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, Daniel Tashian sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Josh Turner’s “Hometown Girl,” Brett Eldredge’s “Gabrielle” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Slow Burn.”
Daniel Tashian was born into a musical family. The son of folk duo Barry and Holly Tashian, he recalls writing his first song around the age of four. A huge fan of The Pink Panther, Tashian recalls learning the theme song on a piano at his grandmother’s house. He then began to write his own song that was based loosely around the theme song called “The Piano Man.”
“It wasn’t much of a song, but I was proud that I had invented something,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “That’s the way that I look at songwriting: it’s invention and it’s exciting. It will never get boring to me.”
Tashian continued writing songs and performing in bands into his teens. He was in a funk band in high school and admits the band wanted to be like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He applied to attend Berklee College of Music for college but was rejected because he couldn’t read music at the time and the school required that skill to attend. As he explains, he then decided to see if he could get a record deal and he did. In the late 1990s he signed with Elektra Records and released one major label album in 1996 titled Sweetie that was produced by T Bone Burnett.
“I had spent a lot of my teenage years honing my craft and was able to have some songs that sounded like properly written songs when I was 19,” he says of the project, all of which he wrote by himself. “I didn’t understand the value of collaboration until much later. I really wanted everyone to know that these were my thoughts. It was almost like a pride thing. I think I missed a lot of opportunities by not knowing how important great collaboration was.”
While Tashian still makes music on his own today, he says he now values collaborative work and has since co-written hundreds of songs. In 2008, one of his songs penned with Natalie Hemby called “The Bees” was recorded by Lee Ann Womack for the singer’s 2008 GRAMMY nominated album Call Me Crazy. He credits the song as a turning point in his career as a songwriter.
“I was playing in an ’80s cover band called Guilty Pleasures. That’s how I was making my living. When ‘The Bees’ happened I started getting calls from publishers and one of them was [Big Yellow Dog Music co-owner] Carla Wallace. She was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come over here and write for me? I love this ‘Bees’ song,’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, Carla, I don’t know.’ When I got married she called me up again and was like, ‘OK, now you’re married. You’re going to need to have a job. Why don’t you come over here and write for me?’ So, I did and been there ever since.”
Tashian signed with Big Yellow Dog as a writer in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2017 that he had his first No. 1 hit at country radio with Josh Turner’s “Hometown Girl.” Written with Marc Beeson, “Hometown Girl” was a song Tashian says was one of countless co-writes he turned in that “happened to catch fire.”
“I’m so glad it did, too. That was a real timely, buoyant thing that happened because I was starting to think, ‘Well, I’ve got these young children. I’ve got to figure out how to make some money,’” the father of three says.
At the time Tashian had an office on 16th Avenue in Nashville where he’d go and make tracks. He took his black Stratocaster that he bought on Craigslist for $250 to the office and began making some beds of music so when Beeson joined him he’d already have “a canvas to paint an idea on,” he explains.
“I honestly don’t remember whether he came up with the title ‘Hometown Girl’ or I came up with it. We both started working on the concept of it and filling in the blanks and then I started singing some vocals over it,” he recalls. “He’s an old school craftsman, Marc Beeson. He just shows up with a guitar and a notepad. There’s no funny business, just good old fashioned lyric writing. He is very direct and to the point and he’s a master at it. I’m grateful to him for his help on that song with me.
“One thing I’m proud of that song is it never goes to the root chord, that one chord. The Nashville Number System it goes up: four, five, six, four, five, and it never goes to the one,” he explains. “Josh actually noticed that. He said, ‘I was looking at the chart for the song and it never goes to the one.’ Most songs do. It creates tension because you never get the resolve … That song changed my life. It was a dream saver because my dream of being a songwriter and a musician was kind of evaporating. That song allowed me to hang on a little bit longer and get together with Kacey [Musgraves] and propel myself forward.”
When Tashian began working with Musgraves on what would eventually become her GRAMMY Award winning album Golden Hour, he hadn’t initially signed on as her producer. He and Musgraves and Ian Fitchuk had simply written several songs together and began demoing them at Sheryl Crow’s studio in Tennessee.
“She was liking what it was sounding like when we would play back and listen to the songs. I remember her looking at me and Ian and saying, ‘OK, y’all we’re doing this. This is it. We’re making this record.’ I thought we were just demoing some of her songs. I think it might’ve been, ‘Happy & Sad.’ She had a big smile on her face and was looking at us like, ‘This is the sound I want to try to find.’”
Golden Hour would go on to win the all-genre Album of the Year and Country Album of the Year at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards as well as Best Country Song for “Space Cowboy” and Best Country Solo Performance for “Butterflies.” Tashian penned seven of the album’s 13 songs with Musgraves and Fitchuk, including album opener “Slow Burn.”
