Is Nashville the insular scene everyone says it is, at least as far as new songwriters are concerned?
Ron Stuve: I don’t know if “insular” is the right term for it - but it is a relationship town. We get new songwriters coming to town every day, trying to break in. But if you don’t try and get to know people, it can be pretty hard to succeed.
Is it necessary to physically live in Nashville to succeed as a country songwriter?
Stuve: There are some cases where people have had success without living here, but I’d say that the majority of writers with long-term success do find a home in Nashville. The new writers and new artists who come to town this week will be the ones who, three or four years from now, will be the ones getting the songwriting and recording deals. The same thing happens with executives and musicians - it’s kind of a situation where you all “move up” with your own crowd.
It’s also important to keep in mind that what’s going on now around town will take six to nine months to hit the radio. If you’re living here, and in it all the time, you know when things are changing, you can pick up on the subtle changes that are happening all the time.
How does someone who’s just arrived in Nashville go about building those relationships?
Stuve: The NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) is a great organization; they do a lot of workshops, as do the performing rights societies. A major problem that I run into here at a major publisher - and even when I was working at an independent - is that we don’t take unsolicited writer appointments. Instead, we very often operate on recommendations from the NSAI or the rights societies.
Really, it’s a matter of knocking on doors, doing open-mike nights, getting out there on the street and showing what you can do.
Is there a particular trend in country music right now that it would be helpful for hopeful country songwriters to keep in mind?
Stuve: There’s a definite move away from the big, glossy and pop-ish sound that mainstream country was marked by over the past several years. What’s happening now isn’t exactly “traditional”; we have lots of almost “southern rock”-sounding things happening right now. What it is, to me, is more real, more honest.
What about lyrical content?
Stuve: The old “write what you know” still works best. Society in general right now doesn’t want to be presented something they can sense was just made up. Maybe it’s an outgrowth of all this reality TV stuff - and to what extent that’s all scripted is another conversation - but honesty goes a long way.
I frequently find myself being played songs by somebody, and I can just tell that it’s not them. Songwriters and artists have to stick with what’s real. Consumers, especially today, are looking for something they can believe in . . . and they have the power right now. They don’t have to buy a 12-song album with eight songs that they don’t care about anymore.
Any other tips?
Stuve: Do your homework. Find out who the songwriters are who are getting cuts, listen to them, try to figure out what they’re doing: Is it the melody, the lyric, the cadence of the lyric, the groove. What is it that makes their songs work?
Also keep in mind that there’s a limited number of people who can be successful, commercial country songwriters. Do you want to pursue the commercial market, or are you more concerned with writing about your own family, your personal concerns and issues?
People are always playing me something and saying, “This would be great for such-and-such an artist to do.” Well, what if it’s a song about loving your child, and that artist just lost one of his children? That’s why I say: Do your homework, and write what you know.