This interview with ZiG originally appeared on SongwriterInfoPage.com. in April 2004.
Gary: What about Nashville? When? Why?
Zig: Well, in the mid-eighties I had built my studio business up to a point where I could get away for a few weeks at a time and have other engineers keep it going while I went out of town. A friend in Austin hooked me up with some people who were publishers and producers in Muscle Shoals and they liked some of my songs. So, I went there to meet them and co-write and hang-out and record at their studio. (Big Al Jones, Butch Johnson, & James Hooker). They had a song on Stevie Winwood’s latest record and James played keyboards for Texas artist Nanci Griffith.
Gary: So, ok, what about Muscle Shoals?
Zig: Shoals is a trip – there’s so much musical history – some country, but mostly R&B…Aretha Franklin, Tom Dowd, all those Atlantic Records soul artists – Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, etc, etc. Willie Nelson did an album (Phases and Stages) in Muscle Shoals – so did Linda Ronstadt, the Stones, Dylan – many other mainstream rock artists cut there after it became a legendary place for those big R&B records.
So, I toured the town and saw the studios and the history there (bought some equipment racks that came out of ‘Muscle Shoals Sound’) and wrote and recorded with my friends there. I had been sending country songs thru the mail from Texas to Nashville for a few years and had talked to some publishers and producers that liked a song or two.
I had a few single-song contracts with several publishers in Nashville but had gone to visit Muscle Shoals and was not really interested in Nashville. And I remember Big Al saying “what? you drove 700 miles from Texas to Muscle Shoals and you’re not gonna stop and see Nashville? – It’s only like 2 hours away”.
So, the next day I drove up to Nashville.
Gary: And your first impression?
Zig: I remember it was pouring down rain and it was hard to see. But I found ‘Music Row’ and visited a few publishers that I had songs with. In fact I dropped off some tapes (everybody pitched cassette tapes) to Jim Ed Norman who was in the house on 17th that my studio, Grey House, is in now. I guess I glimpsed the future.
Gary: What about Nashville then?
Zig: I visited Ray Baker – he was from Texas. He produced one of George Strait’s records, and Mo and Joe – remember them? Pat Finch, then at Dick James Music – I was sent to him by Gloria Thomas (BJ’s wife) – they lived only a few streets away from me in Arlington. Gloria had written some of BJ’s songs and she had recorded at my studio there in Arlington. Jody Williams who was then at BMI, Jim Schearer who was then at Charlie Pride Music (Charlie’s another Texas artist that had a Nashville company) and 3 or 4 other publishers-song pluggers.
Gary: Did any of them like your songs?
Zig: Yeah, they each had a few of my songs under contract but that never amounted to anything and really, I didn’t have a million great songs. I mean, I had a few good songs, maybe a few of the few could have been hits. But, the young publishers, they were all very nice and friendly. You know, I always got the feeling that all those guys all knew each other and they all went to the same high school and had the same opinion of what was cool… and also that they were all very mainstream and conservative – very safe, and more interested in the various music companies and the politics and the hierachy in the Nashville community than they were in songs or music or art. You know, they were into who was the head of this and head of that – RCA or Warner, or who was who’s assistant, or which company was going to buy the other or whatever. I don’t include Ray in all that – he was older and had already had success.
Gary: And was your feeling right?
Zig: Later as I got to know more of them a little better I could see that they weren’t all exactly alike. I mean, one guy might like 2 tomatoes on his salad instead of just one tomato-or one guy might like Coke and the other would be different and drink Pepsi or something….and one guy would say that they liked the second Tracy Lawrence song better than the third Traci Byrd single….I’m only slightly joking.
Gary: I hear that when I listen to country radio.
Zig: Well, I think a lot of what’s wrong with radio is from a few corporations trying to own and control too much so they can manipulate the market. And in Nashville’s defense it’s not just country radio. I mean, listen to all the bands that sounded like Creed, or all the vocal groups in pop – or even all the Texas singer/songwriters that sound like Pat Greene now? Nashville’s bad but it’s eveywhere, it’s business, it’s human nature. I have a ‘clone’ story…
….When I was a staff writer for Don Daily, who was a Warner/Chappell company, we used to have meetings occasionally hosted by record labels to play the writers the new acts and tell us what kind of songs they were needing for each artist. One time Curb Records was the host and the guest was Chuck Howard(then ‘head’ of Curb). Chuck was playing snippets of the new Curb artists(who all sounded very much alike)and then he got to another new artist that didn’t have a sample to play and someone asked what the artist sounded like. Chuck said we didn’t need to hear anything because the artist was ‘a shameless clone’ – so just pitch him what you would pitch everybody else cause he sounds just like everybody else. That’s the kind of thinking that’s funny and true and Nashville knows it- and Nashville laughs at themselves too, but nobody on the inside is gonna do anything to change anything.
Gary: Who do you think WILL change things?
Zig: I don’t know…Napster did, whether you think it’s good or bad – they changed things. I think it will be outside, independent people like that – and the major labels will be forced to scramble and react – react because they’re not making the first moves in anything.
Gary: With that in mind, what should a new, unsigned artist or band do?
