RIVERS RUTHERFORD & SARAH BUXTON: Writers by Day, Artists by Life
Winter has put its second foot down and is nestling in for a long stay. The front yard lights of Nashville’s Frothy Monkey coffeehouse endure their purpose, thinking it was still small hours. Inside, the walls are replete with the backs of laptop owners shunning the marrow-chilling air brought in with each opening of the front door. All they wish to do is keep their coffee hot and start their day unencumbered as they stare at their morning blog entries. Lined up as singles sitting at two-tops, they’ve left no window tables, only one in the middle of the establishment-the first table closest to the front door, of course. It was here that I visited with two of Nashville’s most respected creatives: Sarah Buxton and Rivers Rutherford.
After my apologies for inheriting the only available table, we sat down. And before I said a word or asked a question, they began catching up with each other like two friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. The brief fill-in went rather precipitately, due to the fact that between their successes, plenty has been talked about on Music Row of their accolades. They both know they’ve had a good year.
Last summer Sarah had her first number one song, “Stupid Boy,” recorded by Keith Urban and co-written by Deanna Bryant and Dave Berg. Concurrently, she released an EP for Lyric Street Records ironically touted Almost My Record. Her first single, “Never Alone”-co-written with Victoria Shaw and Gary Burr with the production prowess of Jim Brickman-was a hit at AC radio. She has shared pens with Bob DiPiero, Craig Wiseman, Aimee Mayo, Georgia Middleman, Dennis Matkoski, Darrell Brown, Greg Barnhill and Chris Lindsey, among others.
Yet another career highlight came in February when she received an ACM (Academy of Country Music) nomination for Top New Female Vocalist. Needless to say, she’s rolling.
As is Rivers Rutherford. From his first number one hit in 2001, “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You” (recorded by Brooks & Dunn), to his latest book signing from Brad Paisley’s hit, “When I Get Where I’m Going,” to his current Chuck Wicks top five single, “Stealing Cinderella,” he’s running out of rooms in his home for his awards.
With five number ones and a myriad of top fives, tens and countless cuts, Rivers has enjoyed the collaborative company of anyone he wishes, for the most part; Gretchen Wilson, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Gary Allan, Kenny Chesney, Leann Rimes, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Trick Pony, Deana Carter-you get the picture-have all benefited from his stalwart ingenuity.
One would never know of his elite status if they didn’t know him personally, and it’s due to his Memphis modesty. So modest, that he doesn’t even order a coffee. Having spent this time chatting with Sarah and feels compelled to sit down and start our roundtable, literally.
We would never be leaning into the table and into each other if it weren’t so unequivocally cold. Unfeigned, they turn their eyes to me and laugh at the innateness of the gathering. Being friends, we all acquiesced to the conditions quite well.
As the front door swung open again and the air hit us, I knew this was going to be short, informative and frigid. I made sure of it. So I broke the ice…
You guys are not just writers. You are writer/artists. We know most of the general public assumes songs are written by the artist. Do you exercise both the writer ethic and the artist ethic in tandem or individually? Does one outweigh the other?
Rivers: I’ve never thought of my artistry and writing as being different. When I’m writing a song, almost always, I’m writing a song for me. It’s funny. For instance, “Living In Fast Forward”… I’ve been asked a hundred times, “Did you write that song specifically for Kenny Chesney?” Truthfully, I wasn’t even thinking about him when I wrote it. I wrote it for me. The songs that I’ve had success with…by and large, I’m writing something that I want to record. I don’t have a major record label deal. Granted, I make a lot more money writing songs then I do entertaining. Nothing got serious for me as an artist until I had my third child. Then all of the sudden, I started to have some hits, and everyone wanted to make a record with me. Total synchronicity.
Sarah: With each song, for me, different things come out. It’s been easy for me as an artist to come up with songs for myself, but they’ve been hard to put in a box to give to the public. Most music listeners, who are not musicians themselves or savvy writers, have to be spoon fed. They keep going back to random things they’ve already heard. Most don’t like anything new or unique. So, I’m finding it hard to be a recording artist. This is not my opinion! I am learning that this is just happening. It’s very frustrating.
If my face and name are on a musical product, I’m responsible for. I want it to make a difference and be different. That’s really hard to do in country music.
What about the success of “Stupid Boy?” Is that helping you as an artist and at your record label? Was it a door opener?
Sarah: They wouldn’t use it in any of my publicity. My publicist wouldn’t use it either, in any press releases, because it didn’t pertain to me as an artist-just a songwriter. That really frustrated me. Plus, I don’t feel that if I put that song out as a female artist it would have ever been a hit. The problem that we find is that, as a country songwriter, you are writing for a group of men that are 35 to 60 years old. Radio. They have to get it and think it’s clever and want to put it on the radio. Then, the people that are actually buying the records are women. So, if you are saying something that’s too… (honking sound) with men…
Rivers: So, you are saying that you feel you’ve got to write something that fits in the circle of what men think women want to hear?
Rivers: You are too good to have to deal with that kinda stuff. That’s a shame. I know it’s frustrating. I’ve been there. I know exactly where you are at. You just want to be heard. Maybe all this time doing this…has mellowed me. I see the rub you are going through.
Sarah: I’m trying to let some of your mellowness rub off on me.
Rivers: Trust me, it’s an adopted attitude.
What was your first cut?
Sarah: “Stupid Boy.”
Rivers: Your first cut was a number one record?
