When a friend of mine who is an A&R person in Nashville heard
that I was going to interview songwriter Gary Nicholson, he
said, "Wow, he's the man!" I already knew that. That's why
I wanted to interview him.
When I got to Gary's studio, it became clear to me why he's
"the man." He's one of the top writers in Nashville, yet he's
still got books like "Cliches" by Eric Partridge, "The Songwriter's
Idea Book" by Sheila Davis, "The New Comprehensive American
Rhyming Dictionary" by Sue Young, "Write From The Heart" by
John Stewart, a book on American slang, another book called
"Metaphorically Speaking", "The Essential Songwriter's Contract
Handbook", and a few others on his shelf. Why does a songwriter
of Gary's stature need to have these books? Because they're
the tools of his craft. - M.L.
When did you know that you wanted to be in the music business?
I started playing gigs when I was about 15 or 16. I played
at VFW Halls and Victory Dances for high schools... I got
the bug early. My summer vacations were spent playing night
clubs, and after that I went to college at North Texas State.
I was playing almost every night of the week while I was in
Did you go to music school at North Texas?
Yeah, they had a live band program there. I started out as
a Psychology/English major and switched to a Music major the
When you were in college and you were playing all these
gigs, did you have any inkling that you wanted to be a songwriter
vs. an artist?
I went to North Texas for a couple years, and soon figured
out that I wanted to write songs, get a record deal, and be
in a band. Don Henley also went to North Texas, and he was
the lead singer in a popular cover band. I wasn't much of
a singer, but I formed a band, kept working at my singing,
and we got gigs. But we knew there was more on the horizon,
so we left North Texas and moved to Hollywood. When I got
there, I got a real low vibe publishing deal with a guy who
just gave me a little bit of money and said "bring me all
your songs," and I just did that. It made me think that I
needed to be writing songs all the time, and so I started
writing songs-all the time. I was about twenty at the time,
and prior to that I'd only written about ten songs.
At what point did you feel that you had become somebody
who was writing songs that other people would cut? Was there
a time in your life where you said "Okay, I feel like I've
mastered this craft now?"
Well, I don't think about it in terms of mastering the craft.
I wrote all day long today, and the whole time we were writing
the song it felt like it was the first song I ever wrote.
It's just always brand new and it doesn't seem to get any
said, I will tell you that things started to get pretty "real"
for me when I left California after being there for ten years
and moved to Nashville. Jim Ed Norman (big-time producer who
went on to become president of Warner Brothers, Nashville)
cut a song of mine with Mickey Gilley for the "Urban Cowboy"
movie. He also signed me to a publishing deal before he became
President of Warner Brothers. When my wife and I first moved
to Nashville with our two small kids, Jim Ed let us stay in
a house he owned. He's been a great friend.
From the writer's perspective, how has the business changed
in the last couple of decades?
There are a lot more situations in which professional songwriters
are writing with the artist. When I first started writing,
that kind of thing never came up. The thought of me going
to someone like a Mickey Gilley, Charlie Pride, George Jones,
Don Williamsany of those people who were recording my songs,
and proposing that we co-write-well, it was just never mentioned.
Now, in a lot of instances, I get hooked up with artists
to write songs and there are pluses and minuses to doing that.
Vince Gill's a great songwriter. When you go to a Vince Gill
show, he plays songs that he wroteall night long, and they're
all hits. He's developed into a better and better songwriter.
Alan Jackson's obviously a great songwriter and I've written
with Alan. I think it's a great opportunity to write with
an artist, because they know what they want to do, and if
you can help them realize their vision ... it's a good deal.
I love writing with Lee Roy Parnell. We've written a lot of
There are a bunch of recording artists that I've really
enjoyed being able to write with. That's one way it's changed.
Another thing that's happened is that you can get one song
cut with a major artist like Garth Brooks, and it can be a
life changing event. In the Eighties, if you had a cut with
a major artist, it was great, but it probably wouldn't make
you enough money to pay off the house.
Do you have any advice for songwriters who would like to
earn a living at it?
