Conversation with a Creative
Recording Industry Associate Professor Odie Blackmon is the coordinator of the department’s songwriting concentration and its sole full-time faculty member. He is also a Grammy-nominated songwriter who has won the Country Music Association’s Single of the Year. His songs have been on albums that have sold more than 20 million copies and he has also been a music publisher and producer.
His work has been praised in media outlets from CMT.com to The New York Times. American Songwriter says he is "not only a great song craftsman and hit writer, but also an accurate, understandable communicator of the songwriting process and its flow."
He earned his first cut on MCA Records while earning a bachelor’s degree from MTSU’s Recording Industry Department. He later earned a master’s degree from Vanderbilt. He became a lecturer at Vanderbilt in 2010 and returned to teach full-time at his alma mater in 2014.
In addition to recruiting adjuncts and creating courses to build the songwriting curriculum, he created a new class called The Life and Times of George Jones. He wrote the textbook Music Theory and the Nashville Number System: For Songwriters & Performers and created an instructional DVD called The Craft of Writing Hit Songs.His hits include Lee Ann Womack's "I May Hate Myself in the Morning," which earned a Grammy nomination and was named the CMA's 2005 Single of the Year, and George Strait’s 50th No. 1 hit, "She'll Leave You with a Smile. He wrote the No. 1 hit “Nothing on But the Radio” for Gary Allan and has had songs recorded by Martina McBride, John Legend, Del McCoury, Tracy Lawrence, Aaron Tippin and many others. His song "Tough All Over" was featured on ABC’s Nashville. His song "I Believe" was included in the Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers.
He has worked with inner city schoolchildren, serving as "artist in residence" for the America Scores program in St. Louis, Mo. He also served three years on the songwriting faculty of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center's Williams Syndrome Camp and has served as a mentor for ASCAP Nashville's Young Writers Workshop and for workshops and seminars around the country.
He spoke to Beverly Keel about how he teaches songwriting, his experiences as a hit songwriter and what it’s like to have George Strait record one of your songs.
I saw recently where you arranged for our students to have special auditions with The Voice and American Idol? How did you arrange that? What advice do you give our students?
Through some long-term relationships in the music business, I was hired in the fall as a talent consultant for America's Got Talent and this spring for American Idol. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to serve our students, though I find talent from other sources. I tell students to try and show their personality, not just sing. It's more than a singing competition. It's better if they start their video audition by talking a little about themselves. Also, when they are singing to perform for the camera as if they are on stage. The producers are looking for singers that have personality and are entertainers as well. We've had students from Recording Industry, Musical Theater, and the School of Music chosen for a private audition this semester with AI producers. This season on America's Got Talent, we had an MRAT student make it to the first night of the show on TV.
Tell us about your own songwriting. What are some recent songs you have written and how did you get the ideas for them? Tell us about your last cuts.
Sara Darling and Sam Outlaw just did a duet cover of "I May Hate Myself in The Morning" that I love. That song idea came from a relationship I was in and just poured out onto the page. I may have written that song in 30 minutes, but it was the years of working on my craft and bad songs that gave me the tools I needed on the day I was inspired. In 2019, George Strait released "Two More Wishes" on one of the top-selling country albums of the year. It's a real joy to hear the "King of Country Music" sing your song. He is such an effortless master. "She'll Leave You with A Smile" was re-released in 2019 on a greatest hits-type album called 2000's Country. That song has appeared on nine other albums than the original. A George Strait hit seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. I also had two Jim Lauderdale cuts this last year, "When You Can't Get What Your Heart Wants" and "Where the Cars Go By Fast." Jim is my main co-writing pal. He was also an early hero. I first saw Jim playing at a club in Burbank, California, when I was 21. I had moved to L.A. to pursue country music due to my love of California country music like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Dwight Yoakam. When I heard Jim sing, I fell in love with his voice and style. It fit perfectly in that Bakersfield sound but with a new twist. I later met him hanging around at Bluewater Music in Nashville, and when we started writing, we became fast friends. He is genuinely one of the most gifted and giving people I know.
Tell us what it was like when you were named Billboard's No. 1 Hot Country Songwriter for 2005. What was that like for you? Was it a surprise? What was that year like for you?
