I first heard a Kostas song when I was nineteen years old. I was driving a beat-up, blue pick-up with lumber tied to the boat rack, making deliveries
for my old man's hardware store at the end of summer, 1989. As I raced down the Junction City Highway, with the windows rolled down due to no
air conditioning, I cranked the AM radio up, and a magical sound poured out from our
local country station, KDMS. The song felt like the Buddy Holly or early Beatles 45 rpm records I cherished as
a boy, and that were hand-me-downs from my mom and uncle. The electric guitar strings bent and twanged in an otherworldly way that I had never
heard before. I would later learn the sound came from a contraption called a B-bender on a Fender
Telecaster guitar. The sweet female voice was singing lyrics equally innocent about
the kind of love-feelings a nineteen-year-old could relate to. The simple, singable melody of the verses with the catchy refrain "Timber, I'm Falling
in Love" led to the bridge that held a twist of sophistication and tension in the
melody and chords and then resolved back to the verse and hook again like an airplane
coming in for a smooth landing.
Now, I didn't really understand why all of those elements drew me in at the time,
but I did understand "Timber, I'm Falling In Love," and I understood that it wasn't
the Oak Ridge Boys or Crystal Gayle. It possessed a modern yet retro-coolness similar to the way Tom Petty was reaching
forwards and backwards with "I Won't Back Down" as it climbed the pop charts that
That is how I first met Kostas... musically. I would later see the original lyrics
to "Timber," written on a crumpled piece of paper, displayed at The Country Music
Hall of Fame on my first visit. Next to the handwritten words, it read: "Written by Kostas and Sunny." Sunny was Kostas'
When I bought my first compact disc player, I discovered the name Kostas. I had to
plug the portable CD player into my home stereo to play the brand new Dwight Yoakam
CD, If There Was A Way. I already had Dwight's first few albums on vinyl and was a big fan. Naturally, I
pulled the cover out to read the liner notes while listening to my new LP and discovered
Kostas's name on several songs. I was especially crazy about "Turn It On, Turn It
Up, Turn Me Loose." The song contrasted its raw Johnny Cash beat and dark, broody
verses with the hillbilly-pleading choruses. Kostas went on to write many songs for and with Yoakam. The two that I consider masterpieces are "Ain't That Lonely Yet" and "Nothing." Their
craft, substance, and intermingled genres hold many lessons for songwriters at any
I spent the nineties learning to write songs, first in Los Angeles and later in Nashville.
It seemed that Kostas's name appeared on almost every album by my favorite artists during that time. He penned songs for Marty Stuart, Prairie Oyster, Kelly Willis, The Mavericks, The
Dixie Chicks, Mandy Barnett, Joy White, Travis Tritt, Dwight Yoakam, and Patty Loveless. There were many, many more, but those were the masterclasses where I discovered and
learned from his songs.
I signed a publishing deal in 2000 with Cal IV Entertainment under the leadership
of Daniel Hill and Billy Lynn, who will always hold special places in my heart. They
were kind and patient to a wild-ass songwriter who was hardened by living for years
hand-to-mouth, struggling to become a “real” songwriter while still being too young
and dumb to realize my big break had come.
Daniel and Billy recognized the influence of Kostas in my songs and set us up to write.
What began as a single co-write turned into a friendship for life. Kostas not only
wrote numerous songs with me, but he also taught me about life, spirituality, history,
music, and love—unconditional love. He wasn't some kind of guru or sage on the stage; it was just
in his nature to ponder these things and share them, and share we have. I think one
of the biggest lessons I learned from Kostas was that it is okay for people to be
the creative spirit God made us to be, even when others don't understand that kind
of freedom. Mind you, a lot of this I learned from watching and listening. I also learned a lot about songwriting
from talking about life outside of songwriting sessions.
Kostas’s mother, Kaliope, and his daughter, Sophia, are dear to me. I cherished our
times around their dinner table when Sophia was a child when they were living in Nashville. Kaliope gave great life lessons to a young man as green as the dandelion leaves she
taught him to cook. Kostas and I would meet up and go to estate and garage sales,
looking for old treasures. We shared our troubles and our joys, and we wrote songs
about both. I don't think I understood the hole that was left in my life when he moved back to
Montana until years later. Still, as with all the dearest friends we make, you just
pick right back up when you see them again as if they had been there the whole time.
That is what it is like for Kostas and me.
In 2005, LeeAnn Womack released my song "I May Hate Myself In The Morning." While my song was climbing the charts, LeeAnn debuted the entire album at the Ryman
Auditorium and invited all the songwriters along with musicians, industry folk, and
fans. She reserved front row seats for me to bring my mom and my girlfriend. Right behind me on the second row was Kostas and his girlfriend. He had a wonderful song on the same album called "Happiness." It was a surreal night.
When LeeAnn introduced my song and started playing it, I was in total shock. A song I had written by myself was being performed by one of our best country music
vocalists to the whole industry, and it was beautiful... the music and the moment. As I sat there in a daze, I felt a hand reach from behind and grasp my shoulder for
some time. It was my mentor, Kostas, who I loved and respected, giving me some love and telling
me that he was proud of me.
These recollections bring me to this oral history project. Fast-forwarding fifteen
years to 2020, I have been teaching songwriting at Vanderbilt University for ten years
and overseeing the Songwriting Program at Middle Tennessee State University for six
years. During my time at MTSU, I spent five years going to night school at Vanderbilt
to earn my Master’s in Liberal Arts and Science degree. The Spring semester was my
last before graduating, and I worked with famed music journalist and Country Music
Hall of Fame writer, Peter Cooper, on an individualized study. My last project was
to interview a musician that I considered important and write an article. Because
I recently sat with Kostas when he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall
of Fame, I chose him because I felt that more people needed to know his story. He has lived the real American dream with adventures and with twists and turns unimaginable
I intended the interviews to only serve as notes for the article I would write, so
I placed an old iPhone next to my latest iPhone and recorded our conversation over
the speaker (that is my excuse for the sound quality though everything is very understandable).
We had plenty of time on our hands because it was during the quarantine days of the
COVID-19 pandemic— March 31 through April 4, 2020 to be exact. What I thought would be a one-evening-interview turned into five nights of conversation.
It was natural for us to visit in this way as we had done many times in the past.
I realized after our first night of interviewing that people needed to hear Kostas's
story in his own voice telling his own story rather than me telling it for him. When I previously observed journalists discussing a songwriter's career and accomplishments,
it was more about their career than the life the writer lived up to the point of becoming
a "hit songwriter.” An essential part of the story is what happened during their childhood,
teens, and early adult years that gave them their unique voice as a writer and drove
them to chase a song. However, as a writer myself, I knew that the story did not end
when success—whatever that means to the individual—is reached; a writer must continue
to grow or their creativity withers on the vine. That growth can come in the form
of expanding their artistic horizons, travelling, or seeking out other artists to
share experiences. For Kostas, part of his story included mentoring me; I was a part
of his story just as he was of mine, and I wanted to return the favor by allowing
him to share his life with others so that they too might learn from it and have that
chance to grow as writers.
I hope this long-winded history gives a little more depth to the conversations presented
here. It was a labor of love for me, and I am honored to preserve my friend and mentor's