The note on the Bluebird Café's Facebook page says it all: customers who visit the Nashville songwriters club – instrumental in the development of Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and Kathy Mattea – are expected to keep quiet and listen to the words from some of Music City's most influential composers.
Listening has an added benefit – it gives the listener a chance to learn.
That's how singer-songwriter Dustin Lynch used the Bluebird. And he used it intensely. He rented an apartment behind the venue's back parking lot and literally walked to the Bluebird several times a week to listen and learn about the mysterious art of creating songs from some of Nashville's most important writers. Don Schlitz ("The Gambler"), Tony Arata ("The Dance"), Paul Overstreet ("Forever And Ever, Amen") – all are mainstays of the Bluebird legend, and it was at their proverbial feet that he picked up key insights about the writing process.
"I was soaking it in, trying to be a sponge," Lynch says. "I was mainly trying to hear the story behind the song, how it came about, what it's really about. There's something about understanding the songwriter's realm. You get a little more grip on the way it was written and why it was written and how they got to the finished product."
That education paid off in a big way for Lynch. He signed with Broken Bow Records – the home of Jason Aldean and sister label to Stoney Creek Records (home to Thompson Square) .His debut single, "Cowboy and Angels," is quickly rising up the Country charts. Lynch is working with producer Brett Beavers (known for his work with Dierks Bentley) and engineer Luke Wooten (Brad Paisley, Sunny Sweeney) on his debut album (due August 21, 2012) with a backlog of his own songs. He's written that material with a bundle of Music City's top writers – Dallas Davidson ("Just A Kiss"), Tim Nichols ("Live Like You Were Dying"), Casey Beathard ("Don't Blink"), Phil O'Donnell ("Back When I Knew It All") and Steve Bogard ("Prayin' For Daylight"), to name a few.
But it all goes back to the Bluebird for Lynch, a native of Tullahoma, Tennessee. Influenced in his youth by such stalwart country singers as Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and Clint Black, Lynch knew the importance of the Bluebird, and he chose his college – David Lipscomb University – in part because it was less than two miles from the club, which proved immensely important in his development.
Lynch auditioned on a Saturday morning for a chance to play its open-mic night the following day. He passed the audition and impressed host Barbara Cloyd so much that she chased him into the parking lot and offered to help him get some footing in the community.
As he began to establish himself at the Bluebird, Lynch got a call from Pete Hartung – manager for singer-songwriter Justin Moore – who had found Dustin's MySpace page and wanted to get involved. Within weeks, Lynch had a publishing deal, and he made the most of it, writing a staggering 200+ songs in less than two years.
"I'm a workaholic," he says. "I was getting paid to write songs, so that's what I did. That's just the guy I am, if I'm not doing something I get bored, so I was trying to write the best record possible and decided to just get after it as hard as I can.".
Even as a Bluebird visitor, Lynch had made an impression. After he signed his publishing deal, one of the company's executives persuaded Phil O'Donnell and Casey Beathard to book a co-writing session with the new writer, even though they'd never even heard his name. As soon as he walked through the door, they exploded: "Holy crap, Dustin! We know you!"
But it's not just physical recognition that Lynch has achieved with his studious approach to songwriting. He combined his fascination with words and melodies with concert skills he developed in high-school bands and playing the southeastern club circuit. That combination has made him one of country's artists to watch, a performer who's written his own mix of party songs and ballads with a unique perspective. It's his own viewpoint, honed from watching the world, and watching the experts.
It's all there, waiting for anyone else willing to… Listen.
No doubt about it, in the 20 years since he released his first single, Neal McCoy – the one-of-a-kind country singer and consummate live performer – has enjoyed every minute of his long, successful career. Even with 11 albums, over 25 charted singles and countless thousands of touring miles already under his big belt buckle, the Longview, Texas-based artist has no intention of slowing down.
"I'm still on the road 220 days a year," McCoy says. "It's crazy, but I really do love it."
Whether he's delivering a stirring version of "America the Beautiful" in front of 65,000 standing, cheering fans in Texas Stadium or performing for troops in any number of harrowing, far-flung locales, or coming out of nowhere with a Top-10 comeback single on his own independent label, critics, radio programmers and legions of die hard fans have come to know that they can always expect the unexpected from Neal McCoy.
