The majority of writers and artists who come to Nashville will never see chart success or real professional opportunity of any kind. That’s just the way it is. But someone who has achieved both – that is to say, actually makes a living in the music business – is Joel Brentlinger.
Brentlinger came to Nashville less than a decade ago after using his classical piano training to make money in Ohio’s bars and honky-tonks, paying dues that gave him the chops to go further than most of his fellow local musicians ever would. He seems to have had his ducks in a row from the start in terms of a Nashville strategy. The biggest component of that strategy obviously was hard work, as the keyboardist began playing anywhere he could to make money and connections as soon as he pulled into town.
“I started playing at clubs around town, Printers Alley, Broadway, and all the showcase clubs,” he said, “and started meeting all the road players. I got the gig playing keyboards for Steve Holy when ‘Brand New Girlfriend’ (which eventually went to number one) was climbing the charts.”
That gig led to greater connections for the keyboard man. “I played a couple of shows with Jack Ingram opening on a Martina McBride tour, and did some shows with Buddy Jewell on the Opry as well as some road dates. From there I spent about a year on the road with Trent Tomlinson before coming off the road to do a lot more writing. I wanted to write a song that would make a big splash at radio so I decided I needed to stay in town and write.”
So, staying in town and continuing to work wherever he could, Brentlinger threw himself into writing. But as anyone who writes in Nashville knows, there’s a lot more to finding success as a writer than just practicing the craft. The music business is a people business, and if it weren’t for the fact that Brentlinger is friends with one of his neighbors, this article probably wouldn’t have been written about him. That’s because it was through a neighbor, Lee Willard, that he met the man who would help him find chart success.
“Lee was telling me about this friend of his who was in town from L.A. and crashing on his couch,” Brentlinger said, “and that this guy had amazing songs, was a great singer, and had a pulse on what was going on in the music industry. We hung out a couple times and ended up always laughing and joking about everything and eventually started writing songs together.”
That friend of Willard’s was Jaron Lowenstein, who had been half of the duo Evan and Jaron with his twin brother, enjoying some measure of fame as Los Angeles-based pop stars. But when Evan decided to pursue other opportunities, Jaron decided to come to Nashville and ended up bunking at the home of Willard, who happens to be the manager of country icon Bill Anderson.
Willard said he had a feeling that Brentlinger and Lowenstein would find common ground. “I figured they’d get along,” he said, “and suggested they get together and write.”
They ended up writing “Pray for You,” a tongue-in-cheek – or maybe not – tune about a former lover wishing his ex nothing but the worst that became one of the biggest songs of 2010, performed by Lowenstein under the name Jaron and the Long Road to Love.
“When Jaron and I wrote ‘Pray for You,’” Brentlinger said, “we spent the afternoon laughing about our exes, broken hearts, and bad situations we all go through trying to get it right and what we’d really like to say to some of those people when things didn’t go our way. It’s an honest look about how we felt and it struck a chord with a lot of people! At the end of our writing session we knew we had a hit.”
Willard, a former radio personality in the Midwest, said he knew that Brentlinger and Lowenstein were onto something, but wasn’t sure if people would love it or hate it. “I have to admit I had mixed feelings about what it would do,” he said, “but when we started playing it for people, 90% of them loved it. It took off at radio almost on its own, as so many people called in and requested it that it became a hit.”
Since the success of the song, Brentlinger, who had wanted to stay home and write, ended up playing more than 200 dates this past year, mostly with Lowenstein, opening for Toby Keith and others. “We hit the road as soon as the song started blowing up nationwide,” Brentlinger said. “It’s all been an amazing ride and more than I could have ever expected.”
By Rick Moore