The CMA Songwriters Series celebrated CMA Awards Week on Thursday evening (Nov. 3) with a special writers round held at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Performers included Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame members Don Schlitz (Alabama, Kenny Rogers, the Bellamy Brothers) and Gary Burr (Garth Brooks, Reba, Randy Travis) as well as Georgia Middleman (Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill, Martina McBride) and the Warren Brothers (Dierks Bentley, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw).
“We are the people that live in the parentheses underneath the big title,” Schlitz said at the start of the two-hour set. “It’s a very safe place to live and it’s a wonderful place.”
Throughout the evening the five songwriters shared the stories behind their hits, which ranged from the comical “Red Solo Cup” written by the Warren Brothers and recorded by Toby Keith to the more emotional like Georgia Middleman’s beautiful Nashville cut “When the Right One Comes Along.” All the while, the five friends poked fun at each other and gave some insight into their journeys as songwriters in Nashville.
Burr compared his early life as a songwriter to that of a kid walking around getting ideas and eventually being inspired enough to write a song. But, as he explained, once a publishing deal is acquired that process quickly changes.
“You just wait for that bolt of lightning to hit you. Then you get lucky and you get a publishing deal and all of a sudden you have to get hit by lightning once a day,” he says. “Sometimes you write songs about something that happened to you or something that happened to a friend… I wanted to get the phrase jumbo shrimp in a country song. I thought there wasn’t enough seafood related country music on the charts.”
He then performed that song about jumbo shrimp — “Nothin’ Bout Love Makes Sense” recorded by LeAnn Rimes and released as the singer’s single in 2004.
Meanwhile, Middleman further explained that song inspiration really can come from anywhere. In fact, she shared that Reba McEntire’s “I’ll Have What She’s Having” was written after watching the infamous diner scene in When Harry Met Sally.
The Warren Brothers — made up of real-life brothers Brett and Brad Warren — have seen much success over the years. They previously earned CMA’s Triple Play Award which is given to songwriters who have had three No. 1 singles in a year. But, even they admit that it’s often difficult to predict a hit song. During a pitch session with Tim McGraw, Brett recalled playing the superstar three songs that he quickly passed on. The fourth song they didn’t think McGraw would like so the brothers weren’t planning on playing it for him until he asked if there were any songs left for him to hear. They then played “Felt Good On My Lips” which became a three-week No. 1 for McGraw. “Don’t let me pitch songs,” Brett joked.
Later, Middleman told the story behind her husband’s songwriting journey. It turns out Burr was an electrician by day and songwriter by night and once he arrived to Nashville 20 years ago, he auditioned with his band for several record labels at the famed Bluebird Cafe. After his set was over, each label left except for the A&R person at Warner Brothers. So, naturally, Burr went over to introduce himself.
“I’d love to meet that backup singer of yours,” Middleman said the A&R person requested. “Gary said, ‘I’ll make the introduction. Martha, meet Faith Hill.’ And that’s how Faith Hill got her deal.”
“You’re welcome,” Burr said before his wife played her Hill cut, “Dearly Beloved.”
Highlights throughout the evening included an audience sing along of Schlitz’s iconic Kenny Rogers hit “The Gambler,” the earworm of a song “Red Solo Cup” which the Warren Brothers admitted to being “the dumbest song we ever had cut” and the poignant set closer “Forever and Ever, Amen” recorded by Randy Travis and written by Schlitz.
For two hours, country music fans were taken into the writing room with five songwriters and by the end of the evening walked away not only witnessing an entertaining concert by professional songwriters but also knowing the stories behind some of the biggest hits in country music.