Jim Beavers arrived in Nashville in 1991 with the goal of pursuing a career on the business side of the music industry. Armed with an MBA from Vanderbilt he carved out a spot in the Marketing department at Capital and then Virgin Records. A decade later he abruptly changed gears bravely calling himself a songwriter. Since then, Beavers earned the title penning nine No. 1 songs and landing dozens of recordings by artists such as Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and many more. He co-wrote Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” and the recent Brad Paisley track, “Selfie#theinternetisforever.”
In addition to numerous nominations and awards, the East Texas native currently serves on the CMA and NSAI Board of Directors. “I love being on the Boards,” says Beavers. “I learn a lot being around the smart people and the relationships you make are an incredible opportunity.”
Beavers covers a lot of ground in the following interview which talks about songwriter tools, writing full time, shortcuts for new writers, song trends and issues facing non-performing songwriters today. Read On…
David M Ross: What’s in your everyday songwriter tool bag?
Jim Beavers: The smartphone is pretty key for communication and many of the younger writers type on their phones, so they don’t need anything else. (I usually use an iPad because I like typing with a full keyboard.) I use Pages which syncs to the cloud and is available across all my Apple screens. Everyone pulls out a phone when it’s time to put down a work tape. Even the track guys will sometimes use it to record the vocal with a click going then drop that file into Pro Tools to build the track. For example, I wrote with Chris Stapleton. The chances of getting him back to sing a vocal aren’t high because he is so busy, but his voice is so great so I recorded him on my iPhone then built the demo around it.
David M. Ross: What about DAWs (digital audio workstations)?
Jim Beavers: I use Logic Pro for doing tracks which is the Apple version of Pro Tools. I bought Pro Tools but it didn’t seem as intuitive to me as Logic. The split in town is that the more serious producers and engineers are hard core Pro Tools users, but I write with more and more people using Logic. And a few people still successfully use Garageband. The ability to build a track in the room has caused a seismic shift in the songwriting business. It’s also given rise to the “track guys,” who build the demo while the song is being written. Writers now expect the track builders to make it sound unique and add unexpected touches that hopefully will get the attention of A&R people and artists.
David M. Ross: So the guitar/vocal demo days are over?
Jim Beavers: With the right voice and song it can still work in some situations like Lori McKenna singing “Humble and Kind” into a phone. But that doesn’t happen much anymore.
David M. Ross: What about the three letters MBA? What moved you to switch career paths so abruptly?
Jim Beavers: Deciding to become a songwriter didn’t seem as weird to me as perhaps it did to everybody else because I knew how much I liked doing it. I grew up playing guitar and writing songs—they always just went hand in hand. Mostly it was writing funny songs to make my friends laugh. I grew up in a conservative family and the idea of being a free spirit, chasing rainbows and writing songs for a living, well that never entered my mind. I thought I wanted to work at a record company and started reading every book about it I could get my hands on. I picked up from Texas and moved here, not knowing a soul, but with the goal of someday running a record company or being a manager. But the longer I was here, the louder my inner voice started telling me I should be doing something on the creative side.
David M. Ross: What did that inner voice say?
Jim Beavers: At first I thought everyone would be like me with this deep-seated love for country music and its history. Slowly I realized I was more of a musical than a business person. I made the jump in 2002. I’d been at Capitol Records about 10 years and they had a 20% workforce reduction and I became one of those people. So I realized if I’m gonna experience career rejection and uncertainty why not at least be going through that for something that is really fun? It was a scary decision. I was already in my thirties and had a new baby at home. I remember being very self-conscious about it because you have to call yourself a songwriter before you really are one.
David M. Ross: Every songwriter can relate to that…
Jim Beavers: People always ask what it was like the first time you heard a song of yours on the radio. It wasn’t elation or self-satisfaction, it was relief. You have to believe in yourself long before anybody else will and it’s difficult not knowing for sure if you are crazy or not. Incidentally, when I first moved here, I ended up one afternoon at Mosco’s news stand on Elliston Place and discovered the MusicRow magazine InCharge issue—a listing of Nashville industry leaders. It had pictures and phone numbers of everyone and I learned so much from it. I started calling everyone who worked at a record company and that was how I started meeting people, how I got started. That’s a fact.
David M. Ross: What issues do performing and non-performing writers face today?
