Nashville Songwriter Series: Chris Wallin

Chris Wallin

Photo: Chris Wallin, right, and Toby Keith celebrate the success of their number one single, “Love Me If You Can.”

Raised in a small town in East Tennessee, Chris Wallin came to Nashville more than a decade ago to be part of the music business, or starve trying. Wallin lived on occasional temp job paychecks and fast-food burgers he bought in bulk and kept in the freezer until he finally began to make money at what he loved to do: Write songs. Performing wherever he could and hooking up with people like Jeffrey Steele and Anthony Smith, who apparently liked his style and began to write with him, Wallin eventually managed to get his songs recorded by Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry, Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley and others.

Today Wallin has a co-publishing deal with ole Music Publishing, one of the largest independent publishers in the business with offices in Toronto, L.A. and Nashville. Wallin was gracious enough to take some time out of his busy writing, performing and teaching schedule to talk with American Songwriter.

How long were you in town before you got a cut, and what was it?

I had been in town about three years when I had a cut that was a co-write with Jeffrey Steele and Anthony Smith called “3 Seconds” that Lorrie Morgan and Sammy Kershaw cut. It was the only duet I’ve ever written and it was pitched as a very rough guitar/vocal demo with me singing both the male and female parts. It still amazes me that they were able to hear the song through that work tape. The day we finished “3 Seconds” we started a song called “I’m Tryin’,” which was cut by Trace Adkins and was my first top five record.

Your discography reflects a lot of whom you seem to be as a person; that is, you’re from East Tennessee, you have long hair and you list Charlie Daniels as a favorite, and you’ve been cut by artists like Trace Adkins and Anthony Smith, whose images and tastes seem to echo your own. Have you made much of an effort to go outside of that zone and try to write poppier or more alternative material?

Yes, all the time. Even though I love the songs that have been on the radio, as a professional songwriter I have to constantly change my writing styles. One day I’ll be writing a backwoods country ballad, and then the next day I’m writing with a rock band, 3 Days Grace, and putting my angry face on and trying to capture teenage angst. If you go through most songwriters’ catalogs of songs you’d be surprised at the variety you find. Songwriters are like filters. Life goes in and a song comes out. You have to learn how to take other people’s emotions and write a song that makes someone else feel it. Some songs are just naturally personal. Like “Don’t Blink” (Wallin’s number one single recorded by Kenny Chesney).

You’re known as a vocal advocate for songwriters’ rights and have made your stance known in Washington, D.C. Has it been easy to plead your case to the government, or is it intimidating?

It’s a battle that is worth the war, that is for sure. The toughest crowd I’ve ever played for was one year when I was in Washington, D.C. with NSAI, lobbying for songwriters’ rights with (NSAI president) Bart Herbison. I was asked to go up to podium while Congress was voting and sing a song that I wrote about illegal downloading called “This Song Ain’t Free” for a room full of senators. Those people hate redneck jokes.

What advantages or disadvantages do you find in having a writing deal with a publishing company? What are the differences in being with a Canadian publisher as opposed to one on the Row?

Well, most people think all a publishing company does is pitch your songs. A good one helps you network and introduces you to people you will want to know in the future and set you up with co-writers that otherwise you would have never met. As for a Canadian publisher, it’s been great. In this hostile music environment we’re in it’s nice that my songs live on past Nashville.

Your wife is a highly-regarded musician and writer in Nashville. Do you guys do much writing together, and if so, do you have any tips on how to write – or not write – with a spouse?

I definitely “over-married.” My wife Camille is an amazing bass player/singer/songwriter. We don’t write together a lot, but when we do we go to the office in town and make an appointment like I would with any other co-writer. At home it’s just so easy to get distracted. It’s hard sometimes to listen to the radio and hear an act and know that there is someone at home that can blow them away that is unsigned.

For new writers just coming to town, what should they do here in their first 90 days?

1. Get a job. It’s really hard to write a song and not eat. 2. Write as much as you can. You are what you do. So many writers come to town and become songtalkers. 3. Go to writers’ nights and listen to other songwriters and introduce yourself. Find your clique of buddies and play and write. One day someone gets a break and it helps all of you. 4. Go to the Bluebird Cafe or another writers’ hangout and listen to seasoned hit writers and learn from them. 5. Don’t listen to negative people. This is a dream, not a fantasy. Dreams can happen. 6. Write crappy songs until they turn into great ones.

Who is the one person you want to get a cut on before you die?

Garth Strait.