I posted one of the songs included with this blog, 'Candy Ass', the other day. It's a kind of backhanded swipe at 'modern country music'. The second song on the video is 'The Picture', a song I wrote in hardcore, classic country style.
Look, I really don't begrudge the new acts their 'thang'. Hell, when I was doing the urban cowboy bit, I could be seen walkin' the boardwalk of Ocean City, MD in full cowboy regalia, headed to my gig.
You do what you gotta do.
But I grew up listening to great songs by Tom T. Hall. Harlan Howard. Curly Putman. You know, 'Green, Green Grass of Home' and 'He Stopped Lovin' Her Today.'
Those songs about real life are what drew me to Nashville to become a FAMOUS SONGWRITER!
Well, we all kinda know how that worked out...
But, I went there. I wrote a lot of songs. Ate a lot of lunch.
I’m remember sitting in a bar in Nashville with some fellow struggling songwriters.
We were broke off our asses, eating hot wings because they were a quarter each and we could get 8 for two bucks.
I was living-in-my-car sometimes poor.
No prospects, no job, just temp work spraying out dumpsters with a hose.
In Nashville. In July.
My ass actually hurt sitting on the wooden barroom chair because I was so skinny.
All I could think was,
“I am in Nashville.
I am writing songs.
I am in the game.
And I have never been happier than I am at this moment."
It kinda goes like this ...
You are a songwriter.
Like a master craftsman you have shaped your every dream, every broken heart, every triumph, and every failure into heartfelt words and set them to music. Maybe you’ve told touching stories of the old home place. Perhaps you’ve spun wistful tales of Grandpa, Momma, the long, winding road, those whisky-soaked nights, and of course, that one true love that got away.
You are a songwriter.
You want the whole world (well, at least Blake Shelton) to hear and know and sing your songs. You know in your heart of hearts you are ready…so what do you do now?
Like so many before you, you are thinking,
“Well, I’m goin’ to Nashville, dude”
Before you give your notice, sell the house and load up the Ryder, take a moment and listen to someone who has been there.
There are libraries full of books about songwriting. The problem is, for the most part, they have been written by very nice people that don’t have a freakin’ clue as to what they are talking about. People that, while they may have written a song or two, maybe even had a hit or two, have never actually lived (or have, after decades of therapy) forgotten) the realities of a Nashville songwriter’s life.
These are people that have never scrounged through the pockets of every single pair of jeans they own, every shirt, and every old jacket, hoping to dig up enough change to buy a White Castle single.
People that have never sat at a writers night on a snowy Tuesday in February waiting to sing an original song to an audience made up of the blue-Mohawked bartender, who is busy hitting on a bored 40-year-old waitress (well, she’s actually a singer of course, she’s only waitressin’ ‘til her deal at SonyDreamworksAristaCurbMCA is final).
They have never experienced that sublime writers night joy of waiting wall-eyed (and eared) through sixty-seven songs in the key of G about “That Ol’ Pick‘em Up Truck” for a chance to sing one song at six past midnight. Well, you’re supposed to get three songs, but, hey, they’re almost out of time, and “y’all can come back again next week”. If you are lucky, the host of the writers night will still be there with his drunk buddies (the host gets free liquor), all of whom snicker while you sing your song, “What the hell kinda song is that…there ain’t even no truck in there!”
I have done all of these things…and so many more. I am qualified to tell you the best thing you can do with your songs, the truly best way to handle your life’s work.
Really Hot Songs
So here goes.
First, make a demo of all of your best stuff. It’s all good, isn’t it? Hell, tell ya what, go ahead, demo it all! A simple voice/guitar, voice/piano recording will do at this stage. These days you’ll want to put all of your songs on a CD, not a tape, for reasons I’ll get into later. Now get all of your lyrics typed up. Very neatly. Make sure you put the correct contact and copywrite info on everything. Make yourself up a nice folder; you might even want to design a fancy logo. C’mon, you’ve read all the books…you know what to do.
Finished? Good, you are almost ready.
