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Songwriters Circle: Marty Dodson

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For those outside of Music Row, the business of songwriting in Nashville can seem deeply mysterious. The Songwriters Circle interview series is slowly uncovering the realities of life for songwriters and the many aspects of music publishing.

Next up is ole’s Marty Dodson, who has landed cuts with Kenny Chesney, Billy Currington, George Strait, Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, and many more. That success was not just a combination of great songwriting and a little luck, but the result of planning, hard work, business acumen, and determination. With great success or failure decided almost by the roll of the dice, the professional lives of songwriters can be tough, but Dodson has worked out a way of helping those dice land in his favor. He explains what went into building his career in Nashville, the politics involved in getting your songs to the right people, the emotional roller coaster of holds and cuts, and helped unpack the whole journey from the initial idea in the writers room all the way to the #1 party.

 

UCN: You were raised in Nashville. Did living here shape your career choice, or if you had been raised somewhere else, do you think you still would have been a writer?
Marty Dodson:
I don’t know. I started writing when I was about eleven, I wrote my first song then, I guess. I always loved to do that and was fascinated by it. I would get an album and would look at the liner notes first, before I even listened to it, to see who wrote the songs, and I would read the lyrics. Growing up here I was really intimidated. My family didn’t have any connections and it seemed that everybody who came to work on our air-conditioner was trying to be a songwriter, every waitress or waiter was trying to get in the music business. So, the only people I saw were people who were not really making it. They were just kind of trying, on the fringe. I thought I would just go to college and work. I took one commercial music class in college, but it was taught by a realtor, and he was just a guy who wrote jungle sometimes, you know. [smiles] That again reinforced the idea that you have to do something else, so I did. I worked for about ten years as a youth minister and I finally came to a point in life where I knew I didn’t want to keep doing that. I thought that if I was going to make a change, I was would like to try something I really would love and am passionate about. So at that point I met, through a fluke, this guy who was in The Crickets; he took Buddy Holly’s place. He wrote for Starstruck, Reba’s company.

UCN: That was Gordon Payne, right?
MD:
Yes. We started talking about writing, and I told him I wrote, so he listened to some of my songs and there was one idea, called ‘Weekend Cowboy’ that he liked. He helped me make it more commercial, then he demoed it and I got to go to the studio for the first time and see it all happen. I asked him if he would set me up with some other beginning writers that he knew. He set me up with people who were just starting out as well, and some of those people eventually got deals. Then I got a deal. One of those guys really liked what I did, so he signed me. So, it kind of happened organically, I guess, but more specifically through that crisis in life of ‘I don’t know what I want to do,’ and just wanting to get out of what I was doing.

UCN: You wrote your first song when you were eleven. Do you remember why you did that? Did you just feel you had to?
MD:
Yeah, I did. [smiles] My parents had bought me a guitar and I had messed around with that. I always loved music and after I learned to play guitar I thought that I’d love to write, so I sat down and tried to write a song. I think it was about some girl I thought was cute so something, but it kind of became my therapy. We had a basement and I would sit on the steps there. It had sort of an echo, like reverb, and I would sit there and play my guitar and write for hours. I ended up with a great thick folder of songs I wrote.

UCN: You mentioned it being therapy and I think you have a strength that most songwriters could probably benefit from, and that is a psychology degree. [smiles]
MD:
Yeah… [smiles] That’s been very helpful actually.

UCN: Yes, because you can step out of the story more, and especially when you’re creating characters for songs, you can use that training.
MD:
It also really helps to get in the head of the artist. If I’m going to try to write a Kenny Chesney song, I try to get in his head, I read interviews with him. I guess it’s like an actor trying to play a part. I think the more I can get in their head, the better of a shot I have at writing a song that they’re going to cut.

UCN: Because then you know the kind of material they have previously connected with?
MD:
I’ve gotten cuts from just reading interviews with an artist, and they’ll say something in a kind of quirky way and then I’ll go write that kind of thing. You just get what’s going on in their head.

UCN: When you first met Gordon and got into that community, what was your impression of the songwriters’ community here in, I guess, the early 1990s?
MD:
It was the late ‘80s I guess then, and my first impression was that it was this wild, crazy lifestyle where everyone’s just going berserk. But then I was very impressed with how business-like it was. I mean, the people he hooked me up with would come into an office, were working really hard and very long hours. It was not at all that ‘just sit under a tree until inspiration hits, then write for a few hours and then go drink,’ you know. The first impression had been of a kind of country club where everyone’s hanging out, but it was a lot more business-like than I imagined.