I was at the beach when I got the word about the Billboard chart naming me the #1 country songwriter. It was a surprise and I thought it was cool, but I also didn't understand those kinds of things at the time because music hadn't ever been about awards for me. I never even watched award shows until I got invited to them, and the tickets were free. That year of being nominated at all of the awards shows for a song that I wrote by myself was a very surreal feeling. I didn't have anyone to share it with because it wasn't co-written, and I found all the preparation like getting nice clothes, planning out the trip, and having a publisher work you through the crowds to meet folks to be overwhelming and distracting. I was used to hanging out around Music Row and writing songs and was only about five years removed from waiting tables. I waited on a lot of the people I saw at the shows. I also learned how much of it is just advertising, which was very odd to a naive music nerd. I loved the Grammys because there were world musicians there, and this feeling of musical love. I sat by the guy from Phish and the Gatlin Brothers and thought it was funny that when Paul McCartney walked by, he even got ‘ghermed’ at the Grammys. He just put his head down, held up the peace sign, and kept on walking while people were all coming at him. Also, seeing Bruce Springsteen hold the entire Staple Center with just an acoustic guitar was pretty awesome. Not many performers can do that. Having the CMA awards that year at Madison Square Garden was fantastic. They put us up in the Waldorf and we got to walk the red carpet and have a row of photographers yell at us to take our picture. It was really odd for being a songwriter. I just kind of laughed and was nervous. It was fun and uncomfortable.
I assume teaching commercial songwriting is much different than teaching traditional music, or as I like to say, it's like teaching Beyonce v. Bach. What are some ways you have been able to make a real connection with students in this area?
I was a music major at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for two years because I didn't know where to go for what I wanted to do. So, that ended up being frustrating. I then went out to Musician's Institute to study at the Guitar Institute of Technology. Their methods made more sense to me. I ended up having some terrible muscle pain/range of motion issues that resulted in me focusing on my songwriting. Truly, a silver lining. Working on Music Row with established hit songwriters, studio musicians, and producers is really where I learned my craft though. I approach teaching as an apprenticeship or like I'm a coach. Songwriters need someone to nurture their gifts, get them outside of their box, and challenge what they think they are capable of. They live in a world that tells them they can't do it or that it's impossible. They need someone that has done it to tell them that they can do it, and that they can do it their own way with their own voice. I like to say to people that the MTSU Songwriting program is probably the most diverse there is. If the next Taylor Swift or Kendrick Lamar walks through our doors, we welcome them and their creativity. We appreciate artistry and nurture it instead of telling them they have to learn a new language to be validated.
You really have become a prolific writer/researcher in the academic realm as well. What sparked that for you? Tell us about 1-2 of your publications/presentations.
I think anyone serious about music naturally becomes somewhat of a researcher. As the great Bobby Braddock once told me, "Know your influence's influences." I was always digging backward to learn about the music, musicians, songs, songwriters, artists, and producers that I loved. I also wanted to know who they loved. When I first started teaching at Vanderbilt, I started researching songwriting teachers like I had analyzed songwriters. So, it was a natural fit. When I took the job at MTSU, I didn't know that I was supposed to do research. So, I was like, "Wait a minute. So, as a part of my job, I get to research subjects that I feel are important and share it with people? That sounds like the coolest thing ever!" My most recent endeavor is Soul of a Songwriter. It's an oral history and multi-media collaboration with the Center for Popular Music, documenting famous and influential songwriter's lives. The first two-hour interview, with Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Kostas, can be found at: https://www.mtsu.edu/popmusic/OralHistoriesByOdieBlackmon.php It all started with me interviewing Kostas for an article I was writing for Peter Cooper. Peter is the Country Music Hall of Fame writer but also teaches at Vanderbilt. He agreed to do an independent study with me for my last master’s class in Spring 2020. So what started out to be just an interview for an article turned into eight hours of interview that is fascinating. Kostas was born in Greece, moved to Montana at seven, learned country music from shining boots in cowboy bars as a kid, played in Las Vegas night clubs, toured as a musician in military clubs in the Vietnam War, and had a performing artist career out west, all before being discovered in Nashville. Hearing his story in his own voice was incredible and I knew I wanted to pursue this path. The interview is set in video form, utilizing Kostas' personal photos and photos from historically accurate settings. An accompanying Spotify playlist is provided as a listening resource of every musical artist or song that he mentions in the interview. Kostas' biography is accompanied by a Spotify playlist of his major hits and essential songs. Lastly, my commentary is provided to add depth to the meaning of our conversations and relationship. The second two-hour interview/video segment is almost finished. There are four more hours of interviews to research photos, people mentioned, and edit video. The goal is to document the careers of great songwriters and, more importantly, understand their early lives. Their stories and songs provide a window into the complex character, making them musical visionaries and lyrical dreamers with an entrepreneurial spirit.
