Songwriting and (Fried) Chicken Skin – A transformative songwriting experience in Nashville


Mary Gauthier & Mel Farrimond
Mary Gauthier & Mel Farrimond

by Mel Farrimond

No wonder it’s called Music City! Nashville is bursting at the seams with songwriters. Perhaps as many as 40,000. 40,020 if you did the tally at the end of April, and one of them was me! I finally made it there, having wanted to go for so long. I heard about a songwriting workshop organized by the brilliant Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter Enterprises and led by one of my favourite troubadours, Mary Gauthier. I jumped at the opportunity to immerse myself in songs and be in the company of songwriters for three whole days! That same desire took me to The Road to Stanfest in Sherbrooke Village and to SongStudio in Toronto.

The night we arrived, Mary cooked supper for all of us – jambalaya and cornbread.  The next day, the hard work began, and for three days we worked on songs alone, or with a teacher, or most often in a small group. We listened intently to Mary Gauthier, along with guests Don Henry and Gretchen Peters, as they generously described their songwriting process and deconstructed some of their songs for us: ‘The Last of the Hobo Kings,’ ‘Beautiful Fool,’ ‘The Matador.’

Mary Gauthier is clearly an avid reader, referencing an eclectic range of songwriters, poets, novelists and philosophers. She is also an incredible teacher. We witnessed transformations not only of songs, but of souls. As Mary was working with an anxious student on a song, getting him or her to try changing the tempo or the pronouns or the feel of the song, the air in the room would suddenly change. It was tangible. A glance around the room showed tears, not just of emotion, but of connection. We had goosebumps or ‘chicken skin,’ as Mary put it. (As a vegetarian, I prefer to call it ‘tofu skin,’ but I digress). Mary brings out the lesson and makes what she’s doing with one song and one writer a teachable moment. She treated our songs like babies being born. She told one writer, “I think you’re having twins!” She masterfully helped shape each song, nurture it and the writer, and, by extension, all of us. Before long, some were calling Mary ‘the song whisperer. ’

On Thursday evening we headed to The Station Inn to catch a show by Jim Rooney’s Irregulars. The colourful cast of characters on stage included mandolin player, Jumbo Shrimp, and Jelly Roll Johnson on harmonica, with special guests George Hamilton IV and V. Still tanned, still awesome! Friday evening was spent at the famous Bluebird Cafe, a special thrill for me as the host of Bluebird North in Halifax. Don Schlitz, who wrote ‘The Gambler,’ put on a superlative evening of songs. I spent the evening saying ‘He wrote THAT?’ I said this silently, to myself, because the venue’s policy, as we were told before entering, is ‘shhhhhhhhhh!’

We wrapped up our time in Nashville with a supper at Monell’s soul food restaurant, where we (some of us) feasted on – you guessed it – fried chicken and marvelled at what had truly been an inspiring and transformative retreat. We learned how to write with emotional honesty and clarity. We learned that to connect with listeners you must allow yourself to be vulnerable in order to bring your deepest feelings into the light through song.

As a person who tends to crave solitude, which is necessary for songwriting, I came away feeling more connected, and better for it. We may have individual journeys, but we also have fellow travellers. CD Baby asked Mary to write a ‘Letter to a Young Songwriter’ for their series based on Rilke’s ‘Letters To A Young Poet.’ Let’s conclude with this excerpt, which captures one of the key lessons from the workshop:

“The chief danger in songwriting (and life) is taking too many precautions. There is a very real relationship between what you contribute and what you get out of this life, but satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. The point of the work is the work. Being vulnerable in your work will bring you strength.”

For more information on the Performing Songwriter Creative Workshops, see


Country Music Star and Songwriter Deric Ruttan on Living The Nashville Dream

Deric Ruttan
Deric Ruttan

Grammy and Juno Nominee Deric Ruttan has accumulated quite a list of achievements both as a performing artist and as a songwriter.  He’s one of a stellar roster of performers set to take over Markham Theatre for the Performing Arts on Monday, May 26, 2014 for the Second Annual CMAO Awards Show.  The star studded event will celebrate the ever growing country music scene in Ontario.  Ruttan is nominated for several awards including Single of the Year, Album of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, Male Artist of the Year, and record producer of the year.  He opened up to us about the path to his success and how he maintains his creativity.

