ROW WRITERS: Rodney Clawson
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.
Raised on a farm in Gruver, Texas, Rodney Clawson played sports and was in the high school band and choir. Talent and two strong Texas connections helped him make it in Music City after 15 years of farming with his father.
A schoolmate, Andrea Whitaker Tucker, became a Christian music publisher in Nashville, and a student he coached on a junior high basketball team turned out to be John Rich. Clawson began visiting Nashville in the mid-‘90s, and he moved here in 2005. He and Keith Anderson co-wrote Big & Rich’s first No. 1 song, “Lost in This Moment.”
His other hits include “Why,” “Amarillo Sky” and “Johnny Cash” by Jason Aldean, “Sunshine and Summertime” by Faith Hill, and “Sweet Southern Comfort” by Buddy Jewell. “I Saw God Today,” which won the 2008 CMA Single of the Year for George Strait, earned Clawson and co-writers Monty Criswell and Wade Kirby a nomination for Song of the Year.
How has songwriting changed since the mid-‘90s?
When I first came to Nashville, it seemed that anybody who had a record deal went gold. There may be a third as many writers now that get a draw and make a living.
Are the publishing deals better or worse today?
The average songwriter can’t get as much money on a draw. A lot of companies want the songwriter to be the artist, and the deals are fewer and farther between.
Share the story behind writing “I Saw God Today.”
Monty Criswell and his father-in-law used to hunt with a guy named Junior. They said every time they went hunting and got back to the truck, if he didn’t have a deer or turkey, he’d always say, “Well, I didn’t get anything, but I got a glimpse of God today.” Monty’s father-in-law called him when Junior died and said, “Remember what Junior used to say? There’s got to be a song in there.” Monty told me, “I think the best way to say it is to say I saw God today.” We had a day to write with Wade Kirby, and we agreed the song should be about having your baby, and how special that moment is.
You were the coach in school and John Rich was your student. Did those roles reverse when you two co-wrote?
Yeah, when I came here for the first two or three years, he and I didn’t co-write much, but when we did, he was more the mentor and I was the student, at that point.
How do you find co-writers?
I’ve always had really good help from my publishers. They were good at finding songwriters that they thought would be a great fit for my personality.
Describe your routine at a songwriting session.
I usually show up around 10:00. We will throw ideas out. If we love the idea, we write the song. Sometimes we talk through eight or 10 ideas that we feel in the mood to write that day.
Where do you eat on Music Row?
Mojo’s Bar and Grill, the Copper Kettle or order in from Jimmy John’s Sandwiches.
Where do you find the inspiration for songs?
They come from all over. I might hear a line in a movie. Somebody might say something, or I will say something, and friends will say that sounds like a song, and I will text it to myself.
Do you worry that the creative well will run dry?
It seems like songwriting for most songwriters is only one season in their life, a five or ten year period. For me, I don’t worry about it, but I know there might come a day when I can’t write anymore, or don’t have good song ideas or the fire to do it any more.
Does the discipline it takes to be an athlete translate into songwriting?
I think farming helped me more than anything. Getting up on a tractor for 12 hours a day helps with the work ethic. The downfall of a lot of writers is they are just not organized and don’t show up. My publishers always say you have to be present to win. When you show up to work, you never know what is going to happen.