First, start a cozy fire in the fireplace. Even if it is the middle of August, get a good, rolling conflagration going. If you don’t have a fireplace, get a 55-gallon drum and start a nice blaze out in the yard. The point is; you NEED a fire. Now, relax and pour yourself a glass of fine wine. Or beer if you prefer. A good whiskey never hurts. Ever. Check your fire. Nice and hot? Now, very carefully, very lovingly, take out your CD’s, your folders and your lyrics…look them over. There it is. Your life’s work. Your very blood, sweat and tears…
…NOW, THROW EVERY LAST PIECE OF IT INTO THE DAMN FIRE!!!
Then call your boss and your spouse and everyone else in your life and beg for forgiveness for every moment you’ve wasted on this idiocy! What are you, freakin’ crazy? Come to your senses!!! Did you really think you had a chance? There are about 2 million people now living in the Nashville metro area, and as of the last census 13 million of those people listed their occupation as “songwriter”. Every waiter, waitress, cop, banker, stripper, hooker, lawyer, preacher, car-parker, dog-walker, Wal-Mart greeter, car-jacker, butcher, baker, candlestick maker…Hell, every living, breathing man, woman or child in Nashville is a songwriter. Of those 13 million people, exactly 7 (seven) are actually making any kind of decent living writing songs. And 3 of those 7 are Thomas Rhett. Your friends, your spouse, your dad…they’re all right! You are completely and totally delusional. The cluebird of common sense is pounding on your window, begging to get in…listen….
GIVE IT UP!!!
…you didn’t listen, did you?
No, you’ve got the bug, the itch, why; you can feel it burning in your very marrow. You’ve read all the magazines, all the biographies; you know every word to “16th Avenue”. You’ve not only watched “Heartworn Highways” sixty two times, you’ve forced your friends and family to watch it with you. Ever wonder why people don’t drop by any more? Hell, you have a subscription to Music Row. You even know who Tony Brown is. You’re not gonna quit, not you. You’re gonna make it!
You are a songwriter.
You sad, wretched, condemned soul.
Well, I tried to warn you, but if you insist on ruining what is probably a pretty good life, far be it from me to stand in your way.
So, let’s get on with it. But first, a little Nashville songwriting joke,
An aspiring songwriter pounding on doors along Music Row is surprised to run into an old buddy from his hometown,
“Hey dude, great to see you, what are you doing in town?”
His pal looked down his nose a little and pronounced,
“I am a songwriter.”
“Really!! Me too! Which restaurant are you waiting at?”
Getting in Shape for Nashville
Before you are ready to take on Nashville, there are a few things you need to do to get in shape. Nashville is a tough town, so you gotta be ready. Let’s start with a simple exercise. A little Nashville yoga, if you will.
First, find a good, solid brick wall. If you can find one with concrete nails hanging out of it, more’s the better. Now, violently bang your head against the wall. Hard. A lot. Let those nails really dig in there. Can you still read this sentence? Hey, you’re not banging hard enough! Harder! Get that blood a-flowin’! Hey, you want to be a songwriter, doncha?
When these words start to look like,
“ Adfs yuiox 2efshb, tre gty?”
Then, and only then, will you truly understand what it is like to try to get a break in Nashville.
The Volunteer State
The first thing you’ll need to do when you move to Nashville is find a job. That makes the summer the best time to get to town. Not because there is anything going on in the music business in the summer. In fact, it is so stinking hot in Nashville in August that Music Row looks like a ghost town from a Clint Eastwood western, complete with Mexicans taking siestas on the streets.The music biz upper crust won’t want to risk getting their Banana Republic duds sweaty going from their climate-controlled SUV’s into their climate-controlled offices, so they’ll be at their climate controlled homes by the lake sipping mint juleps. Whatever they are. The only thing stirring on the Row are desperate songwriters and sweaty, heat-strokingly fat tourists in cowboy hats, Old Navy khaki shorts and flip-flops wondering where in the hell Garth is.
The real reason it is wise for the budding songscribe to hit Nashville in summer is indeed the aforementioned teeming mass of tubby tourists. This influx of breathless music lovers creates a myriad of opportunities for the budding songwriter in the always-rewarding service industry.
In other words, Krispy Kreme is hiring.
So are Wendys, McDonalds, Taco Bell, White Castle, Backyard Burgers, the Colonel, and Bar-b-Cutie…(God, I wish I had made up that last one!)
