Andrew Evans faces up to his country music skepticism when he travels to Nashville’s Music Row. He sits down with renowned song writer Billy Montana and ends up singing a different tune: his own.
I always thought country music was for hicks: Combine drivers and weed pullers, cashiers at big box feed stores, horse people, auctioneers, smelly cowpokes and county school kids and those people who drive their RVs right on the beach.
I dislike the cheesy polka beats, the predictable leitmotifs, and the shallow lyrics about fishin’ or kissin’ or missin’ someone so darn much you have to sing about it. I especially hated the twangy, faux Kentucky accents over-emphasized by trained city-slicker singers who had never milked a cow or baled hay in their lives.
Thus I arrived in Nashville with a big old suitcase full of prejudice and only a few days to prove myself wrong. I had already been traveling for three weeks—from Louisiana, then across the empty green swamps of Mississippi and Alabama, and up through hot-as-hell Georgia. I was sweating all the time, forever dining on meatloaf and twice-fried chicken, my teeth aching from too much sweet tea. I was supposed to be writing about the charm of the South, but the charm had faded away like the peeling paint of warehouse walls that mark the more silent blocks of the Tennessee capital. I was ready to go home, but I was still on the clock, and the job at hand was country music.
Music Row is the kind of neighborhood that looks safe enough for trick-or-treating but simply not worth the effort on Halloween—dozens of low-rise bungalows where sweet old grannies might hand out Sweet Tarts or Bit-O-Honeys, or if you’re really lucky, a fun-size Snickers. No way you’d score a full-size candy bar in Music Row. It’s not that kind of place.
Also, nobody actually lives here—all these pretty little houses are songwriting studios, signposted with humble brags like “Home to 5 Platinum Hits!” or “Dolly Parton did something artistic here” and so on. Although, I imagine some songwriters have stayed the night, rapping around a table, plunking away on instruments and humming, laughing, ordering pizza until they nail it. This is what Wikipedia entries and movie montages have taught me about writing songs, and now I was in the middle of it all, right here on Music Row, America’s suburban factory for hit music.
I parked at Music Square East and entered the little wooden house known as Curb Publishing, where I shook hands with somebody more famous than me. Singer/songwriter Billy Montana is a true country star—a man with real farming cred who can sing, play guitar and make up music with wide appeal. He looks like a late-career Michael Stipe and an early-season Walter White from Breaking Bad, and he kindly welcomed me into his studio to show me how country music gets born.
Shiny platinum records hung in frames on the wall, along with album cover art featuring singers I knew nothing about—though based on their hairstyles, I guessed they were from the nineties. Otherwise, the studio was just a plain room with a few chairs against a round table and an open laptop. Perhaps the fire of creativity burns brightest in empty spaces, void of distraction and frills. Before there is a song, there is an empty room in Nashville, Tennessee.
Billy and I took our places at the table and started talking about music. Like a chump, I failed to pick up any of the names he dropped—Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Sara Evans—all country stars he wrote for. Yes, I had heard of Garth Brooks before. Didn’t I see him on that cooking show once before? Is that possible? Billy’s eyes revealed a small panic—the realization that I was not only an amateur, but that even on this special occasion, I could not feign the least little drop of passion for country music.
“So, what makes a good country song?” I asked, pretending that I had prepared for our interview.
“Truth,” Billy shot back. “You just wanna tell the truth,” he said.
Gosh, I liked that. Billy listed examples of hit songs that touched millions of people with their blatant honesty—truth about life and love, heartache and heaven, and all of it boiled down into some sticky radio refrain.
“Same thing that makes a good story,” I offered back shyly. “Even when you’re writing fiction, you wanna tell the truth.”
Billy nodded, accepting my offering. Suddenly we were speaking the same language. Both of us were writers—both of us spend our days in front of a computer, pulling emotion into thought, thoughts into words, and words into stories that can be read or sung and felt. Like me, some days he writes all day and throws it all away. Like me, some days he writes very little but it sells. That is the sweet spot for country songwriters.
Billy writes hundreds and hundreds of songs and throwaway lines, but only a few of those sparks ever blow up into major hits that shake car speakers from Dallas to Boise. And yet, that one explosive hit single can keeps shops like Curb Publishing in business for years. That’s why the bosses put up with all the duds and flops—they know they are mining for gold, and before you reach the mother lode, you’ve got to chip away at a lot of disappointing grey rock.
