Where Country Music Comes From

Tonight in Nashville, I heard three solo performances by legendary singer songwriters associated with the famous Bluebird Cafe. You might not know their names, but I guarantee you’ve heard one or more of their songs performed by famous stars:

  • Tom Douglas: He co-wrote Miranda Lambert’s hit song “The House That Built Me” with Allen Shamblin (also on the stage tonight; Allen was the one who sang this song) and he wrote Lady Antebellum’s #1 hit “I Run To You” (which he performed).
  • Leslie Satcher: She’s written hit songs for George Jones, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt. My favorite of her songs was “You Remain” which was recorded by Bonnie Raitt.
  • Allen Shamblin: He wrote Randy Travis’s #1 hit “He Walked On Water” and co-wrote “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (with Tom Douglas, who closed out the evening with that song). I was really impressed by his version of a song I hadn’t heard before, “Number 37405,” which was recorded by Tim McGraw.

As a creativity researcher, I was particularly interested as the songwriters talked about their creative process. The theme that stood out was collaboration: After all, two of the folks on stage, Tom and Allen, cowrite together often. And all three of the musicians talked about the importance of the songwriting community, of sharing ideas and playing bits of melody for each other. Leslie Satcher talked about the value of sharing ideas with non-musicians: actors, movie directors, visual artists. It’s the kind of creative process I describe in my book Group Genius: the power of collaboration to drive creativity.

All three talked about how long it takes for a song to develop–from the first intriguing lyric, to a first draft that might sit on the shelf for five or six years… until something makes them pick it up again and tweak it a little bit more. That’s the story behind “The House That Built Me”: Tom said no artist was interested in the first draft, but five years later, after many revisions and twists and turns, four different artists wanted the final draft. That’s the kind of story I describe in my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity.

From their stories, it become clear that all three songwriters work in a complex industry system that includes song pickers, agents, producers, and the famous performers themselves. They all told us fascinating stories about the zig-zagging chain of events that resulted in one or another song making its way to the artist who eventually recorded it.

No doubt, the famous singers that recorded these songs have better voices (the songwriters would be the first to admit) and superior production. But I loved seeing the creator of a song, with just a guitar or a piano, singing alone. It’s a window onto the creative process.

9 thoughts on “Where Country Music Comes From

  1. I have read your blog for about 6 months. Always enjoy it. I have a particular interest in this one as I am a music publisher and have been for 30 years. I have the privilege of knowing these creators and know they are amazing people. If you are in Nashville sometime, I would love to show you our creative community!! You will be amazed at what you find!!! Enjoy the blogs. Please keep them coming.

  2. I have been reading your blogs for a while now and I really enjoy them. I am a 30 music publisher and have the great pleasure of working with, for and knowing these creators! thank you for this. I think the song that Tom Douglas may have been talking about was “The House that Built Me”. Next time you are in Nashville, please let me know. I would love to introduce you to this creative community!!! please keep up the blogs!!

    1. Thank you for your kind words about my blog! I am leaving Nashville early tomorrow, but I will take you up on your offer the next time I return! Do you know Elizabeth Long-Lingo? She is a colleague of mine here at Vanderbilt who has been studying music producers, she was on the same panel with me.

      1. I do not know Elizabeth, but will look her up. I am so interested in what you do. Working with songwriters has been interesting because they all are the same yet so uniquely different!! Each one has a different creative process. I travel to St Louis often as I have a daughter attending Greenville College in IL.

      1. “That’s the story behind “I Can’t Make You Love Me”: Tom said no artist was interested in the first draft, but five years later, after many revisions and twists and turns, four different artists wanted the final draft.”

        Tom was not a writer on this song. Allen Shamblin and Mike Reid wrote “I can’t make you love me”. That is the story that goes with “the house that built me” written by Tom and Allen….

      2. Wow, gosh darn it, I checked my memory and you are right! You really do know these guys well, I’m impressed! I’ve edited the original blog post to correct that mistake.

  3. Thanks for continuing to draw attention to the fact that artists are collaborative animals. I wonder, however, how we might do the same for entrepreneurs, and particularly creative entrepreneurs, who suffer from the same misconceptions about working in isolation.

    1. In my experience, entrepreneurs are extremely connected individuals. As they say, entrepreneurship is defined as pursuing a goal without regard for the resources at hand. So, those resources eventually have to be marshalled through relationships, networking, and being able to tell a compelling story that convinces others. What do you think?

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