UCN: The earliest writes, do you remember those? What were they like?
MD:
It was nerve-wrecking. I was just on the edge. I had to justify my being there in a way, because they didn’t need me, especially if they were writers that had a deal. I had to make every write count so they would want me to come back. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but a lot of that was real too. You don’t get many shots to come in with someone and go ‘I don’t have any ideas.’ That’s not going to last long. I perceived, if I’m in the room with someone who has a deal, they can write with other people who have deals, and they can write with bigger people than me, so there’s got to be a reason for them to write with me again. What I discovered is that the one thing they needed that I could provide was an idea. The hardest thing when you write every day is to find a great idea. So, I kind of got the reputation that if you write with me, I would have a great idea. I created a database on my computer and I could search it in all these different ways. I got the Kenny Chesney cut, ‘Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,’ because I went in that day and Jim Collins said we should write something with a reggae-feel. I searched the database and I had one idea for that and it was ‘Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.’ We wrote that, Kenny Chesney cut it, George Strait cut it, but that wouldn’t have happened without that database and having worked a lot on ideas. At the start I would take two days a week and just work on ideas. I would go to the library, read all day, get on the internet. In that database, I had thousands of ideas. I wrote a lot with Paul Overstreet and Jim Collins, and if I thought something would be a great idea for Paul, I would put his name in the database. Then I could search for him and all the ideas that I thought of to write with him would pop up. That made it where, if you wrote with me I’d have a great idea, or I would have lots of ideas that we could pick from, and it was easy. I found out that if it could be easy, that I had an idea, that they’d always ask me back.

UCN: I bet!
MD:
They would tell me stories like ‘yesterday I sat with a writer and we just fiddled around all day and didn’t get anything. And I thought ‘well, that will never happen with me.’ So, I just kind of got that reputation, and then realized that was the one thing they needed. I got to write with people that I didn’t deserve to be in the room with really… But I’d had the great idea, and they could write the song, so I was kind of hanging on for dear life, writing the song, and trying to learn from them.

UCN: That must have been an amazing school, though, where you put the idea on the table and then watch them craft that into a song.
MD:
I would have this idea of how I would have written it by myself, and then I would go in with them and see how they explored all the different ways you could come at it. They would try to come up with approaches, not take the first answer to how you should write it but let’s explore every way and then we’ll pick the best one. That was really educational.

UCN: You said there was pressure in those rooms initially, but was it also inspiring to be in the room with those songwriters?
MD:
Yes, but it will mess with your head. The thing I’ve discovered the more I write is that in the writing room, if there is a hierarchy, it destroys the creativity. If I’m in there with Tom Shapiro, and he’s had big Top 10 hits, the temptation is to just go ‘everything you do must be great.’ But then you go ‘that’s awesome, great job,’ all day long, and he’s writing a song by himself really. If I’m in the room with someone whose had a lot more cuts than me, or a lot less, I need to do everything I can to make the playing field level in the writing room, so we’re just coming at it was two writers, each person’s opinion counts just as much. That was really hard early on. You have to fake it basically. There’s no basis to say that my idea is just as valuable as Tom Shapiro’s at that point because I had no hits. That’s kind of where the psychology degree came in…

UCN: Yes, I was just going to say that. And maturity as well, you weren’t 22 when you first got in those rooms.
MD:
Yes, definitely. I don’t think they knew how intimidated I was. I would fight for my idea, or fight for my line if I thought it was right. I would engage them as if I thought I was an equal, even though I knew that I was not. I discovered the more I write that it has to be that way if you’re going to get anything done.

UCN: So it’s one of those situations where if you want to be seen as an equal, you have to act as an equal before you are, to kind of force that reaction?
MD:
Yes, it’s kind of a two-sided thing. I’ve been in the room with people who have let me know that ‘my idea is good, I’ve had a lot more hits than you so my line is right!’ [smiles] So other writers have to extend that courtesy but I also have to be willing to speak up, to challenge, to take them on. If both those things happen, then you can really collaborate well.

UCN: What about the first cuts? I know you have a cut on the first Rascal Flatts record and was that the first single cut you got?
MD:
No, I had one called ‘Can’t Stop Thinking about That,’ with Ricochet. It was toward the end of their career but it went Top 40.

UCN: So the Flatts one was the first Top 10.
MD:
Yes.

UCN: Do you remember that phone call the first time someone said ‘I want to cut this’?
MD: Yes, about the same time as the Ricochet thing, I got a Lonestar cut. At the time, Ricochet was doing OK, Lonestar was about to lose their record deal because they hadn’t had much go on. So, I thought the Ricochet thing would be the big cut, but the Lonestar cut wound up on the album that ‘Amazed’ was on so it sold like crazy. That was my first platinum record. It was kind of a surreal time, especially when I heard ‘Can’t Stop Thinking about That’ on the radio the first time. I was driving and I had to pull off the road and listen. I mean, I had worked five years to get that. It was one of those moments of ‘wow, I can’t believe this,’ but also ‘wow, I can’t believe it’s taken this long!’

