No interview series on songwriting is complete without Craig Wiseman. He is one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville, which would already be reason enough to include him, but also has a deep understanding of the publishing business.
In 2003, he founded independent publishing company Big Loud Shirt which went on to Grammy-winning success with Carrie Underwood’s ‘Before He Cheats’ and ‘Blown Away,’ and Tim McGraw’s ‘Live Like You Were Dying,’ the latter written by Wiseman and Tim Nichols. With sister company, Big Loud Mountain, looking after Florida Georgia Line, it has been an immensely busy year for him. He still found time to write hits, including Blake Shelton‘s ‘Boys ‘Round Here,’ which is currently climbing the charts.
In the interview, we went over his songwriting story from the very beginning to celebrating twenty #1 hits, and counting.
UCN: Do you remember why you started writing songs?
Craig Wiseman: I always did it. My mom told me when I was three years old I would be standing in my crib hollering them out. [smiles] I started playing drums in a beginner band and just started jamming with friends. I also learned to play a couple of songs on guitar. I only did this once, writing lyrics to existing songs. There are a lot of writers who do this for years, to learn, but even when I could barely play two or three chords, I was already thinking I should write my own words to the song to make it more appropriate to me. All that kind of happened in one summer. One year, I brought a guitar to church camp; that was when I was 15. I figured out people’s key was G, not too low for the girls not to high for the guys. As opposed to playing a song exactly as it was, I would transpose them to a different key. I started figuring out that everything was in G, C, D, E minor. All these church camp songs were like that. I got home and realized all these country songs were like that, and all these rock songs were like that. And the Nashville number system really cracks that code. Inuit Eskimo songs, African tribal, Gregorian chants, Beethoven, Hank Sr, it’s 1-4-5, dude. The number system gives you a nice insight. Because I was transposing everything in G, when I got home I realized that with these chords I could play a million country songs, and a million rock songs. And then I was like ‘I can write a million songs with these chords!’ That summer, I would wait for the family to go to bed and I would stay up all night writing songs. They were horrible, but man, I loved it. [smiles] I played drums and wrote songs, and did both of them together for years before songwriting as a career even occurred to me. I just loved it. When I did it there was no such thing as time, I was just lost in it.
UCN: How did you then decide to make it your career?
CW: I was just playing drums at first. After High School, everybody went to Florida for their senior trip and I went to Florida with my spinal tap rock band for that summer. It was just a comedy. It was horrible and it was great, and it was horrible, and it was great, you know? [laughs] I was playing as much as I could; playing six nights a week going to college is much as I could. Word got around about me and I finally got into a medium level touring band. And I knew Don Henley is a drummer and he writes stuff for the Eagles, and Phil Collins is a drummer for Genesis and he writes songs. So I thought to be a songwriter, the vehicle had to be the band you were in. We had this money guy and he wanted me and the lead singer in a contract. So he gave us both contracts to look at. Thank goodness my mom was studying at Peabody at the time. We had a couple of days off when my mom came up here to meet with her advisor. I walked down to 17th Avenue to a law firm. I just walked in there and said to the girl at the front desk “Hey, I got this contract and I have like 15 minutes before my mom has to take me to lunch. If I can pay someone 20 bucks just to look at this…” So she’s all like “Sir, we have a retainer…”, and I go “Look, I have $20…” But there was a lawyer by the copy machine and he looked over and said “Come here.” So he starts flipping through the contract and asks me a couple of questions – “So he’s going to want all your publishing and then he’ll pay you a draw?” and I’m like “What’s a draw?” He gets to the back and he starts laughing and he says “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you $20 to not sign that.” And he told me, “If you’re a songwriter why don’t you go get a publishing deal, just bring your demo to people.” And I suddenly realized that this is the place where, after the bands breakup, this is where the songwriters go and they can just be songwriters. And I was like “Oh my God, you don’t have to babysit four drunks in a band to be a songwriter?” [smiles] So I went back to the band and said whatever our last booked gig is that’s my last gig. And then I moved to Nashville.
UCN: After you moved here, what was your impression?
CW: When I played in Mississippi with the band I was making about $500 a week easy, and I was in college too so I didn’t have time to spend it. Thank goodness I saved it so I could move to Nashville. When I got here I got a gig seven nights a week, six hours a night, $25 a night. I was playing over 40 hours a week behind a drum set. It was really good though, it allowed me to kind of watch the parade go by for a while. Our band slowly got cooler. We went from a dive in Madison to playing up in Hendersonville. There was only one club and we played there for about a year. And Hendersonville, that’s where all the songwriters were living at the time. Eventually we played at the Hall of Fame over here.
UCN: What was writing here like at first?
