“I wanted to pay respect to some of the people that brought me here,” Byron Hill says humbly about his long form bio on ByronHillmusic.com. But the quiet-spoken, North Carolina songman’s Music City career began in 1978, inside the ATV Music tape copy room.
Since that classic beginning, Hill’s songs have amassed over 700 recordings, earned 77 Gold and Platinum Awards plus numerous sync placements. His works include the No. 1 George Strait favorite, “Fool Hearted Memory,” the Alabama No. 1 “Born Country,” George Jones’ “High Tech Redneck,” and “Nothing On But The Radio” for Gary Allan.
As Director of A&R for BNA Records in 1993 and 1994, Hill served under Joe Galante and Ric Pepin helping develop artists like John Anderson, Lorrie Morgan and Doug Supernaw. However, probably not unlike other Nashville publishers who have jumped into the label chair, Hill left that gig still smiling but saying, “Folks I’m going back to the kinder, gentler world of music publishing!!”
Hill has also found success as a producer building a client list that extends worldwide. Most notable, his five albums with Canadian country star Gord Bamford earned coveted CCMA Producer of the Year honors in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013.
The following interview took place inside Hill’s home studio. Topics covered lessons learned, plus a perceptive look at how Music Row is evolving and changing the creative community for artists, publishers, producers, songwriters and studio musicians. These insights led Hill to remark, “It’s not just the size of the buildings changing on Music Row.”
NEKST: You attribute Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” as the song that, “started me on the path to being a professional songwriter.”
Byron Hill: My Dad sat me down to listen to this song when I was about 16. I remember this mind boggling moment where the lyrics drew me in. I was already playing guitar and struggling to write little bits of songs, but I realized this songwriting world is different than being an artist. The song moved me, made me want to be a better writer and set me on my course.
NEKST: You’ve been a writer, producer, publisher and worked at a record label. What’s most important?
Byron Hill: The core for me is songwriting. I got signed at ATV in 1978 but soon afterwards we experienced massive staff changes. The man running the place, Gerry Teifer said, “It’s just you and me, can you start plugging songs?” I said, “Sure.” I always looked at plugging songs as something every songwriter should do anyway. I began gathering studio experience as a songwriter and sometimes I’d run across singers and think, man, they should have a record deal. So it made total sense to try and help someone like Kathy Mattea. She was a waitress at Fridays when I met her and I started using her to sing demos because she was a voice that fit Anne Murray who was still big in our market. It felt like a natural extension of what I did as a songwriter and publisher to start putting her material together and produce her. A good way to generate song activity and help someone gain traction at the same time. ATV was an international company so I was also given projects from other countries like Australia, Scandinavia and Canada. Slowly I evolved into wearing many hats, but each seemed to make sense while I had it on.
NEKST: Is that how you established your Canadian connection?
Byron Hill: It does go back to the ATV days, plus Canada has the advantage of being a lot like this market, musically. I remember when it was a bit more isolated, but eventually the border just disappeared. Today, Canadian artists are equally competitive—talent, songwriting and production-wise with everyone else. Actually, I never really visited Canada much until Gil Grand, who I wrote with and produced, began getting CCMA nominations around 1998. I’ve always used co-writing as a way to meet people before I commit to anything. Usually that dance helps you discover if you enjoy working together. I did the same thing with Gord Bamford. He came to visit when I was signed to Warner Chappell, wanting to talk about songs and possible writing. So we wrote together and hit it off.
NEKST: Describe your producer process?
Byron Hill: Each artist is different, but getting great songs is always problematic for new artists. With Canadians you also have the Canadian Content law to deal with which can dictate writing appointments. So you have to bring in favors from friends and add talents that believe you can succeed. Sometimes I wonder if working with artists would be easier if I didn’t write and only culled through songs from other people, but most artists today want to co-write.
NEKST: What about the studio?
Byron Hill: I usually do charts and arrangements, although in Nashville a lot gets done on the fly. The players are so talented that no one needs what the British call “dots” in front of them, they read numbers and come up with cool stuff. The producer also has to be compliant with Musicians Union rates based upon the size of the project and know the artist’s publisher requirements.
NEKST: Do you also weigh in about artist imaging?
Byron Hill: Sometimes I can’t keep my mouth shut if I see an artist making mistakes or putting out the wrong kind of publicity. I can be brutally honest which probably goes back to my publishing background when I was told never just tell an artist what they want to hear. Gord Bamford needed some imaging help in the beginning because he didn’t have anyone giving him that second opinion. So I offered it and he was very good about it. But my honesty caused me problems when I worked at a record label because they had a rule—when an artist is platinum they tell you what to do. Imaging isn’t the main role of a producer, but the production animal is embracing a broader spectrum these days.
NEKST: What does the current Music Row landscape look like for songwriters?
Byron Hill: When I moved to town and up through the ‘90s, every building on the Row was cranking out songs. Some artists wrote, like Johnny Cash, but the field of singers that needed songs from great writers was big. And record deals weren’t built around co-writes, so artists were free to cut outside songs. Music Row was this giant, thriving, song machine. Every company had its roster of star writers and newbies all aspiring to be the next Troy Seals, Bob Morrison or Roger Bowling. Not much of that remains today. Not on the Row, not anywhere! In the heyday only a few artists were signed to publishing deals. Now the numbers I hear tossed around about the best publishing company mix are like 80% artist-writers/20% craftsman. So if you have 10 writers on your staff, 8 of them better have artist or producer possibilities. But of course everything else has changed, too, like the way we do demos. Hardly anyone does full demos anymore, but I used to book them all the time and cut my producer teeth learning tricks during those sessions. And if you talk to the players around town, now they are stacking tracks at writer’s houses, keeping it simple. It’s gotten challenging for them, too.
NEKST: What about the music stylistically?
Byron Hill: Trends change but the lyrics and idea still have to be strong. It’s hard to argue with some of songs winning big awards, they’re great. But overall, perhaps it’s getting a little less historic. Used to be you could write a great song and feel like, man we might be creating history. Now it’s more like let’s hope we can find someone to cut it and get a little run out of it. I try to get exposed to writers outside the market and stay excited about the music and so I don’t wind up becoming an old-fart, flag waver.
NEKST: Do you feel pressured about singles?
Byron Hill: I guess I’ve always tried to write something I thought could be a single. If a song will go mid-tempo or up, I’ll take it that way. But I’ll also write weird, off the wall, left field things. I got some legacy cuts recently with Don Williams and Mark Chesnutt of which I’m very proud. There was a time when you could pretty much count on that buying some groceries, but today unless you are getting a single on the radio you know you’re going to having to figure out how to eat two years from now.
NEKST: What does your crystal ball see happening in 5—10 years?
Byron Hill: The last five years have been hard to believe so my crystal ball is likely a bit foggy. I’m on the board on NSAI and know that licensing issues are a high level of concern for everyone including the labels, PROs, NMPA, NSAI and RIAA. There’s a lot of smart people working to save the profession for others, but it is going to take perhaps five more years to implement and another five to reap results. I just hope the business doesn’t suffer too much or wipe out too many people in the meantime. Unfortunately, that is the dark crystal ball I see, but having so many people working on this is also a ray of hope. As songwriters we should all do our best to get involved, do a show, impress your congressman, whatever it takes. Otherwise we could end up like potters selling our wares, sitting by the side of the road.