UCN: I know quite a few people who would say ‘Five years? That’s really fast.’ [smiles]
MD:
Yeah, I know… [smiles]

UCN: You mentioned you were impressed with how business-like it was. How did you take on that part of songwriting? You explained how you got into the creative side of things, how you got in, how you developed yourself there. How did you take to the business side?
MD:
I think that’s been the harder side for me really. I think it was very easy and very fulfilling to get in the room and create a song, but the other is not fun for me. I’m the creative-type who likes to have a good time. Sitting there putting ideas in the database was not fun, making CDs and delivering them all over town was not fun; it was hard. I’m sort of an introverted person by nature, I guess, and I’m not that person who just walks up and meets everybody in the room and is comfortable making a cold call trying to sell a song. I really had to work on that part too, and had to use my psychology degree on myself. [smiles] If you’re going to make a career of this, you have got to learn the business, you’ve got to learn how it works, who the players are, how to get to know the players. If you want a cut on Carrie Underwood’s record you have got to know who is getting cuts on Underwood, why they’re getting cuts and what the connection is, and then you can start trying to get into those circles.

UCN: That’s very strategic.
MD:
Very, very strategic.

UCN: And political.
MD:
Extremely.

UCN: How did those first bigger writes come about? Do I remember you being signed with Sony Tree at some point?
MD:
Yeah, but I was really with Kim Williams, who did some of Garth [Brooks]’s stuff, ‘Ain’t Going Down til the Sun Comes Up,’ and all that. He signed me but he had a co-venture with Sony. How ‘Can’t Stop Thinking about That’ came about, I had written with some of the guys in Ricochet so I knew them. My publisher pitched that song but they already knew who I was, so that helped. Same thing with Lonestar, I had written with several of them. The Lonestar cut I’d actually written with Richie MacDonald. But we wrote that on a Wednesday, did the demo on Thursday, he played it for his producer on Friday and they dropped what they were working on and cut it, and then put it on the album that sold millions.

UCN: The Flatts song wasn’t written for them?
MD:
No, we didn’t know who they were. We just went up to Kim’s cabin in East Tennessee, me, him, and Danny Wells. We wrote about seven songs that weekend, and that one was not even a favorite. There’s two others that were my favorites of that weekend that have never been cut. But we came back and somebody at Sony played it for Mark Bright, and they called to say ‘hey, this new group is cutting your song, they’re called Rascal Flatts.’ We all thought ‘that’s a weird name,’ but then it became a Top 10. [smiles] When we did the demo, we had a great singer and we modulated once, and he had a lot of trouble hitting it because there was such a range in the song. Then when we got the cut, they had modulated twice, and we thought ‘wow, this guy is a great singer!’

UCN: Two other big cuts for you were the Billy Currington cuts, ‘Must Be Doin’ Something Right’ and ‘Let Me Down Easy.’ How did you initially get in with that camp?
MD:
I was writing with Jason Matthews and we had been writing on the same idea for two days and got nowhere the second day. We went to lunch, came back and he said ‘do you like this song we’re working on?’ and I said ‘no, but I thought you liked it,’ and he goes ‘no, I hate it.’ [smiles] So, he said ‘let’s try to write something people can make out to.’ We had both been listening to the Michael MacDonald Motown records, so we said ‘let’s try to write something like that.’ We started off with that R&B feel and when we finished it, we thought it would be good for Billy Currington. He hadn’t done anything like that but we just thought his voice would be good on it. I played the work tape for one of our pluggers at Blacktop, she loved it, and took it that day to Bryan Wright, played it for him, he loved it too so they put it on hold the day after we wrote it just based on the work tape. Bryan really believed in the song, he pushed for it, and they cut it. It became Billy’s first #1, my first #1, and Jason’s first #1. [smiles] The thing that impressed me is that just from the work tape, they saw this was a hit song. I think that’s a very valuable skill. There’s a lot of people who need the full demo for them to hear what it could be. But they were so excited about it just from that, and to be able to be the first person to be able to pick out something and go ‘that could be a huge thing,’ that impressed me.

UCN: I’m sure you’ve done it too, where you hear something and go ‘that’s a hit,’ but that’s just the first part. Then there’s the second part of getting someone to pay attention to it in the first place, and then the third of getting it to that specific artist.
MD:
Yes, true, and at the #1 party you have a lot of people coming over to you saying ‘I always knew that was a hit!’ But when you turn in a work tape, there’s very few people going ‘I know that’s a hit.’ It’s just that skill of being able to see what it can be. And I think it was just a great match of voice and personality. He was the perfect person to sing that. Then, ‘Let Me Down Easy’ came about because through that I got to know Billy, had written with him, and Mark Nesler had cuts with Billy as well. We knew Billy was cutting so we sat down that day and said ‘let’s write another Billy song.’ We wrote ‘Let Me Down Easy’ for him and that’s the only pitch we ever made.

