The dual events, held at The Altamont Theatre on Monday, June 22, featured songwriters Gretchen Peters (a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee; has written for Etta James and Bonnie Raitt among others), Tift Merritt (a North Carolina native and Grammy nominee for country album of the year), Jim Lauderdale (has recorded 26 albums and won two Grammys), Dave Berg (named Billboard country songwriter of the year, has written for Keith Urban, Blake Shelton and others) and Erika Wollam Nichols, general manager of The Bluebird Café in Nashville. Local recording artist and three-time Grammy-winner Steven Heller moderated.
The panelists shared their thoughts on process, inspiration and craft and took questions from the audience as well as answering previously-submitted queries. From humorous to inspired, here are some highlights:
On when to write
Gretchen Peters: I try to avoid writing. Writing is more difficult for writers than for other people.
Jim Lauderdale: Morning writing is good when I’m co-writing, but I like to write alone at night.
Dave Berg: The older I get, the less I get up [when an idea comes to me in bed] to write it down. Sometimes I decide I need sleep more than this idea.
Jim Lauderdale: I have to plan writing trips or clear the day. Otherwise the day is gone and I haven’t had time to write anything.
On writing while on tour
Dave Berg: I don’t travel much. I always dreamed of making it as a songwriter so that I can never leave my house.
Tift Merritt: I’ve always found that when I’m touring, I only write really bad things. … I love having a writing routine. I always have a notebook and write down prompts or conversations I hear.
Gretchen Peters: Touring is all about putting out energy. Writing is about getting quiet. … I think of myself as a magpie — I find shiny things and bring them back to the nest. When I find time, I go on a binge of finishing.
On tradition versus innovation
Tift Merritt: There’s a tradition of songwriting and a love of that tradition that you’re carrying on. There are artists who come along and explode their form, but I’ve never felt like that was my job.
Dave Berg: When you can say more with less, it’s a lot harder, but it’s more satisfying.
Gretchen Peters: Record what you’ve written and get as far away from it as you can. What helps me to rewrite is to listen back.
Tift Merritt: To me, [editing] is a conversation with myself, and not letting myself off the hook.
On testing new material in front of an audience
Gretchen Peters: I’m OK with judging if I’ve done a good job with the recording, but what happens when you get out into the world is almost a continuation of the writing process. It’s a continuation of the life of the song.
Tift Merritt: [Playing live] is the real test. It’s easy to be in your self-contained I-think-that-works world.
Jim Lauderdale: It’s fun to have a song you’ve almost finished, to try it out. You can tell [as you’re playing it] whether it’s working or not.
Tift Merritt: I always looked up to Eudora Welty. Her fiction is so potent and she lived such a unique life.