1.  What country music influences did you have growing up in Ontario that inspired you to pursue music in the first place?  
My parents record collection was really my first influence.  Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beatles, the Beach boys, the kinks, Johnny Cash, The Springfields.  Growing up I got a hold of Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown record, and knowing he grew up just down the road from me in Orillia was pretty cool. Also, in high school, a friend lent me Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road record, and that was it. That was the doorway through which I walked into country music.

2.  What obstacles did you encounter that led you to choose to move to Nashville?
I didn’t really encounter any obstacles in Ontario. I just knew that the people who wrote most of the country songs I loved and was hearing on the radio were based in Nashville – and that  almost all those songs were coming out of Nashville.  It seemed to follow that I needed to be here.  I wanted to learn from The people who were creating that music and knew that immersing myself in the culture was the way to do that.

3.  Was there a Canadian contingency in Nashville that helped with your career development?
Not really…it seems to me there weren’t as many Canadians living here then as there are now.  I did meet people after I moved here who happened to be Canadian, people like Tim Taylor and Duane Steele, who became my friends and co-writers.

4.  You had persevered for several years before experiencing your first breakthrough.  What allowed you to persist and what obstacles did you have to overcome?
It may sound trite, but I never really viewed failure as an option. I decided when I moved here that I would either make it, or years from now they would bury me here and I would’ve been another unsuccessful songwriter, but either way I wasn’t leaving.  Plus, after a few years of being here I had a wife and family to support, and all joking aside, poverty is a wonderful motivator.  All the obstacles I faced are obstacles all songwriters face in Nashville. The odds are so stacked against you, it’s staggering. I guess I did have the additional obstacle of not being an American citizen, so I couldn’t “legally” work anywhere to support myself while I was trying to make it.  I had to be creative.

5.  What are the challenges and benefits of juggling a career as an artist and as a songwriter who writes for others?  
The only challenge really is time management. Learning to balance how much time to spend in each area.  While there is overlap, they truly are two clear and separate careers as I view them. The benefits are that I get to do both things that I love for a living, and just the right amount of each.  I also think being a performer makes me a better songwriter when I’m cowriting with another artist, because I understand what it’s like to stand on a stage and sing to a crowd — to have a specific message you want to relate to an audience in that live setting, that will also work at radio.

6.  What advice would you give someone who has a Nashville dream of writing country hits?  What first steps should they take?
Listen to commercial country radio.  Study the hits.  Try to emulate what you hear.  Be honest about your work.  With every song you write, try to get better.  Make every line of lyric count. There’s no such thing as a throwaway line — they all serve a purpose.  Also, If you want to write Nashville hits, you have to spend some time in Nashville. If you can’t or don’t want to move here, you need to spend a LOT of time here learning, crafting, and networking.

7.  What do you usually bring with you in terms of equipment and ideas when you attend a co-writing session?
I always try to show up with at least two or three titles that I think are pretty good, or some melodic fragments that i like (I have a running list on my phone of probably over 50 titles at any one time).  I like to have my laptop to write on, and an instrument – usually my acoustic guitar.  In my office I have a guitar and mandolin and a banjo that I like to pick around on.  I also would be a little out of sorts in a co-write if I didn’t have my iPhone with me, since that’s where I have melodic ideas and song titles stored.

8.  As a professional songwriter, what disciplines or skills do you think are important to maintain your creativity?  What works for me, and what I feel makes me more productive, is to have a regular place in which to be creative. For me, that’s my office – a dedicated space I have where I go to write songs. Also, having a regular time of day that you work is helpful. For me that’s about 10:30 or 11 in the morning.  Also, to maintain creativity On a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, knowing when to stop is helpful.  Taking a break after 4 or 5 or 6 hours of writing…getting away from it for a while, Then reconvening with yourself or with your cowriter and putting fresh eyes and ears on the song – that’s always a good idea, and helps you to not get burned out.

