Hitmakers

Do You Have To Sell Your Soul To Write A Hit?

Tom Douglas; Courtesy of the artist

hide captionTom Douglas, who's written songs for Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack, George Strait and Randy Travis, among others, says he doesn't think about writing a hit when he's working — he thinks about what the lady shopping at Harris Teeter wants to hear.

Courtesy of the artist

Do Nashville's professional songwriters think about country radio and its unspoken rules when they're writing, or do they try to write the very best song they can, even if they know it's veering off the commercial road?

It's a fair question. You're likely familiar with the long-simmering debate about the quality of music on country radio in the post-Shania Twain era. Veteran critic and pioneering Nashville reporter Chet Flippo vented just last week about the state of country music, calling much of it "pabulum." But the aesthetic gulf between what's working on radio in 2010 and the country music pantheon that most Music Row writers carry around in their heads and hearts is a bigger issue for some than for others.

I recently interviewed respected writer Shawn Camp for a profile, and he said writing a song with the hope that it could become a radio hit is like "living in a box."

"Nashville in general has these parameters of language you can use in order to be on commercial radio," Camp says. "They have these little razor-edge subject matter things you've got to ride. You can't stray from that. And it wears you out mentally to try to write that all the time, and it makes you stale and makes you boring. I like to live outside of that when I can, but if the title tells me that's where it's got to go I want to write it as good as I can in that direction."

Camp has number one records for George Strait, Josh Turner and Garth Brooks, among others, so he apparently is picking the lock with some regularity.

Meanwhile, Natalie Hemby, a writer interviewed for the Nashville Hitmakers story that aired on Thursday on All Things Considered, said she strives for a balance.

"You have to write great songs, both commercially and creatively. And that's not easy to do," Hemby says. "I've written some commercial songs and I can't stand them, to be honest with you. But my more creative stuff I love, but nobody will probably ever hear. It's sort of a give and take."

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And Tom Douglas, a writer who has enjoyed huge commercial success since the mid-'90s, says he actively resists thinking "hit."

"When those thoughts come in, and surely they do, I think you have to discipline them out," Douglas says. "I think that destroys the song. At that moment when we're there for those hours or weeks or months or years — how long it takes to write the song — I think you have to be purists and idealists. It's, 'What does this mean to me? Why do I care? Why is the lady checking out at Harris Teeter with three kids, why is she going to care? Why does the guy who's got 36 hours off at Dollywood eating funnel cakes with his family — why is he going to care?' That's really all that we can concern ourselves with. The rest of it, I think, kind of destroys the art."

In fairness, numerous writers and publishers have pointed out hit songs from recent times that do break the mold. A new trio called The Band Perry is near the top of the charts with a poignant, literary single called "If I Die Young" that has surprised most observers. It seems there may always be room for a truly great song.

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