- edited from a speech given January 24, 2008 at Averett University for Founders’ Day
I am a writer. Writers operate in small rooms, shut away from the rest of the world and kept from normal people. We occasionally invite one - maybe two others to join us in the process of creating. I’ve often compared what I do as a songwriter as to being like one who makes shoes for an artist. I want to create a song they will love the first time they hear it but one that will also serve them well night after night year after year as they’re out on the road smelling diesel fumes and eating bad catering – while I’m eating home cooking and hanging out with my wife and kids.
I’ve known that these small rooms were the sweet spot for me ever since high school – lying awake at night listening to WRAL 101.5-FM out of Raleigh, North Carolina and rushing out later in the week to buy records and seeing there in the tiniest of print, the writer’s names. Sometimes, yes, I did find that Billy Joel, Dan Fogelberg, Bruce Springsteen wrote all of their own songs. But then, other records had songs by writers that were not the artist. This always intrigued me. Who were these people – Hal David, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, Will Jennings, Marilyn & Alan Bergman, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Barry Mann, Marvin Hamlish, Burt Bacharach, Irving Berlin...
At this same time in my life, I was very active in the youth ministry at my church in which youth choir figured prominently. If I was going to have any hope of taking a trip in the summer to King’s Dominion or Six Flags, I had to be in the choir in order to go on the tour. Through these practices I started discovering new names – Kurt Kaiser, Ralph Carmichael, Dallas Holm, Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby...
I could give you a glorified or spiritualized reason for why I began writing songs – but the reality is that there is only one reason a teenage guy ever picks up a guitar or sits down at a piano and dares to sing out what he’s feeling – it’s in order to get girls!!!
It was during high school when music was so present in my life that I also began to wrestle with what a true life of faith looked like. Years earlier, I did what I thought then and still think is the smartest thing I’ve ever done – I trusted Jesus as my Savior. Around the age of sixteen I began to wrestle with what it meant for Him to not just be my Savior but also my Lord. I imagined since he was the one who gave me my life then it seemed right that he was the One to show me how to best live it. I soon began to write songs that reflected my faith. I knew even then that I had no desire to stand before people and sing – this coupled with the fact that I had listened to a couple tapes of myself singing and it was crystal clear that this was not my gifting and could not be my calling!!!!
I began to draft my friends from youth choir to sing the songs I was writing. The emotional pay-off, the satisfaction, was the same for me even when someone else sang them – the bottom line, the message got communicated.
By my senior year of high school, I was devoting more and more time to writing. It was only later that I came across a quote by professional stuntwoman, Jennifer Lamb, “If you find something you love doing as you’re growing up, look hard to see if you can make a living at it instead of giving it up for something more sensible.”
Since there were no prospects of getting a job as a songwriter (or even a clue as to how to go about getting that kind of job) I decided that I needed to choose a college like all my other friends were doing. In my mind this was four more years of attending classes, which I didn’t mind, and having free time for doing what I wanted to do. Averett College (University now) was close to my home and I knew that it offered a degree in music as well as in religion.
A writer friend of mine stated once that when she arrived in Nashville and began to co-write she knew that she had found “her people.” Those that she has trusted were out there somewhere and just as obsessed as she was about verses, choruses, bridges, rhyme schemes, meter ... Averett was the beginning of my search for my people.
It was during this time that I began to realize how obsessive I was about writing. I was always content to get a B, B- (ok, a C plus) if it meant that I could get all my projects and reports written and turned in early so that I had the rest of the semester to do what I wanted to do – which was sit in the library or in a practice room with a blank legal pad. I was experiencing what musician John Stewart meant when he said "Songwriting is the way of perpetual want. Writers are the blessed cursed people, because if you truly are a writer, meaning that you hear the voices, you will never have a moment's peace in your life. You will always be wanting the next song."
Although I didn’t find any actual partners in creativity at Averett, I did begin to vicariously find my people through the records I was buying. It was on that campus that I first heard the music of Amy Grant, David Meece, Sandi Patty, Russ Taff, the Imperials and Michael W. Smith.
