modelling agency? Does talent no longer knock on the doors of the beautifully challenged? Does God (or the Universe, or whatever the hell you want to call it) only bestow the gift of mainstream success on those who can double as makeup and skin cream pitch people? Do the suits running the major labels find their hearing somehow funked up when an ugly person walks in the room or on a stage? 

We see ugly people on talent shows all the time, but they’re usually props for the ‘best of the worst’ episodes. And yes, I’m aware of the odd mutts who somehow get through to the final rounds on the fan voted shows (and the one in a million ugly who defies the odds and actually wins). The viewers recognize that talent and ugly can co-exist, but an ugly winning an American tv talent competition is rarer than a spotted unicorn. Something happens when beautiful people step in front of tv talent judges, the ugly people disappear, their talent washed away in a tsunami of pretty. 

I’m bombarded daily with press releases pitching air-brushed guys and gals who, although blessed with good voices, have about as much depth as a mud puddle. These GQ and People cardboard cutouts all look and sound alike. Go spend a week hanging out in the clubs in any major music centre, and you’ll be completely blown away by the level of talent. Sure you’ll find a lot of pretty Barbie and Ken doll singers, but the majority will be average looking folks who aren’t trading on their looks, but killing it night after night with from-the-gut, God’s honest heart and soul talent. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful people as much as anyone else, but when it comes to music, it’s all about the song for me. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you look like the Elephant Man, if your music moves me, I’m going to buy it, enjoy it and promote it. 

In today’s music business, unless you look like you just stepped out of a magazine ad, your chance of mainstream success is almost nil. Can you imagine Rita MacNeil or Steve Earle trying to get a major label record deal today? Thankfully, the growing Americana scene welcomes all, pretty or ugly.

(Originally appeared on the now-defunct, Summer 2014)

George Ducas – From Twang Town To Texas

Singer-songwriter George Ducas released one of the best country albums of the ‘90s. Unfortunately, not many people got to hear it. The Texas native released his self-titled debut on Capitol Records in ’95, but got lost in the wake of the musical tsunami that was (then label mate) Garth Brooks. Ducas released a second album in 1997, before focussing his talents on writing hit songs for artists such as Sara Evans, The Randy Rogers Band and even Brooks himself.

After years away from recording and touring, Ducas is back and making up for lost time. The Lone Star favourite has been making waves with a six track EP titled Volume Up Windows Down. Currently on tour supporting the EP (and his latest single “Cowtown”), Ducas was kind enough to answer a few questions for

Todd Sterling: You took time away from performing and enjoyed considerable success with other artists recording your songs. Did you ever think that maybe your recording and touring days were over for good?

George Ducas: I always thought I’d tour again – and make my own recordings again, I just thought it would all happen again for me faster than it did. After my 4-5 Billboard Top 40’s and a Top 5 with “Lipstick Promises,” when Capitol Records then went into its tailspin, I sorta waited around for ‘the call’ ; well, that never came and instead Nashville turned me into a songwriter for awhile. Now, that’s not all bad (financially), many writers make much more than all but a few artists ever dream of. Plus, I had two kids during that time, so it allowed me to (stay) home to be a daddy more, and watch them grow up.

TS: After so many years in Nashville, what made you return to Texas to relaunch your career as a performing artist?

GD: I relaunched my recording and touring career back in Texas because it felt like a natural progression. Being from Texas, and spending more and more time here, having my folks down here in Houston, writing with other Texas Music artists—buds like Randy Rogers, Randy Fowler and Radney Foster —it all felt right.

TS: How does it feel to be back in the trenches doing live gigs?

GD: It feels great being back in the trenches as you say, touring back home in Texas—makes me wonder why in the heck it took me so long!

TS: Volume Up, Windows Down has a bit more of an edge to it than your earlier stuff. Was this a conscious thing or just a natural evolution of your sound?

GD: Volume Up, Windows Down is more edgy, I guess, in the sense that it’s less retro/traditional and maybe more rocking and has a less serious, more fun side. After years, I’ve realized that for most folks like you and me, music isn’t something to be taken seriously, it’s an art, yes, but commercially speaking its an escape and its entertainment. I’ve learned to have fun with it; I just love playing on the road with my band!

(Interview originally Appeared on the

Few songwriters draw deeper from the well of emotion than Rodney Crowell. Crowell, a master wordsmith in the same league as Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Dylan, pulls the listener into his world by weaving realistic tales of life, love and death. Each song Crowell writes is comparable to a detailed pencil sketch that is shaded in all the right places. Fate’s Right Hand, the singer-songwriter’s 11th full-length album, is a well-knit collection that ranks among his best.