CW: I had to learn to co-write, I had written everything by myself until then. My first successful co-write was with the guy called Don Henry. I had these two verses and I’m kind of stuck, and then he, without missing a beat, just started singing the course of the song. And I was like “Okay, I’m starting to get co-writing!” Co-writing is like dating. You are completely capable of having a horrible time, and you’re completely capable of having something really, really powerful happen. And to this day I still really try to push myself. When you get a little bit of success it’s really tempting to just keep writing with the same guys. I know people who’ve done that and then don’t understand why all their stuff sounds the same. But it’s like, you’re writing stuff that’s 10 years old because you’re writing with people you met 10 years ago. So I always try to push myself. I wrote with a new guy yesterday. You gotta keep dating. [smiles]
UCN: Is that also the way to work into the community when you first start out?
CW: Yes, that’s why I tell young writers in particular that they are fortunate because everything is a positive right now. You’re figuring out what doesn’t work. Oh my God, how valuable is that! This is where I waste time, this is where my time is much more efficient, this is what I like, this is what I don’t like. What’s more important than that? Seriously when you first start out there are no wrong moves, you cannot make a wrong move.
UCN: Because you learn from every experience.
CW: You learn from every single thing you do! Especially when you first come to town, you have no idea of what to do. From outside of town, it looks like in the music business there are three jobs. But when you get here you realize there’s 2300 jobs. There are people running labels and PR companies. They all came to town to be a singer or to play guitar, and then found out that what they really wanted to do was that. It’s where you like the music business and want to work in it, and you think ‘well, I have to play guitar to do that,’ but then you get here and you realize you don’t. When you get to town, you just have to do it. But there’s also that weird phenomenon and I still run into these people… They moved to town for music but now they’re a banker somewhere and I always want to ask ‘What happened? So you moved your life here but then wouldn’t go knock on a door, or walk up to a guy at a club and ask him to write?’ I don’t understand that.
UCN: I think there might be two reasons. One maybe they think there were more talented than they are, and they get here and are freaked out by the level of talent. And secondly, even if they are that talented, I think it’s the business side that crushes a lot of people. It’s hard and it can be frustrating. The constant up-and-down of this career, if you don’t have resilience to that, you’re not going to stay in it.
CW: Maybe, but I think some of those people don’t even get close enough to experience that. It’s almost like they go ‘okay, the first thing I have to do is move the Nashville. Fine, I did that.’ And then they are here and kind of go ‘Now what?’
UCN: But that’s when the work only begins.
UCN: One of the reasons I’m doing these interviews is to explore how hard it is for you guys sometimes as songwriters here. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s more like 5-to-5 the next morning.
CW: Yes, yesterday I got up at 5 am, flew in from New York at 9:45 am, was in my office writing at 10:15 am, and I got home at 8:30 pm. You work until it’s done.
UCN: I think that reality takes people by surprise when they get here.
CW: People just see that it’s great that you get to make your own schedule. A friend of mine had a great line in a song once that said, ‘you work hard so no one tells you what to do / now the only tyrant you’re working for is you.’
UCN: That’s a great line!
CW: You’re self-employed, but you better work for a tyrant. Even here at Big Loud Shirt, we try to run a casual, cool place and we are famous for our parties. We got drunk in New York but I was on a plane at 6 am, and people here are in their offices by 7 am. In this building, you better be a self-starter. I got that team now and this company is rocking.
UCN: How did you develop the craft of writing?
CW: I’ve pissed off some songwriters with this because they want to be all about the mystique. But when it’s all said and done, man, you’re building birdhouses. First, you gotta learn how to cut boards. And then, you learn basic joinery of here’s how you intersect two boards at that angle to where it will actually look good. And then you learn how to build what’s basically a box with a hole in it. You start figuring out how everybody builds birdhouses, you start figuring out the commonality of every birdhouse. Then you get bored building basic birdhouses so you start to do your own thing because you have your own opinions now. And then at some point you think I could sell these birdhouses and make a living. Yeah, you and about 10,000 other really, really good birdhouse builders. So much of it is just doing it. I write songs five days a week and have been for 30 years. Had I been building birdhouses every day I’d probably be building mean freaking birdhouse! [smiles] And if you are just starting to make a birdhouses, I’m probably going to kick your ass, same if you only make two birdhouses a month. Somebody can wait nine months to start building birdhouses and if they do two a week, they’re going to be better than you in a year. It’s just about doing it. When people say the politics of that overwhelm them, I just go back to high school coach talk. There’s gonna be obstacles but I think ‘what the heck are you focused on?’ And I hear people go ‘Oh, well I came to town, it’s all just politics and the competition…’ But those are obstacles, what are you doing staring at those obstacles? Of course there are obstacles – it’s life! Think about what you came here to accomplish, talk about that, focus on that, knock that shit out.
UCN: Keep your eyes on this one goal, nothing else, and go.
