Songwriter Spotlight: How Erin Enderlin Went From Grand Ole Opry Hostess to Revered Singer/Songwriter

Erin Enderlin
Ryan Nolan

Erin Enderlin

It’s unheard of for an aspiring songwriter/college student to pitch a song in the middle of class and actually get it cut -- and by Alan Jackson no less. But that unusual and auspicious start launched the career of singer/songwriter Erin Enderlin.

Since then her songs have populated albums by Luke Bryan, Terri Clark, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis and Lee Ann Womack as well as her recently released Blaster Records album, Faulkner County, a nod to her Arkansas roots and appreciation for William Faulkner.

“I could have called it Conway, but then people would have been confused and thought it was a Conway Twitty record -- which I’m not opposed to doing,” the Conway, Arkansas, native says with a grin as she sips her beverage at a Nashville coffee shop. 

“I called it Faulkner County for a couple of reasons. This year became the first time I’ve lived in Nashville longer than I’ve lived in Arkansas,” says Enderlin, who moved to Music City right out of high school at 18. “When people ask me where I’m from, I still say Arkansas. There’s so much rich history in music from Arkansas and there’s a lot of folks in Nashville --  Ashley McBryde, Matt Stell, Lance Carpenter -- having success right now and that’s really cool. I just wanted to shine a light on that. It doesn’t matter where you go, home comes with you. You bring your experience, your take on things, and I also like that it was a little nod to William Faulkner.”

Enderlin has been passionate about country music since childhood. “I brought a Conway Twitty record for show-and-tell in kindergarten. My obsession for country music is long,” she says. “By the time I was five, the only videos I wanted to rent were the K.T. Oslin video collection and the Patsy Cline biography. I was obsessed.”

By the time she was 10, she was writing songs. “Somehow in my 10-year-old brain I thought if I wrote songs, I’d have to sing them for the first time because nobody else would sing them,” she recalls. “I started writing songs and taking them into my music class and playing them.”

After high school, Enderlin moved to Nashville to attend Middle Tennessee State University and pursue a career in country music. “I was meeting with everybody I could and playing wherever I could,” she says. “I guess it was the second or third year I was here, I went to a workshop with a woman named Reese Faw who was talking about artist development. I had asked her afterwards if I could come play her some songs. I went and played her some songs and they were pretty dark and twisty. I don’t think she knew what to do with me, but she gave me some advice and then she ended up coming to a class of mine at MTSU. They let me get up and pretend to do a meeting with her again in front of the class and I played her ‘Monday Morning Church.’”

Faw was impressed with the poignant ballad Enderlin had penned with another young writer, Brent Baxter. Faw introduced Enderlin to the late publisher Jeff Carlton, who was working at Hamstein Music at the time and getting ready to launch his own publishing company. “He actually took money out of his own pocket to go in and record five demos in the studio and one of them was ‘Monday Morning Church,’” Enderlin says. “He started pitching it ,and it was on hold for a couple different people for about a year. Ultimately he played it for Keith Stegall. Keith was out at lunch with Alan one day and said, ‘I’ve got one song I want to play for you when we get back to the office.’ Alan loved it and they cut it.”

Carlton signed Enderlin to his new publishing company, World House of Hits, and she was on her way. “I was lucky enough that happened when I was a senior in college and I got to go straight out of college and start writing full-time,” she says. “I got that cut. I got a Randy Travis cut and an RCA development deal right as I was graduating college, so I got to start doing music full-time, which is all I ever wanted to do. I got to go down and write every day, work in the studio and learn so much about writing and performance and all those things.”

The singer/songwriter spent nearly five years under contract with RCA, but never released an album. “I learned a whole lot and I got to go into the studio and record some songs which was really cool,” she says, “but I don’t think it was the right fit and I don’t think I was ready yet as an artist.”

