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 Thumbing through the pages, I see how outdated the information is.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 Emailing publishers and songwriter reps is even becoming outdated, although it still works in a lot of cases for introduction.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.


Woe the Songwriter: Part 2

As a songwriter, a dream is one or more of my songs being recorded by a big name in the genre for which I am writing. If Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, or Doyle Lawson were to release an album with one of my songs, I could die with a smile on my face. It wouldn’t even have to be the single (although that would be way too cool!), but just the fact that an artist that I admire considers one of my songs good enough to record, that is a great reward.

I have been fortunate that a bluegrass artist did record one of my songs. Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike recorded my co-write “Something About A Train” a few years ago for her album Small Town Heroes. To see your name on someone’s CD cover as a writer is a great feeling. I don’t care about the royalties at this time (I will if this becomes more common, of course), but to get recognized is a great thing.

So now what? Yes, I want more, so I send out more demos and queries. Lots of them. No replies. Send follow-ups, no replies. I realize that there are a lot more bluegrass artists writing their own material these days, and even a lot more songwriters clawing for recognition in the genre as well. There are a lot of factors playing against me right now (no longer an IBMA member, Coronavirus pandemic means less live shows to network at, less recording going on in studios), but I still keep trying. I post songs new and old to my music websites ReverbNation ( and Songwriting Pro (, hoping for at least some feedback.

Yes, the bigger-name artists can pick and choose a lot more, and are most likely going to work with established songwriters in Nashville. Many are even stepping outside of the bluegrass fold and recording bluegrassy versions of pop/rock songs. But what about the other bluegrass artists? I am talking about bands that do not have great exposure but are striving for it. They will put out a CD with a dozen songs, but all of them are old standards that Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs originally made famous. Other than aunts and uncles, who is really going to buy that CD when the original version has been available for years?

Maybe these C- and D-list bluegrass bands don’t want success – they just want to play live once in a while and put out a CD to show that they accomplished something. CDs cost money, even if you record the songs for next to nothing with your brother-in-law’s recording equipment. My advice? Save the money for strings, maybe a better PA system, or a case of beer. You won’t get anywhere in the business selling CDs for $15.00 that contain the umteenth version of “Doin’ My Time” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Play them for jams, occasional live gigs, and for tryouts of new band members.

For new and wannabe successful bluegrass bands, I would like to make a few suggestions. Write some original material. If you have people in the band that just want to play the same 20 or so bluegrass standards and do not want to learn new material, then try to find someone who does want to improve. I stopped working in bluegrass bands locally because of this. I am a songwriter, and I do not want to waste my valuable practice and playing time with musicians who want to stay in the cover-band box. Try writing a good song, you will see how difficult but rewarding it can be.

If you can’t write a song to save your life, then spend some time looking for original material. Check with songwriters in your area at open mics (when they become available again after the pandemic) or surf the internet. Go to pages like ReverbNation or Songwriting Pro and scout out songwriters. Talk to them about performing and recording bluegrass versions of their songs. Most songwriters will be more than flattered that someone is interested in performing their music. I remember one of my first experiences of someone wanting to perform one of my songs. “Built To Crash” was on a compilation CD released by NPR’s show Car Talk. It was an alt-country diddy performed by my old band Gravel Train. A band on the east coast loved it and asked if they could perform and record it. I gave them my blessing. Now that band’s version was a heavy metal-meets-rockabilly, but I was loving it! Totally different, but the fact that someone respected my songwriting enough to want to record it was an absolute honor.

I work with a lot of other songwriters, either through co-writes or just networking, and the consensus we have is that we want to get out work heard. Yes, we would love to have an A-list band record a song, but there are factors such as bands putting songs “on hold” so that they have sole recording rights to the song for months, sometimes years. In the end, the song may never get released, and you are back to Start. It takes a lot of work to get top artists or their management/publishers to lend a songwriter an ear. If a start-up band wants to record your song and you know that they are definitely going to release it, it may be more beneficial in the long run. That CD may get heard by a promoter/manager/artist and think that your song would be a good choice.

In short, as a start-up or struggling bluegrass band, take a step back and see what makes the successful bluegrass bands successful. It is originality, particularly in the choice of songs. Learn, perform, record, and release songs that will make you an original band. Songwriters like me will appreciate it if you use a song of ours. It is totally beneficial for both parties. My songs are available for the picking!

Chew on it and comment.


Woe, the Songwriter: Part 1

“It all starts with a song.”

This statement is all too overused in the music industry, particularly in Nashville. It seems that every association that is related to songwriting in Music City waves those six words like a patriotic flag. It is a good statement, but in my years of working as a songwriter, it seems that an extra word needs to be put in – “polished song.”

By “polished” I mean that it seems that no publisher, song shopper, artist, producer, or manager will listen to a song demo unless it is presented as a pro-studio demo recording. A quick but complete recording of vocals backed by guitar or piano is unheard of these days. No, it must include a basic backing band (guitar/piano, bass, drums, lead instrument), backing vocals, professional arrangement, and all done at a reputable studio.

That cost money. We are talking hundreds of dollars. Hundreds of dollars on one song. Hundreds of dollars that a starving songwriter doesn’t have. In the music industry food chain, when it comes to payment, the songwriters are the last to get their share, and most times, the share comes way late and is way less than promised (if anything at all).

As far as publishers and those people in search of songs for artists, they have become less of song listeners and more of production listeners. They aren’t listening to the actual song what story is coming across, where are the lyrical hooks, or how the words work with the rhythm and tempo of the song. No, they have to have something polished. They are looking for production creativity, perhaps to give the actual artist and/or producer so that they can take credit for the “sound.”

This is happening even in the field of bluegrass. While established songwriters can get away with basic demos, those starting out in bluegrass songwriting are orphaned unless they have some expensive recording to present. This is not just for presenting to artists and publishers, this is also true for simple songwriting contests and auditions. I stopped entering my solo writing compositions into such contests a while back (if I do a co-write, and my partners want to enter, I won’t hold them back) due to this situation. I do not want to spend money on a demo that may not go anywhere instead of paying my utility bill.

It comes down to “how much are you willing to invest in this song financially” rather than “how much you are willing to invest in this song mentally/emotionally/spiritually.” Song hunters and publishers become lazy, expecting the songwriters to do much of their work. These hunters and publishers are doing less listening to songs. Why? Because it’s easier, with less investment from their end.

I have had a few songs that have become notable. I’m more successful than many, but not that successful. I still have to keep my day job. However, I have reached a point that I cannot keep investing in recording professional demos in order to get my foot in the door. I will continue to write and co-write, put rough demos on my ReverbNation page (, and hand over one of my demos to someone who I think may appreciate it and perhaps move it forward.

I hope to blog more on how songwriters get screwed over in the music industry, especially now with streaming and the fall of the CD. That is in the future. In the meantime, chew on this and comment.