CW: Yeah! The first seven months I was here, I tried desperately to get to a songwriters night. I was playing seven nights a week from 9 pm to 3 am, so I hadn’t even been to one. I was exhausted, I was broke already, trying to get to a night. Finally, thank goodness, this club comes along and hires us for six nights a week for $35 a night. Douglas Corner Café was the venue at the time. The first night I got to go to songwriter night, I’ll never forget. I walked in and there was this dude on stage in a hoodie and a cowboy hat. And I’m thinking that’s the stupidest thing I ever saw in my life. [smiles] But he’s sitting there going “Oh, I just got my deal with Capitol and I really appreciate you guys,” and it was Garth Brooks. Sitting beside him was Tony Arata, and Tony sang ‘The Dance.’ So I ask “who’s that guy?” and people say he works for some printing shop and he’s trying to break into the business. And I’m thinking to myself, “okay, if this guy is still struggling when he has songs like that, what in the hell are you doing here, dude?” And then Garth Brooks goes: “Hey man, someone ought to cut that song one day.”
UCN: Oh, that’s fantastic! [laughs]
CW: Yeah, I was there for that conversation. [smiles] On my night off I would always go to Douglas Corner. But actually through hanging out with Tony Arata and going to all these songwriter nights – and although Tony Arata is masterful at these – I’d see them go around six times in a circle and they’re all sitting there playing ballads. But I’m a drummer and I made it my resolution to never perform a ballad in public. I came from bars and clubs, if you did that many ballads with a band you would starve to death. At the most you do one ballad a set. So I said I’m just going to write tempo, I want to write stuff that I want to play drums on. But then all of a sudden country broke in the 1990s, and people that thought more like I did were getting in there. That was crucial. I still do it though; I still fight ballads like crazy.
UCN: Do those ideas still show up though?
CW: Look, you have to write the song you’re supposed to. When it’s all said and done, any contrivance in the room is death. You have to be honest whatever the song is. I mean ‘Love Me if You Can’ was a Toby Keith ballad of all things. That actually came from Chris Wallin, a good friend, who said he’d watched The Jerry Springer Show. It was one of those episodes with a guy who had like impregnated eleven women including his sister, or something like that, and the whole crowd was going “Boooo! You suck, you redneck!” And the guy said “Hate me if you want to, but love me if you can.” So we were trying to write this up tempo thing for about an hour but the whole time, from as soon as he said it, I just had this little twinge. Finally he got up to get coffee and I just started going [sings] ‘I’m a man of my convictions…’, I said “I think this is the song, man.” Once again, any contrivance is death. I’m a big believer in wherever your heart leads you, by God, follow it. As far as I’m concerned that’s God talking to you. He equipped everybody with their little radio set and it works fine.
UCN: So you need to stay out of your own way?
CW: Yes, your radio set that works fine, you just refuse to look at it that way. But it’s all right there, man. If you’re running around pissed off and empty and wanting, you know why. I try to write every day and it’s a barometer for me. If the writing starts to get harder, it means the business side has probably crept in too much. You just have to try to keep it nice and simple. It’s hard because I’m a control freak, but I delegate out the work and just go ‘No, I’m doing this other thing.’
UCN: Yeah, where you go “here’s your job, I’m going to do mine, and I trust you to do yours.”
UCN: Blake Shelton just released ‘Boys ‘Round Here,’ and it seems to be really polarizing people.
CW: Yeah, for a stupid song like that it’s weird. When I do something like ‘Believe,’ I get a little bit of feedback. For a song like that, that is crazy and fun, I’ve gotten so many e-mails and texts.
UCN: I’ve lived here for two years now and I’ve seen a big evolution in my thinking about songwriting. I had to learn how to understand these kind of silly songs, so to speak. People expected me to rip the song apart in the review and I didn’t. I think that what it’s trying to do, it does really well and Blake’s performance is fantastic.
CW: Oh yeah, it is!
UCN: He pitches it so perfectly, the character in that song. I’ve been to Georgia and Alabama, I’ve met that guy, do you know what I mean? [smiles]
CW: Dude, that’s exactly what it’s about! Dallas [Davidson], Rhett [Akins] and I wrote it. Dallas had just come back from Georgia and we were talking about those dudes. We have a little summerhouse in McMinnville, where we have to walk out to our driveway to get cell phone reception. Out there I really realized that however you do it – especially if you get blessed and start making some money in this business – find a way to get around people that make a 20th of what you do and are ten times happier than you’ll ever be. It’s not about being condescending about those people, it’s not about you being a big wig around those people, but about getting around those people and being humbled by them. There are things out there that will humble you if you’re open to that. To be around those people who work what’s just a job and then they go home to their family and their garden, and they’re trying to get their bell peppers good but there’s some kind of bug on the leaves,… You know? [smiles]
UCN: People have also said they don’t like the song because “well, it’s not as good as ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ and if he can write that, why doesn’t he?” But I told him that you can’t write a song like ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ every day. You would go insane, it’s too emotional to write like that every day.