I think you have to give yourself up to it. I think it's like
anything else, if you want to be a songwriter more than anything
else, you have to bleed for ityou have to be willing to work
at it as hard as anyone would work at any career. You have to
get up in the morning, drink your coffee, and then start working
at songwritingall day long. You have to live it. You look
for every possible way that you can write songs. If you put
that much energy into it, there's no way that you can not have
some kind of results-something's going to happenif you work
at it. I would also recommend that people try co-writing when
they feel like they've hit a block. Go get with one of your
buddies and work all day at writing a song, and at the end of
the day if it's not a very good songthen at least you tried.
Another thing writers can do to keep themselves sharp is to
listen to a lot of different kinds of music from different cultures.
They'll start to find things that they're are attracted to as
far as grooves and feels and sounds and everything from all
kinds of sources.
How important is the support of your family in pursuing
writing as a career?
Well, I have incredible support from my wife. She knew when
she married me that I was going to be a musician, and I made
a livingnot much of a livingI could have probably made
more of living working a trash route. But she taught school
and I played guitar in nightclubs. Since we moved to Nashville,
she hasn't had to work to bring in money, but she's been carrying
way more of the workload of raising children than me, so I
was allowed to work a lot harder at songwriting. That's an
incredible thing to have someone to be your partner who will
share your dream and believe in you to the point where they
never even consider suggesting that you get a day job.
But I'm not suggesting that everybody who wants to be a
songwriter should go out and quit their job. There are some
writers who get cuts with top artists and still work at a
day job. They just work harder at their songwriting.
How important is it to write songs in traditional, accepted
Well, it depends on the kind of music. When you're a Pop artist,
there's more freedom in those forms. You can be Bob Dylan
and break the rules, but there's a form in what he does, and
there's a form in what Beck does. If there's an emotional
reaction to it and people respond to the music and they like
it, then it's right. But I'm from the school that says you
should write in the forms that are most easily acceptable
to the listeners in this world that you live inwhich, for
me is Country and Blues and Rock & Roll. Whether it's the
Verse/Chorus or Verse with a tag line at the end of it and
another Verse with the same thing and then a Bridge or a Breakaway.
All those forms are documented in every kind of songwriting
book you've ever seenthey're all there, laid out AB or ABC
structure. I think it's important to do that, especially if
somebody is trying to get songs recorded in a particular marketplace.
The people, the filters you've got to get through, all the
gate keepers, people in A&R departmentsthat's how they're
judging your material; as it adheres to those structures.
And after it gets past them, it gets recorded, and it gets
out in the marketplace. I think the listeners out there are
used to hearing things in certain ways, and for me, when it's
done well, it sounds like something that occurred in nature.
In the world of Country music, can you pitch a Pop song
in Pop form to a Country artist and expect it to be greeted
as warmly as it would be if it would be if it were presented
as a Country song?
I don't think soalthough it depends who you're pitching
to. But in general, I would think your chances are always
better to have a demo that nails the genre that you're going
How important is it to have all the bells and whistles
on a demo?
I think it's different for every song. Some songs are great
as guitar/vocal. I love to get guitar/vocal demos myself.
But then there are songs when I fell totally in love with
the demo and did my very best to try to capture what the demo
made me love about the song and maybe I wouldn't have heard
it if it were just done as a guitar/vocal. I do think that
it's always the stuff in the middle that's the worstthe
stuff that's trying to be a realproduced demo and it's got
a bunch of junk stacked all over it and you constantly have
to tell the guys while you're working on it, "Hey man, I know
that they did that on the demo, but forget about that. I don't
wanna hear a guitar sound that's anywhere near like what that
guy didI can't stand that."
Then it's a distraction, it's something that you have to
Do you start writing with lyrics or melody or whatever
I love to start with a titlea piece of lyric.
How important is it in Nashville to have the title be in
Oh, it's huge, it's everything.
So, you get up in the morning, you have your Cheerios,
make your cup of coffee, come out here to the studioit's
ten o'clock in the morning, you have the rest of the day in
front of you and you decide you are going to work on songs.
You look around the room, and find your inspiration. Maybe
it's that new Yamaha keyboard and you see 88 black and white
keysand now you have a title. What do you do?