At the same time, McCoy is that most reliable and predictable of artists. He's certainly seen his share of success in the record business, but – even as that industry undergoes convulsive changes brought on by the digital revolution – McCoy, like some musical Energizer bunny, just keeps going and going. That's because, for all of his success in the record business, McCoy is, always has been, and always will be, in the entertainment business. In fact, now that James Brown has left the building, McCoy could easily adopt the appellation of "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business."
"We do work hard, and I'm going to work until I have entertained you," he says. "You may be the guy in coveralls sitting in the third row who's there because his wife wanted to come and who doesn't give a damn, but by the time my show is over we think you will be clapping, if nothing else, at least for the effort I put forth."
Growing up the youngest of three in Jacksonville, Texas, McCoy was subject to the radio tastes of his older siblings, and he was treated to a steady diet of '70s-era Top-40, from Elton John to the Carpenters. His brother and sister also taught him all about family harmony.
"I learned early, because I sang with them," he says. "They would tell me, 'You hear pitch well,' so they made me think I could sing. I did have that little dream of being a singer, but being in Jacksonville, I never dreamed it would happen."
After finishing junior college, McCoy moved with his dad to nearby Longview, where he landed his first professional gig, as lead singer in an (almost) all-black Kool & the Gang-style dance band, playing "tiny little clubs." Before long, he left that gig for a better one – singing supper club-style standards. While he was growing as a singer and expanding his songbook, McCoy's natural performing skills and uncanny way with an audience became more apparent with every passing night.
"I had a knack for sussing out whatever people I was in front of and saying and doing the right things to get along," he recalls. "I grew up with that attitude, and when I was able to get onstage it was the same thing. I wanted them to like my singing, but I wanted them to like me too. That entailed being confident and not cocky, I’ve always felt I’ve been pretty good at walking that line."
Those talents were in full flower when, at a Dallas talent competition, McCoy caught the attention of Opry star Janie Fricke, who introduced him to country superstar Charley Pride. McCoy worked for the next several years as Pride's full-time opening act and protégé, the friendship eventually leading McCoy to Nashville and his first record deal. After a sluggish start, the singer signed with Atlantic Records and was teamed with Muscle Shoals producer Barry Beckett. The pair hit if off immediately, McCoy absorbing the producer's southern soul sensibility and Beckett tapping into the incredible range of material his new artist could deliver. The album they made, No Doubt About It, yielded three Top-10 singles – including two No. 1's, "No Doubt About It" and "Wink" – and ignited McCoy's career as a recording artist.
"Beckett was a Muscle Shoals guy and he had a way of doing it that just kind of fit me," McCoy says.
Their potent artist/producer chemistry resulted in two more best-selling collections, and the hits – "They're Playing Our Song," "For a Change," "If I Was a Drinkin' Man," "You Gotta Love That" – kept on coming. But McCoy's eclectic style proved to be both a blessing and a curse with fickle radio programmers.
"We went from 'No Doubt About It,' in that lower register, to 'Wink,' which was upbeat and fun, to a country shuffle, 'The City Put the Country Back in Me.' We hit them with three different things and they were like, 'What's your identity?' and Barry and I were telling them, 'This is our identity, a little bit of everything.'"
One thing that didn't change was fan reaction to McCoy's now hit-filled performances, and the singer's touring life was more hectic and successful than ever when, in 2001, he got the call from the King of Vegas.
"Wayne Newton got in touch with me in 2001," McCoy recalls. "After 9/11, everybody wanted to do something, and I was one of the lucky ones who actually had the opportunity to help. Wayne had taken over as USO celebrity head after Bob Hope, and I was one of the acts he contacted."
McCoy, along with stars like Jessica Simpson, Kid Rock and Shaggy, traveled to Bosnia and Italy in 2001, and the singer gained a new perspective and forged a strong bond with the Las Vegas veteran.
"Wayne and I really hit it off and just had this mutual respect for each other," McCoy says. "We are so much alike, not just onstage but offstage in the way we treat people. We laugh about how we could entertain anybody, anytime, anywhere."
