Cassadee Pope and ace songwriters Brett James, Chris DeStefano and JT Harding performed for a sold-out show at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café on Tuesday evening as part of the second annual ASCAP Experience in the Round. In anticipation of the 15th annual ASCAP Experience in Los Angeles April 1-3, the songwriters shared many of their hits as well as tales of attending previous ASCAP conferences.
“We’ve had some amazing people out there,” ASCAP vice president of membership Mike Sistad said of the ASCAP Experience ahead of introducing the round. “We’ve had Chris Stapleton, Justin Timberlake, Tom Petty, Meghan Trainor, Quincy Jones … Please check out the ASCAP Experience. Hope to see some of you out in LA for that. Thank you for supporting songwriters.”
Seven years ago, Pope was crowned winner of The Voice, and throughout her performance, she shared some stories behind her songs, including penning “Sis” with James during a writing retreat in a haunted medieval castle in France. “It was really amazing, but we wrote a song in this really creepy room where bad things happened to innocent women and I was in the mind-set that day to write a song about my sister,” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, if I write a song about my sister that is really empowering, maybe all the ghosts and weird people that are still in this room won’t bother me.’”
She then played the empowering tune on acoustic guitar while seated in the round beside James, Harding and DeStefano. Following her performance, James debuted several new songs from his upcoming project, including the poignant “True Believer,” which he penned for his 19-year-old daughter. “I haven’t made a record in about 25 years, so I decided to make a record. The first single comes out Feb. 7 and the EP comes out March 15,” he said, after explaining that the audience was seated in a very special venue. “Believe it or not, we know it’s in a strip mall, but this is the Mother Church of Songwriting.”
Harding, meanwhile, proved to be the comedian of the round, often slipping in jokes about his fellow songwriters as well as praising the ASCAP Experience. “If you are a songwriter or know someone that is a songwriter, especially in the beginning, it’s invaluable. There are 3,000 people that go … It’s so much more than creating music. It’s networking, it’s performing, it’s talking to publishers, it’s getting your music heard.”
He went on to admit that following a visit to the ASCAP Experience, he got the idea for Blake Shelton’s “Sangria” while driving the Pacific Coast Highway and passing an abandoned hotel in Malibu. His animated performance garnered a sing-along and additional laughs when he changed the words to, “Your lips taste like Gwen Stefani.”
An ASCAP member since 1997, DeStefano followed suit and performed his first hit with Carrie Underwood, “Good Girl.” A special song for DeStefano, he recalled how Underwood’s manager called him early on in his career to ask if he had time to write with the country star. The song would go on to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in 2012. DeStefano’s unique version highlighted his powerful pipes and mesmerizing falsetto. Later in the round, he’d perform a spellbinding interpretation of “The Champion,” a song he, Underwood and James wrote together, and he garnered rousing applause for rapping Ludacris’ verse on the song.
Additional highlights throughout the evening included Pope’s debut country single “Wasting All These Tears” and uplifting unreleased track “Best Worst Thing,” James’ inspiring rendition of Underwood’s “Something In the Water,” Harding’s infectious “Smile” recorded by Uncle Kracker, and DeStefano’s soaring Dan + Shay cut “From the Ground Up” segueing into a snippet of Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be.” Whoever was playing a song, the other writers would chime in on background vocals or assist on guitar. During Harding’s performance of his 2016 CMA Award-winning vocal event of the year “Different for Girls,” recorded by Dierks Bentley and Elle King — which he admitted he initially pitched to Eric Church — Pope sang harmonies on King’s verse, once again showing that the four songwriters in the round were much more than hit lyricists, but also good friends.
“My favorite thing about being in the music business is the friendships. I’m just so honored to be up here with three of my dear friends that I absolutely adore. We all get to take trips together and play silly shows together and write songs together and it’s the great joy of my life,” James said.