My Music Row Story: SMACK’s Robin Palmer
The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
Born and raised in Amarillo, Texas, Robin Palmer arrived in Nashville in 1979 to attend MTSU, majoring in Recording Industry Management. She interned and worked for Jim Ed Norman’s publishing company, Jensong before it sold to Tree Publishing. Soon after, she went to work for Eddie Rabbitt’s Deb Dave/Briarpatch Music, making tape copies and pitching songs, working with such writers as Even Stevens, Thom Schuyler and Paul Overstreet. In 1984, James Stroud formed The Writers Group with songwriters Schuyler, Overstreet, and Fred Knobloch and Palmer joined as their song plugger. The company was successful with songs such as “Forever and Ever, Amen, “You Can’t Stop Love,” “When You Say Nothing At All” and “On The Other Hand,” among others.
Screen Gems-EMI (now EMI Music Publishing ,part of Sony Music) purchased The Writers Group catalog and Palmer began a 10-year stint as Creative Director, and Senior Creative Director under the leadership of Celia Froehlig. In 1996, Celia and Robin started their own Froehlig Palmer Music, and had many notable cuts, especially “Where The Green Grass Grows” (Tim McGraw) and “We Were In Love” (Toby Keith.)
In 2008, she re-connected with past acquaintance Shane McAnally, and they started working together, eventually getting their first No. 1 with “Somewhere With You” recorded by Kenny Chesney. Many more hits have followed, and the collaboration has grown to become SMACK Songs, which currently has a roster of 21 writers. Palmer currently serves as Chief Creative Officer of SMACK and continues her favorite role of developing and nurturing writers.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
Were you into music as a kid?
Always. My mother played records constantly. She played Ray Charles, Marty Robbins, The Oak Ridge Boys, Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap and even Broadway musicals. I would look at all the liner notes and read every bit, so I knew who some people were before I moved here.
Did you play any music?
I played piano.
Did you know you wanted to be in the music industry then?
No. I never would have gotten here if it hadn’t been for my brother Randy. He lived in Nashville and was working on songwriting. I wanted to see what was outside of Amarillo, and he offered me the chance to move to Nashville. He said, “You can come be my roommate and go to MTSU. It’s just down the road.” That’s how I got here. If it hadn’t been for him offering that, I don’t know what I would have done.
Did you study music business at MTSU?
I did but I didn’t mean to. I had no sense of direction. I thought I might want to do advertising or something in mass communications. On orientation day at MTSU, I walked into the Recording Industry Management department by accident because they were in the same building as mass comm. When I walked in, Geoff Hull, who was the head of the department, was talking about the music industry. I changed my major that day.
For my internship, they sent me to Jim Ed Norman‘s publishing company called Jensong. Walter Campbell was the plugger there and I interviewed with this woman named Paige Rowden, who later became Paige Levy. She said, “We’ve had the worst male interns. If you’re you’re willing to work and have ovaries, you’re our intern.” [Laughs] She said, “I need help and an ally.”
During my internship, I made tape copies, typed lyrics and just absorbed everything. I was keeping track of everybody that came in. I did notice there weren’t many women that came in to play songs or drop off cassettes.
Did that intimidate you or motivate you?
It made me want to do it more. I knew of the women pluggers in town who people thought were really good. You’re just a sponge taking it all in at that point. I would hear about Celia Hill, who became Celia Froehlig. I would hear about Pat Rolfe, Karen Conrad, and Judy Harris.
What did you do after your internship?
They ended up hiring me part-time, which was great. Then they sold that catalog to Tree, so I was in need of a job. After that, I did this series of fill-in-the-blank jobs—thanks to recommendations from Paige and Walter—where I would fill in for people. There was a company called Don Gant Music and their tape copy guy was going on the road with Tanya Tucker to play drums for the summer, so I filled in to make tape copies and clean the building there. I filled in at ATV Music and at Silver Line Gold Line, where I got to know Pat Halper and Noel Fox. I met a lot of people by being around all these different companies and seeing how they all did it differently.
What was next?