Next thing he knew he was off with Newton and the USO again, along with Drew Carey and a bevy of Dallas Cheerleaders, landing in hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan to entertain the troops. To date, McCoy has done 13 USO tours, both domestic and overseas.
"It means the world," McCoy says "My mother was born in the Philippines, and growing up she made me understand and respect what it meant to live in the USA."
McCoy's USO tours have been life changing experiences, but his determination to leverage his celebrity status to benefit worthy causes goes way back. In 1995, McCoy and his wife, Melinda, established the East Texas Angel Network. Through fundraising activities, the organization has raised over five million dollars for medical treatments and related costs for children of East Texas with terminal or life-threatening diseases.
"When your child is sick and you're struggling to make a mortgage payment, or you can't put enough gas in your car to take your child 200 miles to Houston, that's a very big thing," McCoy says. "It means everything to them to come to our foundation, where they can receive funds so they can put gas in their car and go visit their sick child or take them to a doctor’s appointment. We raise money for the stuff that can fall through the cracks, and we've helped over 400 families."
McCoy's good works haven't gone unheralded. In May of 2005, he won the Academy of Country Music’s Home Depot Humanitarian Award for his extensive work with the USO and the East Texas Angel Network. He was honored again in 2006 at the 37th Annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville with the Country Radio Broadcasters’ Artist Humanitarian of the Year Award. And in 2007, the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas honored the singer with the W. B. and Brandon Carrell Humanitarian Award, the highest honor given to a non-Mason.
With three Platinum albums and one Gold plaque on his wall, McCoy parted ways with Atlantic Records in 1999, moving to Giant Records and then to Warner Brothers before taking things into his own hands in 2005 with 903 Music, his own independent label named for his hometown area code. The company hit the ground running with "Billy's Got His Beer Goggles On," the leadoff single from his 903 debut, That's Life. The single made its way into the Top 10, while the video for the song, featuring comedian Rob Schneider, became a heavy-rotation hit. The label went on to sign country artists Darryl Worley and the Drew Davis Band, but, facing cash flow problems and confronted with the reality of shrinking corporate radio playlists, 903 closed its doors in 2007. While his label success was relatively short-lived, McCoy is characteristically upbeat about the experience and grateful for the lessons he learned.
"I didn't research 'Beer Goggles' or run it past a bunch of people," he says. "I just said, 'Here it is.' And they took it and broke through to the Top-10. I saw that it could still be done; you can still go on a hunch, so that's what I'm most proud of."
Between record deals, between hits, going with his gut, singing from the heart, it's been quite a ride, and these days you'll find Neal McCoy on the road doing what he does best – bringing down the house, night after night.
"We continue to work even when we don't have the hits, because we think we put on a great show wherever we go and treat people nice," McCoy says. "There's an art to that, and it's what I've tried to do my whole life."
While writing and recording his new album, Jerrod Niemann immersed himself in the history of country music. A student of music theory and production—he majored in Performance Art Technology at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas—Jerrod pondered a question that is heard more and more frequently these days: Just what exactly constitutes country?
His answer to that query can be found in the musically and technically groundbreaking Free The Music. "This album is my interpretation of how I feel about country right now," Jerrod says.
The follow-up to his Sea Gayle Records/Arista Nashville debut Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury, which debuted at No. 1 and yielded the No. 1 hit "Lover, Lover" and the Top 5 single "What Do You Want," Jerrod's sophomore album emphasizes the early instruments that have shaped the genre: acoustic guitars and bass, fiddles, and even horns.
"The pedal steel guitar has come to define country music, but there were years and years of country being made before that instrument was even invented. Horns have been in country going back to the 1920s. And fiddles and other string instruments date back even further. I took all those things and put them on Free The Music," Jerrod explains. "I made this record in an effort to try and mix 1927 with 2027, but I didn't want to disregard 100 years of what people have already done musically. Instead, I wanted to take that and do it in a way that is also representative of the future."
