In the land of country music, songwriters not singers reign supreme

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It didn't take a radio programming genius to know that "She's in Love With the Boy" by someone named Trisha Yearwood was going to be a huge hit. Anyone with a working pair of ears could hear it. The song had a bouncy rhythm, irresistible melody, engaging chorus and a story line with a nice twist at the end. It had "smash" written all over it.

Released in June of last year, the single made a steady drive to the top of the country charts and reached No. 1 in September. Ms. Yearwood's self-titled debut album quickly went gold, and she received the coveted opening slot on a long Garth Brooks tour last fall. What's more, she won (among others) the Academy of Country Music 1991 award for best new country female vocalist.

Ms. Yearwood's career was launched, in part, because Jon Ims' hair was too long and he played in a rock 'n' roll band.

"What happened to the guy in the song [who was initially rejected by a father as his daughter's suitor] really happened to me," Mr. Ims says. "I was going out with a girl, and her father didn't approve of me until her mother pointed out that her father didn't like him at first."

Mr. Ims is one of the hot new songwriters who have turned their experiences into some of Nashville's most prized commodities. Ever since the late '40s, when Hank Williams turned country music outside-in -- taking Nashville from songs about gunfights and folk heroes to emotional odes of heartbreak and despair -- the songwriter has reigned in this town. And with country music currently attracting dollars and attention like never before, the songwriter is held in especially high esteem. A great song is a singer's most-valued possession -- it beats the guitar-shaped pool by a country mile. Before the statuettes and numbers with bullets comes the lonely strum of inspiration.

"No other musical genre is so dependent on good lyrics and a strong melody," Mr. Ims says. "A rock group like R.E.M. can make a great record, even though no one can understand the lyrics. But that'll never happen with country music."

With pop radio dominated by rap and dance music, adult listeners raised on singer-songwriters such as James Taylor, Billy Joel and Elton John have turned to the song power of country music. Subsequently, the genre has gone from being artist-oriented to song-oriented. Radio programmers no longer automatically add the newest single by Kenny Rogers or Exile. They listen to the song first. Meanwhile, new acts such as Diamond Rio, Joe Diffie and Billy Dean are coming from out of nowhere to the top of the charts.

While fans go nuts over such singers as Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, George Strait, Ricky Van Shelton, Hal Ketchum and Mark Chesnutt, the stars look up to songwriters like Mr. Ims, Pat Alger, Stepanie Davis, Allen Shamblin, Jim McBride, Paul Overstreet and Tim Mensy. These writers, among countless others, provide the grease that keeps Nashville churning.

"A great song is everything," says MCA Nashville artists and repertoire rep Rene Bell. "It can start a career and keep one going."

A good song can also revive a career, as "Straight Tequila Night" did for John Anderson.

In Nashville, one of the premiums in "making it" has long been that songwriters usually pitched their best songs to the stars first -- the more records the act sells, the more money the writer makes, so it's important to get songs to the biggies. But top songwriters have become more likely to gamble on new, untested artists. And such willingness to find the right singer for the song is partly responsible for the current wealth of new country stars.

"When Garth [Brooks] first moved to town, a lot of people couldn't find time to write with him," Ms. Bell says. "He stayed loyal to those who did, though. People like Kent Blazy, Pat Alger and Tony Arata, who had cuts on the first album, also had cuts on 'No Fences' or 'Ropin' the Wind.' "

Paul Overstreet offers another classic example of winning big after taking a chance on a newcomer:

"Don Schlitz and I knew we had a winner with a song we wrote called 'On the Other Hand,' and we wanted to pitch it to the biggest sellers of the time. Dan Seals was one of the guys we wanted to cut it, but his producer, Kyle Lehning, told us that the song would be perfect for this new kid he was producing."

Mr. Overstreet pauses for effect.

"A guy named Randy Travis."

Mr. Overstreet, a deeply religious man, says he was moved by the Biblical quotation about it being better to give than to receive, so Mr. Travis got the tune. It became his first of many No. 1 songs, and Mr. Travis has gone on to record several more Overstreet-Schlitz compositions, including the mega-hit "Forever and Ever, Amen."

And even though newcomers have become players in the bidding war for new songs, the major acts have a seemingly unending river of great new material from which to choose.

"Reba McEntire usually gets first crack at songs written for a female," Mr. Ims says. "So when she recorded my song, 'Falling Out of Love,' it felt like I had won a contest."

The song became Mr. Ims' first No. 1 composition after 20 years of songwriting.

Another longtime writer who finally hit the jackpot was Stephanie Davis, whose moving tune, "Wolves," closes out Garth Brooks' multiplatinum "No Fences" LP.

"I moved to Nashville from Montana four years ago, and I had done everything from waitressing to delivering phone books to touring as a fiddle player," Ms. Davis says. "And all it took was one Garth Brooks cut, and I'm set for life. The phone hasn't stopped ringing. Everybody wants new songs."

Ms. Davis has landed two more tracks on Mr. Brooks' new LP, plus a cut on his Christmas album.

Like Mr. Ims, Pat Alger and Mr. Overstreet, Ms. Davis is a performer as well as a writer for others.

"The greatest thing about writing songs is that you can wear whatever you want. The labels actually expect you to look sloppy," says Ms. Davis, whose favorite writing accessory is a pair of purple sweatpants. "It's only natural to want to perform your own songs, however -- even if it means having to dress up."

According to Ms. Bell, whose label, MCA, has signed Ms. Davis to a developmental deal, most writers move to Nashville with the intention of becoming recording artists, then sign with a publisher to pay the bills until their solo career takes off.

"When I moved to Nashville almost 20 years ago, I didn't know you could make a living as a songwriter," says Mr. Overstreet, whose songs have earned him millions. While he has enjoyed moderate success as an artist ("Seeing My Father In Me," "If I Could Bottle This Up"), Mr. Overstreet admits that writing pays most of the bills.

There are several ways for writers to get their new songs to the artists, their producers and the ever-important buffers like Ms. Bell. Most writers are signed to publishers who use song pluggers to sell new material, but often writers will play brand-new songs live for Ms. Bell in her office.

"There are so many writers in Nashville that I'm forced to draw the line," she says. "There's not enough time to let everyone in to see me, but I make every effort."

You never know when or where you're going to hear that song that just can't miss.

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