9.  Congratulations on your recent Grammy nomination.  How has the nomination changed or not changed your career?  
Thank you!  The daily goings on of my career remain the same. Artists who are looking to record songs don’t give a damn whether the writer has a Grammy nomination or not (It would be nice if they did!)  In Nashville, at the end of the day, the best song wins, regardless of the songwriter’s various accolades.  I think where the Grammy nomination is nice, is that it gives those who represent my catalog (my publisher), some ammo for building the “Deric Ruttan songwriter” brand.  It’s a really nice feather in the cap.

The Road To Nashville Ain’t Easy, Especially From Canada

TODAY, the S.A.C. hosts our first ever workshop for Canadian songwriters considering heading to Nashville.  The Road To Nashville:  Strategies for Canadian Songwriters Heading to Music City promises to be an informative event with a roster of Nashville experts including our very own President, Eddie Schwartz. Click for details.

Along the theme of going to Nashville, one of our members, Lisa Nicole, a 22 year old independent Country singer/songwriter based in Vancouver has a story of the fun and folly that ensued when she tried to go to Nashville.

In Her Words…

Here is my Nashville story:

I had the trip booked for a couple months now, along with a fellow musician, Jason Thomas, and my producer. I started with booking the Socan house. From there I started looking into writers nights and people to write with. I booked a couple small shows, along with sessions with writers such as Kathleen Higgins of the country band “The Higgins” and Daryl Burgess. During the time leading up to my dates to go (March 19th-March 26th) I was in a contest called Get Me The Menu. It was a contest on facebook for artists who are in the restaurant industry. The prize was $1000, which would cover my expenses to get to Nashville. I was neck and neck with another artist the whole time and ended up losing by 20 votes with 822. I did a successful show to fundraise money a couple days before I left. We raised over $500. Which covered my flight and Get Me The Menu also awarded me $250 for my efforts. So, I bought my flight.

My dad is funding my album and sent me with a little money to record a couple special tracks like fiddle, banjo, dobro,mandelin and steel guitar. This was going to be a great trip of writing, recording and doing shows in Nashville, a dream I’ve had since I was 15.

The day comes when I am set to go down to catch my flight in Nashville. Going across the border, I was so excited that I let it slip that I was doing shows. Right away, a red flag went up. I spent 2 hours at 2AM in the customs border and protection, fingerprints and everything. They wouldn’t let me through because they considered the shows as working, even though they weren’t paid. They said I could only come back with a working Visa. I was heartbroken, balling my eyes out at the customs. Nothing I said would change their mind. So I went home.

Right away I put my flight on hold. Got a couple hours of sleep and woke up when the Vancouver Consulate opened and called to see about getting an emergency Visa. It would take months. So, that wasn’t going to happen. I decided, what the heck,I can’t give up this easy! I’ll try again. I got paystubs showing I work in Canada, emails that I cancelled my Nashville shows, letters from work saying I will return to work, anything I thought would change their minds.

Off I went the next morning at 7am, this time I didn’t bring my guitar, that would have been a red flag again. Right away the border guy asked me “Why are you trying to come through the border today if you got denied yesterday?” There I went back into the Customs Border Protection office. I explained my situation, and showed them the paperwork. After an hour, he came back and said “I’m sorry, you need to come back with a Performance Visa.” I was so upset, it takes months and I’ve worked so hard for this. I wasn’t going to give up. I then asked to talk to his supervisor. The officer said they wouldn’t change their minds. After several minutes he came out, by this time I was in tears. I begged him, and tried showing him more emails on my phone. He still said, “No, I’m sorry mam, you need a performance visa.” I then asked to talk to his chief. They searched my car. And, after yet another half hour they came back and said “Ok you can go.” I couldn’t believe it !! I hugged the guy ! I did a happy dance right when I walked out the door. They asked me if I was a country singer and if I could sing a song. So, I sang them a song and off I went. On the other side I met Bill Buckingham, my producer. I found wifi at a local gym in Blaine, booked my flight which cost an extra $650 and off we went. We got a speeding ticket on the way, of course, as luck would have it.

In the back of my mind I was preparing to spend the week crying in a little ball. This was something I have really wanted since I was 15. I couldn’t believe they let me cross after denying me 4 times. Hard work really pays off, along with persistence!!

Click Here to visit Lisa Nicole’s Songwriters Profile.

