Chats with Bob DiPiero, Billy Currington, Carrie Underwood, Kix Brooks, Easton Corbin, Ronnie Milsap, Chris Young & Little Big Town's Kimberley Schlapman About The CMA Songwriting Series
Mike Ragogna: Bob, where did the idea come from to start-up a Songwriter's Series at the CMA and what's its significant history to this point?
Bob DiPiero: I have been a CMA board member for well over a decade. The CMA Awards show was broadcast from NYC for the first time ten years ago. I wanted the Nashville songwriting community to have an impactful profile during this big occasion. The CMA Songwriting Series was born from that idea.
Mike Ragogna: Do you have any special memories of a particular performance or new song you heard or played that really affected you when you took part in the CMA Songwriters Series?
Bob DiPiero: Songwriter Tim Nichols performing his Grammy award-winning song "Live Like You're Dying" for the first time at Joes Pub in NYC. The audience response was electric and thunderous. Kenny Chesney wanting to be a part of one of our shows was a big moment as well. He came to Nashville to be a songwriter and he wanted to respect the tradition.
Kix Brooks: My dear friend Bob DePiero is the champion for this program, but I chaired the first Artist Relations Committee that recommend the CMA get on board and support this program worldwide, and I'm proud to say that they have. I've been around the world with Bob, from New York to Iraq and Afghanistan, and every time I think about him throwing his head back and putting his whole heart into that big old Italian laugh, I can't help but smile. I remember the first writer's night we did together after Ronnie and I split, where Bob introduced me and said, "ladies and gentleman, you know this guy from Brooks and Dunn, but he's with me now, and we're calling this thing Brooks and Done Got Bigger!"
Carrie Underwood: I love it when the writers of a song that I sing tell a story about the song that I didn't know before. Some special moment that happened while they were writing the song, or something that gave them the idea, or what certain lines and phrases mean to them. When I sing a song that I didn't write, I relate to it in my own way, but sometimes the writer will say something that makes me look at the song a different way. I like that.
Little Big Town's Kimberly Schlapman: I have great memories from our experiences with the CMA Songwriter's Series. One really stands out, A few years ago we played a round at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. That was our first CMA Songwriter's Series performance, and it was a magical night. Not only was it an honor to play in such a historical place, but it was a great privilege to represent the Nashville songwriting community in such a special way. The night was led by the incomparable Bob Dipiero, who happens to be a legend & one of the most warm & lovable people on earth! I so remember sitting there in that round with Bob, Lori McKenna & Brett James. I was nervous being among such songwriter royalty & really proud & excited at the same time. We didn't want that night to end!
Chris Young: My main contribution has been as a vocalist who tours and also enjoys the aspect of songwriting. I think that's what gives me a unique perspective. Probably my favorite memory of the CMA Songwriter's Series was when I got the chance to play Country music in Europe alongside Brett James, Bob DiPiero and Kristian Bush. It was unforgettable.
Easton Corbin: "Loving You is Fun" was my new single at the time I participated in the Songwriters Series and to be able to perform it with the writer, Bob DiPiero, was a great experience.
Mike Ragogna: What does the art and craft of songwriting mean to you now and does that perspective differ from when you first began?
Billy Currington: I have always felt that songwriting was just part of my human makeup. Through the early years, writing songs was a natural occurrence for me. I never saw it as a job or some way to make big money one day when I wrote a hit. Back then, I didn't even know the possibility of a career in writing existed. Songwriting was just what it was and I enjoyed it. Being young, quiet and learning so many things by just living life, I would take those thoughts, accompanied by a guitar, and turn them into a song. I'd sing the songs I wrote for my mama, the family at holiday gatherings or anybody that would listen. I had the best time doing it. But then, I moved to Nashville. I learned there was something called "structure" to writing songs. The rules of song structure said there is a right song length to get played at radio, a chorus can't take longer than a minute to get to and song had to have a clever "hook" title. For me, the structure and rules were confusing and not the natural way I learned to write songs. However, I saw that the veteran writers who were teaching me were having success. So, I spent a few years writing structured songs by following the rules I learned in Nashville. It paid off which I am thankful for and paved a way for me to return to my natural way of writing. Now, writing happens when it happens like the early years. This is the most pleasant way of writing for me.
