Songwriters John Oates, Matraca Berg, Jim Lauderdale and Angel Snow teamed for a panel discussion about their craft at the recent Americana Music Conference, sharing stories about influences, mentors, co-writing and more.
Lauderdale’s humor kept the session rollicking along, minus a minor interruption from his ringing cell phone. “Hold on, it’s Lady Gaga,” he laughed.
With hits by George Strait and the Dixie Chicks, Lauderdale explained that developing songwriting talent is a gradual process. He also shared how some of his best songs are ones that veer a little off the beaten path. “When I think a song sounds like a hit for a particular artist, those don’t get cut,” he noted. “And it’s the other, more unique ones, that get recorded.”
Berg agreed, “The songs I was afraid to play for my publisher Pat Higdon were always the ones he liked the most.”
All four panelists are active artists, and many of them have used the money from their mainstream cuts to help fund their artist careers.
Snow’s first big break came from three recent tracks released by Alison Krauss and Union Station. Panel moderator John Allen of Bug Music noted Krauss’s love of serendipitously finding previously unknown writers such as Snow. The rising writer also discussed her mentor and frequent co-writer Viktor Krauss.
Panelists agreed on the virtues of co-writing. Having another talent in the room is a good sounding board for ideas, can help complete a song, and aid in the editing process. Oates shared that some of his biggest hits have been written with women because they bring a new perspective to the song. Trust and putting egos aside is key to successful co-writing. Panelists likened it to a dance; trying not to step on toes or control the session. And if a writing appointment isn’t going smoothly, Allen noted that it is important to “know when to take your marbles and go home.”
Berg told the story about her most recently successful co-write, “You And Tequila,” written with Deana Carter and currently nominated for CMA Song of the Year. In 2002 Berg was at a memorial service for renowned songwriter Harlan Howard, who had given the younger tunesmith her first shot of tequila. Howard’s children continued the tradition, giving Berg so many tequila shots that night that she still hadn’t fully recovered two days later when Carter showed up to write, resulting in the lyric “You and tequila make me crazy.”
The writers discussed their influences and the importance of publishers in their careers. Philadelphia-bred Oates grew up on the city’s R&B scene. Younger artist Snow joked that she grew up on Jim Lauderdale and Hall and Oates.
Oates was originally hired along with Daryl Hall as a songwriting team at Cameo Records, a Philly label that acted as a local incarnation of New York City’s famed Brill building. With numerous smashes to his credit, Oates explained that writing a hit is no easy task, because on some level it must tap into society’s collective subconscious.
Berg penned her first No. 1 with mentor Bobby Braddock at age 18. She also cited early influence Red Lane, who often made up nursery rhymes for her as a child. Berg elaborated on how Higdon has relentlessly fostered her career over the years. “[The publisher-writer relationship] is a very personal and fragile thing. Pat let me find my own way. He was there with advice, or to critique if I wanted, but was hands off and didn’t force me to write with the latest hit songwriter. He never told me to write for the market.”
From their experiences, these song experts agree that unique, honest writing will continue to win.
For more on Matraca Berg, check out the recent Publisher Special issue of MusicRow magazine, which includes her essay “My Journey to the Core of Country Music.”