CMA Songwriters Series Celebrates 10th Anniversary at NYC's Joe's Pub

Kevin Yatarola
Bob DiPiero, Craig Wiseman, Brett James and Radney Foster perform at the CMA Songwriters Series on Wednesday, Dec. 3 at Joe's Pub in New York.

In recent years, the men and women who play a behind-the-scenes role in making pop music have been getting more attention. The most prominent example is probably the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom -- which documented the contributions made by backup singers in classic rock -- but the same thing has been happening in country music with professional songsmiths.

Part of that is due to the CMA Songwriters Series, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The anniversary culminated with shows at New York City's Joe's Pub on Wednesday and Thursday (Dec. 3-4), during which Bob DiPiero, Craig Wiseman, Brett James and Radney Foster -- the same four men who played the first event a decade ago -- performed selections from a large pool of the hits they've composed for others throughout the years.

CMA Songwriters Series Celebrates 10th Anniversary

CMA Songwriters events have an off-the-cuff feel -- just writers and their guitars, with no rehearsal and heavy dollops of comedy. But in a brief video clip that aired during the show, DiPiero said these shows started with a clear goal: to "give the songwriting community in Nashville a stage." Mission accomplished. Not only have these events survived for 10 years, you can find depictions of country songwriting on network television -- ABC's Nashville -- and interviews with songwriters have started to appear more frequently in the music press.

One of the most interesting aspects of a show like this is the chance to hear a song in its nascent form, spare and unadorned. A writer may emphasize a different part of a track than the star who eventually cut it and took it up the charts. Blake Shelton's "Boys Round Here," for example, swaggers and booms on the radio, but when Wiseman played it (he co-wrote it with Dallas Davidson and Rhett Atkins), he placed more emphasis on the sweet midsection, full of pretty backing vocals. (The Pistol Annies provide these in the studio; the crowd did a solid job filling in for them at Joe's.) James helped Dierks Bentley put together "I Hold On," which is smeared liberally with heavy guitars and martial drums in its final version. Played solo, the track is a quieter testament to perseverance -- but it's no less resilient.

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Usually the songs performed became hits, but not always. Before one pick, Foster offered a caveat: "I'm gonna play a record that's a hit for no one. It's got a good story, though." For these writers, the stories are crucial, and the stage offers them a rare chance to share these tales with a wider audience. Foster quipped that he gets to "make pancakes Sunday morning in the Keith Urban memorial kitchen," after the Australian singer redid Foster's "Raining on Sunday" and made it into a chart success. DiPiero and Wiseman both presented comic examples of times that labels forced them to change song lyrics. (For the worse, of course.)

It wasn't all jokes, though: One theme of the event was the danger that Spotify and streaming services in general posed to the songwriting profession. James said that "new songwriters don't exist, because they can't make a living," while DiPiero applauded Taylor Swift for removing her music from the streaming service. Foster declared that if everyone gave him $5, they could download his entire catalog, and he'd end up with more money than he would from streaming.

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While they're united against streaming, all four men on the stage are competitors in Nashville. An album only contains so many songs, and there are a lot of writers vying for those coveted spots. After Wiseman played "Summertime," a No. 1 country hit for Kenny Chesney, James suggested, "That song probably cost me several hundred thousand dollars," because it exiled one of his own compositions to the Target-only edition of Chesney's album. But each man took every opportunity to lavish praise on the work of the other three. Foster declared that the first time he heard "Live Like You Were Dying," Wiseman's song for Tim McGraw, he had to pull over the car so he could cry.

This mutual admiration sometimes expressed itself musically, leading to several of the show's most exciting moments, like when Foster played "Raining on Sunday" (the track that got him that nice new kitchen). Foster is a solo artist as well as a writer for others; he has a strong voice, controlled and weary and textured. James chipped in by adding a high harmony, then DiPiero picked out a little embellishment on his guitar during the bridge, and suddenly it seemed as if a hit was being rewritten in real time.


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