The lightly picked “Time To Go Inward,” a half-spoken, half-sung piece with tasty mandolin and thumping bass, is a contemplative number about searching one’s soul for answers to the hard questions. On the poetic “Fate’s Right Hand,” Crowell spits out lines that roll smoothly off his tongue. “Billy loves women like a junkie loves dope/Give him just enough rope, the monkey’s gonna choke” may not be the kind of lyrics you would expect to find on a country release, but then again, Crowell isn’t, in any way, a typical country performer.

Much like Crowell’s last album, The Houston Kid, Fate’s Right Hand is a pure singer-songwriter project. You won’t find any paint-by-numbers material here. The arrangements are tight, yet they allow enough room for each instrument to stretch and breathe on its own. “The Man In Me” is a strummy track with a straight 4/4 beat and crisp acoustic guitars. The emotionally charged “Adam’s Song,” written for friends of Crowell’s after the death of their son, is offered in a simple yet captivating guitar and voice arrangement.

“Still Learning How To Fly” has a vocal warmth that adds beautiful colour to the profound lyrics. The song is nicely punctuated by Jerry Douglas’ sinuous dobro licks. “Riding Out The Storm,” a powerful tale about choices, was written years after an encounter Crowell and his daughter had with a homeless man in New York City. The singer offered his overcoat to the down-and-out soul during a bitter December storm, but was turned down. The man, who appeared to Crowell to be an educated person, accepted his situation as one of his own making and didn’t want pity.

The Traveling Wilburys (the late ‘80s supergroup that featured George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison) springs immediately to mind when the first notes of “This Too Will Pass” ring from the speakers. The track, recorded the day Harrison died, offers some good advice for those times when troubles seem to be choking the life out of us.

Rodney Crowell has done something truly remarkable; he’s created another masterpiece (that’s two in a row for those of you counting). Ten years from now this collection will still sound as fresh as it does now. Anyone who thought Crowell reached his creative peak with The Houston Kid, is going to be blown away by Fate’s Right Hand.

(Originally appeared on, July 2003)

Nashville is full of pretend outlaws, but Jamey Johnson isn’t one of them. The singer/songwriter not only looks the part, he lives it. The Alabama native’s latest album That Lonesome Song is soaked in pain and heartache, the kind of pain and heartache that comes from living life on the edge. 

Johnson, who only a few short years ago was riding high as a hit songwriter and living out his dreams with an album and top twenty single of his own, saw his star come crashing back down to earth as fast as it had risen. While battling through a lengthy divorce, the singer lost his record deal and girlfriend, all in the same day. With his recording career and personal life scraping the bottom of the barrel, Johnson penned some of his darkest (and best) songs. 

A hardcore honky-tonker with a penchant for southern rock, Johnson’s music is a potent brew. From stone country cuts “Angel” and “Between Jennings And Jones,” to southern carved numbers “Mowin’ Down The Roses” and “High Cost Of Living,” That Lonesome Song will appeal to old-school country listeners as well as new. The latter is a leaden tale of drug abuse. The main character eventually cleans up, but not before the cops kick down his door and haul him away to jail. 

That Lonesome Song was recorded before Johnson signed with Mercury Nashville. The freedom of recording independently allowed the singer to do exactly what he wanted. The results sound real, not manufactured. A song like “The Door Is Always Open,” a throw back to the good old days of Haggard and Jones, would fail in less capable hands, and might just be too country for today’s market, but it’s as genuine as Johnson’s voice. The singer rumbles his low vocals overtop a fine Waylon-esque arrangement.

The album’s first single, the fast rising “In Color,” is a moving story song. Johnson takes listeners on a black and white journey through the past. “If it looks like we were scared to death, like a couple of kids trying to save each other,” Johnson sings in the voice of a grandfather and survivor of the great depression, “you should’ve seen it in color.” It just doesn’t get much better than this when it comes to songwriting.

The title cut, “That Lonesome Song,” starts off with Johnson moaning the drunken, hung over blues as a faint acoustic guitar and dobro wail mournfully along with him. The song eventually blows up into a southern noosed cut that evokes Hank Williams Jr. 

The best track on the disc, though, is the sorrowful “Stars In Alabama.” Johnson turns out an emotion-packed vocal on the heartrending ballad. A phone call from the road weary singer’s mother gets him thinking about home. 

The year might only be a hair past half way over, but it’s hard to imagine a better album coming out of Nashville in 2008 than That Lonesome Song.

(Album review originally appeared on, August 2008)