The Writers Round with Caitlyn Smith

Written by Annie Reuter
The Writers Round with Caitlyn Smith
Photo by Becky Fluke

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, Caitlyn Smith sheds some light into her life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind her hits including Meghan Trainor’s “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and Garth Brooks’ “Tacoma.”

Caitlyn Smith’s first song dates back to elementary school. She was eight years old when she began writing the verses for a song she titled “It Felt Like Magic.”

“Then I co-wrote and finished it with one of my friends on the playground and we’d sing it to our recess lady,” she recalls with a laugh over ice cream at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Nashville’s 12South neighborhood. “It was there that really sparked an excitement and a curiosity for me around songwriting and so I continued to do it.”

By the time Smith was a teenager, she was frequently traveling back and forth to Nashville from her home in Minnesota to co-write and meet with publishers. It was during these visits that she realized she could have a career writing songs and she set a personal goal to write 52 songs a year. She quickly learned the Nashville style of writing, which she says typically starts around a title or a riff, melody or groove.

Smith’s dream was to be an artist but she saw writing songs as a “really great plan B,” she explains. Through a series of connections she met Beth Laird, who worked at BMI at the time, and introduced her to several publishers. For years, Smith would travel to Nashville to meet with publishers and after being featured on a BMI showcase she found herself with several offers. Now writing for Cornman Music, she spends her days writing for other artists as well as focusing on music for her solo album which is due out later this year.

“It was years and years of writing and rewriting and coming back and forth,” she explains. “The best decision was moving here though because it made it a lot easier to be submerged in the culture and have the luxury of co-writers around you at all times. When an idea strikes you can call someone and they’ll write it with you and it’s way easier that writing by yourself.”

Living in Nashville for the past six years has allowed Smith the ability to write with a number of artists, one being Meghan Trainor, who was just a songwriter when they sat down with Justin Weaver to write what would become her No. 1 song “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.” As Smith recalls, the song had a reggae feel with her singing on the demo and Trainor playing ukulele.

“My publisher set the three of us up and I was really excited about it because I had heard some of her stuff and I was already obsessed. It was a super fun day,” Smith recalls of the write several years ago. There was no pressure because she at that time didn’t have a record deal so we were like, ‘Let’s write the best song that we can write today!’ Someone threw out the title and the song happened pretty magically and quickly.”

While it took several years from the initial writing of the song to it being recorded and then released to radio, Smith says “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” is an example of the importance of showing up every day as a writer.

And like any writer, Smith has had her fair share of writers block. But, when she does, she remembers the advice from Songwriters Hall of Famer Don Schlitz: “If you can’t think of anything to write about you’re not paying attention.”

Smith says when she finds herself struggling she writes what she sees and Schlitz’s advice comes back daily. Frequent collaborators, one of their co-writes includes Kenny Rogers’ “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” Smith explains that another writer, Ryan Hanna King, also has credit on the song because he had given the title to Rogers.

“The story is that Don was being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York. Kenny was there to present an award to him and he went up to Don and said, ‘Don, I have this title of a song I want you to write. It’s called You Can’t Make Old Friends. Will you please write it for me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sure. Done!'” Smith explains. “It just so happened that I was the lucky winner of having Don on the books after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was like, ‘How would you like to write a song for Kenny Rogers?'”

The two wrote the song together and sent it off to Rogers and didn’t get a response for months, eventually thinking he passed on the song. On April Fool’s Day, Smith met with her publisher and he told her that Rogers made the song a duet with Dolly Parton. She was convinced it was a joke, but the two old friends did in fact end up recording the song.

“It’s nuts that it was a song that I didn’t even know if we hit a home run or totally missed the mark. We just had to wait and to be patient,” she concedes. “Every song I write I have hopes and dreams and visions for who could sing them but because it can be such a disappointing business you have to guard your heart against those things, too.”

Life as a songwriter in Nashville is often difficult as Smith sings on “This Town Is Killing Me,” which will be featured on her full-length album released later this year. A beautiful, yet heartbreaking song about the highs and lows of a career as a songwriter, Smith doesn’t try to hide the hard times.

So what does she do when she’s thinking of giving up?

“On those days where I would come home and feel like quitting and moving back, I would pick up my guitar usually and it would remind me, ‘This is why I do this. It’s because I love it. It’s because I have to do it,'” she explains.”I couldn’t just leave my guitar in the closet and walk away from it because it would always call me back.”

Smith finds victory in having a song cut by an artist, saying each time it “literally is magic.” One of those magical moments included Garth Brooks’ recording her song “Tacoma,” which she wrote with Bob DiPiero, for his 2014 release Man Against Machine. Brooks set up an email account to get songs pitched to him, telling publishers to send him songs that they thought should make his record. 

“I remember Nashville was in a frenzy because everyone’s childhood dreams were coming true [and] Garth was actually answering your email,” she gushes. “He made himself very available for that. He emailed me personally about another song that he wanted to try and cut and also said how much he loved ‘Tacoma.’ I was losing my mind. ‘Garth Brooks is emailing me!’ It was really super, super special.”

While Smith has written thousands of songs over the years, she admits that some will never be heard, explaining that songwriting is just as much about luck as it is talent.

“This business is so much more than just writing a great song; it has to find it’s home at the right time and the right place. So many pieces have to fall into place,” she concedes, before offering one last piece of advice. “Don’t become a songwriter unless you have to write and you have to do it, unless it’s in your bones because it’s not for the faint of heart. You’ll know if you want to do it.”                 

Caitlyn will be playing at the Bluebird Cafe on April 8 as part of the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival in Nashville.