Bob DiPiero: I consider the art of songwriting mostly gift, part craft and more importantly protecting the sixteen year old kid inside of me that fell in love with songwriting so long ago. I love what I do as much now as I did when I wrote my first song.
Kix Brooks: When I first started, I felt all the pressure of a full-time songwriter because it was how I made my living for ten years. I wrote songs to get recorded; I wrote whatever was hot at the time, and it's about as hard of a way to pay the rent as you can imagine. Now I write what I'm feeling, and I say what I want to say. Of course the professional in me still wants to write a hit, but the desperation level is at a different place-not sure if that's good or not.
Carrie Underwood: I love songwriting almost as much as I love singing. It makes the songs I sing so personal when I had a hand in writing them. That said, there are so many amazing songwriters in Nashville. If some of them happen to get together and write an amazing song that I wasn't in the room for, I'm not going to pass on singing it! In the beginning, I was definitely not as confident in myself as a songwriter as I am now. That just comes with experience. I look forward to the days that I get to write and am excited about whatever it is we'll come up with next!
Chris Young: It's fun to literally create something starting from a blank page and it's such a great way to express yourself. On top of all that, it's an amazing way to touch other people through music. My favorite part is, once a song is out there to the public, having someone come up and tell their own story about why one of your songs resonated with them. It's an incredible feeling.
Easton Corbin: I think songwriting is one of the most important aspects of being an artist. To be able to take all of your feelings and experiences and put them into words and a melody that people can relate is what music is all about.
Ronnie Mislap: I knew it was ALL about the song from the beginning, even when I was an R&B artist. When Ray Charles listened to my single, then cut "Let's Go Get Stoned," which was my B-side, I realized everything you cut is important. And over the years, I've always tried to listen to new writers, to pay attention to how songs can grow and expand. I've been willing to try things. Maybe it was a really stark ballad like "Almost Like A Song," or the pretty charged, soul-pushing "Stranger in My House" that almost echoes Grand Funk's "American Band" in the guitar break, or something as simple and country like "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You." Great songs don't sound like anything else, and you have to not follow what's happening, but try to listen with your heart and your soul. When you're moved, you're onto something. And that's never changed.
Mike Ragogna: What's your favorite song and why? Are there any aspects of its creation or construction that speak to you most?
Bob DiPiero: That is almost an impossible question to answer. Usually my favorite song is the one I happen to be working on at the moment but I suppose "Southern Voice" recorded by Tim McGraw would be one of my favorites. There are a lot of fresh, new ideas and images that evoke the feeling of what I was going for in that song. The melody just appeared with the lyrics. It was a mostly magical moment.
Kix Brooks: Probably "Help Me Make It Through The Night." That song really taught me a lesson. I don't think I had the proper respect for country songwriting until I took that song apart and realized the sheer genius in the simplicity of a song like that-the kind of a song where anyone that hears it says, "...Well, I could write a song like that." It's a song where almost everyone alive can somehow insert it into their life. Then you try to do it and you realize, "Damn, this guy is like Hemingway." Chris is so good; I could spend all day raving about what his songs have meant to me.
Carrie Underwood: It's hard to pick an absolute favorite song ever. My favorites change with time and where I'm at in my life. One of my favorite songs that I've ever recorded is called "Forever Changed" written by Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey, and James Slater. There is something so perfectly old-fashioned and relatable about it. It's about the circle of life, but written in a way that is written full of love and beauty. From the lyrics to the music, everything about that song makes me feel and feel deeply. That's what truly great songs are all about. We're all allowed those fun time songs that are all about attitude and great for the fans to sing along to. But every once in a while, you run into a song that's so special it's almost impossible to sing the whole way through without getting emotional. That's why I've never sung "Forever Changed" live. I can't do it. But I'm so proud to have gotten to sing it for one of my albums.