And while I didn’t find any co-writers during my four years here, what I did find in the Spring of ’82 in “Intro to Music” class was a pretty girl in a navy blue wool suit who smiled at me every time I turned around and looked at her. We were married three years later!!!
It was also while at Averett that I began to mail my songs to publishers in Nashville (back in a day when you could actually get a response from a cold submission.) And I got responses. I prayed that I’d open letters that talked of how “great and original” my work was. What I heard instead that “what was great was not original and what was original was not great!!!”
I did however in time get several notes that considered the music “average and ordinary” and said that the words - basically – “didn’t stink quite as much as the music!!!” (I know a compliment when I have to dig it out!) Being told that from multiple publishers did help clarify for me that it was ultimately the message that I was most passionate about. There were thousands of melodic and harmonic choices to be made with each song and in the end, I didn’t care all that much. For the first time I began to see that my passion was more for the words than anything else.
It was at this time I made the first of several significant career wagers. If I got the note affirming my lyrics over my music, I bet somewhere out there in America on that very week some other guy had received a note affirming his music over his lyrics. Would it be possible for us to ever connect some how?
A year after finishing at Averett, I attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I spent three years there being better equipped for ministry while amassing quite a collection of inked up legal pads and cassette tapes in boxes underneath my bed. As I considered what I would give my time to in the coming years, I felt a growing pressure that I had to at least give “the writing thing” some kind of a shot. The thought of looking back down the road in twenty-five years at a box of dusty papers and tapes tucked away became almost claustrophobic!! I could live with being told “no” – I just couldn’t live with not trying and never knowing.
After graduation, and after much prayer, Terri and I decided to do the most foolish, or faithful thing (funny how those two feel so close most of the time) that we could imagine. We moved to Nashville. No contacts – no leads – no one to call and say “we’re here.”
It was a hard and lonely time. Especially two years after being there and still with no church staff position on the horizon. Life looked like second shift temp work loading paper into presses and lifting boxes. But during this time I was taking advantage of every opportunity to hear real writers play their material and to attend every class and seminar on songwriting that I could. I was beginning to be around my people.
In one of these classes at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) we were told “The hardest meeting to get with a publisher is not the first meeting – but it’s the second meeting.” I believed that was true and made a second important career wager.
I wanted to be sure that I was ready before I made my first move toward a publisher. I needed someone to be the intermediary who would tell when it was time. I approached one of membership directors at ASCAP and asked him to be that person for me. He said “Well no one’s ever asked me that before. OK – I’ll take a meeting with you every two or three months to look at the latest lyrics that you’re writing.”
Two months later during our first actual meeting I placed on his desk three sheets of typed paper with completed lyrics for songs – the best that I had to offer at the time. He was silent for about five minutes as he read them, looked up at me and said “grab your coat – get in the car – I know some people you need to meet!!” I did what I do in all intensely emotional times – I cried!! It was everything I had hoped for – it was a chance.
He took me around to four of the most successful Christian publishers in town at the time – all people that I knew who they were and who their staff of writers were and what recent successes they had all had. I had done my homework. Of the four, two quickly dismissed me, one spent forty-five minutes telling me how great they were at their job (weird!!) and one invited me to start hanging around and said “Let me see if I can get one or two of my writers to write with you.” For the second time that week, I cried!!
Months later after several successful co-writes, I was offered my first contract. Not exactly a big money deal (ok – pretty close to a no money deal) but it was evidence of someone’s belief in my ability and their pledge to try to place songs on my behalf. It was the beginning of a great working relationship. I remain deeply indebted to Michael Puryear (Lorenz Creative Services/BMG Music Publishing) for being the first one to professionally believe in me.
After signing, it was another two years before I actually got my first song recorded. I wish I could say that things progressed quickly for me from that point on – but quickly has never been a part of the story for me. I always want things to happen now and God seems to have an excruciatingly other timetable for me.