Rivers: I take back all those nice things I said about you. [Laughs]
Do you write with certain writers regularly?
Rivers: Every Monday I write with Dave Berg. We have for 12 years.
Sarah: Deanna Bryant and Dave Berg. But I have found some new writers that are pulling all kinds of new stuff out of me…Lari White and Chuck Cannon in particular. They are so cool! They’ve got a studio in their house, and Lari can rip through Pro Tools!
Who are some of your influences?
Rivers: Booker T. & The MG’s and Elvis. I learned how to play guitar out of an Elvis songbook. He was huge. A bunch of rockabilly stuff. My dad was into it. When I was in high school, I got into a few bands that played on Beale Street. You had to know all those r & b classics to keep a gig. I was into rock and roll for the most part. Then, I went to Ole Miss for college.
Sarah: Growing up, I listened to Top 40 radio for the most part-with the exception of a few random records my parents had. They look at art and music as something you buy, not something you feel. That’s the way it was for me as a kid. As far as making music, I was in choir and did the classical thing. I also did bell chorus. I hated waiting for my one big note during a piece! Then, I backtracked. I really got into Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. I was obsessed with her. To this day, I haven’t gotten out of that vein of music. For example, I just bought two thousand vinyl records in one lump sum, got rid of the doubles and am having a hay day rummaging through it. I don’t really keep up with the contemporary stuff. I think I know a Nickelback tune and a few others. I’m enjoying learning backwards. I listen to singer/songwriter records now like Carole King, Ray Charles and Pete Townsend.
Where did both of you grow up?
Rivers: I grew up about four blocks from Graceland. In Memphis, life is lived on the back side of the beat. Here in Nashville, it’s lived right on top of it.
Sarah: Lawrence, Kansas. I couldn’t wait to leave the house when I was in high school, and I heard about Belmont University in Nashville through some friends. I was very anxious to get out of Lawrence and just go do the “life” thing. I respected my parents and was a really good kid…straight A’s and always home on time for my curfew, etc. Then, I got to visit Belmont. They told me if I wanted to have a really good shot at the artist thing, I should go there. So I did, and when I got there, I went nuts! That’s when all the craziness started. I had waaaaaayyyy too much fun [chuckles]. That’s how I found songwriting.
Do you ever treat songwriting like a business?
Rivers: Not really. In as much as I work hard and I do what I tell people I’m going to do and that kind of thing, yeah, it’s a business. But my job, if we need to call it something, is to write the best song I know how to write. There are other people who can handle the other stuff. I feel I’m definitely moving in the right direction, though. Every day I go in and stare at my laptop and try to make something out of nothing. It’s hard and it’s scary, but that’s what’s before me…and that’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve written a lot of songs. Just turning 40, I’m realizing that I’ve still got a lot to “get out.” I’m just gonna keep turning rocks over.
The state of the country music industry?
Rivers: We’re all looking through this fog of uncertainty. It seems to me that it’s going to require that individual, creative talents have more customized teams-whether you are a writer or an artist or both. It’s going to be less of a machine, it seems to me.
Let’s talk about some of the singers in town that have publishing deals who want to be songwriters, or call themselves songwriters, but aren’t really. Do you find it challenging to write with them?
Rivers: There’s a bottlenecking going on that is only going to get worse. I’d much rather write with established writers. Most of the artists/writers that are signed aren’t really writers. They are good looking people who can sing. Labels, it seems lately, are pushing artist development off on the publishing side. What happens is…a record company signs a new artist who doesn’t have a lot of money. They aren’t going to give him a lot of money because they’ve got to keep their overhead down. So, he gets a big publishing deal, where they guarantee he’ll have three of four songs on the album, maybe ten. So they run him through the same circle of songwriters, and they all write for him. Then, the record company picks the five to ten they like the most. And they make the record.
Sarah: It makes me sick.
Rivers: It is what it is. I can’t say it makes me sick, because every now and then I’ll run into an artist that really is a talented person and is a talented writer. That’s when it’s fun. Most of the time, I’m sitting in a room with a guy/girl who is a singer and another songwriter.
Sarah: Then why should they get songwriting credit?
Rivers: In a perfect world, he wouldn’t. But, it’s not a perfect world. Here’s a personal confession: Ego has always been an issue for me. I hate it.
You hate egos?
Rivers: My own. My wife used to say: “Your ego used to scare me, but now it doesn’t.” “Really?” I said. “Why is that?” She said, “Because God Almighty has been so good at thoroughly humiliating you at exactly the right moment.” So that being said, when I moved to Nashville my motto became: “There’s no limit to what a man can accomplish when he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”
Sarah: Exactly. It’s better to be that way.
Your favorite song that you’ve written that has yet to get cut?
Sarah: I just wrote it. It’s called “Space.” I wrote it with Lari White and Chuck Cannon. It’s about a fight I had with my boyfriend. We’ve been together for a while and, in the middle of an argument, he said “I feel like I just need some space.” I said “Oh Really?” And I thought, “Hmmm…what an interesting concept… space.” I haven’t written that one yet, so, I brought the idea to Chuck and Lari and we wrote it out.
Rivers: I wrote a song called “Love Is Like Rain”…wrote it with Marty Dodson. I’m hoping it’s just a matter of time before someone cuts it.
Sarah: Hello? I’m right here!
Rivers: Well…you cutting right now?
Sarah: I’m always looking for songs, Rivers!