Jason Blume is brisk, jokey, intense, and bespectacled—in the fifties or sixties I imagine he would have been The Brill Building Type. He’s written songs for Britney Spears and had a country hit, which he says “now plays on the doorbell of the house that it paid for.”
I was surprised how sick I felt as he fished around in the pile of CDs in front of him, looking for “the next victim.” My song and lyric sheet were in that pile.
At Jason’s elbow sat a bearded, football-player-sized Southerner in a Hawaiian shirt. He was a publisher from Sunset Ranch Music who had volunteered to critique the songs about fifty of us had brought to a free songwriting seminar that Jason leads each month for BMI Nashville.
All of us were crammed into a Music Row conference room with burbly fountains visible through floor-to-ceiling glass walls and Greek figures painted on the ceiling as if rising into a puffy-cloud blue sky—classy touches.
Walking in, I had supposed myself calloused, accustomed to people criticizing my creative work: copywriting is the only career I’ve ever had, and I’d been in an occasionally contentious band for eight years.
Yet there I sat, hot-faced. Horrified. Gauging the distance to the BMI lobby restroom.
This was my first daytrip from Indiana (cradle of songwriters Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Axl Rose, John Mellencamp, Michael Jackson) to Nashville (at that point, the country songwriters I could have easily named were Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson). Sitting there I began to feel exposed, unqualified, stupid for leaving my family and squandering a vacation day to drive alone to a phony-fancy conference room so someone could fail to like my song.
Of course, there was the chance this publisher guy would hear it, like it, buy it, and I could pay off my house like Jason did.
Stranger things happen.
Eventually, Jason picked my CD and read my name aloud to the room. My throat got tight.
I gave a casual little wave when he looked up to see which Hopeful I was. I wasn’t the fella in cowboy boots, or the smooth character whose untucked shirt had a stylish sheen, or the long-haired rocker in a pocket T with a stretched-out collar and holes under the armpits. All those guys were there. So were dolled-up ladies, smart girls in glasses, pleasant middle-aged women, a retired-looking guy, a couple of teenagers. A true mix.
I was a dad in jeans and a polo-type shirt from Kohl’s.
Jason put my CD in a crappy little CD player.
Guitar intro. First verse. Publisher was reading ahead on the lyric sheet and smiled at something in the final verse or the bridge. I could feel a surge of endorphins. A smile! I had always considered this one of my more likable songs, in which the singer is enchanted by a girl who seems to have unusual things randomly happening to her.
My chorus was three lines long: Things happen to her, I don’t know how/All I really know right now is/I don’t even worry…
Jason clicked it off—in order to get through so many CDs, he’d warned us that he would only be playing the first verse and a chorus. Everyone politely clapped, as they had for all the songs.
“Huh. Sounds like one of Bob McDill’s work tapes,” said the publisher, and asked Jason directly: “You ever hear one of those…?”
Jason said he hadn’t. This CD was just me playing guitar (I’m not much of a guitar player) and singing (I’m definitely not a singer), which I’d been told was acceptable at the beginner’s level where there’s more interest in the writing than the performance. So even though I’d never heard of Bob McDill, I was all high on the comparison.
“McDill would’ve had a stronger chorus,” said the publisher. He shrugged.
Jason nodded and said, “Chorus should be longer, too… People, make sure your chorus is worth the wait.” He popped out the CD and gave it back to me. And that was it.
Later he joked that we should all stick around after the publisher took off so he could “mop up the blood.”
Blood-mopping: assuring us that it was normal to feel bad, and critics are just trying to help us learn song craft so we can realize our dreams, and all we have to do is keep dreaming and follow his Six Steps to Songwriting Success.
It would have been easy to just drive back to Indiana and forget the whole thing.
Before heading home I went to see a prolific songwriter named Don Schlitz play solo at the Bluebird, a bar that calls itself a “listening room:” you whisper to your waitress and make sure you don’t clank your beer bottle against your plate.
Don wasn’t “country,” really. He could have been doing his set in New York (and in fact, he wrote the music for a Broadway musical about Tom Sawyer). A decent guitar player, a not-bad singer, he made the whole thing look like I wanted it to look: just a dad up there in a polo shirt that might have been from Kohl’s, drinking a glass of wine, making jokes and obscure remarks—"This song has layers, but not like an onion; I’m sick of Ibsen’s onion, aren’t you?"—then launching into a song he wrote that just happened to be a lucrative hit for some country artist.
Don Schlitz made it seem like a normal guy could write songs for money.
So I wanted it really badly now. I wanted to figure out how to get the Sunset Ranch publisher guy to say, “Do you have other songs I could hear sometime? Here’s a card.” Those are the words you want to hear.
Driving home through Kentucky, I realized I needed lessons. So I signed up for a weekly class that met Tuesdays. Five hours down, two hour class, five hours back—I could do that.
My wife was less than thrilled to hear my plan.