UCN: So, again, there’s the importance of having that “in” with the artists.
MD:
Oh yeah… But even with Billy, it’s still hard getting something through to him. I mean, I can get it right to him, but he’s very hard on songs and knows what he wants, so I still have to beat everything else he’s gotten. He’s not going to cut something just because he knows me, but the access is very valuable. If I get it to him and he loves it, he’ll go fight for it.

UCN: What about the importance of a catalog? Say the like ‘Something Right,’ and they go ‘Let’s go see what else he’s got,’ and they find something in your back catalog and they cut that.
MD:
That hasn’t happened as often as I would like it to. I think it used to happen more. Garth cut tons of Kim’s songs and tons of Pat Alger songs.

UCN: And he did cut older songs, he’d go look back.
MD:
Yes, he would. But I think it’s gotten so political and so tight, that the producer or the label, they’re trying to make sure they’ve got a piece of everything that’s going on the record. So, you get less of…

UCN: Oh…I see… [smiles]
MD:
Yeah… Right? [smiles] You would think they’d go ‘we’ve had two R&B kinda of songs with Marty Dodson, let’s go see what else he has,’ but I’ve never gotten that call. I don’t know if it’s because they’re so overwhelmed with stuff that they’re not going out looking. I think there is less of them going out seeking stuff.

UCN: Because they’ve got so much stuff brought to them already, they don’t have to.
MD:
Right. They don’t have to make calls to solicit stuff to be brought in. I think too, they assume that if I know Billy is cutting, I’m going to bring them my best stuff anyway. There’s not much of that ‘Hey, what have you got?’

UCN: When you say it’s become political, do you mean that as in who owns the publishing for a specific song? So if they look back to older songs, they wouldn’t have a stake in that?
MD:
That’s part of it, yes. I mean, I had a Carrie Underwood cut, but it was because I wrote with someone who wrote for 19 Entertainment. Not exclusively, but most of the cuts on her album came from that camp. So it doesn’t matter what I’ve got in my old Sony catalog, because there’s not a compelling reason, financially, for them to cut it. They would rather find something that’s comparable, but that they’ve got a piece of.

UCN: Some people just write with their inner circle, but what you’re saying suggests it’s good to be strategic and write with lots of different people so you can build a wide network.
MD:
Yes, if I’ve got an idea that I think would be a good Luke Bryan song, then I know Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson, so I can get into that camp by writing with them. I don’t know him, but I can write with people that can get the song to him. And that happens with me and Billy Currington too, where they come to me with an idea saying it would be a good R&B Billy kind of thing, and we’ll write it because they know I can send it right to Billy. So we’re all doing that. I’m trying to strategically think, ‘this would be a good idea for Rascal Flatts, so let’s try to write that with someone who is writing stuff that they’re into and can get it right to them,’ and same with Carrie Underwood and other people. Making sure that you have a connection makes a lot more sense than just writing a song and hoping that it lands somewhere.

UCN: How do you decide which idea fits which artist? What makes a Flatts idea, a Flatts idea, for example? Is that a thought process you’re conscious of?
MD:
Oh yeah. I’ve had songwriting interns take the Top 10 artists on the chart and come back and tell me everything they can find out about them. I will make them study their albums, tell me what each song is about. If you look at Carrie Underwood records, you‘ve got kind of the strong female – which can include the kind of male-bashing ‘Before He Cheats’ stuff – you’ve got heart-tugging ballads, and then every now and then you’ve got a huge thing, like a vocal event kind of song where she can really wail on it. And that’s pretty much what she does. So when I sat down with Jerry Flowers and Tom Shapiro, we were trying to write a Carrie Underwood song. We were like ‘OK, we have these three categories that we can write.’ Tom had the idea of ‘if it wasn’t for guys like you, there wouldn’t be songs like this.’ We wrote that with a quirky feel to it, but it was kind of her thing. We were hoping we could get the ‘Before He Cheats’ slot on that record. It’s the same thing with Kenny, he’s got nostalgic songs looking back, the football song, ‘The Good Stuff’ kind of big life songs, and then he’s got fun ‘just have a good time’ songs. So if I’ve got ‘Must Be Doing Something Right,’ I’m not going to go pitch it over there because he doesn’t say that. I think you can look at most artists and go ‘there’s three or four things they do and that they want to say.’ If you find out what those things are, then you can go ‘I’m shooting for this slot on this record.’

UCN: Because they always have one of that type.
MD:
Yes. Billy typically has one of the type of what I’ve written for him, so I’m fighting for that slot on his record.