“I really wish that people understood how this is a real job,” Billy opened up. “I come to an office and I work all day. Sometimes you can work all year and get nothing. It’s hard work.”
Billy showed me his work for that day—scribbled queries from the big country labels, descriptions of their up-and-coming singers: “Dahlia Dawson [not her real name]—young, sweet voice, but she’s a little dark. Wondering if you got anything?”
Billy did not have anything for the aspiring gothic country princess. Music Row is a two-way street, with songwriters dreaming of their songs getting picked up by the big stars, while all the singers, famous and unknown, are begging songwriters for their next hit. Does it bother Billy that he is a ghostwriter? That some random country star with a big beltbuckle gets to appropriate his songs as their own? No.
“Nobody cares,” he said. “When I hear my song on the radio, it doesn’t matter who’s singing it. I know I wrote it. I know it’s a good song.”
But do the fans know? Not really. They do not know, for instance, that megastar Taylor Swift has been spoon-fed her biggest hits (That’s what people say, hm, hm)—that “Shake it Off” is not the soulful anthem of this lanky, blonde rich girl, but rather the calculated marketing slogan of a bearded, middle-age Swedish man (Max Martin) whose probably shaken off more in his lifetime than Taylor could ever encounter in her glossy pop star bubble. No matter—it’s a good song, a really good song, and the best songs often go to the best singers, who may or may not be given a writing credit.
“A word for a third!” goes the saying in Nashville, meaning even if a person only contributes a single word to a song, they still get credit, the songwriting duo becomes a trio, and royalties get split three ways. Hence the cloud of secrecy that envelopes these songwriting studios; hence the small closed rooms and the closed songwriting sessions. All it takes is somebody’s mother-in-law finishing some line with a rhyme, and then she’s in the band, as it were.
I felt lucky to be let inside this secret world, and to witness the songwriting process firsthand, yet I had come unprepared. No great taglines or deep thoughts, no cliché country chorus that I could offer up to Billy.
Instead, Billy offered me a line: “When she falls . . . she falls down hard,” he said, trying to gauge my interest.
“No, no,” I stopped him a bit too quickly. I had come to write a country song—my country song. No way was I going to run with the easy bait of some half-baked idea that carried zero meaning for me personally. What did that even mean, “She falls down hard”? Who is she? Is she a distracted rollerblader on a bumpy cliff-side road, or is she a grey-haired dementia patient in a nursing home who keeps tripping over her walker?
“It’s just a line that’s been running through my head,” Billy explained without sounding the least bit defensive. Rebuttal is part of the process, and he quickly handed me the wheel—here, you drive—asking me if I had any ideas.
I did not have any ideas, but I wanted to. If country music is all about telling true stories, than that’s what I wanted—so I started thinking about my own story. How I roam the planet for pay; how everyone thinks it’s a dream job of constant vacation, but that life on the road gets old fast, that even on the best days, I become exhausted and lonely, and often feel disconnected from the place I am in.
“You know, I travel all the time,” I said to Billy. “I’ve just been driving and driving. It’s beautiful, but exhausting, too. I’ve been driving now for three weeks, driving north actually, but—I’m still in the South. How is that possible?”
“Still in the South. I like that,” replied Billy, and his eyes showed that he meant it. He typed the words onto his screen. “What else you got?”
“Well, it’s got to have Waffle House in it,” I said. “I had breakfast at Waffle House last week, and all the servers behind the counter were talking about which of them had gone to their high school graduation and who had skipped it.”
Billy typed: Waffle House
“House/South. They rhyme—that’s good. Now where was that Waffle House?”
“Chickasaw, Alabama!” I almost shouted, sounding a bit Alabaman. You can’t spend time in the south and not mimic the accent. It just happens.
“Chick-A-Saw, Chickasaw, CHICK-a-saw,” repeated Billy, stressing different syllables.
“If we could put Chickasaw into the lyrics, that would be awesome,” I added, but Billy’s eyes only darted towards me briefly. His mind was already there, inside our new song, milling sounds and meanings together. Then he paused.
