The Writers Round With Billy Montana

Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Billy Montana sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Sara Evans’ “Suds in the Bucket,” Jo Dee Messina’s “Bring On the Rain” and Garth Brooks’ “More Than a Memory.” Montana will perform these hits, and other songs, as part of the Music City Hit-Makers Songwriters Under the Stars event in Nashville at Cheekwood on Oct. 12 and 13.

Billy Montana has been chasing a career in music for the better part of 30 years. The singer/songwriter has four No. 1 country songs to his name now, but his writing journey began rather accidentally. While attending college at Arizona State he wrote a poem for an English class. He then submitted the poem to his teaching assistant and asked him to critique it. His critique? “I think you’ve written more of a song than a poem.”

Surprised by the feedback, Montana put a melody over the top of the song with his bass guitar. When he played the finished product for his dorm-mates and friends, they liked what they heard. The experience encouraged him to continue writing.

“It’s not that I wasn’t into music and songwriting prior to that, I really was,” Montana tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I played in a band in high school and every summer. My brother was in the band and some real close friends so when we were doing cover tunes, I was more intrigued with who wrote the song.”

Montana would frequently study the liner notes of albums to see the names in the parentheses. He wanted to know who the songwriters were and gravitated to artists like Jackson Browne and Dan Fogelberg as well as the Eagles and the Beatles, who wrote their own material.

“I was always into songs as a mode of communication because it seemed like I gravitated to those types of artists that had things to say through their songs. In trying to write poetry, I ended up writing a song and then got enough encouragement that I stayed in that direction,” he adds.

Montana spent one year at Arizona State before transferring to Cornell University in New York. After several years he eventually made his way to Nashville when his band, Billy Montana and the Long Shots, and was signed to Warner Brothers Records in 1985. The band put out three singles which had moderate success, but eventually lost their record deal after three years when they didn’t have enough commercial appeal to keep things going. It was in those three years of coming to Nashville and writing with the songwriting community that Montana learned how the music business worked. He credits these formative years as teaching him the process of songwriting and pushing him in the direction of becoming a full-time songwriter.

By 1989, Montana and his family moved from New York to Nashville where he’d continue to write songs and deliver pizzas and load trucks on the side. It wasn’t an easy road, though. It took 12 years to hear one of his songs on the radio — Jo Dee Messina’s collaboration with Tim McGraw “Bring On the Rain.”

“I had cuts. I had a Tim McGraw cut on his very first album. I had cuts on Lee Ann Womack’s first two records in the mid-nineties,” he recalls. “So it wasn’t like I didn’t have any activity but I didn’t have any radio success until ‘Bring on the Rain’ which was 2001 and 2002.”

In the mid-nineties Montana signed a second record deal with Magnatone Records. He wrote nine of the project’s 10 tracks and co-produced it. Two of his biggest champions, publisher Dianna Maher and her father, producer Brent Maher (the Judds), gave him the creative freedom to release his 1995 album No Yesterday. Montana says it’s this project that helped propel his songwriting career and gave him the confidence to keep pursuing music when he didn’t have hits on the radio.

“I had a lot of creative freedom in making the record and so I wrote songs that were important to me. It wasn’t necessarily accepted across the board but critically it got incredible reviews and I think that gave me a lot of confidence that I was doing the right thing,” he reasons.

As he worked on his own solo project, Montana kept the songwriting relationships he had made when he initially visited Nashville with his former band. This gave him a foot in the door when it came to navigating the industry and many publishers saw that he still had artist potential, which helped him garner a publishing deal with Moraine Music for 16 years, from 1994 to 2010, and eventually a co-venture with Moraine Music and Curb Publishing.

Montana says Dianna and Brent Maher were cheerleaders for him before his songwriting career took off. In fact, Dianna helped Montana and co-writer Jenai perfect the chorus to their 2004 hit with Sara Evans, “Suds in the Bucket.” It’s also a song he cites as the turning point in his career.

While Montana typically likes to start a song with a title, when he sat down to write what would become “Suds in the Bucket” he had a pitch sheet. A pitch sheet is typically given to songwriters so they know what’s happening in the studio that week. It gives the publishing and writing community a heads up to who’s in the studio so they can try their hand at penning a song for that artist.

“This particular week, Lee Ann Womack was looking for an up-tempo, fun, traditional sounding country song. We decided it would be fun to write something for that,” he remembers. “We had this music bed first because we wanted to write a traditional country song and we wanted to use hillbilly language. What would a hillbilly townie say or a farmer? From that we started with a theme. We wanted to write about a young girl leaving home fast. I said to Jenai, ‘What about, she left the suds in the bucket and the clothes hanging out on the line?’ It fit perfectly in the music bed that she’d come up with. Her jaw dropped and she was like, ‘Wow! Where did that come from? I love it. We’re writing that.'”

By the time they finished the track he felt it was “mission accomplished” because they were able to keep the language from inside of the minds of the characters in the song.

“I felt like that was a coup when it came to songwriting. We did exactly what we intended to do and that doesn’t always happen. A lot of times a song takes you where it wants to go,” he admits.