The result is an adventurous release that redefines the listening experience. A "headphones album" if ever there was one, Free the Music is a sonic journey through a multitude of styles, including country, rock, honky-tonk, Dixieland jazz and reggae.
While exploring these sounds, the Kansas native says he sought inspiration in the outside-the-lines approach of two seminal outlaws. "Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were very progressive in their day, and they were getting harassed by people who said, 'Hey, that's not country.' But the mistake many artists make when they first come to Nashville is that they want to be those guys so badly that they get stuck in time. It's our duty to have our own voice and come up with our own way of saying something," Jerrod stresses. "Icons like Alabama and Ronnie Milsap did that by using pop melodies. But when you hear their songs today, they've become country classics. Those artists stepped out, and I hope fans will understand that that was my goal too. I want the album to push you out of any musical comfort zone."
Jerrod took each of those big steps with great care, painstakingly fine-tuning every song on Free The Music with his visionary co-producer Dave Brainard. Together, the pair cut a new technological path in Dave's studio, using a one-of-a-kind analog-to-digital recording process to give the record a rich, organic feel. "Knowing that analog was going to be our foundation—and that we'd have the ability to easily record and re-record digitally—gave us the confidence to take more chances. For instance, we used an acoustic bass on the entire record and put horns on every song. By doing so, we got a lot of organic sounds," Jerrod shares. "I want people to realize the time and effort that we put into this album, from the beginning of the first song to the very last note."
Such exquisite attention to detail is evident throughout the 12 songs that make up Free The Music, all of them written or co-written by Jerrod. From the funky opening title track to sun-drenched first single "Shinin' on Me," the songs represent an artist committed to stretching musical boundaries while simultaneously honoring country's past.
The empowering "Get on Up" employs a unique ascending-and-descending guitar riff and a surprisingly well-fitting Mellotron. "Real Women Drink Beer," cleverly combining elements of reggae with the Bakersfield Sound, would sit nicely on a Dwight Yoakam album. "Honky Tonk Fever" has prominent jazz horns and remarkably different tempos. And "I'm All About You," featuring Grammy-winning vocalist Colbie Caillat, is a piano-driven, laid-back love song.
But it is the knockout ballad "Only God Could Love You More" that, for the first time, truly showcases Jerrod's voice as the nuanced instrument it is."
Some people sound the same on every song, but I like to be a chameleon, like an actor in a role. For 'Only God Could Love You More,' we didn't put any harmonies on it and used my original tracking vocal. 'Lover, Lover' had a bunch of harmony parts, so I thought it'd be interesting to have zero here, especially with the French horns and the other orchestral things we have going on," Jerrod says. "Some songs just work better with one vocal. If you listen to Garth Brooks' 'The Dance,' that doesn't have any harmonies on it either. Not that I'm comparing myself to Garth by any means."
Still, the allusion to the 1990s superstar isn't out of bounds. Jerrod co-wrote one of Garth's biggest hits, "Good Ride Cowboy," and penned two others for the Country Music Hall of Famer, along with songs for Blake Shelton, Lee Brice, John Anderson and Jamey Johnson.
"The most important thing to me is songwriting. But no one can ever hear a song without a vehicle, whether it's me or somebody else singing it," admits Jerrod, who, as a writer, has more than 10 million albums sold to his credit. "If someone told me I couldn't write a song ever again, or had to choose between playing and writing, I don't know what I'd choose."
Fortunately, no one is forcing him to. Jerrod is free to pursue both of his passions on stage and in the writing room, using his gift with a lyric and melody to free the music, expand people's minds, and deliver an album that, while occasionally unconventional, is undeniably country. "
For me, it's all about the song. You can put all the bells and whistles on an album that you want, but if the songs aren't there, it's not going to work," Jerrod says, discussing the versatility of country music. "You can take all of these songs, go into a studio and record them with Nashville's amazing studio musicians, and Free The Music would sound just like a modern-country record. And that's fine. But I like to experiment."
Jerrod cracks a wry grin at this admission. Clearly, he's comfortable with his role as a musical scientist--an artist who absorbs all styles and sounds, and forms them into his own creation. "
When your ears are always on, everything seeps into your brain," he says with a laugh. "And my ears are always on."