Since moving to Nashville over two decades ago, Luke Laird has carved out one of the most successful careers in the Country format, penning such hits as Jon Pardi‘s “Head Over Boots,” Carrie Underwood‘s “So Small” and Little Big Town‘s “Pontoon.” Since 2011, Laird and his wife Beth Laird have partnered up to steer the artistic wheel behind Creative Nation, one of the most successful publishing companies in town with rights to compositions from writers such as Laird, Barry Dean and Natalie Hemby.
But Creative Nation is much more than simply a publishing company. Since beginning their operation, the Lairds have effectively maneuvered into the world of artist management. In an exclusive interview with Billboard, Beth Laird says that the decision to enter into the management arena stemmed from a desire to streamline her husband’s work as a writer — and make him more effective.
“With Luke being a songwriter and a producer, I watched him and all the things that went well for him and all the things that he struggled with,” she says. “I noticed that when he had to juggle all the details around being creative — scheduling, travel or invoicing — that just wasn’t his strong suit. But if we took away all of that distraction and let him focus on what he was great at, he was way more efficient, way more successful and happier.” It was then that she says she began to consider that other writers might look at themselves in the same manner.
“I think that’s the way it is for a lot of creative people,” Laird continues. “They don’t see themselves just in one way. If you’re a creative person, I want to be able to sit down with you and say, ‘What do you want to do?’ We started with this idea of going out and signing people that we thought were really great, and writers that have something unique to say. So, let’s go out there and help these people in whatever ways that their creativity blossoms into.”
One of Creative Nation’s biggest success stories to date has been Lori McKenna. The critically-acclaimed songwriter was very much at a crossroads in her career when she first began working with the company. “When I met her, she had decided that she was going to spend more time writing songs and less time being an artist,” Beth Laird remembers. “I told her, ‘I know this might not be a popular thing to say, but if you come to Creative Nation, I’m not going to let you [not be an artist]. I believe that you love being an artist, and these songs you write for yourself like ‘Humble and Kind’ are some of your most successful songs as a songwriter, as well. If you come here, we’ll help you do both.’ People would tell her not to put out any more albums or play any shows, just write songs for other people. But I felt like you just can’t cut that part of her off.”
McKenna heeded Laird’s advice, and the resulting album, 2016’s The Bird and the Rifle, became a Top 20 country album, ultimately netting McKenna three Grammy nominations, her first as a lead artist. Though the artistic direction was McKenna’s, Laird takes a great deal of pride in the fact that Creative Nation was able to put together a team that brought her the results she so craved.
“I introduced her to [producer] Dave Cobb, got Thirty Tigers involved for distribution, got Asha Goodman on board for PR — I love just helping someone build their team,” Laird says. “We were the little engine that could on that record. We’ve really been able to help Lori balance her time. She might be doing [songwriting sessions] one week, then shows the next. I find that fun, because I get to be a part of the whole process.”
That’s not to say that Creative Nation isn’t still looking for great songs, and for great songwriters who don’t harbor ambitions of stepping out front as an artist. But the company prides itself on giving those songwriters the option to enter the limelight if they do feel that urge to do so, giving it another way to attract the best in the business. “We continue to sign great writers — Kassi Ashton is an example of someone that we met where we heard her song on a phone work tape first, and we were interested in her as a songwriter whether she wanted to be an artist or not,” Laird says of Ashton, a Missouri native who just signed with MCA Nashville/Interscope. “We signed her as a songwriter, and then she wanted to be an artist, so we just helped her along in that process. It’s been very natural.”
Currently, Creative Nation has plans to release new music from McKenna in 2018, as well as Steve Moakler and Muscadine Bloodline. Though the Lairds are both tuned into the creative process, Beth says that it’s also good to know what it is that they don’t know. In that vein Creative Nation has made some strong hires over the past couple years, such as bringing in Rachel Burleson as a management coordinator and Brandon Gill as vp management after a long run at Morris Higham.
“I like working with people who are better and smarter than me, and have a really unique skill set that I don’t have,” she says. “Our publishing team really loves being a part of the song process all the way to being produced and turned in. Then, management is excited about everything that happens with that in the marketplace. It’s been a really fun transition because we’re working with songwriters from the point of literally setting up the co-write all the way to booking the show and watching them perform it live, getting it released, and all the things that go along with that.”
At Creative Nation, the aim is to look at each client as an individual and help them achieve their specific goals, even the artists they might not talk about out loud. “If [a client] said, ‘This year, I really want to write songs, but I would love to find a path for that to translate into making a book, a record, or a kid’s book,’ I want to help you figure that out,” she says. “Let’s dream about it. Let’s write it down. Lori said she wanted to win a Grammy, but she was scared to write it down. I said, ‘Let’s work towards it.’ I love that.”
Seven years of success later, the team at Creative Nation remains as focused as ever. And one satisfied client is Luke Laird himself.
“I feel now more than ever that I have the freedom to get to show up and be creative, and not just think, ‘I’ve got to write a song for the radio today’ — although I do try to do that,” Luke Laird says. “There’s something about having your own company and the creative entity that gives you the feeling of knowing that there’s a chance these songs could get heard even if they’re not on the radio. We’re developing artists that aren’t just radio artists. So I feel that our whole team really does step in and take care of the schedule. It’s a very focused effort on what everyone does for the clients here — and I am one of those clients.
“I’ve seen the benefit of being part of a company that really looks at each individual writer as a unique individual and a unique creative,” he adds. “If I wasn’t married to Beth, I would be trying to be a writer at Creative Nation. The attention to detail and to quality is at such a high level.”