While Womack didn’t wind up cutting the song, Evans did and recorded it for her 2003 project Restless. It went on to hit the top of the country charts in 2004. Montana confesses that back then, he and Jenai wrote every chorus the same as they thought they were doing their publishers a favor in making each song more commercial. His publisher, Dianna, saw things differently.

“Dianna listened to the song and she said, ‘I think it would be better if you could put more information in each of the choruses.’ We were like, ‘Wow. We thought we were doing you a solid by having every chorus the same,'” he recalls. “We had a bunch of information in the margins, because at that time we were still writing on notepads and not computers. We had all this information that we didn’t use and so we pulled a bunch of that information out and plugged it in to the chorus. It really made it a better song and so I give Dianna kudos for recognizing that and voicing that.”

Montana will be performing many of his hits, including “Suds in the Bucket,” at the upcoming Music City Hit-Makers Songwriters Under the Stars event in Nashville at Cheekwood on Oct. 12 and 13. He’ll be sharing the stage with fellow songwriters Brett James and Tom Douglas. Each performer will be backed by a 17-piece orchestra setup on a stage outside and under the stars of the Cheekwood mansion’s picturesque Swan Lawn in Belle Meade.

The songwriter says it’s a thrill to have the accompaniment of an orchestra behind him. While it requires several rehearsals and less improvisation, he’ll be soaking in the moment. Montana has done similar events in the past and the song that always stands out for him in this type of setting is Messina’s “Bring On the Rain.” He says the musical interpretation and the dynamics of being backed by an orchestra typically makes the song more powerful.

“Bring On the Rain” was recorded by Messina for her 2000 album Burn. Tim McGraw served as co-producer on the project and is also featured on background vocals of the song and their performance of “Bring On the Rain” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The song has taken on new meaning for Montana since its release on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before 9/11. He had written the song over a year before with Helen Darling and they had no idea the impact it would have on listeners following the terrorist attacks on our nation. Montana says the title came from a line in another song that he felt could be a song on its own and his co-writer agreed with him.

“Rain has always been my favorite metaphor for challenging times. What struck me when we were writing the song was when we came up with the line, ‘I’m thirsty anyway, so bring on the rain.’ I just thought that was so unique that it set the metaphor apart. It set rain apart. It set the song apart,” Montana admits. “That was probably my favorite part about writing the song. When we landed on that, I felt like we had something. I’m not going to say that I thought it was a hit because I can’t ever tell when a song is a hit when we’re writing it, but I will say it made me fall in love with the song.”

In the days that followed the song’s release very little music was played on the radio as Americans wanted to be informed on what was going on in the country after the September 11 attacks. Eventually, someone added news clips and interview soundbites from Ground Zero as well as President Bush addressing the nation to “Bring On the Rain.”

“We wrote a song that we wanted to be an encouragement to people. We didn’t know that it was such a low point in our country’s history. To hear it used as part of the healing process was very humbling and overwhelming for me,” he admits. “The fact that somebody chose to do what they did with the song and leave those sound bites throughout it, and then radio stations embraced it to play it, took it to a level that I didn’t know was possible.”

Another song’s success that Montana never predicted was his Garth Brooks cut “More Than a Memory.” Penned with Lee Brice and Kyle Jacobs, the two songwriters came to Montana after a writers meeting saying they had a song idea they thought he’d be able to help them flesh out. They told him the title and he was immediately interested.

“I said, ‘Well, dang. I like that. I like a title that I already know what the song is about just by the title. She’s not just a memory, she’s more than a memory.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s it,'” Montana explained during a recent show at the Bluebird Cafe. “We went across the street to the writers building and started working on this song. Our publisher came over and we had a verse and a chorus and he said, ‘Man, I got chills. You gotta finish that today.’ So we did and spent the whole day working on it.”

Unbeknownst to Montana, his publisher pitched the song to Brooks shortly after they wrote it in March of 2007. By June, Brooks recorded “More Than a Memory” and invited the songwriters to the studio to hear the finished product before he released it to radio that August. “More Than a Memory” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in September, becoming the first song in the chart’s history to do so.

“Garth doesn’t do things like everybody else. It’s what makes him Garth. It’s what makes him so special. He is a great songwriter. He knew that to hear what happened and to hear it first would be of particular interest to us,” Montana says. “What a blessing that he wanted us to hear what he had done with his song before anybody else. I think that’s so Garth when you think about it.”

Montana then reflects on his journey and the songwriting community in Nashville, which now includes his son Randy, and admits that it “continues to amaze me what a wealth of talent this town possesses.” He still has a passion for the craft and confesses that he’s surprised by his own determination to stick through the many ups and downs that the career of a songwriter can often bring.

“I really don’t take rejection very well. I don’t absorb it well. The fact that I stayed in it as long as I did, for as long as I have, is somewhat baffling even to me,” he admits. “Obviously I’ve had some success throughout the 2000’s. I’ve been able to maintain and keep going, but there are still times when I get frustrated with the business.”

He continues, “It’s a challenging business and I don’t ever recommend for people to go into it. But, on the same token, I called that whole time period of writing and not having any radio success character building years. There’s a degree of character building that has to take place and I ended up being surrounded by people like Dianna Maher and Brent Maher, who believed in me even when belief in myself was hard to find. Songwriters are sensitive people normally. We need affirmation that we’re barking up the right tree every once in a while.”