She continued to write and perform, but during a lull in her career, Enderlin took a job as a hostess at the Grand Ole Opry. She says she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do next and the revered radio show helped her remember what first made her fall in love with country music. “I got a job being a hostess and it was so cool," she recalls. "I got to meet so many great people who have worked there since the ’70s who have great stories. I got see folks perform and see what made them unique as an artist and what made them connect with their fans in their own way. And I got to meet fans from all over the world that loved music... It helped me fall in love with music again, and not think about it too much, not worry about the pie charts of it.”

Enderlin was also surprised to connect with fans of her music. “People would recognize me, and I was like, ‘How do you know who I am?’” she recalls. “One day there were three girls who looked to be maybe 17 and they were coming through the line. Jason Aldean was playing that night and I was like, ‘Oh you all are big Jason Aldean fans huh?’ because they were hyperventilating and they were like, ‘No, you wrote ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ [recorded by Luke Bryan] and I was like, ‘How do you know that?’”

She got another unexpected dose of encouragement the day she was working George Jones’ memorial service at the Opry House. “One of the fans came out of the auditorium after the service and they were crying,” Enderlin shares. “They hugged me and were like, ‘Your music is amazing,’ and I was like, ‘He was incredible and there will never be another one,’ and she pulled me back and said, ‘No YOUR music is amazing, and we’ve got to have people like you carrying on the tradition of the music that these guys started.’”

Enderlin shared one of her songs with Grand Ole Opry announcer Bill Cody and shortly after former Opry VP/GM Pete Fisher offered her a performance slot. “They ended up letting me play on the Opry, but I had to retire [my] uniform and quit working after,” she says of ending her two-year stint at the famed venue. “So I quit working the week I played the Opry for the first time. That was 2013. It was amazing out there in the circle. And it was amazing that I had been able to work out there because I felt like I had a whole family out there. Everybody who works there is so great. I could feel them cheering me on.”

These days Enderlin has her own publishing company, 10,000 Hours Music, and although she had signed two other writers early on, she’s decided to just focus on her own music. “It was a really great experience because I worked with two of my friends and was able to get some cool cuts and stuff with it,” she says, “but I think right now I don’t have enough hours in the day to do all of it.”

Indeed 2019 has been a busy year for Enderlin. She played over 100 dates in the U.S. She also toured Europe and has plans to return in 2020. She won three awards at the Arkansas Country Music Awards, including female vocalist and songwriter of the year.

Earlier this year she released a four-part EP series before issuing her full album, Faulkner County in November. “People listen to music in so many different ways now that I wanted to be able to play with that, to see what the fans liked and to be able to kind of try some different stuff creatively too,” she says of releasing the EPs. “At the same time, you work so hard to put an album together, you put it out -- and especially now a days -- in the blink of an eye it goes by. I wanted to be able to enjoy the songs a little more over time, so this way I got to focus on a couple of songs at a time and it was really fun.”

Ryan Nolan
Erin Enderlin

Faulkner County was produced by Jamey Johnson and Jim “Moose” Brown. “Moose and Jamie and I went into the studio and Jamey was like just bring all the songs that you love and we’ll cut what we feel like that day,” she says of the 14-track collection of intricately woven story songs. “So I brought a bunch of demos and lyric sheets and we just picked what was in the moment and what made us feel something and then it kind of grew from there.”

When asked how she describes what she does, Enderlin smiles and responds, “Somebody told me once they thought I made ‘sad bastard country music,’ which was pretty great. That sounds like a pretty good description. I listened to a lot of the old Dolly Parton songs and Johnny Cash songs growing up and a lot of the old folks songs. I grew up listening to a lot of that and so I guess my sad meter might be off.”

Enderlin is happy to be walking in the footsteps of her heroes. “I love going out and meeting people, hearing their stories and getting to play my songs for them,” she says. “I was so fortunate to begin writing early and have people connect with my songs that way, but I get bored doing the same thing too long -- and so I like being able to write some, go in the studio some, go on the road some, mix it up and do different things. I don’t take it for granted. I’ve had a lot of amazing things that came together.”