Tell us about the new songwriting center that you have been working on. What will this mean to the program and our students?
Well, it means we are getting the heck out of Ezell hall! :). Seriously, we have a wonderful space in the Miller Educational Center that songwriting students will be able to call their own. We are starting with one built-out classroom this Spring semester. We have space and plans for a second classroom, a beat lab, six writing rooms that are old medical exam rooms (perfect for student co-writing sessions), and a vending area. This will cement the Songwriting Program by having an official place dedicated to these students. It will be an excellent showcase for potential students and their parents as well. The program has grown so much, Our one classroom in Ezell is booked day and night, and we have to use rooms in other buildings. It's an inspiring time. After we get the spaces built out, I want to get gold and platinum albums from our alumni to line the walls. Imagine the pride and confidence those halls would give to our students.
Please give us one of your great stories about working with a famous artist or having him/her record one of your songs.
One of the biggest blessings of my career was meeting a guy named Gary Allan. I've had 20 songs recorded by Gary over the years, all on gold or platinum records. When we first met, we had California country music in common, which was rare in Nashville. There are so many stories from the road that I can't tell and a lot that I don't remember. People still tell me stories to this day, and I'm like "Really, that happened?" :) Not that it was so wild, just a lot of cities, people, songs, and life was happening fast. Gary and I were roommates in an old house just off of Belmont Boulevard for a time. The tour bus would pull up on Dallas Avenue to pick him up and almost take up the whole street because of cars parked on the street too. It was great! You have to remember that the Belmont neighborhood was more artists and musicians and a little rougher in those days. Not the high dollar area that it is today. Gary championed me before I knew anyone in the business. He would have me out to Country Radio Seminar when it was still at Opryland and take me around or take me on the road and pretty much share all of his experiences with me. It was such a fun ride to be on. One of my favorite memories was Gary, Jim Lauderdale, and I deciding that we needed to get away from Nashville to write songs. This was so Gary wouldn't be distracted with business. He had his travel agent book a house on the edge of the jungle in Costa Rica overlooking an empty beach. It was amazing. The only thing was it took four hours to ride there from the airport. We had to carry our bags as we waded across a little river to get to the house that was up on stilts. We wrote songs, played in the ocean, had a cook and a driver to take us to town or get what we needed, and just had a great time. One morning Gary and I woke up and went out on the deck to have coffee. We witnessed one of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life. Jim Lauderdale doing Tai Chi out in the grass while the caretaker of the place, a little Costa Rican guy, just watched from a distance in bewilderment. Jim had found a Noni fruit tree on the property and rubbed the fruit pulp all over his body. It's supposed to have healing properties. I don't think the man, there in the jungle, knew what to think of Jim's martial arts moves and use of Noni fruit. Most people don't know that Jim is a master at Chi Gong and goes to China to study in the mountains.
How has your songwriting evolved over the years? Do you still get nervous when you write with someone new?
My songwriting has changed as I get older. I've heard other writers say that you have more craft as you get older, but fresh ideas are harder to come by. I believe it to be true. Also, language changes, and we do write for a young audience mostly. I was always more interested in the adult themes of traditional country music. During the pandemic, I've been learning to write with samples, virtual instruments, and using Logic Pro X. I've hired a young guy to teach me or help me out when I get in a jam. It has been a blast to rethink songwriting from this perspective. I don't usually get nervous. Most writers are cool, and even if you don't get a great song, it's just nice to make a new friend and share music.
Do you have any tips you could give us about sparking our creativity, being better organized or getting more things done?
All songwriters are so different. I think you have to do it all the time if you want to be a professional songwriter and be in the game. Even when you are writing a bad song, you are exercising those muscles. I compare it to a football player, though I don't know much about football. I see those guys at practice doing all kinds of stuff they don't do in a game, like hitting dummies on a sled or lifting weights. They are exercising those muscles so they are strong, and everything is second nature on game day. It's the same with songwriting. You have to put in the work so that you have the tools handy and don't think about them when you are inspired.
What do you do when you aren't working?
When I am not working, I'm most likely doing something with my daughter Josie or preparing something to do with her. One thing that I like to do is, we've been writing songs together. I never push that, but she comes to me with a verse written, and I will help her with it, and then we'll make a little video for the grandparents. She's a natural. I also like going to the Maryland Farms YMCA and traveling when there's not a worldwide pandemic going on.