UCN: That’s really interesting. I like that database idea too, collecting ideas and cataloging them all. You’re the first person I’ve heard be that thorough. My friends will have a notebook of ideas, but it tends not to be that organized.
MD:
That’s what I had, and I had like paper everywhere. I’d be in my car and would write an idea on a bank deposit slip. I ended up with this big folder, and I would come to write with someone and going through all this junk in my folder. And it would be ‘the other day I had a great idea, where did I write it down?’ I decided that I had to figure out some way to be organized with that and I’ve gotten more cuts that just ‘Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven’ from it too, but being premeditating about what I want to write with a person. Thinking something was a good idea to write with Paul Overstreet, he liked it, we wrote it, it gets cut and it’s a hit. I think that happened because I thought ahead about who I wanted to write it with so I can recall it when I’m in the room with them.

UCN: You explained how you do this for artists, is it the same with songwriters? How do you decide that something is an idea for Paul, or an idea for Jim? Is that based on their previous material, or just on knowing who they are?
MD:
Just the same thing as with the artist, just knowing who they are. Like you were saying before about there being certain singers who can handle certain material, there are certain writers who write certain things. Paul’s got a really funny, quirky sense of humor, so if I have an off the wall, kind of funny idea, I can write it with him. He’s got a condo in the Caribbean so I’ve written a bunch of island type songs with him too, because he’s into that. And Jim’s had ‘The Good Stuff,’ but he’s also had ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,’ so there’s a lot of things I can write with him. Then there’s other people that will write more sensitive, and like a more deep idea, others that just want fun up-tempos. So when I’m coming up with an idea for just a fun up-tempo, maybe I’ll write that with Danny Myrick. It just helps me be on my game when I get in the room, it give me a head start on ideas I wanted to write with that person. And probably about 75% of the time, we end up writing one of those ideas. Especially with the people I regularly write with because I know them, and I can almost always come up with an idea that they’ll like.

UCN: What if you’re in a session where none of the ideas work, four hours in a room and nothing. How do you navigate through those? Or does the database stop that from happening.
MD:
That doesn’t really happen, no. I don’t recall that happening in the last few years. We always get something. With different people it’s slower or faster as far as writing the song. I wrote with someone the other day and we just got a chorus in about four or five hours, and usually I write a whole song in two hours. But we never just get nothing.

UCN: Do you ever get stuck where you need to walk away from a song and come back to it?
MD:
Oh yes.

UCN: Can you push through that?
MD:
What I’ve discovered – and this will probably out myself to some of my co-writers – what I do if we’re stuck, if I get on the internet and just check my e-mail or facebook or something, just something to get my brain away from it. I think if you focus too hard on something, that’s what gets you stuck. You are coming at it just from one view but if you can get your mind somewhere else, you’re still thinking about that in the background, that’s still going on, but you’re now looking at it from a different place. I find that really helps if I get stuck. If I can get my brain off that consciously, that subconsciously I find the answer much more often than if I sit there straining for it.

UCN: I guess it’s like when you’re trying to remember something and when you stop trying, it suddenly pops into your head.
MD:
I’ve been doing corporate training. There’s a guy who started a company called Banding People Together, and the whole concept is collaboration through songwriting. We’ve done Microsoft and ESPN. We go in with these guys who are like VPs or CEOs for these huge companies, who are very analytical and all business. They have us come in because they’re not collaborating well. We go into these sessions and it’s been really fascinating, because I realized the reason they’re not is that they are all sitting there looking at one thing. It’s like if I came into a co-write and went ‘We’re gonna write a song. Go!’ Then everyone locks up. All we’re doing is using the part of our brain that concentrates on something, and it’s overwhelming. What I do there is what we do in a co-write. I get them talking about their business, and they relax and talk about it, and we’re not talking about the problem but we solve the problem as we’re talking. And then they’ll go ‘Wow, how did you get us to there, because that’s not where we were headed. We were all over the place.” It’s been really fun seeing that contrast with what we do. To me the answer of getting stuck is that we’re all going ‘We have to have this line, what is it, what’s the line?’, instead of just saying ‘OK, let’s breathe a minute here and let’s talk.’

UCN: Are there specific lines you remember like that?
MD:
Yes, there was a cut I had with Rebecca Lynn Howard and Rob Matson. He was an engineer at a studio I worked at. He mentioned one day, ‘I’m not a writer but I love what you guys do and I’d love to write a song with you one day, just for fun.’ We started writing it and Rebecca and I write really fast together and he was just kind of dazed. We had a verse and a chorus, but we got stuck on one line in the chorus and we sat there for an hour trying to think of this line. He throws out this line that was brilliant and it made the song. John Michael Montgomery cut the song, so his first song, ever, John Michael Montgomery cuts it. [smiles]

UCN: That’s pretty good. *smiles*
MD:
When he said the line we said ‘How did you come up with that?’ and he pointed over on the table, there was a Walmart Photo Lab envelope that said that line on it, he just read it and thought ‘Well, that rhymes.’

UCN: That’s sort of really awesome! [laughs] You’d been sitting there for an hour and it was literally in front of you.
MD:
Yes, and that’s the thing I’m learning in the corporate world. We’re all sitting here trying but if I just breathe and let my subconscious mind work I may see the answer on something. I tell that story at the corporate sessions.

