ROW WRITERS: Lee Thomas Miller
Once upon a time, a place known as Music Row had a door wide open to those who had talent, desire and a respect for the craft of songwriting. Country music was more or less a cottage industry, and the stakes and money at play were nowhere near to what they are today. Unpolished songwriters knocked on doors, and the doors would open, and the people might laugh after the doors were closed, but these unknowns could walk in and jaw and pitch their songs to publishers.
In the late 1970s, Music Row went through a minor face-lift, with money and influence moving in from Los Angeles and New York. Films such as Urban Cowboy and the success of many crossover hits meant that the checks, which had been relatively small, now had the potential to be huge. As Nashville cashed in, the country music radio stations mushroomed to nearly the same number as the pop stations.
As song publishers began making big money, the conglomerates swallowed up the major record labels and bought out publishing houses, creating their own in-house labels to get in on the deal. When the sensational Garth Brooks set all kinds of record sales, publishers got woozy and began paying higher advances to more writers, resulting in a glut of talent and material. Then, the bubble burst.
Today, the bubble is growing again. More and more young singers are getting record deals. Just as in the halcyon days of the 1960s, veteran writers are working with young writers and artists, crafting and pitching tunes and getting the right management involved. In some ways, it is reminiscent of earlier established artists, publishers and producers getting behind someone they believed in and liked personally, such as singer/songwriters Mel Tillis, Roger Miller and Waylon Jennings. Just like the old days, their success varies, despite the support.
The Age of the Internet has spawned dozens of talented, technologically skilled newcomers making names for themselves while bypassing the major labels. Even the names conjure memories of the long-gone record companies such as Bullet, Hickory and Bluebird.
So things change and the pendulum swings back. But not everything changes on Music Row. Writers still get in a room with an idea, and that’s where it all begins. When you come down to it, there still remains the same nervous energy and the same excitement of near anarchy that has always defined the Nashville writer experience. Maybe, it really started with The Fugitive poets at Vanderbilt. Or the tavern singers on Dickerson Road. No matter. The old temptations, tragedies and heartaches are all still there . . . and all of those things are still going to make country songs.
Let’s listen in as four of today’s hot tunesmiths share a bit of their craft: Nashville’s own Wynn Varble, Lee Thomas Miller and Rodney Clawson, and pop-country stylist Alissa Moreno, who takes turns writing on the West Coast and in Music City.
LEE THOMAS MILLER
Born in Nicholasville, Kentucky, Lee Thomas Miller graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 1991 and hit the road to Nashville. His first charting song came in 2002 with “Days of America” by BlackHawk.
Since then he has had five No. 1 songs: “The World” and “I’m Still a Guy” by Brad Paisley, “You’re Gonna Miss This” by Trace Adkins, “I Just Wanna Be Mad” by Terri Clark and “The Impossible” by Joe Nichols.
Miller was nominated twice for a Grammy in 2008 for “You’re Gonna Miss This,” co-written with Ashley Gorley, and Jamey Johnson’s “In Color,” co-written with Johnson and James Otto. In 2003, his song “The Impossible” was nominated for the Best Country Song Grammy.
He has had songs recorded by Tracy Byrd, Billy Currington, Tracy Lawrence, Sammy Kershaw, John Michael Montgomery, Randy Travis and Mark Wills, and he has produced Amy Dalley and Steve Holy for Curb Records.
How has songwriting and music publishing changed since you hit Nashville?
I signed my first real publishing deal in the mid-‘90s, about the time the Garth Brooks thing was taking off. Overnight, there were 20 labels, and every label had 20 artists and 10 albums a week. Then it got so big that it had only one way to go. Now, it is in transition where something is about to happen.
Are the song publishing deals better or worse today?
Hard to say. It depends on the writer. If you have the right songs and get to the right people, the publishing deal is basically the same.
Can you share the story behind writing “In Color”?
They were running slides of past BMI Awards shows with black-and-white photos of Kitty Wells, Porter Wagoner and people in suits I didn’t know. I told my wife how I wish we were sitting at Bill Anderson’s table so he could tell us who the other people were in the pictures. I ran into Jamey Johnson and told him the story, and Jamey takes a big draw off his cig, and says “There’s your idea: ‘You think that’s something. You should have seen it in color.’” We sat down a few months later with James Otto and wrote it in about three hours.
When writing songs, how do you consciously paint pictures in the listener’s mind, as you did so well with “In Color”?
I think we try to imitate the stuff that we love. I love Don Williams and Craig Wiseman. I’m a sucker for a mid-tempo thing that paints pictures.
Does being nominated for Grammys make it easier to sell your songs?
I don’t see that it has made it any easier to get them cut. Some people may say it is. I’ve never seen it.
How do you select a good co-writer?
Co-writing is like dating; it’s about relationships and chemistry. It’s all trial and error.
Where do you eat near Music Row?
Otter’s Chicken is as basic as it gets: a little basket of chicken fingers. And there’s Sub Stop, like Subway but better, and a sushi place on Demonbreun.
Where do you find the inspiration for song ideas?
I wish I knew. I keep a pad of paper beside the chair when I’m watching TV, listening to dialog, trying to lift little bits from stories. Movies are good. And listening to music that I love puts me in a different place.
How does being a writer influence your job as a producer?
All the writers are forced to learn how to produce their own demos, so often the same guys playing on the record were playing on the demo. You have relationships with the musicians who understand what you want.
Have any writers from Music Row’s past influenced you?
They all have. To name a couple of favorites, I’m a huge Dean Dillon fan. And Craig Wiseman. Over the last 10 to 12 years, as far as commercial radio country goes, this guy is a master.