Chris Young: This is an impossible question to answer! I'll pick "one" of my favorites. I've always really loved "I Swear" because it's just so beautifully simplistic. In my opinion that's one of the hardest things to do in songwriting. Crafting a song that speaks to you, but at its core is a simple concept.
Easton Corbin: "This Far from Memphis" is one of my favorite songs I've ever written. I wrote it with Carson Chamberlain and Mark D. Sanders on a songwriting trip to Steamboat, Colorado. To take an idea and a melody and craft it into what you do is the coolest part of the process.
Ronnie Milsap: One favorite? Impossible. For all the incredible songs I've been blessed with, that alone, I couldn't pick. But the aspects that make songs stay with me? Melody. How the lyric says it. Does it feel true? Is there soul, heart? Do I believe in 30 or 40 years the song will mean as much as it does today? "What A Difference You've Made In My Life"... That may mean more to me now than it did the day I cut it. "Georgia" on my last record, same thing. When you can do that, you've created a song that is more than just a hit, a moment of what's going on right now.
Mike Ragogna: This is my traditional question that applies to all creative people, be they songwriters, recording artists or performers. What is your advice for new artists?
Bob DiPiero: Do it because you have to. Do it because you are driven beyond sage advice from others against attempting such a foolish path. Don't have a plan B and most importantly keep the heart of a student. Never stop learning.
Kix Brooks: Money is a byproduct-you've got to love this so much. It's a day and night, full-time, play for nothing, jam and write every chance you get type of lifestyle. If you're doing this because it looks like an easy way to make a living, it'll never happen for you.
Carrie Underwood: That's a tough question to answer. I think there's so much that artists have to figure out for themselves along the way and no amount of advice could adequately prepare them for so much that lies ahead. That said, I think it's important to surround yourself with people that you like and trust. Keep those around you who will keep you grounded. People that will tell you how it really is. And give it your all, all the time! Every chance you get to perform is a chance you get to prove yourself.
Easton Corbin: My best advice is to make great connections when you come to town and to write with as many great writers as possible to help you develop what you do.
Chris Young: If you aren't already a songwriter, try it. When you can say what you want to say, in your own words, it's incredibly easy to show an audience who you are.
Ronnie Milsap: Just what we're talking about right now. SONGS! Great songs. Don't just cut hits, don't cut things that someone says is gonna be big. You can have a hit, and no one will remember. Really push yourself, think about what you want people to think about when you're not on the top of the charts. Artists that matter--whether it's Ray Charles or Willie Nelson--they didn't chase trends, they made music. They did things that were considered crazy! Modern Sounds In Country & Western, Red Headed Stranger, Stardust? People thought a black man doing country, Willie doing a concept album and standards were nuts, and those albums are now classic. When I really pulled on R&B and soul, people weren't too sure. But I knew that was right for me and I was right. People can't know your heart or your heart. Just do it for the right reasons, really think about why and then trust your music. Your music, though, not chasing the business.
Mike Ragogna: Do you feel that songwriting, given the way the music business is evolving, can still be a viable career path?
Bob DiPiero: Unfortunately, there is no longer a middle class of songwriter. You are either the big winner or the almost ran. That being said, I know a lot of young, newly minted multi-millionaires in my songwriting community that were virtually unknowns ten years ago.
Kix Brooks: There will always be a need for great songs, and I think great songs will always make a lot of money. The thing people who write songs outside of the industry generally don't understand is the difference between good and great. Good songs generally get played a couple of times and then "go in the pile." The greatest composers in the world are in Nashville, and until you're here and feel how good some of these writers are, it's hard to appreciate the level of competition. You can't just mail it in, and if you work and dig and write day after day with writers you can actually learn from, and if you get lucky one day, that magic might just fall out of you and you'll get to hear something you helped create on the radio! And I've got to say, it's just about the greatest feeling in the world.