UCN: That’s a perfect example. And it’s hard to get people who aren’t here, not part of this circus, to understand how much thought goes into songs. They think my songwriter friends all just hang out but they work really hard.
MD:
It’s hard for my wife to understand what I do, sometime I think it’s hard for her to understand why I am exhausted when I get home.

UCN: You’ve just been sitting all day, right? [smiles]
MD:
Yeah… [smiles] We sat and we wrote a song! It’s hard for people to grasp, and that you’re working at night for three hours on ideas, or going home after a write and doing a work tape, and sending off music to artists and trying to get a cut, pretty much all day and night.

UCN: Yes, exactly, it never stops. You can be anywhere, see something and the idea wheels start turning.
MD:
Yes.

UCN: You mentioned a few cuts with female artists. How hard do you find it to get into a female voice?
MD:
It’s not that hard. Most of the female songs I’ve written, I’ve written with a female. But then the Carrie Underwood thing, that was three guys who wrote it. I think it’s basically the same as any character you create that’s not you. So, I just have to think of what a woman would say, what would her view point be

UCN: Those characters that aren’t you, do you still need to have some connection to their experience? What do you draw on?
MD:
To me, a great writer can write, and does write, many different characters that they are not. If you can only write what you’ve known, then you’re sort of just a stenographer. You’re just writing down what you do and making it rhyme. That’s a talent as well, but to me, it’s different than being able to create Star Wars or Harry Potter. It’s different than writing your autobiography, and I want to be able to do all that. I have two daughters and I was very close to my mom, so I think I draw on important women in my life. I’ll think about what would my daughter’s take on that be, what would my mom or my wife’s take on this idea be, what would my wife like for me to say to her in that situation, and then I can filter and go ‘nah, she probably wouldn’t want to hear that!’ [smiles]

UCN: When you write with artists, how are those writes different? You know they’ll be the ones who will have to sing it so, in that sense, does their voice carry more weight or do you still want it to be equal?
MD:
Ideally it’s equal. Ideally, they’re coming to me because they feel like I have a songwriting experience that they don’t have. Most of them are younger and so most of them have not been writing as long as I have. Hopefully, they’re coming to me with a respect for what I do, and I’m coming to them with a respect for what they do. Sometimes though, they’ll just come in and want you to write a song for them, which is hard. Or they’ll come in and I’ll ask ‘What song do you want?’ and they’ll say ‘A hit!’

UCN: Well, yeah…
MD:
What’s awesome is – there’s a Canadian artist called Johnny Reid, do you know him?

UCN: Oh yes, he’s been on my ‘to interview’ list for a long time.
MD:
He came in the first day I met him and I said ‘What do you want to write?’ and he said ‘Well, we’ve cut this kind of thing, this kind of thing, and this kind of thing, so we need this, this and this.’ So I go ‘OK, do you have any ideas? Pick one of those, which one would you like to work on?’ He said ‘Yeah, I’ve got this idea called ‘Fire it Up,’’ and he plays me most of the chorus and it was awesome! So we wrote it in about an hour, he cut it, it went #1 in Canada, and now Joe Cocker cut it. The whole time we were writing, somebody would say a line and he would say ‘Nah, that’s not my audience. My audience is this kind of person so we don’t say that.’ He kept his focus all day long at aiming it right at his audience. That makes an artist co-write amazing, if they can guide you and tell you what they want. Dierks Bentley is very much the same way, he knows what he wants. Those are awesome, when you get that.

UCN: And Dierks knows his audience really, really well.
MD:
Yes, he knows his audience well, and he knows what he will say. So, that’s much different than being in the room with an artist who goes ‘Let’s write something for Rascal Flatts!’ If you get in a room with an artist that knows who they are, and they know their audience well, it’s great because there’s no fumbling around for what to do.

UCN: This is one of those things that often comes up. People will have that misconception, as it turns out, that it’s about writing almost by free association. Let’s all sit here and be creative and something wonderful will come out. Yes, it’s art, but it’s about planning and organizing and it’s guided.
MD:
Yes, it is.

UCN: Was that something you were immediately aware of that it required that kind of thinking?
MD:
No, that sort of evolved. I think at first it was more about ‘Let’s just write the best song we can write today.’ That’s not a bad goal at the start because you don’t have the connections anyway, so it’s more songwriting practice or school, you know. Let’s just challenge ourselves to write the best we can. But if you want to get a cut, the best way to do that is look at everybody in the room, figure out who they have connections to, who is recording, and going with all that knowledge and say ‘Let’s try to write something we can get to Billy or someone you know. You’re writing with this new artist, can you get that to him?’ That’s going to be the smartest way to get a cut. I can write the best songs, but some of the best songs I’ve ever written have never been recorded.

