Nashville Songwriter Series: Rivers Rutherford
Rivers Rutherford has been one of Nashville’s most successful and admired songwriters since the mid-1990s, when he signed a contract with Universal Music Publishing Group. He’s known around Nashville as more than just a writer, though. Where many writers don’t have the voices, musical ability or stage presence to be successful performers themselves, Rutherford is just the opposite, with many in Nashville feeling that he should be the one singing his songs on the radio instead of artists who sometimes don’t have the vocal chops he has.
Rutherford’s music career actually began during his teen years in his native Memphis, where he played piano on a riverboat and on Beale St. The songwriting part of it had a somewhat rocky start, though. He got a prized cut on the second Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson) album, and while one might think that a writer’s future would be secure after such a placement, that wasn’t the case, as Rutherford languished in obscurity for several years afterward. But he eventually landed an incredible string of top 40 hits and dozens of album cuts by some of Music Row’s top acts. One of those songs was 2002 ASCAP and Billboard Country Song of the Year “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You” by Brooks & Dunn, which Rutherford wrote with NSAI Songwriter of the Decade Tom Shapiro.
Even though a lot of younger writers are making their names in Nashville these days, Rutherford is still one of Music Row’s busiest, continuing to co-write with chart-topping writers and artists alike. American Songwriter caught up with him for a couple minutes between sessions.
You’re a Memphian. How does the legacy and influence of the Memphis sound, from Sun to Stax, influence what you write for Nashville, or does it?
There’s no doubt it had an influence on me. I learned to play guitar listening to early Elvis records. I learned to entertain playing clubs on Beale Street. I still go back and listen to those records for fun and relaxation. But even the thought of (it)…is just part of my DNA! I do try to bring what I’ve learned from those early days into the 21st century.
You’ve been with UMPG for a long time now. Why have you chosen that path, as opposed to peers of yours who have started their own publishing and production companies?
I have been at UMPG for 15 years. Every time my contract expires, I think about starting my own publishing company. The thing is, we have a great working relationship and I really don’t want to focus on the business of publishing. I want to focus on the business of making music.
A lot of people who are fans of your vocals think it’s a crime that you yourself aren’t in the ranks of Nashville’s top recording artists. Do you wish that you had had more success as an artist?
The world already has a John Hiatt! (laughs) Honestly, when I look at what my friends and acquaintances who are celebrities do for a living, it isn’t something that interests me. My ideal gig is me and a guitar in a small theatre…600 people max. I can play whatever song I want to play, however I want to play it and I can look my audience in the eyes individually. I really like that personal connection. And besides, if I could only pick one thing in the music business to do for the rest of my life, it would be writing songs.
Your career really began with a Highwaymen cut, “American Remains,” and then nothing much happened for you for quite a while. Did you think about giving up?
I did give up. I went back to Memphis and took a warehouse job that I had worked in high school and college for a year. I tried to sell real estate for a while. After a year in the real estate business, I figured out that the only money I had made was playing in bars on the weekends. I really did everything in my power to avoid being in the music business, but couldn’t.
You’ve got an incredible discography, and, unlike some of the guys you came up with, you show no signs of slowing down. How do you manage to stay relevant, to keep getting cuts on newer artists like Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum?
I just love music. I try not to follow any trends, but I keep listening to what is happening, mainly because I am a fan. I guess it gets added to the pool of my subconscious and I continue to evolve musically. I try to approach it every day with no pre-conceived notions of what a “hit” is or what the formula I used for the last hit might be. I just try to amuse myself every day.
Things were tough enough for writers when you came to Nashville almost 20 years ago. What advice do you have for new writers coming to town these days in terms of what they should focus on in their first 90 days?
Say nothing! Observe, listen, write, write some more, go out and find people in the same position as you are whose music you enjoy and compliment them. But wait another 90 days before you ask them to write. Be patient. It may take years but everybody gets their turn at the trough.
Who is the one artist you want a cut on more than any other before you hang it up?
The biggest act of 2045!