Zig: Just be who you are. Make your own product and promote it yourself – learn how to promote and market yourself or form a team of people that believe in your music and learn to do it together. You can go to the majors, or independent labels or find a local sponsor or investor. It’s really hard and there are no easy answers. Pat Greene is changing things, Napster shook everybody up, Ani DeFranco found a way. Delbert McClinton had been with major labels and now he’s making his own record, and even if it sells modestly he sees more money.
Gary: Do you work with artists to help them break through?
Zig: ‘Break through’ ? Well mostly to the next level creatively – to get their best out of them. I usually work on helping the artist find songs or helping them choose from the songs they wrote, or getting the direction or style on track and getting good vocals. That’s what I’m the most experienced at – making it sound good in the studio.
I have ideas and opinions on promotion and marketing and I can help come up with a plan, but a team has to be formed to implement the plan daily and weekly and monthly – consistently for a while to get results. I can be part of that team but I can’t single-handedly take on promoting an artist.
I can also shop an artist to labels both major and independent, but I have to do that if it’s my idea and I feel strongly about the artist and the product we made and how the artist and their style fits into what’s happening in the music business at the time. And I also have to take into consideration who I know to pitch it to and what they might like or need.
Gary: What was it like having a #1 song and going to the BMI awards?
Zig: It was fun. I have lots of better songs that have never been cut (or never heard by any major artists.) Having a hit never made it easier for me to get my songs to big artists. It got me several publishing deals but my publishers never got me any big cuts, and I never could get them myself either even though I tried.
Gary: What is it like hearing your song on the radio? In the movies? and tv?
Zig: It’s great driving down the road and hearing your song on the radio or sitting at a restaurant and it comes on – or on a juke box and somebody plays it. It’s also fun to hear cover bands playing your song – and sometimes not doing it so great – but just the idea that it was popular enough that they thought they should work it up. As far as the movie, I can barely even hear a few seconds of my song in the movie (Roadhouse), but my name’s in the credits.
I have artist and writer friends who have had 5 #1 songs, or they can’t go to the store without being recognized, so my one hit song was not that amazing – but it was fun, (and profitable).
I heard my song on an AM country oldies station the other day. It always makes me smile but it makes me sad too, to know how long I’ve worked and how much good stuff I have that will never be heard, or used, or appreciated. And country is only a small part of what I’ve written.
Gary: You’ve been a staff writer for Sony and Warner/Chappell and a few others. What was the best thing about the staff writer experience?
And what was the worst?
Zig: Well, for me the best thing was that I learned so much about licensing, copyrights, mechanicals, contracts, and just generally how publishing works. It’s very interesting to me and that knowledge has helped me many times. The worst thing?……Well….I guess for me that would be dealing with song pluggers – like a plugger that only wants to hear or pitch songs by the top 2 or 3 writers who are hot at the moment and they don’t really want to listen to anything else (like me) – or a plugger that doesn’t sing, or play an instrument, or engineer, or write, and so when they talk to you about music you wonder if they really even understand what they’re saying, or what you’re saying. And then there are some of them who just want to be in the popular crowd and talk cool and act cool – and they don’t really care that much about songs or music…
Gary: Many Texas people say that ‘Nashville sucks’, what do you think?
Zig: There’s good and bad in Nashville. It’s a cool city that’s a lot of fun and there are many talented people. Anytime you have a system or a power structure you’re going to have corruption and abuse and manipulation of that system. It would be the same way in any city or state, including Texas. My reasons for Texas to be the rightful home of country music is because of all the history, all the artists and because the size of the audience – country music belongs in Texas. But do I think that it would be just as corporate and just as political? Yes.
Gary: I see (and hear) the ‘bad’ in Nashville, what’s the ‘good’ about it?
Zig: A lot of great talent that moves to Nashville from everywhere – from L.A., Canada, Texas, Florida, Australia, Seattle, NY, of course from the south, and just… everywhere. And the size of the city is nice – it’s big yet small. I know a lot of them are starting to move to Austin now too. And Austin is that size too, but it seems to be growing even faster.
Having all the labels and management and publishers in a 10 block area is convenient but, you know, I think they’re mostly followers that will follow the talent because that’s how they make their money. They’d all go to Texas tomorrow if they had to…and they will have to whenever Texas demands it. Sony and Warner will go to Salt Lake City if that’s where the talent is. From this point on each new decade will have more music recorded in more different cities than ever before, and more new artists breaking out of more new cities than ever before.
Gary: Any advice to aspiring songwriters ?
Zig: I guess just the same old stuff – Keep trying – Believe in yourself – BUT Don’t just keep trying to push harder or promote yourself more, but keep trying to learn and improve – play better, sing better, write better. And compare yourself to the best – not the average or the worst. I hear writers all the time that pick out the lamest song on radio and say “I’ve got songs better than that” – well that’s true but look what you’re comparing yourself to. Ask yourself this question: Do you have a song that’s as good or better than the handful of songs out there that you think are the best?
My best advice would be – Don’t let it stress you out and hurt your feelings- I’m still working on that myself. I remember in an interview with Chuck Berry one time he said, “Everything that’s good is not popular, and everything that’s popular is not good”.