Mark Sanders: Turning His Hobby Into A Career
In a voice filled with pride, Mark D. Sanders explains that his daughter, Sophie, has become quite the writer, and he shows off a paper she wrote for school. Obviously the proud papa Sanders never once mentions that his second grader is only following in her father’s footsteps, albeit taking the path of a writer a little earlier than he did.
The man who penned recent hits like “No News” for Lonestar, “Blue Clear Sky” (with Bob DiPiero) for George Strait, “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” Jo Dee Messina’s first hit single; and “My Heart Has A History” for Paul Brandt, chose songwriting as a career after teaching high school English in southern California.
Somewhat shy, yet direct in his answers, Sanders says he had considered songwriting just a hobby for many years. “I was 29 and wanted to do something of significance in my life,” he replies when asked why he became a songwriter. The other explanation: “I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t want to turn 30 and be aimless. I think some people grow up needing to be creative, it just took me awhile to give myself permission to do it.”
On March 5, 1980, Sanders came to Nashville to pitch his first batch of songs. His mother gave him the money for that first trip; he never left. “Dianne Petty set me up with some publishers and someone published some of the songs I brought on that first trip,” Sanders says. “That made it all legitimate for me.”
But did anyone record any of those first songs? “Are you kidding?” the usually soft-spoken Sanders replies, laughing. He remembers that the songs were not especially hit material.
After a year and a half, Sanders signed with Acuff-Rose Publishing Company, the home of Mickey Newbury, Don Gibson and Dallas Frazier. It would be any songwriter’s dream to have the chance to write with veterans like that, but Sanders was hesitant.
“I’ve always had trouble writing with more established writers than me,” he says. “So I would basically write with my friends. I wrote by myself. I made $700 on that song, but it was great encouragement for me. Songwriters live for encouragement.”
Sanders has been getting all the encouragement he needs of late. His current staff position at Starstruck Publishing, Reba McEntire’s company, has been really good for him. He’s had cuts by Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood, Sammy Kershaw, Tracy Lawrence, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and McEntire. As he sits at his desk in the new building which houses Starstruck entertainment, McEntire’s operation on Nashville’s Music Row, Sanders acknowledges that those cuts didn’t come overnight. He worked hard at perfecting his craft, learning to seek out ideas, put them to paper and flesh out the story to become a commercial song.
“For me to be a good writer, I have to have enough faith in what I’m doing. I edit myself a lot,” Sanders says in addressing how to know if a song is finished. “If you looked at my songs 15-16 years ago, you would know what I mean. Learning to finish a song is a process. I’ve written so many songs, I average 80 a year that you just learn things you don’t want to say, things you’ve said before. I try to think of interesting or quirky things that no one else has said.
“You have to also get out of thinking that your life is the most interesting thing you have to write about. I had to write about myself when I started out, it was therapy. But the older I got the more I realized that my life isn’t that interesting, so I started to write about other stuff.”
As for his ideas, Sanders says he tries not to start something that isn’t going to work as a song, but sometimes he doesn’t know for sure until he’s in the studio with it. “Sometimes certain words will hit you. Like I had a phrase, ‘she knows where the bones are buried,’ and no one seemed to like it, but John Rich from Lonestar perked up when he heard it. It was a fun song to write.”
Sanders says he gets ideas from all around him, but especially from reading books and their titles. In one instance, he actually wrote a song after seeing an author’s name.
“Bobbie Ann Mason is a writer from Kentucky, and I always thought her name could be a country song. I talked to her on the phone after Rick Trevino cut that song. She wrote a piece for the New Yorker Magazine about the song and how I used her name. Then I met her in person at the Southern Book Festival.
“I like to find a book where the author writes like country music writers,” he continues. “And sometimes I’ll just walk through a bookstore and look at titles.”
Sanders best advice to writers is to do what worked for him: “Write another song. Don’t get too attached to the song you just wrote. Even when you’re getting cuts, you can only live off one song for so long. I look at it like a grocery store, you always want fresh stuff.” Trends come and go, Sanders warns, and writers will get nowhere by trying to write for what’s on radio today. “Trends in country music last three months, so if you’re trying to write as good of a song as I can hope and hope will be that trend. Just write good songs and hope people like it. I’ve had people ask me for another “Heads Carolina” song, or I’ll see something on one of the pitch sheets that says “looking for songs like “Heads Carolina” – but I’ve already written that and I’m on something else.” One of the hardest lessons Sanders had to learn, he says, was to write up-tempo songs. Two things helped make it easier for him to write that type of song. “I learned a new way to play guitar from a friend of mine, a great guitar player who died of cancer a while back,” he said. “And Bob DiPiero taught me that it can be fun to write a song. Plus, as I get older, I tend to write younger. I think country music now has more of a sense of humor about itself, and it’s more like my sense of humor.” Even today, after his string of hits, Sanders says he understands averages in Nashville.
“My experience tells me that one out of five songs I demo will get cut, and I’d be really lucky if two of them were recorded,” he says. “It took me 10 years to make enough money to where I didn’t have to worry about next year’s house payment. I guess that happened when Garth cut “Victim Of The Game” on his No Fences album. I’d had some cuts before that – Kathy Mattea, Randy Travis, Judy Rodman – so there was income. But that one cut really solidified it for me. Those other cuts really gave me the encouragement to keep on going.”
When Sanders made that first trip to Nashville, he knew very little about Nashville and the publishing business and learned to live and work within its parameters. That experience has shown him that those who work hard and are willing to learn can begin to make a difference.
“Songwriting was my hobby before I moved here because I love to do it. I am very fortunate to be in the position of doing something I love that allows me to make a good living.”