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Writing a song with one of Nashville's top songwriters, Billy Montana

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The clue is in the name - Nashville is Music City. I had expected it to be a mecca for musicians, with everyone there involved in the industry. A kind of LA for musicians, if you will. Or like the hallways from Fame, with everyone singing as they stroll.

And I was right - most people living in Nashville are there for the music. What I hadn't expected was for so many of those people to be songwriters. 

Nashville is the capital of songwriting. There are more contracted writers here than any other city in America. 

The idea of contracted songwriters had never really occurred to me, as someone with zero knowledge of the music industry. Billy Montana is one of these writers, and I met him in his place of work at Curb Studios in Music Row. 

As a brief aside, Music Row is pretty cool in itself. If you were to drive quickly through, you would think that you were in a pretty suburb, full of wooden houses and picket fences. In reality, this is where the big studios set up shop. 

Billy met with us to help us write a song. And no better man for the job, considering he wrote 196 last year.

I thought that I was going to be AMAZING at song writing. Not the tune part, obviously, or anything involving actual talent, but I've always had an exceptional skill for rhyming. I'm also very, very good at changing the lyrics of existing songs to fit my mood. Usually, it is making them about food, and my desire to get some. I do a cover of 'Brass in Pocket' by the Pretenders, that's all about shepherd's pie. 

Shockingly, it turns out, I'm not too great at actual songwriting. Luckily, everyone else in the room was. But Billy was king.

Curb Studios in Nashville
We started out by coming up with vague ideas or lines. Heather had an idea that was floating around her head, about a girl lost in a new city, with the wrong boots on. Kind of fitting in Nashville, no?

Anyway, the idea was out there, literally as a sentence, and Billy paused for a second, before strumming the perfect little melody on his guitar and singing the chorus. It came out of nowhere! He's a musical sorcerer!

Which is just as well, as Billy really is a song-writing machine. He writes so many, he can barely remember most of them . As he puts it, "if I had 200 kids, I wouldn't remember their birthdays"

Out of all of those songs he writes a year, maybe 5% are recorded professionally. But all it takes is that one song. Dolly Parton made $25 million dollars from I Will Always Love You. And that's just from Whitney's version. FROM AIRPLAY ALONE. Not even sales. 

All I need to do is write my own I Will Always Love You. Though mine would probably be along the lines of I Will Always Love Steak. 

But back to business. From our starting point, a song rose from the fog. It amazed me how quickly things took shape. We talked about our girl, why she's in this new place, who brought her there, and why she doesn't belong. We came up with rhymes, chimes and lines. Billy, thankfully, took care of the tune.

What interested me is how similar the process is to improv (another quick aside; everything I know about Improv I learnt from Tina Fey's Bossypants). Any idea that was called out, Billy said yes to. I mean, he wouldn't have put anything blatantly ridiculous in the song, but he follows the "Yes, and..." method. This means that whatever idea someone comes up with, you go along with and add to, rather than saying "No" straight off the bat. It works in life, too, and it's something that we should all try and remember. 

Pretty soon, the song had everything. And it was good! Really, honestly good. We were with Billy for less than 90 minutes, and we had a full on smash hit. At that rate, it's no wonder he can come up with nearly 200 songs without breaking a sweat. And as Billy says, "to some degree, it's a numbers game. If you were planting grass seed, you've got to get it everywhere"

And if you're wondering where his inspiration comes from? "I'm constantly breaking up with my wife"

That was a joke, by the way. Another top hint? Make it rain. Billy is known as the Rain King - it's his favoured method for adding a bit of drama. "Then it's not just a flat tyre - it's a flat tyre in the rain."

So here it is! I've made a little photo montage to go along with our song, with my favourite places from Nashville rolled into one. Thanks so much to Billy for playing with us. Be sure to scroll down below for a video of him playing one of his songs from the show Nashville.



If you've seen the show Nashville (on More 4 or TG4) then you may be familiar with the song 'What if I was Willing' performed by both Gunnar and Will (Will stole it from Gunnar, I believe). Well, the song was actually written by Billy, his son Randy and Brian Davis. Here's a video of Billy playing it for us at Curb Studios. And keep an eye on the blog - I have an interview with Sam Palladio (Gunnar) coming soon.

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