UCN: I’ve heard that from other people too.
MD:
I can do that all day long, but I’m not going to keep my writing deal unless I’m a little more focused than that. One of those songs might have been a great Bonnie Raitt cut, but I don’t know her so it’s hard for me to get that song to her.

UCN: I have had to learn this aspect of it. I’d look at the quality of some songs and go ‘How does this even get cut? Why is this at #1?’ and it took the better part of a year for me to grasp that, yes, it’s a creative process, but it’s within a certain framework.
MD:
I think it’s like anything, you have to harness the creativity and channel it toward a commercial use. I mean, I can’t invent a toaster that shoots the bread out the side and make millions, unless people want that. It can be the best toaster ever, but if people aren’t clamoring for a different kind of toaster, then it’s not going to matter. I can write the most amazing song ever, but if it’s not anything anybody wants to say…

UCN: Or it’s a seven-minute epic that radio won’t ever play.
MD:
Right. I wrote a song early on about my grandmother. My grandfather died fairly young and I felt like she kind of stopped living when he died, so I wrote a song called ‘She Stopped Living the Day He Died.’ He had that kind of ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ feel to it, which, you know, years ago somebody would have cut, but now radio isn’t going to play this sad song about my grandmother who couldn’t move on with her life. So, it doesn’t matter how good the song is, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about making something that someone will buy or that someone wants to come hear live.

UCN: Does that ever get frustrating?
MD:
No, it’s not for me. To me, it’s the reality of the business. I can still be creative and do that. At some level, it takes more creativity and more talent to figure out… – not only do you have to figure out something that Kenny Chesney will say, you have to figure out something that the people before it gets to him are going to like enough to pass on to him. You gotta make them happy, you gotta make him happy, and then at the end you gotta have consumers who will buy it. To me, it requires more creativity in some ways to figure out what the end consumer wants and how to get it there.

UCN: It’s not just ‘let’s think of clever lines’, but ‘let’s think of clever lines that will also please these people, and the next level up, and then radio, and then listeners.’
MD:
Yes, some people view it as ‘Ooh, it’s not art if you’re thinking about the commercial aspect of it,’ but I have kids in college and I need to make a living out of my art. So, that’s not frustrating to me, that’s just the business of it.

UCN: This came up when I talked to Craig Campbell about his new EP. Four great songs, one I didn’t like. I told him, and that I wasn’t surprised to see it was written by Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip. I mean, it sounds great. It’s one of those songs that sounds fantastic, but when you dig below the surface, there’s not much there. That type of song is sometimes frustrating as a listener, you know, so that’s why I was wondering if it’s frustrating as a writer.
MD:
Well, what can be sometimes frustrating as a writer is when I’m trying to get on an album and then I have to go ‘Really? That song beat mine?!’ That part can be frustrating, but it’s not frustrating from the writing standpoint of feeling like I have to do a certain thing. And there are days when we do just go, ‘You know what, let’s just make ourselves happy, let’s write something we like.’ Really, ‘Must Be Doin’ Something Right’ was that kind of song, we just wrote something we were into. I think when you do that, there’s a little more heart in the song sometimes, you know, because you’re really just writing it for you. So you can commercialize the heart out of it, which is I think what you are saying.

UCN: Yes. We talked about that song and his label said ‘well that’s what these guys do,’ so I went ‘oh, I understand that, believe me, and they’re very good at it.’ I mean, he’s got a bunch of triple crown awards; Davidson knows what he is doing. But as a listener sometimes, I just go ‘oh, come on.’ You know, in a weird way it’s almost a compliment, because I know he is a better writer than that song suggests. He’s really good, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to those overly commercial songs. I want to say: ‘I know you can do better.’
MD:
What also happens is that I’ve got songs that I would be embarrassed if someone cut them. I wrote with a major artist when he was really hot as a writer, and he would say ‘people are pitching these songs I guess because I wrote them, but I’m kind of embarrassed,’ and there were some that he said he wished he could go back and re-write a little bit. There are just times when someone gets really hot and people are going ‘I gotta have the flavor of the month,’ and they’re not really listening. They’re just going ‘Well, they wrote it, it must be a hit.’ So, I’m sure there’s song that [the Peach Pickers] would go ‘I don’t think that’s my best song,’ you know.

UCN: A writer I know had his first #1 with a song he knows I don’t like. He’s got really amazing songs, and he told me that on that write, they just decided to write something commercial. He said it’s the most commercial song he’s ever written and then that’s the one that goes #1 over those other great songs. And I’m like ‘Dude, you knew that,’ and he goes ‘Yeah, but you know…’ It was just that little bit of frustration of knowing he has better material but he can’t get that through.
MD:
It’s like when ‘Red Solo Cup’ came out…

UCN: Oh God, I hate that song! [laughs]
MD:
Many did, but I would tell people, I hate that they didn’t call me to write it with them. [smiles] To me, you can be brilliant and be silly at the same time. And sometimes simple and brilliant is harder to do then being complex and brilliant. To me, it’s brilliant to go ‘I’m going to write a song about that cup!’ That takes a lot of creativity. I get that people go, ‘That’s not a very intelligent song.’

