MusicRow is excited to share three essays from renowned songwriter Marcus Hummon, which are part of his larger collection, Letters to a Young Songwriter. Hummon’s best known hits include Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly,” Tim McGraw’s “One of These Days,” and Dixie Chicks’ “Ready to Run” and “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Hummon and co-writers Bobby Boyd and Jeff Hanna won a 2005 Grammy for Best Country Song for Rascal Flatts’ “Bless The Broken Road.”
by Marcus Hummon
The life of the songwriter is filled with a steady diet of near misses and outright rejection. There’s really no gentle way to put this. I remember when I first headed off to Los Angeles the summer after I graduated from college, I can still see my mother crying as I packed my bags. “You’ve picked a hard life for yourself,” she said. I remember thinking, “poor woman, look how needlessly emotional she is…I’ll be famous in a matter of months!” The reality is that my first major label recording deal was a decade away.
Still, if being persistent, thick-skinned and optimistic to the point of delusional is the currency of the songwriter; then, the pay-off is measured in joy. I am speaking of joy in the work itself, joy in the freedom from the grind of a 9-to-5, joy in the small victories…and, certainly, mardi-gras-like-high-fiving-knee-slapping-joy in the rare case of an outright break!
My first break seemed to drop out of the blue in the shape of an anonymous phone call. I was a few years into my Nashville journey. The call came around Christmas time. It was before my wife and I had kids, meaning we were busy doing whatever the hell we felt like…I was playing the piano on one end of the little shotgun house, and she was busy at the other end of the house. Our phone rang.
“Can you get it honey, I’m kind of closing in on a song here!”
“I’m busy too!”
This was back in the days of answering machines, so the phone clicked, answered, and a voice began to record. “Hi, this is Wynonna Judd calling from Los Angeles and your publisher just played me the most beautiful song…” We both ran to the phone and stopped short, exchanging furtive glances as the voice identified as “Wynonna” continued on.
“Pick it up Becca!”
“You pick it up!”
“I’m not going to pick it up.”
Wy went on to comment that she loved this particular song, and was surprised to be in LA listening to the work of a Nashville songwriter, and she hoped we could meet and she could hear more of my music…and then, “sorry you’re not home, and God bless!” CLICK.
It was a terrible sound, that…”click!” It was the sound of my lucky break slipping through my fingers and shattering beneath me on the floor. It was the sound of a door slamming on my career! So I decided to go to the office of MCA Records, Wynonna’s label at the time, and sit in the waiting room every day until she finally happened to walk in. Then, I would remind her of the phone call, and her love of my song, and her interest in my catalogue, and I would become Jimmy Webb to her Glen Campbell, and supply her with a steady stream of hit songs!
Actually, I just hoped that the nice lady at the MCA Records front desk would take pity on me and not have me forcibly removed from the premises.
Murphy’s Law prevails in the music business, but every now and then, the universe makes an exception. Just for an instant, a door opens somewhere and you have to be ready to walk through it.
On Day Two of my vigil, Wynonna did indeed walk into the offices of MCA Records, and I introduced myself. She remembered me, and the phone call and the song, and was as good as her word cutting “Only Love” on her second solo LP, Tell Me Why. Superstar producer Tony Brown even invited me to play the acoustic guitar on the track alongside the brilliant Don Potter. Surfing a wave of serendipity, “Only Love” (written with Roger Murrah) went on to become a single, go No. 1 on the R & R chart, feature a seductive video where Wynonna kissed her on-screen Latin lover, and receive a Grammy nomination.
The day it went No. 1, I remember that it was raining and I was cutting a demo session on the Row. When I got word of the song’s hitting the top of the chart I calmly excused myself, and stepped outside the studio, and then just started running…nowhere in particular. I was running for the pure joy of it.
I found a pay phone and called my Mom and Dad. Soaked to the bone I gave them my good news and I remember my Dad saying something like, “well, no one can ever take it away from you.” (It had never occurred to me that someone would take it away from me) I was lost in the pleasure of the moment…of beating the odds…of hearing above the chorus of “no’s,” one glorious, soaring “yes!”
Since that day, 20 years ago, there have been only a few moments of comparable professional joy, but there have been chapters filled with close calls and disappointments. Still, I have not forgotten the magic of that first breakthrough.
I am still celebrating.