Songwriter and artist Skip Ewing released his first Christmas album, Following Yonder Star, more than 25 years ago. For years, playing Christmas shows was a regular part of his touring itinerary, a yearly ritual he missed last year due to the COVID pandemic. Fortunately, Ewing made good use of the time off the road; he’s now excited to offer some new original Christmas songs to the world.
On the new album, Skip Ewing - Christmas, Ewing collaborated with producer Kyle Lehning, who also co-produced his 2020 release, Wyoming, which Ewing was also unable to tour behind because of the pandemic. As Ewing wrote songs with Christmas in mind, he thought of those who couldn’t celebrate the holidays with their families (“I’ll Be Home”), marveled at the miracle of the birth of a child (“Whenever a Child is Born”), and celebrated the joy and fun of the holiday, even for a guy hitting a rough patch in his love life (“Mr. Snowman”).
With a career that spans more than three decades, Ewing has penned hits for Collin Raye, Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, Kenny Chesney and Diamond Rio, was lauded as BMI’s Songwriter of the Year in 2000, and garnered prestigious CMA, GRAMMY, and Tony nominations. Ewing shared how his adopted home state of Wyoming influenced his creative process, the importance of space in songwriting, and how reflecting upon his own relationships and empathizing with his audience shapes his songwriting approach.
Tell us about your upcoming album, Skip Ewing - Christmas. What inspired you to record another Christmas album?
We put the Wyoming album out just last year, and right when we did, COVID shut everything down. We weren’t able to tour and it was a little disheartening. And I said, “Well, in the meantime, there are a couple of songs that I have been wanting to cut.” I thought we could record a Christmas album since we’re not going to be traveling, and maybe that will be something we can release, whether it’s COVID or not. And I sent it to Kyle Lehning—I just love Kyle; he produced the Wyoming record with me—so we went in and made this Christmas record. I was super excited to make it; I felt like we had some Christmas songs that were unique and potentially some that were timeless.
“Whenever a Child is Born” is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, with Aaron Barker, because of what we got to say. I don’t think I could write that for mainstream country radio; I believe we wrote it for people who may believe the same thing: That God is there whenever a child is born. So every day, in a way, is Christmas morning. So, it’s a Christmas song, and yet it’s not. When my daughter was born, I absolutely knew God was there—there was no question about it. And so Aaron and I wrote that and now people are going to hear it, in the context of Christmas and otherwise.
So, it’s for those reasons that I wanted to cut a Christmas record, and I’m so thankful. I’m amazingly joyous because you never know what’s going to happen. When I left Nashville, I didn’t know that I would make another Christmas album with the potential to reach hundreds of millions of people. I didn’t know that, and I followed my heart. When someone listens to anything I’ve done, I just think it’s a huge gift. So if I can give my music as a gift, that’s just exchanging gifts. And who doesn’t like exchanging gifts?
The album is comprised of original songs, but listeners will hear some familiar songs woven through the album. How did you determine how to incorporate elements of classic songs into your original interpretations?
I don’t think I spent a whole lot of time being in my head about it. I’ve done Christmas shows because I had some good success with “It Wasn’t His Child,” and “Christmas Carol,” and a few other Christmas cuts, and even “The Gospel According to Luke” gets put into the Christmas category sometimes, and so I would do them fairly often. And each time, I would be looking for a unique way to connect Christmas songs together, just to have fun on stage. But then, as I was messing around with that, I would find that things would really go together for a reason.
Like, what I ended up titling “I’ll Be Home (An American Christmas),” during Christmas, everybody wants to be with their family. And it’s especially poignant when we have armed services, or those who can’t be in America with their family. Some people can be in America doing their job, but not able to be with their family—so it feels like another country because they can’t get to their families. When I landed upon the fact that the musical changes and the feel of “America the Beautiful,” combined with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” I thought that it had power. I thought that people might connect with why we would blend them that way, and I hoped that might offer comfort.
What are some of your favorite Christmas albums or songs?
I love so much Christmas music! So, in no specific order—because I don’t know that they outweigh each other—the Vince Guaraldi Trio from A Charlie Brown Christmas is absolute genius. Take Six made a record, He Is Christmas, that is so good, just amazing. And classic versions of “White Christmas” and “Rudolph”—I can listen to all those so many times in a row. There’s a version of “Silent Night” that Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang that is just so honest, so pure—I love it. Also, “Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant—I think that is just an exceptional song.
You moved to Wyoming in 2018 and named your last album after your new home state. How did this move impact your approach to songwriting, and can you share a bit about your creative process?
Well, one of the things that impacted it most was simply the journey to get here. Quite a few years ago, I sold everything in Nashville—I sold my house, I sold my furniture, basically everything except for my guitars and my art. I started traveling to study horsemanship because over the last 20 years, I had learned that the more I worked with horses, the more I learned about myself in a really profound way. And that just continued and continued; I ended up meeting my wife and traveling to a lot of different places, but all that time I knew I wanted to live in Wyoming.
I finally just said, “Let’s go to Wyoming. We don’t know what we’re going to do or how we’re going to do it, but let’s go.” And we did—on faith—and somehow the pieces just fell into place for us to live exactly where I wanted to live: in a little cabin in the middle of heaven. My wife is a photographer and a videographer and she was hired to shoot a television show here, and that left me with a summer caretaking the property—we have horses and it’s a pretty large property. When that happened, I was moved to get my guitar back out and then re-explore. I played her a couple of the new songs that I was writing, and she said “It’s time to put the journeys together. I think you think you need to write a project.” And that was the start of it.
