Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame Inductees On Their Search For Universal Truth
When Byron Hill made his first visit to Nashville in 1976 with hopes of getting his foot in the door as a songwriter, he checked in to a hotel and pulled out the phone book for the addresses to Music City's publishers. That page had been ripped out.
So Hill went next to a pay phone only to discover that its edition of the Yellow Pages was also missing the music publishers section. Hill made a quick evaluation -- there were likely a lot of aspiring songwriters in Nashville and he should expect competition. Not only was Hill correct in reading the situation, he also employed a thought process that is crucial for Nashville writers: He was able to find a bigger-picture meaning in one small observation.
Hill moved to town permanently in 1978, and now, four decades later, his skills have served him well. After penning such country hits as George Strait's "Fool Hearted Memory," Gary Allan's "Nothing On but the Radio" and Alabama's "Born Country," Hill was named on Aug. 7 as one of five 2018 inductees to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He'll join during an official ceremony on Oct. 28 alongside singer-songwriters Ronnie Dunn and K.T. Oslin, songwriter-producer Wayne Kirkpatrick ("Boondocks," "Change the World") and Roy Orbison co-writer Joe Melson ("Blue Bayou," "Crying").
"My antenna are out all the time for little ideas," says Hill. The goal is turning them "into something that everybody might like."
Central as they are to the music biz, the art and challenges of songwriting aren't well understood outside the industry -- and sometimes even inside. Enough stories have been told about hit songs written in under 30 minutes that it almost resembles a leisurely pursuit. But most writers labor for months and years on tunes that don't succeed before they finally write one that does. "Everybody thinks it's easy," says Oslin. "It's not."
The 2018 inductees underscore a few of the characteristics of successful songwriting. Each has penned multiple titles that not only checked the boxes for a hit -- memorable hooks and catchy melodies among them -- but also proved to be timeless in their messages. And often, they were able to enlist a classic voice as the vehicle for that material.
Oslin and Dunn, who vaulted to prominence as half of Brooks & Dunn, were able to use their own voices. Hill needed Strait and Alabama to get his songs across; Melson relied on Orbison; and Kirkpatrick landed his material with acts such as Eric Clapton, Amy Grant and Little Big Town.
"They take your baby, so to speak, and then they make it their own," says Kirkpatrick. "You don't know who wrote it because it becomes that artist's song, and that's OK. In some ways for the writer, if you're invisible, you're doing your job. It doesn't need to be about me. It needs to be about what's being said and how it relates."
Every one of this year's songwriters wrote material that others would cite for the depth of its message. Kirkpatrick's "Boondocks" and Hill's "Born Country" are steeped in personal pride, while Oslin's "80's Ladies" explored an uphill battle for cultural parity that women are still fighting and Dunn's "Red Dirt Road" embraces hard-won maturity.
"We tend to skip the surface when we're listening to songs," says Dunn. "It's like ear candy. Those that make a mark are like 'Blue Bayou' and 'Crying.'"
Melson, who penned both of those tracks with Orbison, says they're "nothing fancy" -- but that's also what continues to give them meaning 50 years after their creation. They get straight to the point as they explore the universal notion of loneliness. "Those songs became timeless because they were true stories of my life and Roy's life, our love affairs and our losses," recalls Melson. "They're true. 'Only the Lonely' was about a girl I was going with [and] was crazy about. She broke it off. And 'Crying' was a song about how I'd see her again and fall right back in love -- 'Crying' was about that and some of Roy's experiences. Truth is what made them."
The new inductees will take their place along with 208 previous honorees who have created their own canon of classics that connect a songwriter's realities to those of a listener. Their Hall of Fame predecessors include Kris Kristofferson ("Help Me Make It Through the Night"), Jimmy Webb ("Wichita Lineman"), Tom Douglas ("The House That Built Me") and Hank Williams ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry").
The ability of a simple, meaningful song to bridge the gap between creator and consumer is significant, especially when society is so extraordinarily divided. When one gets past the surface and digs in to one of these timeless messages, it's easier to focus on commonalities rather than differences. "The biggest challenge for me coming to town was, 'Why would anybody care to record anything that I had to say?' " remembers Kirkpatrick. "Then you start realizing that what I have to say is what a lot of people have to say, because we're all feeling the same thing. So when an artist records it and interprets it in a way that a bigger group can relate to it, you see that we're all in this together. We're all going through the same thing. We're not all so isolated."