The Writers Round with Jerry Vandiver

Welcome to the Writers Round, a new monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Jerry Vandiver sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Tim McGraw’s “For a Little While” and Gene Watson’s “Don’t Waste It On the Blues.”

Seven years into his teaching career in Missouri, Jerry Vandiver visited Nashville during Spring Break and dove into the music scene playing his songs in writers rounds. He had visited Music City many times over the past few years during spring and summer breaks but this trip was different and a fellow teacher at school noticed the change. As Vandiver recalls, while the two were chatting about their vacation there was a lull in the conversation. While he had no immediate plan to move to Nashville, she saw things differently.

“You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” she asked. “You’re going to move to Nashville.”

“I thought about it and I said, ‘Yeah!'” Vandiver recalls of that fateful day in 1984. “I don’t know if she hadn’t said that if I’d be here today, because it’s a scary thing. I got everything in order, I told my Principal, told my Superintendent I’m not coming back. I came here in the fall and I remember driving from Kansas City to Nashville. I was halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis and I had the trailer behind me. I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing?'”

While he admits he almost turned back, ultimately he knew Nashville was the right decision. And, the thought of turning around and facing some of his biggest supporters after all those going away parties kept him driving. Vandiver cites that conversation with his colleague and his move to Nashville as his first defining moment. The second would come four months after his move when he would play the Bluebird Cafe for the very first time.

“Like everybody else that was really serious about it, I had my blinders on. I was like, ‘Damn the rejection! Full speed ahead.’ I pitched my songs like crazy, but none of them were ready at all,” he admits. “Up until that moment I had been naively calling publishers trying to get my songs heard. I say naively because at that time my songs were not ready. At that time though publishers were a little more receptive and a lot of them — not all of them but a lot of them — would offer critiques and feedback especially if they saw that you were serious.”

There was one publisher in particular called The Reese Company who Vandiver called only to learn that they weren’t taking any material. After his successful performance at the Bluebird, however, another songwriter approached him who had recently played some songs for the company’s owner, Jan Reese. That songwriter, Sandy Ramos, asked if he’d like to co-write sometime and for Vandiver it was a no brainer. He says it was all part of the networking process and after four years of co-writing with Ramos he signed his first single-song contract with The Reese Company. While the song he was signed for never got cut, it was a foot in the door that led to more single-song contracts for the songwriter. Vandiver calls his first single-song contract a “momentous moment” and he and Ramos continued to get better writing together.

One weekend, he was writing a new song while trying to get over a heartbreak. When he and Ramos met later that week she loved what she heard and said that she could make it a hit. Ramos put a new melody on the song and it became their first major label cut together for Gene Watson. The song was called “Don’t Waste It On the Blues” and went to No. 5 on the country charts in 1990 and won Vandiver an ASCAP Award. Vandiver notes that had he not gone to the Bluebird that one Sunday night and met Ramos and had he not had that heartbreak, the song would have never come together.

“Those are the stories that are all over Nashville. I find them fascinating, from anybody’s perspective,” he adds.
Before the song was put on hold Vandiver thought about giving up his career as a songwriter. At the moment his song was being pitched to Watson’s team, Vandiver was considering returning to school to get his Master’s Degree in Secondary Education and was at a local campus taking a tour. Vandiver says going back to school just didn’t feel right and went to his publisher’s office at Little Big Town Music afterward when he learned he had his first hold with Watson.

“I think that most songwriters can make a little bit of encouragement go a long way and so you get a little encouragement like that, a hold or sign a single-song contract or something, and you go, ‘Okay. I can make this last a few more days,'” he explains.

Years later, Vandiver would see two of his songs recorded by Tim McGraw; “It Doesn’t Get Any Countrier Than This” and “For a Little While,” the latter of which went to No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 1 in Canada. Vandiver wrote “For a Little While” with Phil Vassar and Steve Mandile and remembers Vassar coming in with the idea.

“There were a lot of cry in your beer songs and he wanted to write a song that says, ‘We’re not together anymore but it was awesome.’ We started it and then Phil had a piano session the very next day and so we started the song and then I left and Steve came over to chart songs for Phil’s session,” he explains. “They wound up finishing it and then they called me. The next morning I met them at the studio and we rounded it off, put some finishing touches on it and then demoed it. It was written one day and demoed the next.”

The song was originally pitched to Jo Dee Messina, who McGraw was co-producing at the time. When she passed on the song, McGraw decided to take it for himself and it soon became a hit for him on his 1997 album Everywhere, once again an example of never knowing where a song might end up.

“My little career has — and I think this is typical of most songwriters without many exceptions — my career is up, down, up, down,” Vandiver shares. “Every time I try to second-guess what the industry wants it goes down, and when I’m down in that moment and I finally say, ‘Screw this, I’m going to write what’s important to me and what I want to write.’ It goes up again.”

When he’s not playing writers rounds at the Bluebird and around Nashville, Vandiver spends his time writing songs about the outdoors as he is an avid canoer and camper and frequently performs them on retreats throughout the U.S.
“These songs about the outdoors has . . . it’s nurtured me and in that regard, in that I connect with an audience again,” he says. “Seeing someone out there mouthing the words to the song, that is one of the ultimate compliments. The other ultimate compliment is when someone cries or someone dances or someone laughs. That’s what I love to do.”

Now living in Nashville for 32 years, Vandiver has led a successful career writing hit songs for country radio as well as his outdoor soundtrack under the moniker Paddle Songs. So what does he wish he could go back and tell himself 30 years ago?

“Don’t overestimate the discouraging moments, and don’t underestimate the encouraging moments,” he advises. “You can be on top of the world and think, ‘Okay I’m in, this is it!’ And, the next week the world crashes down on you. So, keeping a level head about the business and about your abilities in songwriting is really, really important. It keeps you from being an asshole.”