On a crisp night in March, close to 200 Country Music fans sat quietly and respectfully as Victoria Shaw, sitting at the keyboard, sang, “The River.” Within a few notes, the fans recognized the tune from its days as a No. 1 hit, the fifth and final single from Garth Brooks’ 1991 album Ropin’ the Wind. What many in the audience may not have known about until that moment was Shaw’s participation with Brooks as co-writer of the song.
A similar epiphany followed, as Bob DiPiero, guitar in hard, strummed and sang the words to the George Strait hit “Blue Clear Sky.”
This scene is familiar to veterans of Nashville’s music scene. “In the round” is the usual term indicating a group of maybe four or five songwriters sitting in a circle, playing acoustic instruments and singing songs known primarily from their days as radio hits. In fact, this format got its start in Nashville, where the importance of the songwriter is well-known and appreciated throughout the music community. In these intimate settings, the songwriters pay homage to songs they created and, usually, others made famous. Often, before their “unplugged” performances, the songwriter tells the audience about the song’s origin and what inspired it, shares the story behind its lyrics and otherwise reveals details that are often left untold.
You can still attend such sessions throughout Music City, but thanks to CMA’s Songwriters Series, audiences far from Music Row have had a look behind the curtain too. So it was that night in March at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street in New York City, as DiPiero, Shaw, Jim Photoglo (who wrote the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark“) and Lee Thomas Miller (Joe Nichols’ “The Impossible”) shared the stage, traded stories and shined the spotlight on Country Music.
What started as a way to include Nashville’s Country Music songwriters in the festivities associated with the CMA Awards moving to New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 2005 has spread to a growing number of venues throughout the United States. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., have hosted the series. And recently, the Songwriters Series went international, with appearances in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, and London, England.
“The coolest aspect of the whole thing is seeing the songwriters play off of each other and tell their stories,” said Chris Crawford, Senior Director of Live Events and Special Projects at CMA. “It’s important for fans in the audience to see how these songs were written and for them to sit back and think, ‘I’ve heard that song my entire life and now I get to hear the story behind it.’”
Those fans have indicated their approval by selling out shows in less than an hour and packing the house each time the Songwriters Series comes to town. “It’s really one of the most anticipated events of the year for us,” said Ed Warm, co-owner of the 1,000-seat live venue Joe’s Bar in Chicago. “And it’s so cool to present to the fans the art of a song. Now you get to hear how the song was constructed and hear the story behind the song. Country fans, out of any genre of music, are the most passionate about their music, and this kind of series even increases that bond. There’s probably nothing else that I’ve seen where somebody can hear and meet the people that wrote the hits behind Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney.”
That experience will spread even further in 2012, as CMA takes the Songwriters Series into new territories. Fourteen events are being planned, including returns to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, where the Series has already established a strong presence. But this year’s calendar also includes dates in untapped markets including Orlando, Fla., and Pittsburgh.
Fan appeal is a strong motivator in this expansion. But it’s also a means to establish or strengthen partnerships with CMA members and Country radio in new host cities. “It’s about CMA member outreach in areas outside of Nashville, radio involvement in those markets where there are strong listeners and also to reinforce the presence of Country Music overall,” said Crawford. “We’ve also selected cities where we want to increase our market share in terms of Country Music viewership for top TV markets.”
CMA’s 10-year partnership with ABC factored into these plans as well, with an aim to look strategically at ABC markets where the visibility and popularity of Country Music can be reinforced. “It’s also about bringing local affiliates onboard,” Crawford explained.
What is now close to becoming an international live music staple started in 2005 with a songwriter who didn’t want his peers to be left out when CMA took its Awards event to New York City. “We were having the CMA Awards in New York City that year, and I felt the songwriting community needed some sort of presence and to be part of the whole New York City/CMA impact,” said DiPiero, member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and author of a vast number of hits, including Tim McGraw’s “Southern Voice” and Montgomery Gentry’s “If You Ever Stop Loving Me.”
His fellow members of the CMA Board approved DiPiero’s idea of organizing a Nashville-style songwriters’ circle at Joe’s Pub the night before the Awards. “We did what we thought was a one-off show,” he remembered. “It went so well that Joe’s Pub asked if we would consider doing another show, which we did. And it was a success. We found a connection between Country Music and the folks who live and work in New York City.”
That connection has endured and grown. Joe’s Pub continues to book at least half a dozen Songwriters Series each year, and most of those shows sell out in less than 30 minutes. Given that New York City has no Country-formatted radio stations, the reaction surprised and definitely pleased the shows’ supporters.
“What happened at Joe’s Pub, with the shows continuing to grow and never having a downturn, gave us impetus to go nationwide,” said DiPiero, who books the Series and has acted as emcee at almost all of its installments. “It’s evolved way beyond my original scope. I just wanted to have a voice for the songwriting community within CMA, but the positive response has been phenomenal. I think we reached the tipping point somewhere around the second year. Most people don’t know what a songwriting show is. Most people don’t even know what a songwriter is. It’s an educational thing too.”
Country fans always constitute a big part of the audience at each of these shows, but equally important is the presence of people who might not have described themselves as fans or even professed familiarity with the format. This demographic can be elusive, but the novelty of the “in the round” idea often draws the curious and drives them to learn more about what they’re hearing.
“What I have found is that songs and performances and the story behind the song become very universal, so people who are not fans of Country Music or who are new to Country Music see something that’s just good,” said DiPiero. “I say we’re out there spreading the hillbilly gospel. People have said, ‘I don’t like Country Music, but I really like this!’”
Fans aren’t the only ones getting in on the action. All facets of Music Row, from management to licensing agencies and record labels, have recognized that CMA’s Songwriters Series is a strong platform for gaining high-credibility exposure for their artists. Some of Country Music’s brightest lights have taken part, including Rodney Atkins, The Band Perry, Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Billy Currington, Little Big Town, Patty Loveless, Craig Morgan, Josh Turner, Lee Ann Womack and Chris Young, among many others. Several superstars have already confirmed their participation in some of these dates, including Carrie Underwood, who will appear at the Boston event taking place at Royale on July 31, Little Big Town at Joe’s Pub in New York on Aug. 1 and Rodney Atkins at the Songwriters Series debut in Pittsburgh, at the Hard Rock Café on Sept. 12.
There’s an amusing twist to this, in that the Series has raised awareness of the importance of songwriters to the point that even major artists who also write can benefit from their involvement. “I put together the best group of performers, songwriters and artists that will generate the best show,” DiPiero said. “In that respect, it’s universal if we use, for example, David Lee Murphy or Craig Wiseman or Tim Nichols or Brett James. It’s all different versions of the best we have to offer. When we put the best we have to offer onstage, it’s always a win. I don’t think it matters if we’re in New York or Orlando or Chicago; it’s different versions of the best the songwriter community has to offer.”
It has accomplished his overriding goal, which is to make at least one new Country Music fan. “We get a lot of what I call converts,” he said. “The true Country fans are there at these events, and they bring their friends. For CMA, that helps expand the base of our fans, the people who love this music and this lifestyle. That’s what these shows do — make one fan at a time.
By Crystal Caviness
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.