"It's a crazy town, full of neon dreams
Everybody plays, everybody sings
Hollywood with a touch of twang
To be a star you gotta bang, bang, bang"
The town described as insane in the hit song sung by bro-country crooner Jason Aldean is of course Nashville, the twang-music mecca of record labels, agents, publishing companies and a hustle that is Opry-old. The music business wars elsewhere are lost causes, but for aspiring songwriters, Nashville is the last trench on the battlefield – still the Hillbilly Babylon, as it has been since the days when Hank Williams was diluting beers with tears and Patsy Cline was falling to pieces.
"There's a crackling energy there," says Donovan Woods, a Toronto-based singer-songwriter with Nashville connections. "It's ripe, and when you're there you feel you're on the cusp of something, that it's coming. It's addictive in that city."
Woods has just released his fourth album, Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled, a gentle, honest collection of melancholic observations and hushed tunefulness. On previous albums, the native of Sarnia, Ont., has written such Canadiana as My Cousin Has a Grey Cup Ring and Lawren Harris (about the Canadian painter), but his most well-known songs are a pair of tracks with U.S. place names, sung by American country music stars.
Tim McGraw's 2014 album Sundown Heaven Town included a version of Portland, Maine, a downbeat ballad which Woods co-wrote with his Nashville songwriting partner Abe Stoklasa. More recently, Woods and Stoklasa placed another subdued song, Leaving Nashville, onto the latest album from Lady Antebellum singer Charles Kelley.
Woods is not a country musician, but makes periodic trips to Nashville for business and melodious purposes. "Music publishers have to know you to plug your songs," he explains, dabbing a French fry with mayonnaise at a Toronto lunch spot recently. "It's an insular community there, and you have to meet artists and socialize as much as possible."
In contrast to the formulaic, rock-based blare that dominates country radio currently, Leaving Nashville lowly documents the up-and-down life of a song-peddler in Music City, U.S.A., where "one day you're king and the next you're not," and where it's "handshakes and whisky shots and throwing up in parking lots."
True story? "I've done those things and I've encountered all that stuff," says Woods, about the roller-coaster existence and the rejections. "One day you feel great, and the next day you feel like garbage."
The song Leaving Nashville is in itself an example of the frustrating element to the Nashville music machine. Publishers want radio hits, not poignant deep-album cuts. And the king-and-queen-making establishment there doesn't need the help of a Woods to figure out what sells.
"The industry people told us that the song was too sad and that nobody would cut it," the Juno-nominated Woods says. "The gatekeepers are whittling off the good stuff, and dismissing the outliers."
Luckily, Woods's songwriting partner Stoklasa plays bass in Kelly's band, and was able to get the song to the singer. "It never would have gotten to him otherwise," Woods says. "It's frustrating."
The frustration is encapsulated in the first verse, about a songwriter pouring out his heart for a song that nobody in Nashville wants to hear. It's about craft versus profession – telling truths as opposed to making hits.
There are 13 songs, for example, on Tim McGraw's Sundown Heaven Town album, written by a total of 33 songwriters – teams at work in the Tennessee-city song mills. "I don't even know if you can call them songwriters," says Mary Gauthier, a Nashville-based troubadour currently writing a book (The Art of Songwriting) for Yale University Press. "They're hit-makers who glue pieces together. They're building a track, not writing a song."
Gauthier isn't including a balladeer like Woods in her description of an assembly-line process that inevitably yields similar-sounding material. The rough edges that might make a song unique are smoothed off in favour of the familiar, which, these days, seem to entail key words such as trucks, moonlight, beer and river banks. "It's easier for the teams to do their own version of the song they heard on the radio that morning," says Andrew Leahey, a journalist and songwriter who freelances for Rolling Stone Country.
Leahey talks about the "culture of the co-write" in Nashville. "The ultimate compliment you can receive is 'Hey, I like your stuff. Do you ever co-write?' The co-writing culture is unlike any other market. It's very strong here."
That culture is referenced in Woods's Leaving Nashville, with a line about friends who want to work with you when you're hot, but who won't return your phone calls when you're not. People want to be around a winner, and that's mostly a moving target.
In Woods's case, he's narrowed his working relationships in Nashville down to four or five collaborators. And the others, the weaker ones who might waste his time? "You cut those people out of your life. A bad write is as bad as two good ones are good."
Though cut by Nashville stars, Portland, Maine and Leaving Nashville, aren't singles, and, therefore aren't big money makers. A song on an album is worth a mechanical royalty of nine cents per album. In these days of depressed album sales, Portland, Maine earned Woods and his song-writer partner $35,000 or so.
Write a single for Taylor Swift, however, and that's a different deal. "When you get a single, you still get rich," Woods says. Which is why people come to and stick it out in the neon-lit town. Despite the hustle and the let-downs, Woods softly and knowingly sings "You ain't ever leaving Nashville." And that, crazy or not, is just a truth.
Donovan Woods (with Matt Anderson) is touring across Canada until April 16.