“We had already written a lot of other songs and that was going to be the last song on the album. It was kind of like a send-off and was going to jam out and we’d maybe get Derek Trucks to play on it, which would have been amazing if we could have, but he wasn’t available,” Tashian says. “Then we got the songs back mastered and Kacey put that one first and I thought it was a brilliant, brilliant, move. I thought it was such a smart thing to do because it really set the tone. She’s brilliant in so many ways and one of them is sequencing the albums. She really knows how to do that. That’s all her.
“Golden Hour is a great blessing in my life. I’m really lucky and I feel really grateful to have been a part of something like that,” he continues. “I definitely never thought anything like Album of the Year would happen to me.”
Tashian teamed up with Fitchuk again as the pair co-produced Brett Eldredge’s 2020 album Sunday Drive. The trio penned the singer’s latest single “Gabrielle” together and Tashian says the song came from a personal place for Eldredge.
“It was sort of one of those star-crossed affair circumstances. This person was still on his mind and he felt like he wanted to sing about it. It’s a very direct song. It’s kind of a love letter,” he explains. “He’s saying, ‘Wait, we had something. What happened?’ I was excited by the fact that this was somebody that I felt like was starting to write in an autobiographical way and [I was] encouraging of that. He was in a real spiritual place at that time of doing that music.”
Tashian also had a hand in writing “Good Day.” He says the uplifting song makes him feel warmed by the bigness of Eldredge’s heart on the song and the capacity he has for compassion and empathy in his voice.
“It’s the right sort of ingredient right now in our culture. People need to reconnect with the simple things in their life, reconnect with nature. I think that song is reconnecting himself in a grounding way with the fundamentals: the very cornerstones of your life, the things that you hold most important,” he says.
This year had Tashian working on several family projects including his second children’s album Mr. Moonlight and the three-song holiday EP A Tashian Family Christmas with the help of his three daughters. Tashian says daughters Tigerlily, Tinkerbell and Matilda all helped write and inspire the songs on each project.
“If you’re me and you have kids, it just is an inevitability that you want to work on something creative with them to interact with them in that way is really fun. Once the pandemic started we started doing these little things. I took a little keyboard into the house, into my closet. I was making up the songs and I talked to them about it,” he says. “They’re my teachers in the same way that parents teach children, they teach me about music and how to make something broad enough that anybody can sing it. If you’ve got a melody that a six-year-old can track and sing along, you’ve probably got a pretty durable melody.”
The holiday release includes the peaceful “Snowfall,” the feel-good “Wake Me Up” and classic sounding “Because It’s Christmas.” Tashian aspires to write the next classic Christmas song that will survive the test of time, much like Johnny Marks (“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas”) has done. A family friend, Tashian’s grandfather used to play chess with Marks in Connecticut where they lived.
“That guy makes me want to write more Christmas songs and keep writing them because he figured out that there’s no end to what you can write about with Christmas,” he says. “Getting a classic in there is going to be very hard, but it could be one of my life missions. I would love to have a classic Christmas song in my catalog that just plays every year. I’m going to keep trying until I get one in there.”
This year proved that Tashian can accomplish anything. The songwriter and producer teamed up with American composer and revered songwriter Burt Bacharach for the GRAMMY nominated Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Blue Umbrella. While Tashian admits he was a bit nervous to work with one of his heroes, the experience proved a memorable one.
“I had spent a lot of time with Burt’s music over the years and had a lot of respect and admiration for the man. Of course, it’s a thrill when you get to meet somebody [and] you find out there’s a rapport there and you develop a friendship that’s based on creativity and getting excited about ideas,” he says. “It’s very life affirming and it’s a great honor. It’s one of those things that make you feel glad that you chose to be a musician and a writer. This is one of those moments that are very memorable. I really enjoy having the opportunity to work with heroes.”
Tashian and Bacharach spent early 2020 collaborating via FaceTime writing sessions for the five-song July release. In a Zoom media interview ahead of the release, Bacharach said that the enjoyment of working together was mutual.
“It’s a life-saver for me to be able to connect with Daniel and keep on writing in times of this pandemic that we’ve had,” Bacharach explains. “It keeps my mind off of things I don’t want to think about, things I’m scared about. It makes the fear go away just by working the bridge on one song and connecting. I enjoy Daniel’s intelligence and intellect. He’s very smart.”
Tashian’s career has had many ups and downs over the years, but he says the thing that kept him going through the struggles was simply his love of making music.
“I just love it so much. I love creating music so much. If you’d like to do something and you do it a lot, just by doing it a lot you will eventually find success if you don’t stop. It’s not going to come up to you after you’ve quit and say, ‘Oh, by the way, would you like to be successful?’ You’ve got to keep doing it every day, if you can, every day, a little bit,” he says. “If you keep going, I really believe if it’s something you really love and you’re willing to learn, if you have a learning kind of energy about you and curiosity, then I think you can be successful.”