Jim Beavers: It’s difficult to talk about this without sounding like a negative old guy missing how great things used to be. But it’s true that the non-performing songwriter— the person who does it every day, who can walk in a room by themselves and come out with a well-crafted song—used to enjoy more focus on the quality of a song and not just with whom they wrote it. Artists now expect to write most of their material, so the focus for non-performing writers is not just on the song, but getting in the room with the artist. I understand artists wanting to have their names on the songs, especially the ones who really love the craft and are so great at it. They can make more money and perhaps it helps their credibility, but I firmly believe that the fans don’t care about who wrote the song, they care about how they feel when they hear it. Regardless, this change has consolidated the ranks of people making a living writing songs—it’s probably the new normal.
We’ve removed a lot of the colors in the country songwriter crayon box. Someone took em away and melted down.
David M. Ross: Advice for new writers? Sea Gayle’s Chris DuBois told me a great song idea can get a newer writer into a room with established hit makers.
Jim Beavers: Writers write. If you are a real writer you’ll write by yourself and with others. Regarding co-writers, the number one shortcut for a non-performing songwriter is exactly what Chris said. Because the people that have been doing it at a high level don’t need practice anymore, we need something to write about. So if someone comes in the room with a great idea, then holy crap, that can be huge. Now sometimes you think you have a great idea, but find out, “Yeah we’ve already written that three times.” Other times it’s a voice. Being a great singer can help you gain access. Artists and track guys can also get short cuts.
Jim Beavers: Be aware of what is going on, but try not to chase it. When the Bro Country thing happened I got run over by a big, black, jacked-up truck. I tried to write songs that sounded like that and they were pretty good imitations, but they were imitations. None of them ever got cut because it just wasn’t really what I do. You have to be true to who you are. I’m not 25. I can write about what it was like to be 25, but not about what it is like to be 25.
David M. Ross: So it’s good form to bring an idea to a co-write?
Jim Beavers: Yes. Especially if it is with somebody you’re writing up to. Try to come in with several good ideas, or at least a feel or melody or something worth chasing. Some writers have a reputation for wanting to be the ones to drive the boat. In that case I try to be the best first mate I can be, in that room. Every write is different. Be sensitive to what is happening that day.
David M. Ross: Any special artist co-write guidelines?
Jim Beavers: Be aware of the artist’s musical point of view—what they are or are not willing to say and their vocal abilities. The artist has to be able to sing what you write. Your job is to fit the song to the artist like a tailor fits a suit. You’re the architect, but they are the owner and they know what kind of house they want. You are there to help them build the kind of house they want to live in.
David M. Ross: What about current song trends and writer angst?
Jim Beavers: We are in a time right now where no one is writing the poetry of country music like “Good Ole Boys Like Me” or “The Dance.” I miss that. I still make the rookie mistake of falling in love with a song I wrote even if no one else likes it. That’s the hardest part, you have to let it go and go write another one. Killing your darlings never gets easier. I thought that after having a few hits it would all look different. Wrong. However, with a few hits you do get to say, “my bills are paid this year.” And that takes off a lot of pressure. But you’re still staring at a blank piece of paper saying stupid shit over and over and wondering… You have to embrace the spark, the uncertainty and the weird feelings or go do something different.
David M. Ross: Has the biz economics affected what artists want to sing about?
Jim Beavers: The artists have become highly sophisticated and aware of their own brands. They figured out their money is on the road and on a Friday night nobody wants to hear about jobs, kids or responsibilities. They want to party, have fun, and get drunk. How a song goes over live has become our reality. That has driven the music to always be in the moment and positive with the artist being the hero–either a badass or sexy, desirable person. They don’t get broken up with, or cheat on anybody. I’m young, you’re young, everything is awesome, everything is fun. There’s little or no room for third person story songs. As a kid I’d listen to Merle sing about turning 21 in prison doin’ life without parole and I loved it. I didn’t shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but loved that as well. We’ve removed a lot of the colors in the country songwriter crayon box. Someone took em away and melted down. Maybe someday we’ll get em back. At the end of the day though, all the frustrations of the ‘business’ of songwriting are worth it for two reasons. One, the great and talented people I get to be around and create with. And two, even after all this time, I still get that indescribable feeling when I think I am “getting on a good one.” And I hope that never goes away.