CW: Thank you very much for saying that. That’s true. Also, ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ did great because when it was in the top 40, there were 39 other songs that weren’t trying to be ‘Live Like You Were Dying.’ I’ve had several more spiritual songs like ‘The Good Stuff’ and ‘Believe,’ and it’s happened before. I write those kinds of songs too. You could have 20 songs about driving around in a truck, picking up girls and going out on Saturday night, and it’s fine. But if you have three of those serious songs on the chart like that, they kill each other off. It’s a weird thing. It’s like America has picked ‘this is going to be our ballad this month, just this one.’ The day after the Blake thing I wrote a very serious song again. Look, country music is very live show driven. It’s not just controlled by radio or some sort of overthink in the board room. Just like Florida Georgia Line, we put out our own record on them, and we put out ‘Cruise.’ Because we were in touch with the fans, we could pick the singles. We knew ‘this is what they want to hear, this will catch on.’ Whether it’s ‘Boys ‘Round Here’ or ‘Believe,’ all I want to do is just honestly capture whatever emotion I write, whatever it is. I mean, you get it, as a writer ‘Boys ‘Round Here’ and ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ are equal to me in the fact that in both we were just capturing something.
UCN: I also saw people calling out that ‘chew tobacco’ line, but that just made me laugh. I thought it was funny.
CW: Yeah, we had that ‘Boys ‘Round Here’ phrase, and it’s terrible, it’s not even a title. [smiles] And we started talking about book-ending the chorus, and we were going with stuff like ‘drinking that beer / with the boys round here.’ I mean, come on man, I’m gonna take a hostage if we try to do that shit! [smiles]
CW: I mean, come on! [smile] We had ‘backwoods legit / don’t take no shit.’ And the others were going ‘Yeah! Okay, that’s good, what’s going to happen now?’ Well, ‘chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.’ [smiles] When we wrote that song we were laughing our asses off. I’ll play you the work tape of that later. When I heard Blake’s version, before he started singing I thought they were playing my demo accidentally.
UCN: Did they keep the writers room vibe in it?
CW: They completely kept the writers vibe and fun and demo and spirit – Scott Hendricks and Blake nailed that hard and did great! That day was just hilarious. The bridge, that ‘oooh,’ we were just sitting there and Rhett yawns, and Dallas goes ‘That’s cool!’ He actually yawned in key! So we did that ‘Ooooh, let’s ride.’ We literally kept everything that happened in the room.
UCN: That’s such a cool write!
CW: Yeah, it really was! It’s like you are making this big soup and you run through the house, whatever you can find put it in there. When we had been working on the idea, Dallas had said something about redneck. I had the ProTools on and so we started messing around, and before we did anything I chopped it up and went ‘red-red-red-redneck’. And we were going ‘we’ll use that later on,’ then thought we would count the song off with it. We were just going to use it there but then after that ‘Ooh, let’s ride’ we thought, how do we get back to the song? So we said let’s use that redneck-thing again. That day was just one of those writes where you go “Oh my God, this is crazy!” It just kept being hilarious. I ran into Rhett the other day, and he still said “Man, that day was so much fun!” It really was.
UCN: How does that contrast with the personal songs? I suspect a lot of songs are really the songwriters talking to themselves. However fantastic Tim McGraw‘s version of ‘The Cowboy in Me’ is, when I hear the lyrics, I feel like it’s Jeffrey [Steele] talking to himself. Do you still use the same process to put a song like that together?
CW: Me, Jeff, and Al got together that day, and Al just wanted to do this swampy rock thing and we got pulled into that. I started doing this little thing in D. And Jeffrey and I just started going [sings] ‘I don’t know why I act the way I do…’ We kept not wanting to write a ballad. But hey, I like the self-loathing thing in songs sometimes, and we can use a little bit more of that… [sings] ‘The urge to run the restlessness, heart of stone I sometimes get.’
UCN: The honesty of that song is great. There are several songs were I think about the writer, this is really you talking to you, isn’t it? This is something you need to hear and you’re not really admitting it, but you’re putting it in a song and then hearing it that way. It’s the therapy part of songwriting.
CW: It is, and we need that. But check this out. People might criticize all that country bravado stuff but I read an article in Billboard that said there was a 41% increase in market share for country for males 18 to 34. They were saying it was because of guys like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. And I think ‘Great!’ because Florida Georgia Line is opening for Luke Bryan this season. [smiles]
UCN: How cool for them! Thank you so much for your time this morning. Enjoy your write today!
CW: Thank you!
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