“Where did you start your trip?” He asked. “Tell me everything about it.”
“New Orleans. I love that city, but it rained. Every single day. The funny thing is after a week, I left town, and right as I was driving east over Lake Pontchartrain, the sun finally came out.”
Billy was already typing fast, moving words around until they fit, holding some to the side. Then he picked up his acoustic guitar and began strumming a lovely triangle of big beautiful chords: G, A minor, C…
“Said goodbye to New Orleans, first day the sun came out,” he turned my story into a first line, and then sang the line once more.
“Yes!” I replied, as if Billy had asked for my approval. His little line of music echoed my first week on the road, and now I wanted the rest of the song.
“Cut through Alabama…” I added. Billy set down his guitar and typed the words. Line by line we worked the song, but not in order. Sometimes we jumped to the non-existent chorus, or to a second verse where I said it was imperative we mentioned the red mud of Georgia that still stained my otherwise white rental car.
By now we knew the song was called “Still in the South.” That was the chorus line and the whole concept.
“So even when you leave this place, no matter where you go, the South is still inside you,” said Billy and I nodded. That’s it. Once you’ve been to the South, you always miss it.
“It’s funny, because I travel all around the world, but here I am, stuck in the South,” I explained, feeling a bit like I was confessing something to a therapist. Billy wrote it down and we played with the meter and rhyme. We worked onward, cutting and pasting, adding and subtracting, singing a line, and assembling the song like a puzzle where you invent the pieces as you go. An hour and a half later, we had two verses and a chorus, and a melody of chords. Then Billy sang it through once, recording it on Garage Band, then playing it back to me. The music bled from his guitar, and his voice is the kind of warm and smoky resonance that singers and preachers aim for but rarely achieve. The man is pure talent.
Did he like our song?
“Yeah, it’s a good song,” he assured me, dropping a few more big-named country stars as potential artists who might actually want to record it.
“Really? You’re just flattering me,” I said, even though I wanted it to be true. What if our little country song got recorded by someone famous and blew up? What if I spent the rest of my life cashing royalty checks? Just as my mind was purchasing ocean-view real estate, Billy delivered the hard pill: “A great song is not necessarily a hit, and a hit is not necessarily a great song.” He went on to explain that some of the greatest country songs are never recorded—for all kinds of reasons—and that a lot of stupid music wins the game of mass appeal and floats to the top of the charts for weeks and months and years, even.
The contemporary production of country music may be the purview of the rich and famous, but its origins come out of life in the heartland, from the shadows of desperation, poverty, and longing, from dark clouds with silver-linings, and from a humble self-awareness that is all too rare in America today.
I wanted to put my 700-mile journey into a song—and with Billy’s help, we did. All the places we see and explore—they stay with us, and good music captures all those emotions into a few minutes that we can hear and feel and remember. That is the real power of country music, and the secret of its success. This is why country music now floods the globe, well beyond the United States and Canada. This is why I can turn the radio on in the Australian Outback, or Norway, South Africa, or France, and I will hear homegrown country songs—same instruments and musicality, but non-English lyrics that whisper different memories and geography.
Country music is universal because we all feel it—we are all hicks who nourish some longing for a life that is rural and remote, pure and unaffected by big city worries. We like the smell of fresh-cut hay and the sight of running horses; we crave the idea of the functioning family farm or a less stressful existence where someone still has time to make biscuits from scratch on a weekday morning.
Country music is nostalgia—it is no surprise that country music’s popularity surge matches the rapid urbanization of America since the 1950’s, nor should it be surprising that most of today’s biggest country songs are born right here in Music Row, within the 1950’s-era suburban houses. Music Row is a portal to the past—or at least the feelings of the past—and the city of Nashville is built on the business of selling those feelings on iTunes.
Once I wrote a country song that mattered to me, I stopped hating country music. Going to Nashville helped me understand the beauty behind that twangy sound, and helped me understand the people who love it. Two hours with Billy taught me the real value of country songs, and how they give us something to hold, even as our lives shift through time and place. How music is magic, so that even now, a few years after my visit, I can still strum and sing our song and remember that one time I drove 700 miles across the South, and how the whole time, it never stopped raining.
Still in the South
All photos by Andrew Evans.