UCN: Oh, I don’t mind that it’s not an intelligent idea, whatever that would mean. It just gets on my nerves…
MD:
Well, yeah, but after I hear it, all day I’ll be going [sings] ‘red solo cup…’

UCN: [laughs] Maybe that’s why some people hate it because it gets in your head like that.
MD:
I rarely hear something that’s on the radio and go ‘Man, I just hate that.’ I admire what it took to get it there. That’s equally as important as what the song says or how it sounds.

UCN: Yes, and that’s been another big lesson for me, understanding that side of things here. I was throwing judgment at these songs, not really understanding the business-side. It is so, so political! But now, watching my friends with publishing deals navigate this… ‘Oh something is on hold, they‘ve still got it, oh no, they’ve passed on it.’ It’s that disappointment and then someone else picks up the song and you’re off again. I think if you’re not here, it’s hard to understand.
MD:
Early on, that was maddening. That can drive you crazy! I would get a hold on the biggest artist I’d ever gotten a hold on, and they would keep telling us they were going to cut it. One time the artist called me from their bus and sang it to me going ‘I love this, we’re going in the studio tomorrow,’ and they didn’t cut it. I had another huge artist call to say ‘We’re cutting it tomorrow,’ and they had studio problems, ran out of time, and then decided they’d already cut enough stuff. And you just go, ‘really?!’ That can be devastating, especially if everything is riding on that. My first writing deal, I was making $850 a month. And I had a family so there was a lot riding on that. It’s ‘if this gets cut and it’s a single, I can make a couple hundred thousand dollars and change my family’s life.’ So, you’re waiting on it and they’re telling you it’s going to happen and then the day it’s supposed to happen it doesn’t happen. I’ve actually gone to buy a record, and then saw my song wasn’t on there. They told me it was going to be on there and I got pick it up at Target and it’s not there. That’s devastating. After some of that went on, I thought ‘I have got to find some way to keep that out of my head.’ So I ask them not to tell me, and just tell me when it gets cut. That’s kind of what they do here [at ole], they’ll sometimes tell me about a hold, but I don’t know about everything that’s going on.

UCN: A lot of people start this, very few stay in the game. Do you think that’s why a lot of people end up giving up, not because of the creative side of things – they’re plenty talented, have plenty of ideas – but just that constant roller coaster of disappointment and expectation?
MD:
Yes, I do. I think the decisions that hundreds of thousands of dollars hinge on are so arbitrary and goofy. Like I was saying, they had a technical problem at the studio so my song didn’t get cut.

UCN: Yes, and that’s a royalty check that you never get.
MD:
Yes, because of some glitch in their computer that day cost me that. It can be devastating and I know people who have gone into a month-long tail spin because of that stuff.

UCN: I think people who are creative by nature might be particularly sensitive to that type of stuff.
MD:
Yes, I agree.

UCN: How do you build that resilience?
MD:
For me, one thing I did is that I put a nail at the end of my hallway at home. That was for my first gold record. I told myself I was going to keep that nail with nothing on it until I get a gold record to hang on it. I think what that represented for me was ‘I believe so much I’m going to get a gold record, that I’m going to go ahead and put the nail up there so it will be ready.’ Every day that I would see that, I would go, ‘OK, you believed enough to put that nail in the wall.’

UCN: That’s amazing…
MD:
If you believe in that, then don’t let losing a hold shake that belief. I had to do that kind of stuff, and asking them not to tell me about what was going on, to not build my hopes up for something. I learned to just take it as ‘Great, they like the song, and if they like it someone else will probably like it too.’ A good example is ‘Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.’ Everyone around Kenny passed on it, we had it on hold for somebody else, then George Strait cuts it, then he decides not to put it on his record. I’m disappointed because I wanted a George Strait cut but thought ‘somebody else will like it.’ Somebody else puts it on hold but then Kenny calls and says he wants it, so we call those people who say they think they’re going to pass on it, so we gave it to Kenny. So…you know what I mean? I’ve just learned over time that if you’ve got a great song that one person likes, two people will like it. You just have to find that other person. I tried not to get so focused on ‘this would be a huge deal for me, I hope this happens,’ you know, but just breathe and let things happen more.

UCN: So again, it’s about stepping back. Creatively it was ‘don’t force it, don’t focus too much on one thing,’ but then also in that side of it, stepping back and letting it happen. Well, this was so interesting.
MD:
Good, I hope so.

UCN: I learned a lot, thank you.
MD:
You’re welcome. And thank you!

 

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