Chris Young: Absolutely. I write a lot of my music, but not all of it. I have always subscribed to the "best song wins" theory when making an album. In fact, my last number one, "Who I Am With You," is a song I didn't write. I think a lot of artists feel the same way.
Easton Corbin: I definitely think it can be a viable way to make a living, but you have to be able to adapt to the changing styles in country music.
Mike Ragogna: Bob, how do you see this series evolving? Are there any opportunities for making this expand larger nationally?
Bob DiPiero: The CMA Songwriter Series has already evolved into a National event. Our songwriters/artists are already performing coast to coast. PBS has begun a TV series based on CMA's model of the Songwriter show. The CMA has recently developed this series into a Global event. CMA Songwriter Series has already performed in the U.K. and Ireland two years in a row. We are going back in 2015 and are looking to add some of the Nordic Countries during that leg. We have long-range plans to bring the Series to Australia in 2016.
Mike Ragogna: What's been the most fulfilling aspects of your association with the CMA Songwriters Series?
Carrie Underwood: I love the opportunity to do things that are different. I feel like I do so many concert shows with huge production full of lights and amazing effects. While those are so much fun, it's nice to switch it up and do something that is more about the songwriting and story-telling aspect of what I get to do. I love acoustic sets and getting to sing with other people. It's unpredictable and unplanned, which makes it unique!
Kix Brooks: The most fulfilling part has been watching audiences realize how cool it is to look behind the curtain and see how these songs came to be.
Little Big Town's Kimberly Schlapman: The CMA Songwriter's Series has brought great light to Country Music's most unique characteristic in the world of music. We absolutely treasure our songwriters! The songwriting community is a family & country music artists rely heavily on that family, whether they participate as a collaborator or a full-on beneficiary. Everybody encourages & cheers on everybody else. Songwriters actually pitch other songwriters' songs to artists! It's amazing. We've cut more than one song that has been pitched to us from a writer who has nothing at all to do with that particular song; they're just fans of it. I love how different configurations of songwriters even give themselves a name, like some of our very favorites, The Love Junkies. The CMA Songwriter's Series gives folks who might not be immersed in the craft of songwriting a front row seat in the action. It also shows budding songwriters what they can strive to be part of. We are so proud to be a small part of that crusade.
Chris Young: It's been incredibly fulfilling, especially for me as an artist, because I get to tell stories about how I wrote some of my own music. There's just something really gratifying about sharing those stories with a crowd.
Easton Corbin: Being able to work with some of the best songwriters in the business and learning from them.
Mike Ragogna: Artists, how do you want your own talents to grow over the next few years?
Kix Brooks: Everything can always be better, but it's hard work. I want to be a better singer, guitar player and writer, and if I ever lose that passion, I might finally have a single digit handicap. Until then, I'll just keep sucking at golf.
Carrie Underwood: I like to find more ways to love what I do. It's not difficult. I just have to keep finding things to sing and write about. I keep my eyes and ears open to things that inspire me. I want to keep pushing myself as a singer and a songwriter. As long as I get to keep performing, I'm happy!
Chris Young: I really just want to improve as much as I can. Every day, every year, I just want to keep moving forward and evolving.
Easton Corbin: I would definitely like to become a better songwriter, a better entertainer and to overall leave a positive legacy for my fans the same way that my musical heroes have influenced me.
Ronnie Milsap: That's funny! But you know, I think the way I play--and even sing--is growing. You learn a lot about leaving things out. You get a sense of how much a few notes can mean and maybe not bring that big sound every time. But don't kid yourself (laughing), I like to get behind the piano and throw down as much as ever! There's nothing like the feeling of being completely taken over the music, and that's never gonna change.
Thanks to Denise Carberry