I just start playing. I try to start singing out something
that feels good and humming a little bit of a melody and just
trying to channel it in. I'm trying to get something that
will occur as a piece of form that I can start building on
to. There's all kinds of ways to go at it. It might just be
sitting there with a blank piece of paper looking at it writing
a bunch of notes; there's a technique called clusteringwhere
you take an idea in the middle of the page, then around it
you write everything that could possibly pertain to that particular
idea with little circles all around itcluster all around
it. And if you come up with a few words that rhyme, then you
write that downor a line that really fits, you write that
down. Whatever you do, you keep your pencil moving to try
and trigger that right brain activity get a bunch of words
on a page. I do that same kind of brainstorming thing, by
playing the guitarit's just like I'm strumming around and
I don't know where I'm going with it. Once you get the initial
inspiration and the vibe of it and you know what you want
to say, that's where the crafting part comes into it.
So at that point do you sit down and look for that special,
one in a million way to say what you're trying to communicate?
Yeah, it's always a thing as you're writingyou're looking
for a way to say something fresh.
Do you keep a notebook or any sort of diary of ideas so
you can go back to them?
I've got a computer, and I put all my song ideas on thereI
have pages of song titles and lyrics.
And you actually go back and look at them?
Oh, every day. I have this long list of song ideas up the
ying-yang. It's like a safety net. My co-writer and I got
together today and I went through my list of titles and she
went through her listand she said something with a phrase,
then I changed the phrase, and she said something about children.
Then the song we wrote today was "Love Like A Child"you
know, like I'm just gonna take you by the hand and love you
like a child. That was a title that didn't exist for either
one of us until we got togetherwe call those "Room Songs"they
come out of the room when you get together. They're always
the most interesting and the most desirable. That's the thing
that keeps your fire burning.
You know you have a safety net, but the ultimate is to
have that moment of inspiration that turns into a song?
Yes, it's great, it's exciting that way. I'm sick to death
of looking of that big old list of songsI've looked at it
a million times. I'm always interested to look at somebody
else's list and say "Oh yeah, that's good!" and start playing
around with it until something comes from it.
What happens when you sit down to co-write with somebody
and your co-writer says I've got a song titled "The Bottom
Third Of My Heart" and you say, "That's great, try this,"
and you throw something out on the table. You're absolutely
head over heels in love with their title and what's just spilled
out of you to go along with it and they look at you and say,
"Yuck." That's got to be tough moment, or is it something
that happens so frequently among pro-writers that you guys
get right past it and keep right on track?
The main thing that's important with co-writing is to never
shut anybody down because it can't be a collaboration if you
can't really learn from each other. It's hard, sometimes you
have to fight for what you believe in and other times you
have to stay open.
You know, the weird thing is that I've done so much co-writing,
that I find myself doing that in other aspects of my life
now. I get off into the world of remodeling my kitchen and
I'm sitting there co-writing with my contractor. I'm sitting
there and I go "Yeah, well we could have the stove over there,
but what if the refrigerator was here and we turn the island
around here?" I've already "written" the kitchen re-model
three or four different times.
If you had to write your own epitaph, how would you like
to be remembered when you're dead and gone?
Well, I don't know ... I guess I'd like people to say that
somehow I made a difference in their lives. Maybe I made them
curious, and they weren't curious before. Maybe something
I wrote helped them to relate to their loved one in a way
that they wouldn't have beforeor that a song really meant
something to somebody, that it could have the power to change
somebody's life. I've had songs that definitely did that to
me. I can hear songs that defined a period of my life and
I think that's what we're all trying to do. If you look at
the gift of songwriting as a service or profession, that's
what you aspire to ... to affect somebody's life in a positive
way, and give them something that they couldn't have gotten
in any other way. It's something noble to aspire to. In my
little world, I've had people come up to me and tell me that
one of my songs meant a lot to them, or maybe they played
the song at their weddingyou know it's that kind of thing.
But to more directly answer your question... I guess you could
put on my tombstone, "I never said I was an engineer!"
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