Nashville has always been known as a songwriter's town, and that perception has been bolstered in the past decade by the increasing success of the CMA Songwriters Series. The series celebrated its 10th anniversary this year by expanding into television and drawing standing-room-only crowds to such celebrated venues as the Sundance Film Festival and the Atlantis Live Paradise Music Festival in the Bahamas.
The Series returns to Music City on Wednesday night (Nov.4) as Brandy Clark, Sara Evans and Brett James perform at the CMA Theater in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. "This is my fourth one," says Clark, who is nominated for CMA's Best New Artist and Song of the Year for co-writing Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow." "I did one in Nashville at the Hall of Fame, and at Joe's Pub [in New York City]. I also did Sundance. It was great...and at Joe's Pub, they sell it out. We played four shows in two nights there. They sold everything out. And the Sundance one was a little smaller, but it was a beautiful location."
Clark says being part of the series appeals to her because of the camaraderie with fellow writers and the appreciative crowds. "I always love the other writers that are on it, because it's always people that are great songwriters. And the audiences that come are amazing. They're usually people that don't have the Bluebird right in their backyard," she says of Nashville's famed songwriter's venue, "so they're just astounded that three or four people can sit up there and play all these songs that they know, and the ones that they don't know. It's real special. And then for me, this year as well as last year, this particular one is real special being a Song of the Year nominee. And also, not taking anything away from anyone else, but my first one was with Bob DiPiero. And I just loved him so much, and so any chance I get to do a show with him, I'm going to do it."
The CMA Songwriters Series was the brainchild of DiPiero, well known for hits for Reba McEntire, George Strait, Vince Gill, Brooks & Dunn, the Oak Ridge Boys, Garth Brooks and many others. "It's one of my passions," DiPiero says of the Series. "I've been on the board of the CMAs for several years. I just was really questioning why I was on the board. I wanted to represent songwriters. So when the CMA Awards decided to broadcast from New York City at Madison Square Garden [in 2005], it came to my mind that there was all this focus going to be on country music and the artists. But there was not focus on the songwriters. I really wanted to put some sort of spotlight on our songwriter community. So the idea of doing a songwriters show up in New York City came to me."
His fellow board members loved the idea. "At the time, Victor Sansone and Kix Brooks were executives on the board, and I brought this idea to them and they were all on board," he recalls. "So we found a wonderful venue up there, Joe's Pub. During that week, we did a songwriters' show. We thought it was just going to be a one-time thing, but the folks at Joe's Pub really enjoyed the concept and the show, and they invited us back to do another one later on that year. So we came back and I brought some new faces and they liked that. We did about four that year, and 10 years later, we're still doing them up there."
The CMA continues to build on DiPiero's legacy. "The vision of Bob DiPiero in starting this series in New York when the awards were in New York 10 years ago was just amazing," says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. "He certainly is the father of the songwriter series. We appreciate the passion he's brought to it. Those of us in Nashville are so used to getting to see great songwriter shows around town. Certainly whenever I used to come visit Nashville before I lived here, I always tried to go to Bluebird and see the songwriters. The fact that we've been able to take this series around the country -- and frankly around the world -- has been able to give people outside of Nashville a special little treat, just a little taste of what's so unique about our songwriting community here."
Now more people will have a chance to see Nashville's acclaimed songwriters as the Series expanded to television. CMA partnered with public television's concert series "Front and Center" to present two separate hour-long concert specials airing this fall and more are planned.
"They came about because the producer of the show actually came to our show at Joe's Pub earlier in the year with Bob and Kix They just loved the chemistry and the storytelling," Trahern says. "They thought this would be a great format to do to highlight some of our songwriters within the context of that show. So we taped two shows earlier this year that began airing last month. One is the songwriters in the round with Dierks [Bentley] and some of his writer friends, Ross Copperman, Brett James, Jon Randall and Jim Beavers. So that was a much more traditional "in-the-round" kind of show featuring all their songs, as well as the songs they've written with Dierks. And then we also did one with Lady Antebellum and their songwriting friends that airs starting later this month."
Trahern says additional TV shows are in the works. "We're taping three or four more in early December that will air towards the end of the first quarter/early second quarter next year," she says. "And then we hope next year to tape three or four more sometime in the spring. I'm hoping that the television show will actually get in front of some people who have never considered going out for a singer/songwriter night, and they get a taste of how special that community is and how entertaining the songwriters are. Our goal is to try to highlight the careers of songwriters, period whether it's within our format of shows or in other ways."
In addition to TV, Trahern says CMA also plans to take the live experience to new venues. "Nothing beats seeing the singer/songwriter show live," she says. "We're going back to London in March with it. We went to the Bahamas this year for the first time. We just did a show in Austin a few weeks ago, we've got Nashville again this week, and then we wrap up the year in New York on December 3-4. We have also been in Paris, Washington DC, Los Angeles and we're going back to the Library of Congress sometime next year as well. Our goal is to continue to stage the shows in different locations to get more access to people seeing the show in person."
Seeing songwriters perform the hits they've written and sharing the stories behind them is the primary appeal of the CMA Songwriters series. "I played one of the CMA Songwriter Series shows in NYC at Joe's Pub," says Jim Photoglo, who has penned hits for Alabama, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Faith Hill and many others. "The key to the success of these shows is twofold. First of all, the audience gets to hear the stories behind the writing of each song, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, but always engaging. Secondly, they hear the song conveyed the way its creator intended. When a song is recorded by an artist, they put their own stamp on it, injecting their own personality by way of phrasing and vocal nuance, sometimes making subtle -- or not-so-subtle -- changes in the melody and lyrics. At a Songwriter Series Show the audience members hear songs they're already familiar with as if they're hearing them for the first time."
The success of the ABC-TV series Nashville has also generated interest in songwriters and how they approach their craft as several of the characters are writers or writer/artists. "[Nashville] shows the process of songwriting and the TV show has bolstered people's understanding of that process. I live down the street from the Bluebird, and every night when I drive home there's a huge line of people outside the door. So I know certainly that people who are coming to Nashville want to see that songwriting experience."
The year-long tenth anniversary celebration of the CMA Songwriter Series will culminate December 3-4 at Joe's Pub with DiPiero, James, Craig Wiseman and Radney Foster. "I can't tell you how many times, especially at Joe's Pub, people come up after the show and say, 'I don't really like country music, but whatever this was, I loved it,'" DiPiero says. "It's just great songs and great stories, told by the folks that write them. It's a very unique show. It's hard to explain someone that's never seen a show, but it just seems that as years have gone by, people continue to come back and bring friends. It's really been a grassroots thing that keeps growing. I would like Billboard readers that if they haven't seen a show, go see a show. And bring some friends. No one will be disappointed."