Songwriting: How Things Have Changed Since 1991

My church next weekend is having its annual (after two years of COVID cancellations) rummage sale, and it makes for a great opportunity to clean my house out of unwanted things for them to sell. The donations consist mostly of books that I have either read and don’t feel the need to keep, or ones that I picked up on a whim and now try to figure out why I grabbed them in the first place.

Sorting through my endless pile of books brings back a lot of memories. Hobbies that I started and never finished, biographies of people I once thought important to my education, and guides to adventures that I still pursue in the back of my head. One such book was The Songwriter’s & Musician’s Guide to Nashville by Sherry Bond. I purchased this copy back in the early 1990s when I thought my songwriting was going to make me the next Tom T. Hall. Thumbing through the pages, I see how outdated the information is.

The first half of the book is still somewhat relevant. It talks about what to expect in Nashville, the history of Music Row, and planning a trip to the city as well as a possible showcase. The second half contains contact information of record companies, publishing houses, showcase venues, and management representatives. Just from my experience in visiting the city recently, I can tell you that probably half of these companies do not exist any more.

This edition of the book was printed in 1991, so that is over 30 years old. The internet was still in its infancy, and sites like Facebook, ReverbNation, YouTube, and others that a songwriter or musician could use to promote him/herself were hardly ideas then. The old-school way of getting your song hear by a publisher was to send a hard-copy letter to the office to schedule a meeting, or if you were lucky to get connected, calling on the phone. A desperate tactic was to have a few hundred cassette tapes of your songs in a duffle bag and go knocking on doors along Music Row, then hit a few bars after business hours and schmooze to anyone that would listen to you talk.

There are still thousands of aspiring songwriters out there (I can include myself in that mix), but things have changed. Emailing publishers and songwriter reps is even becoming outdated, although it still works in a lot of cases for introduction. You still need to spend a lot of time in Nashville, but it is not as important to live there permanently. Co-writing can be done using Zoom conferencing. However, to get your foot in the door, it seems more important than ever that you have had some success from the start.

I focus my songwriting in the smaller market of bluegrass music. The artists in the community are much more personable with their audiences than other formats. However, the artists are still very closed-minded when it comes to trying out new songwriters’ material. Back in the days of Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt & Scruggs, while the artists did write some of their own material, they were very open to a “good song,” whether they heard it on their own or their producers made some suggestions. Today, it seems the A- and B-list of bluegrass artists flock to perhaps a dozen established songwriters or stick to their own material exclusively.

I am more fortunate than many in that I do have a hit song under my belt, one that was showcased at the IBMA World of Bluegrass in 2014, then won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest in 2015 then later recorded and charted by Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. However, that hasn’t been a golden ticket for me. I still struggle to get other songs of mine in the ears of artists. As far as co-writing with others, my two partners with that song are more closer-knit with the established songwriters, but they are facing the same brick walls. The established co-writers tend to work with each other, and it is a clique that is every difficult to get an invitation to.

My personal life over the past few years has put some wear-and-tear on my songwriting activities. Primarily, caregiving my 89-year-old mother is practically a full-time job in itself. I am also trying to get rid of my house since I am spending most of my time at my mom’s place caring for her. I still pick up the guitar almost every day, as well as the fiddle, but inspiration is hard to come by. I thumb through my songwriting lyric notebook as well to get inspired, but it is hard to hold on to. I haven’t been as active with the local Songwriters Anonymous group due to exhaustion from my work and caregiving. I always think that I could force myself to dedicate a few minutes each day to songwriting, but it ends up disappearing within a week or so.

Back to the book. From a quick internet search, it looks like the last edition was published in 2005, but I could be wrong. If so, that would make it over 15-year-old information, which in the entertainment industry means that it is outdated. I would still be interested in securing a copy, just to compare with my older edition as well as what I know about the Nashville songwriting environment today. If anything, finding the book has kicked me in the pants slightly to think about getting back into songwriting again at a stronger thirst. I hope that this little bit of inspiration doesn’t wear off. I leave you with one of my original songs on my YouTube page.

Chew on it and comment.


By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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