For me, it’s a spiritual journey, too. I’ve found that looking deeply into things that resonate with you often brings insight you never would have otherwise been offered. I learned about myself; I saw a lot of things that I thought I could improve upon, but I also took some time to look at some things that I liked about me, which is sometimes left out of that equation.
It also invited me to look deeply into all the relationships that I had, and that is one of the things—in my writing and my artistic endeavors—that has allowed me to take steps in directions I might not have ever taken. When I’m writing a song, one of the most powerful things for me is to think about the person listening—the heart, the ears that are taking in what I’m creating. That’s one of the things that my journey heightened for me - to ask a lot more questions. How does the person experience what I’m offering? How is that going to touch them? How are we similar? Where might that resonate in their own life? What kind of common human experience am I sharing? And this could be super fun—happy, light, joking around—and it can be quite profound.
And then, to look a little bit more deeply into the relationships that the entities in my writing might have with the world, with whoever and whatever they’re interacting with. I feel like I paused a little more often to consider other ears, hearts, and eyes. It’s the same way with a horse. When I’m working with a horse—the horse experiences everything differently than me. And that’s the same with someone who’s listening to a song. Their life is completely different than mine. And yet I’m hoping that what I’m creating—and, hopefully, as an artist, a songwriter, and performer—that we’re connecting on a common human plane.
You’ve worked with producer Kyle Lehning on multiple projects. How do you build a strong and successful creative partnership with a producer?
Well, I think this is a unique situation in that Kyle and I have both had a lot of similar musical experiences and influences. And I was able to call Kyle, knowing a lot about what he had done—I knew many of the records he had recorded, and several of the songs he recorded on those records were hits that I wrote. I met him when he asked me to come play guitar on the single that Randy Travis was recording for the Greatest Hits project called “If I Didn’t Have You.” I loved the way he spoke to everyone; I felt good in the studio and I had a lot of respect for him immediately. And, then the song ended up being a number one, which was amazing!
But that was the only time I worked with him in the studio. I honestly cannot tell you why I called him; I was about three or four songs into writing what I thought might be a project—the Wyoming project—and I said to my wife “Linda, I think that Kyle Lehning is supposed to produce this with me. I can’t tell you why.” And she said, “Then you ought to call him.” I called him and said, “I’ve got this going on, would you be willing to listen?” So, he did and he called me right back and said, “When do you want to cut?”
There was a natural chemistry. I had a huge respect for him, and he has since said some very kind things about me and my artistic process. We had both been on a journey—in the studio and otherwise—that led us to a similar way of communicating. And so when you say developing, it was more like allowing because we are just allowing each other space to discover things that would have otherwise not been discovered. At the same time—time after time after time—we would have exactly the same note, or exactly the same thought, exactly at the same time.
I think that in writing music, space is love—space to breathe, space to feel, space to think, space to create, space to consider. Sometimes saying nothing is the greatest thing—just listen for a second and let it process. I mean, it was there waiting to happen whenever we needed it. And I think that strengthened our trust in one another in the studio. So, that is one of the reasons why our relationship is as good as it is.
You’ve written hits for some of country’s biggest stars. If you could choose any artist to sing one of your songs, who would it be?
It would depend on the song … and, as a caveat, there are singers who are amazing and there are artists who would bring energies to certain songs that would be amazing. So, as crazy as it sounds, I would love for James Taylor to record one of my songs. I love his artistry and I don’t feel he does a lot of filtering—what he feels is what comes out. And if he felt strongly connected enough to something I’ve written, that would be amazing—that would be a huge compliment. Even to know he listened to my music would be awesome. There’s another artist that I have always wanted to record one of my songs, and that’s Bonnie Raitt, and for a very similar reason. She is just so soulful—she’s lived a lot of life, and that’s present when she sings.
What advice would you give to a young songwriter trying to find their footing in the music industry?
I would say, if you believe in your ability and what you’re writing, then trust your heart to make that connection. Trust your heart over the people who will tell you what they think you should do. The second thing I would say is, whenever you get a no, ask why—every time you can. Don’t take it personally; just ask why because you’ll grow from it. That person has already given you a gift by listening.
And then, trust your heart.
Here’s an example for any songwriter: I played the biggest song for a producer—I don’t want to say who, but it was a huge producer who I wanted to make records with, and I was really trying to give them what they wanted. I played this song and was told it was terrible, and that it wouldn’t get played on the radio, and that I needed to write what they needed to hear. I left there, and I had the “why,” but I didn’t believe it. I called my publishing company and said, “Am I crazy? I think this is really good.” They said, “We think it’s good, too.” So then the artist who cut it sold their album platinum, and that song was number one. It was nominated for Song of the Year, and it’s been played a million times—I think it’s three or four BMI Million-Air Awards. That’s the same song, exactly the same way.
How did you start working with BMI, and how has that relationship impacted your career over the years?
I want to say it was my first album,
Over my career, of course, many things have changed within BMI, but I have always found them to stay with their promise that they would represent their songwriters the best they could. Jody Williams was someone I knew quite well at BMI—I thought he was absolute quality. I would have worked with Jody in any capacity. Even when I took time off and I really wasn’t writing so much, when I came back for the Wyoming project, Jody opened that door and said, “Skip, what can I do for you? How can I be here for you?” He was just very positive, and took time to listen. That matters to people, that’s been my experience at BMI.
And here’s another important element about that. Jody, the person who I had really been the closest to at BMI—and who I believed in—left. I didn’t know who would take his place, and then Clay Bradley was an absolute delight. He genuinely cared. He took my call, and he listened to the project. I thought he shined the same light that Jody did and was glad I was at BMI, even when I hadn’t been there for several years, that they would support what was going to happen. All along, that’s why I’ve stayed with BMI.