For seven years, life looked like a full-time church staff position that had just come my way and then hustling home to help my wife with our four young daughters. I took my regular day off each week to book two co-writing sessions and I found that if I was going to have any other time to write each day, the only open window was 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fortunately for me my body clock has never gotten over my college schedule and still to this day, it works for me. Fortunately also - the start of a working musician’s day in Nashville is generally 10 a.m.
After eight and a half years of full-time youth ministry at a local church and a diligent writing schedule, several nice things had begun to come my way. I had started to have a few successful radio singles and among the records I had been able to get on – one of them was Point of Grace’s platinum selling LIFE, LOVE AND OTHER MYSTERIES project. Because of having three songs on a record that actually sold a million copies in the Christian marketplace, I was able to negotiate a better contract that would allow me to take the wild risk and jump off into writing full-time - though in one of the smallest selling genres in all of music.
My days are now generally filled with a 10:00 a.m. co-write and a 2:00 p.m. co-write - either with another writer from our staff or one from another company in town - or on a really good day, with an artist. On a great day, it’s with an artist who comes in with a great idea that they need help writing. In the midst of all this there is the business of: getting new songs signed-off on by my publisher, getting demo recordings made in the studio (one of my least favorite parts of my job), getting songs pitched to label guys who are looking, making calls to find out who is looking – and the constant in the chaos of life for every writer – REJECTION – REJECTION – REJECTION!!!!!
An accomplished country writer said once “To be a successful writer in Nashville is to have the soul of a poet and the hide of a rhino!”
Yet in light of this, I still believe that the right song at the right moment can make a powerful life-changing difference. Just as writers connected deeply with me early on - and continue to - by daring to put their thoughts and feelings on paper and casting them out the airwaves asking “Have you ever felt this way?” “Have you ever looked at life like this?” I wish to do the same.
My songs have gone many places that I will never have the chance to go. It remains a thrill to be driving through a town, flip the dial, and hear one of them. I’ve been surprised by them on the Grand Ole Opry, ABC, CMT, C-SPAN, late night dedications by Delilah ... I was amazed the first time my international airplay statement credited me with one penny from Russia. One penny – crazy – and yet, somehow my song had gone where I had not.
You never now where one is going to pop up. A few years back I watched the Presidential Prayer Breakfast on C-SPAN as Point of Grace sang one of my songs for not only the president and the many congressmen in attendance - but also for Bono of U2 – quite possibly one of the coolest musicians on the planet. What a kick to see at the end of my song when the cameras cut to him applauding. I bought the footage!!!
One of the most gratifying uses to me was in April of 1999. On a Sunday night at home, I watched the ABC coverage of the Columbine Memorial Service during the six o’clock news. They showed clips featuring Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith singing songs of theirs to the crowd of mourners. Tears filled my eyes. I was moved by the power of their music to be such a healing force for so many people on such a dark day in America. Later that night I received several phone calls from friends who said “Hey, I heard your song on CNN today.” I didn’t know it at the time but as a last minute addition to the program Al Gore had grabbed a singer from east Tennessee, Phil Driscoll, and asked him to come along and maybe sing a song on the program. I was again moved to tears to later watch the footage where he offered in that setting for thousands and thousands of deeply hurting people CHRIST REMAINS – a very explicit faith message I had written – and carried to the nation courtesy of CNN. I was overwhelmed.
I am constantly aware of God’s immense blessings to me and of the responsibilities that come with blessing. I have been privileged to grow up in a country where a kid from a one stop-light tobacco town could dream of doing some crazy thing “out-there” and actually have that dream come true.
I’ve been blessed to have loving supportive parents who even if they thought I was crazy when I told them what my plans were, they didn’t say it.
Winston Churchill said “In an absorbing vocation, working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday and ordinary holidays are grudged as enforced interruptions.” I feel this about what I do – I fight to find balance – to be a good husband, a good dad, a good friend ... because for me there is no feeling quite like that of turning the corner into the home stretch of what I know is a really good idea. It is the moment of feeling most alive!
Katherine Graham said “To love what you do and feel that it matters - could anything be more fun?” My prayer for you is that you will find your dream, find your people and find the fun of making a living daily doing what you would do anyway – even if you couldn’t get paid for it.