Liz Rose: Co-Writer to the Stars
Nashville is a co-writing town, which usually means that with every new superstar/songwriter who turns the music world on its ear, there comes at least one nonperforming songwriter. Clint Black had his Hayden Nicholas. Garth Brooks had his Kim Williams. Alan Jackson had his Jim McBride. Taylor Swift has her Liz Rose.
When Swift found success as a teenager singing songs of adolescent angst and celebration, her co-writer, amazingly enough, was a middle-aged mother with a 30-year-old son and two daughters of Swift’s generation. Liz Rose understood what was going on in her young co-writer’s head.
Liz moved to Tennessee from Irving, Texas, in 1994. “I was an independent songplugger, then I started an independent songplugging company and then started a publishing company called King Lizard Music,” Rose recalls.
She benefited from her association with a group of female Nashville publishers and songpluggers known as “Chicks with Hits.” “I’m still part of Chicks with Hits,” she says. “They’re a great organization.”
Soon, she began writing with a couple of writers in her publishing company. “We’d just be hanging out and we’d write a song.” Then, her company closed, and one of her writers caught the attention of Jody Williams, a publishing veteran, who, at the time, had his own company, Jody Williams Music. “Jody was thinking about signing one of my writers, and he called me and said, ‘You know, I have a list of these songs and some of my favorites are the things that you wrote with her. Have you ever thought about being a writer?’ He had to convince me to write for him. So he bought the King Lizard catalog, signed me as a new writer and hired me to pitch the catalog. Then, after about a year of me writing and pitching, he said, ‘You know, you just need to be writing full time.’
“And it took me like five or six years,” she adds. “I think it wasn’t until I had the Gary Allan single that I could really say I was a songwriter.” The song was “Songs About Rain.”
“Jody talked me into being a writer. I just started writing. I wrote every day, twice a day, three times a day, anybody that wanted to write I would write [with them]. I wrote a lot. And I learned a lot. When I didn’t know what I was doing, people were very patient with me: Stephanie Smith and Pam Rose, Pat McLaughlin—fantastic writers. Because I don’t sing and play, I don’t have a sound per se, where you walk in and I have to write it my way. So I can write with anybody. One of my friends says I have the best career ‘cause I get to write with Taylor Swift and Mary Gauthier.”
During those early years with Jody Williams, her songs were recorded by Tim McGraw, Billy Gilman, Trisha Yearwood, Bonnie Raitt and Gary Allan. Those cuts were enough to sustain her writing career, and then Taylor Swift happened to her.
“She was barely 14 and she had a development deal on RCA,” Rose says. “RCA had this really cool thing down in their basement they called ROG Café. I went over there and did one of their rounds and it’s so funny because I don’t sing, but I got up and did a couple of songs, kind of struggled through ‘em. I did a song that I wrote with Mark Narmore called ‘Nothing Will,’ and Taylor came up to me afterwards and introduced herself and told me that she loved the song. ‘Would you write [with me] sometime?’ I said, ‘Sure’ and we wrote a song called ‘Never Mind,’ and I remember writing with her and thinking, why am I here? She was so fast and we had fun, and I remember we turned it in and someone said, ‘You know, this is really good but do you think you could get her to write something a little more country?’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to get her to do anything she doesn’t feel; this kid knows exactly what she’s doing.’
“I think she ended up just writing with me because I didn’t change what she was doing. I tried to make it better and mold it and hone it, and hang on there and write it down; that’s why it worked with us. I really respected and got what she was trying to do and I didn’t want to make her write in the Nashville cookie-cutter songwriting mold.
“I remember her coming in and saying, ‘I wanna write a song called ‘When You Think Tim McGraw,’ and the first thing that went through my mind was, ‘OK, we’re gonna write this song, and you don’t have a record deal, and nobody else is gonna cut it.’” Rose recalls. “I said, ‘OK! I’m not gonna argue!’”
Enter Nathan Chapman. “Nathan has a little shack studio behind our publishing company and he was making all my demos,” says Rose. After Swift and Rose would write a song, they would bring it to Chapman, and the result was a rather distinctive sound that was not easily categorized. It would be up to the label to convince country radio that Taylor Swift would fit the format.
“Tim McGraw,” “Pictures To Burn,” and “Teardrops on My Guitar” were all big hits for Rose off Taylor’s first album. “I was so proud of her,” Rose recalls. “It’s so great to watch her grow up and with such grace and handle everything so well and she’s not changed a bit.”
As for her own success, Rose takes it all in stride. “I’m just so thankful that I can pay my bills and put my kids through college. I don’t walk around and go, ‘Oohh, look what I’m a part of,’ you know. I’ll tell you when it hits me. It hits me at her shows, when I’m sitting there with my daughter, and I hear tens of thousands of people singing a song that happened when Swift and I sat in a room one afternoon and she was just telling me about her day.”