You should also check out Wal-Mart, Walgreen’s, Servicestar, Western Auto…you get the picture. There is however, intense competition for these jobs.
Remember, you are but one of 4.2 million aspiring songwriters that have arrived since Thursday, all looking for work. I hear that McDonalds is now accepting no less than a Masters to work the drive-thru.
I am not kidding.
I know lawyers that have chucked their practices and are now parking cars waiting to catch a break writing songs.
If you have some sort of typing or secretarial skill (and I know so many songwriters that took typing and shorthand classes in high school, don’t you?) you can apply at one of the 17,000 temporary employment agencies in Music City. Even if you have no apparent marketable skills whatsoever (which applies to most of the songwriters in my circle at least), the temp agencies will still be happy to see you. “Tennessee” is apparently an old Native American word that means “Land of many temporary employment agencies”.
They love ya, them temp folks!
They will find you a gig in minutes…really!
Many of these jobs even provide transportation.
You’ll get to ride to work on a truck surrounded by huge men with tattoos, gold teeth and wool caps. They have the amazing jailhouse ability to talk without moving their lips, and thus are able to communicate quite clearly that they “really like what’n y’all got there in y’alls lunch box”…if you get my drift.
The starting wage will suck, and there will be no benefits at first, well, except for that free ride to work and sharing good fellowship (and your food) with your comrades, but if you hang on for just sixty days, the company will then take you on at full salary and all benefits.
Just sixty days. Two short months. 1/6th of a year.
I worked jobs in Nashville that ranged from building guitars to spraying out fetid dumpsters with garden hoses, and not a single one of them has ever lasted more than 58 days. I was always fired, downsized, let go, laid-off, made redundant; whatever euphemism you like, just before that magical 60-day mark.
And why not?
Why should they take me on at full pay and bennies when there is another would-be Kristofferson at the gate willing to do my job for 6 bucks an hour.
How do you think Tennessee got the nickname, “The Volunteer State”? Nobody gets any real money for doing anything.
Singing for Your Supper
Some of you are thinking,
“Hey man, I am the hottest guitarbasskeyboardsteelbanjo (banjo? Get real!) pickin’ singerdrummer in my town. I’ll be giggin’ inside of a week once I hit Broadway.”
That sound you hear is me, rollin’ on the floor, laughing my ass off.
Oh, you’ll be giggin’ alright, Bubba.
That is if you like playing for tips.
On Monday morning.
At 10 AM.
Since Tootsies and Roberts are all booked up, you’ll likely be plying your trade at one of the towns, shall we say, “lesser” musical emporiums. In a “real honky-tonk” that bears a strong resemblance to an Alabama prison toilet circa 1953, only without the charm and nowhere near as clean. Your audience will be two homeless drunks getting in out of the weather, a lost German tourist group looking for Webb Pierce’s swimming pool and a bunch of egg-sucking weasels drinking water at the bar and trying to convince the stoned bartender that they are 50 times better than you, and if they had your gig, “this freakin’ place would be packed, man.”
You know, the same thing you did to the loser that had the gig before you.
None of these people tip.
You are working for tips, and you have five other desperate folks pickin’ with you. After your 4-hour shift is over, you’ll have $1.77, two sweaty German cigarettes and a used ticket stub to the Hall of Fame in the jar…and that’s a good day.
Don’t bother thinking if you hold on that you’ll get a better spot in the evening or on the weekends. The people with those spots haven’t changed since 1975. Those spots are like NFL season tickets. They are passed on from family member to family member when someone dies.
Takin’ it to the Streets
You’ll see a lot of people in Nashville standing in full cowboy regalia on street corners, singing with their guitars or to backing tracks, just knowing that Carrie Underwood is going to peer out of the tinted windows of her fan-proof limo and say, “Wow, Mike, listen at that. We should help that’n get a deal.”
Have some pride.
DO NOT DO THIS.
THE PEOPLE IN THE INDUSTRY ARE LAUGHING AT YOU.
Besides…I checked…all of the good corners are taken…
Here is a link to two songs that sorta reflect this story: 'Candy Ass' and 'the Picture'.