‘Gone Country’ in Franklin, Tennessee

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Being part of the National Newspaper Association (NNA) has provided us with opportunities to travel across the country and experience events that we would have never encountered but for our membership. We had one of the most memorable experiences last week when we traveled to the NNA annual convention in Franklin, Tennessee.

Franklin is about the same distance from Nashville, the heart of country western music in America, as Bloomington is from downtown Minneapolis.

Last Thursday night at The Factory in Franklin four top country singer-songwriters sat across the small stage with their acoustic guitars. Though they entertained us for more than an hour, the four never played as a group. Rather each one took a turn at describing one of the songs he had written, the country artist who had picked it up, and how it became a hit.

Now we aren’t one of the biggest country music fans around, but there is something infectious about the live music performed by people obviously having a good time that draws one in.

Mark Nessler, Clay Mills, Marty Dodson and Mark Irwin joked and laughed with the audience during the evening, and seemed often lost in admiration for the skills at lyric writing and music composition of those on stage with them. Such a gathering of talent isn’t all that common in Nashville, with the four trying to remember the last time they had gotten together; it had been at least several years.

As one played, the others would sit back, some with their eyes closed head bobbing to the beat of the music. At other times they would mouth the lyrics of the song, or brush their hand over the strings of their guitar as if they were playing along.

As the night progressed, they couldn’t resist tapping out a beat on their guitar or plucking a few chords to accompanying the person playing.

Many of the songs they write are never heard by the public, lacking the catchy phrasing or irresistible melody that will get a top-notch country talent to pick it up and try it out. Even when a song is picked up there is no guarantee it will be recorded, or if recorded, that it will make the final cut.

If an artist is pitched a song, but passes, another one might take it and make a hit of it. Sometimes more than one artist will get ahold of a song and both will make hits with it. Once in a while, there will even be a bit of scuffle between artists when one drops a song, another picks it up, only to have the original artist decide he wants it back.

Mark Nessler’s best known song is “Just To See You Smile” performed by country singer Tim McGraw. It went to number one on the Billboard charts in 1998 and became the number one song of the year.

He wrote two songs recorded by George Strait, “Go On,” and “Living and Living Well,” which hit number one on the charts. He co-wrote “A Different World” with his wife, country singer Jennifer Hanson, which was performed by Bucky Covington. Another number one country hit of his is “You Look Good in My Shirt,” performed by Keith Urban. Billy Currington sang his song “Why, Why, Why.”

Marty Dodson wrote “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right,” which went to number one for Currington. He also sang Dodson’s song “Let Me Down Easy.” “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven” went to number one with Kenny Chesney singing the song. Johnny Reid sang his song “Fire It Up” as did Joe Cocker.

“While You Loved Me” was a top 10 song for Rascal Flats. He has also written songs for Carrie Underwood, Chesney, and Plain White T’s.

Clay Mills scored three number one singles with “Beautiful Mess” sung by Diamond Rio, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” sung by Darius Rucker, and “Fall” sung by Kimberly Lake. “Fall” also went to number five on the country charts with Clay Walker singing it.

Darius Rucker reached number two with Mills’ song “History in the Making.” Trisha Yearwood sang his song “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love.”

Mark Irwin wrote Alan Jackson’s “Here in the Real World,” a song that the Country Music Association twice nominated for Song of the Year.

Irwin’s young teenage daughter wasn’t overly impressed with her father’s songwriting and the country stars performing his music. So when he wrote the “Highway Don’t Care” in 2013, and Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift agreed to sing it, he proudly told his daughter. Her reply, Taylor Swift “is so yesterday.” The song hit number one on the country Billboard chart.

He also wrote “Redneck Crazy,” which hit number five on the country charts and was performed by Tyler Farr.

It seemed that all four of the country music songwriters struggled to impress their kids with their talents – something a lot of parents can relate to. One told a story of how his son pretty much ignored his work until he met a girl in New York while going to college. She loved country music. He quickly called his father and asked, “What were the songs you wrote?”

One of the songwriters told us of how every week he would get a call from a friend or family member asking him when he was coming home to get a real job. Sometimes they would visit him in Nashville, though he said the visits sometimes had the feel of an intervention. Then, when he had his first hit song, “21 people” called him the day it came out saying, “We always knew you’d make it.”

Nashville is full of singers and songwriters trying to make it. Many are extremely talented, just needing that one song that will propel them to stardom.

Wednesday night we stayed in Nashville. That evening we went out the back door of our hotel to the restaurant on the street corner. As we chatted with our waiter a young man was setting up equipment on a little stage at the end of the bar. We asked our waiter if was a singer and weren’t surprised when he said he was both a singer and a songwriter. We coaxed, cajoled him, to sing a little for us, though he did it shyly saying wait staff weren’t supposed to be singing for the customers. He had a rich country voice that would standout in most venues across the country. Maybe someday we’ll hear him on the radio.

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