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.