Somewhere in Nashville the country music legend, George Strait, is considering a song written by a local songwriting duo. The same song is also being pitched to Trace Adkins, a “new country” music star and Grammy nominee in 2009 for “Best County Song.” A hit song recorded by music royalty opens a lot of doors in the industry. And that’s exactly what the duo of Ken Moulden and Rich Fehle are hoping for. Both are members of the Northern Shenandoah Valley chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. Moulden, and his wife Connie Urbach became the chapter’s coordinators in 2006. They even went on their honeymoon to an NSAI event called “Horse & Writer” in Wyoming.
“Everybody thinks because it’s got the word “Nashville” in it, it’s strictly country music but it’s not,” explained Moulden. “They’ve got chapters all over the world. They’ve got major headquarters in New York and Los Angeles. The main one is in Nashville. You can send up to twelve songs per year to the NSAI and they will evaluate, send them back and tell you what you can do to make them more marketable. Anything that we give you as far as a suggestion, if you use it, nobody’s going claim it, no one is going to say their co-writers. It’s all yours.”
Songs with promise may make it all the way to the top of the charts. “When you send your songs to Nashville for evaluation, if the evaluator feels it’s worthy, he will put it to a committee. That committee will decide if it’s good enough to submit to a producer,” said Moulden. “They have a producer’s luncheon every month and they take the best to the producer’s luncheon and the producers will sometimes pick them up and that’s a good way to get your music heard in town. The one song I know that got picked up that way is “I Loved Her First” by Heartland.” A song that is â€˜picked up’ means it is offered to well-known artists for professional recording and could find a spot on an album. Extensive radio play and album sales net royalties for the songwriter. Recognition for a hit song may even come in the form of a publishing company buying a songwriter’s entire catalog of songs. Note for up-and-coming singer/songwriters: “I Loved Her First” was a # 1 hit in 2006.
Songwriter Rich Fehle explained additional benefits to joining the organization, “NSAI was also formed, not only to help songwriters become better songwriters but was also formed to fight for our rights. Legislatively, they do a lot of work in Washington, DC, especially in the area of digital piracy. Within the digital realm, songwriters’ revenues have gone down drastically with the stealing of music. So they fight for that.”
Connie Urbach outlined more advantages, “NSAI has on-line education. There is an archive of videos on all the different kinds of songwriting lessons you would want. They also hold events throughout the year like â€˜Spring Training’ where you can go down to Nashville for three or four days and be exposed to a lot of different educational opportunities.” An important annual event held by NSAI is the Tin Pan South Songwriter’s Festival. The five day festival is hosted at popular music venues where both stars and hopefuls perform to appreciative audiences. Last year 9000 people attended the festival. This year’s festival begins tomorrow, March 30, and runs through April 3.
According to the Nashville Songwriters Association International slogan, “It all begins with a song.” But soon after comes the songwriters meeting – where one’s creative labor passes through the fire of evaluation. It can be a nerve wracking moment for some or a creative epiphany for othersâ€¦
On the 4th Monday of each month, the local NSAI chapter meets in a spacious room of the Crums United Methodist Church on Crums Road in Clarke. At a recent meeting, Moulden and Urbach joined a half dozen other creative individuals for an evening that included a video presentation and an evaluation session where members submitted lyrics or performed songs for consideration by the group.
Urbach offered lyrics to a ballad with a song-within-a-song format of a mother singing a lullaby to a child as she remembers her own mother’s lullabies. “For me to write I have to be really passionate about something,” said Urbach. “But I’m only a lyricist. I don’t do music.” Some rewrite suggestions led her to some on-the-spot changes that brought the song into greater focus. She was genuinely pleased with the input.
Another songwriter, Bill Bromfeld, played a new composition in a soft rock vein. “I started playing when I was 14,” said Bill. “But it took me probably twenty years to get published. I’ve made a couple of CDs. Mainly what I do now is produce other people. I’ve enjoyed coming to these meetings, hearing lots of different styles, lots of interesting material. It’s been really fun. It’s also fun to get the feedback when you do a song. You get stuff you never expect. I really find it helpful.”
Imagine a resonant guitar and a raspy but soothing voice singing nostalgically about the pleasures of a slower-paced life and you will get a sense of how Fehle sounds when he performs his latest tune. His song was a sepia portrait of small town life versus the hectic modern world. His picking began softly but his guitar and voice built to a strong chorus that many of the listeners could hum along with before song’s end. Changes? Not really. The consensus was he had a hit on his hands.
Fehle knows his craft. “I’ve been songwriting since I could reach the piano keys,” he joked when asked how he got his start. “In 1997 I started writing Christian stuff seriously. Got into some bands and started writing songs for them. Found NSAI and started honing my craft.” During his travels, Fehle was introduced to Nashville songwriter Thom Shepherd. At a show in 2006 Fehle approached Thom and said, “Man, I really want to push to that next level in songwriting and he goes, â€˜Well I got a friend down in Winchester you ought to hook up with’ so he hooked me up with Ken and the rest is history. I kind of learned everything I learned about songwriting from Ken, I think, because the man’s a master lyricist. NSAI has been great, but Ken’s the bomb.”
Fehle is one of the talented NSAI members who already has a publishing deal in Nashville. “I was in Nashville one night and played for Sheree Spoltore, whose down there in NSAI headquarters; played her our song â€˜One Hell of a Place’ [co-written with Moulden]. She just about flipped her lid over it. Said you need to come back tonight and play it for the publisher. He kept ours the night I played it. Ten-Ten Music Group was going to pick it up. I was actually courting another publisher who came off the fence at that point and said â€˜I’d like to take your whole catalog.’ So they signed me as a result of going to a meeting with NSAI and getting offered a single song.”
Not everyone at the meeting is an accomplished songwriter. Addi Cochran, for example, is a beginner determined to follow her muse wherever it takes her. This young troubadour still gets the jitters when performing in public but took a deep breath and nailed her original song for the audience at the meeting. She only learned guitar three years ago when living in Venice Beach and pursuing an acting career. “I was in the Actor’s Studio in LA and at the end of every semester, it was their policy that you had to stand up in front of a theater full of people and sing. You had to sing because they believed you couldn’t bare your soul as an actor if you couldn’t get up there and embarrass yourself and let go. And I retook that semester ten times just to do that. My teacher was like, “I really think you want to do this.”
Cochran reoriented her dream and surprised herself with a life-altering change of direction. In a gutsy move, she sold her beloved 1976 Chevy and bought a more economical vehicle. “I drove from California to Tennessee and just played everywhere.”
In Nashville she simply showed up at the storied Bluebird CafÃ© and was able to audition a song. Music is offered seven nights a week at the Bluebird Cafe by unknowns hoping to break into the Nashville music scene. The tough competition means even getting a slot to play is a feat. “I got lucky because I did one good song with all my heart and I got a great review,” said Cochran.
“Then I played places like Tootsies and sometimes even Douglas Corner CafÃ© and I laughed myself off the stage because I was so new at it. It was humbling. It was great. It’s been quite a magical ride but now I find that I have files this big of unfinished songs. When I get up and play, I just play randomly what I was working on and I finish it that way. I have a few finished songs. Maybe I can count them on one hand but I’ve played out at least fifty songs. And I don’t even know what a catalog is. I need to know those things. If I want to see this dream through I need to do everything I can and that’s why I’m here. That’s my story.”
The meeting, the songs, the creative give-and-take; all are part of the tools these songwriters are using each month to improve their craft. If you want to participate, bring a lyric sheet or guitar or just show up next month. Someone will be there to listen and NSAI will be there if you want to pursue your own dream all the way to the topâ€¦of the charts, of course.