I worked for a company called DebDave Briar Patch. Their plugger, Mason Cooper, helped bring me in.
It was Eddie Rabbitt, Even Stevens, Jim Malloy and David Malloy. Thom Schuyler was a writer there, and Paul Overstreet and Fred Knobloch would hang out there a lot. There were just so many great people there. They let me pitch which is unbelievable since we’re talking early ’80s and I had no experience.
We had a studio in the back and James Stroud played sessions there on a lot of records. James decided he was going to start a publishing company and Thom Schuyler was going to go with him. They asked me if I wanted to come over there too, and I did. Paul Overstreet ended up coming over there later. Cliff Audretch Jr. was there too. It was called The Writers Group and it did really well. It was during the early career of Randy Travis and we had all those Paul Overstreet songs [that Randy cut]. Thom and Fred were having hits too.
What was your first hit?
When I was at DebDave, one of the guys I’d filled in for at Don Gant Music—Chris Dodson—called me and asked if I had any songs for John Conlee. He said, “I can give them to Bud Logan, his producer.” I gave him a tape and then he called me and told me John Conlee cut this song called “Years After You,” which was a Thom Schuyler song. It became a top 5 hit.
How did you start working with Celia Froehlig?
Writers Group became really successful and sold to EMI Music. I went with it so I could go with the catalog. Charlie Feldman, who was running it, went to work at BMI in New York, so Celia Froehlig got hired to run the office, so one of the women I had heard about during my internship ended up being my boss.
It’s funny because I had an A&R executive—a female—call me and say, “Hey, if you need me to put a word in for you somewhere else, let me know.” When I asked why, she said, “Women don’t work well together.” The first day that Celia came in the building, I made sure to be there when she walked in. She was always so great to me and became a mentor.
EMI was great. We had an awesome staff and great writers and had a great run of success. While there, I met and pitched songs to Shane McAnally, who was a Curb Records artist at the time.
Eventually, Celia offered me a chance to help start a new company, Froehlig Palmer Music. I had always dreamed of some ownership of what I loved so much: songs. We had some hits and some great times and I learned a lot.
And thus, a new chapter opens.
Yes, I got reconnected with Shane McAnally around 2007, thanks to Erin Enderlin. She was borrowing a writers room and working with Shane. He brought in a CD and “Somewhere With You” was on there—along with some other great songs including the work-tape of “Last Call.” He mentioned that he heard Lee Ann Womack liked it but he wasn’t sure. The next time he came in, Lee Ann had cut it.
Renee Bell called and said, “Kenny Chesney needs one more song. We’re having a thing at Cabana. Kenny’s going to tell everybody exactly what he wants, but if you would just bring one song on a CD, he’s going take it out and listen to everything on the road.” I brought “Somewhere With You.” Then I got an email from Buddy Cannon‘s assistant that Kenny heard “Somewhere With You” and asked if he could get a lyric sheet. That’s when things turned around.
Wow. Then you two started building what is now SMACK.
Shane had all these other amazing songs. He was writing with Brandy Clark, Josh Osborne, Trevor Rosen, Jessie Jo Dillon, Matt Jenkins, Matt Ramsey and more.
We decided to rent an office in the basement of Carnival. Frank Liddell is a good friend and he rented us some space down there. We had two rooms, my little office and then Shane’s writer’s room. Sam Hunt and Kacey Musgraves were coming in to write. I had an amazing front row seat.
Matt McGinn was the first writer we signed together and then we signed Trevor Rosen with Wrensong.
Did you realize then how big this was going to get?
No. I always dreamed but it was bigger than any dream I could have had. Although I know Shane’s dreams—he probably planned the whole thing. [Laughs] I’ve learned how to dream bigger.
Now, as Chief Creative Officer at SMACK, what is most fulfilling about what you do?
Working with songwriters. Providing a safe environment and a home. Giving people what they need to be their best. That’s what we hope to do.
When you look back on your career, what sticks out about your journey?
I’ve been so lucky. The way you’re successful is if you’re surrounded by really good people and I have been.
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