“I Quit My Day Job And…” (A Songwriter’s Adventure)

Have you ever thought about quitting your job and pursuing your songwriting with reckless abandon like an uncharted road trip?  While many of us try to balance day jobs with our creative pursuits, Ryan Nolan took a leap of faith and took to the road. His adventures took him to Europe and across North America.  Along the way, he professes he went from simply “writing songs to becoming a Songwriter.”  Here’s a first person account of his incredible journey and what he learned along the way.

In Ryan’s Words

I was working a secure and predictable job.  Writing songs when I couldn’t keep them in and had a second to put them on paper. What I really wanted was to write something reactionary – and I need an action to find that reaction.   Last year I quit that secure, predictable job and sold my house. I made sure to buy a new lens for my camera, then I went to the airport and walked from desk to desk asking for a cheap flight to Paris like a high school kid looking for a prom date. I wanted it to feel as though it were a natural progression. Crepes and a bottle of wine to end/start my day at 5am, recreating The Beatles’ infamous “Abbey Road” crossing in London, naps on Amsterdam’s canals while someone more qualified navigated the local water traffic, and absinthe from what I imagined to be the same dirty corner in Barcelona that Hemingway enjoyed it. I bought a guitar in Paris and made it my only piece of luggage, playing open mic’s wherever they served beer. This was my adventure. It was a test run – in a life exactly opposite to what I had known.

It wasn’t long before the adventure needed new life. This manifested itself in the form of a 1968 Ford Galaxy 500 convertible and a road trip from Toronto to New Orleans to Los Angeles. Brief, sun drenched days and the loud, unhealthy grumbling of an old muscle car that just doesn’t know any better. It was my nine to five; my routine. The days were like this, one after another for several months, but the repetition was underscored by obtuse and growing cultural differences as I made my way below the bible belt and across the open country.

It was a trip that decidedly lacked structure, but more importantly, was temperamental. The trip itself was subject to my mood and whim. Stay in one place longer if it suited me, or skip a town altogether. Sleep in my car, my tent, or get a hotel room. Make friends with someone and sleep on their couch.

In my most base state of honesty, I wanted complete control. I wanted to remember what it was like to wake up every morning and make my own decisions. I wanted to play my songs in cities I’d never been to, and record them in places where better songwriters chain-smoked through an entire album.

I’ll admit that I did have a small checklist of things to see and do. a) Eat a Chicago deep dish pizza; b) record something in Nashville; c) catch a show at the Bluebird Cafe; d) get drunk while listening to blues on Beale street in Memphis; e) get even more drunk and listen to as much jazz in New Orleans as my ears could handle; f) see a show at Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles; g) and several other entries that are either irrelevant to this post or inappropriate. Everything in between was a bonus.

I’ve been writing songs since the time I realized I wanted to hold a girl’s hand or tell my parent’s that they were unjust tyrants for not letting me go to the late show at the movies. It doesn’t mean I’m a good, clear or talented songwriter, but it is a part of my life regardless. And while I left everything behind in order to find something new, the one thing I couldn’t let go was the desire to take my experiences, thoughts and reactions and write them down. Maybe it’s because I want other people to relate. Maybe it’s the only way for me to hold onto the part of the experience that falls between the pictures and the stories; the postcards and the emails.  Writing a song is how I package up that intangible element that only comes to life when I recount tales to good friends over a cold beer or find myself uninhibited with people I trust.

At the end of the trip, it was clear that making out-of-character decisions, and changing my patterns wouldn’t be the catalyst for a better song. As songwriters, people discover a particular method of translating what they see and feel into a universal medium. For me, the things I focus on are the people in my life. The rest of the world is easy, but relationships – they require time and effort to navigate and manage. It wasn’t about where I went, it was about the people I met when I got there.

Over the course of the trip I accumulated a few good recordings and assembled an EP, had it printed and put it on iTunes. I play shows wherever I can get them and I take any chance I can get to write with other artists. I never discard a song idea, and I make it a point to write everything down I can.

After seeing so many other songwriters and producers from different parts of the continent, I began to understand that while writing songs by yourself in your spare time is cathartic, even the most extreme folk artists need to write a whole, honest and true song, with their eyes wide open, to feel satisfied as a songwriter. And that’s all I’m trying to do.

Visit Ryan’s Songwriter Profile (and hear some of his songs)