Byron Hill

The Song Was King

Veteran Nashville singer/songwriter Byron Hill speaks to Cristy Zuazua for The Writer’s Share. Hill’s songs have been released on 77 RIAA certified Gold and Platinum albums and singles, and had numerous hits around the globe. His songs have been recorded by a long list of artists, including Ray Charles, Alabama, George Strait, Kenny Rogers, Don Williams, John Michael Montgomery, Gary Allan, George Jones, Reba McEntire, Conway Twitty, and a host of others. Hill’s songs have earned 10 ASCAP Awards.

The Writers Share: So glad to have you with us! Can you tell us a little about how you made your way to Nashville to write songs after growing up in Winston-Salem?

Byron Hill: Well, I started by reading the fine print on albums and figuring out who all the people were behind the scenes. I was writing songs when I was 16, so I was kind of curious about where these songs came from. I was going to college at 17 or 18 and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, performing in coffeehouses and little shows, and when I got out of school, I knew I wanted to be a songwriter. At that time, the singer/songwriter thing was still active in New York and LA, too, so the genre-specific songwriting for country never really hit me. I just wrote songs. I mean, I grew up listening to country and I liked what I heard in country, but also liked many of the singer-songwriters in the pop market, people like Jackson Brown, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Carole King – people like that. I just felt like songwriting was songwriting. I didn’t really think so much about the genre aspects of it.

So, I started studying up on the markets and where to go, and being from a kind of basic upbringing in North Carolina, I didn’t want to go too far. I felt like New York would be kind of a shocker to me, and LA was way too far – and some of my heroes like Kristofferson, were in Nashville, so I started exploring the songwriting opportunities there; it was a pretty big deal to be a Nashville songwriter and there were publishing companies and people who were willing to put you through the learning to be a songwriter and all of that. So I made some exploratory trips here, in 1975-76, and ’77, and then finally made the move. I got a call in ’77 from a publisher who said they had a job opening for a tape copy guy, which is sort of the bottom job at a publishing company. They don’t make tapes anymore, but you’re working in what they call a tape room, still, making copies of songs to give to producers and artists for the publishing company and making the pitch copies that runners run out and give to the artist. That’s how I ended up working for a company called ATV Music in Nashville and started there in ’78. They also gave me a writing contract in September of 78. So, that’s how it started.

TWS: What has been the biggest change in the songwriting business since you first started?

BH: There have been a lot of changes. When I moved to town, beginning songwriters wrote with mainly other songwriters, to learn. And it’s still a bit that way; you write with other writers and you will learn, but the song was everything, and if the song was strong, you could get it recorded. It didn’t matter whether you had written it with the artist. Most artists didn’t write. You had some artists, like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash that wrote, but market was not the artist who wrote songs; it was more that artists needed songs. Back then, that was it, you know. You’d just try to write the greatest song you could, and the quickest way to learn to do that was through co-writing. You could spend a lot of time on your own, trying to get better and better at the craft, but nothing worked better or faster than getting together with experienced writers and trying to come up with great material. And you had an outlet for it because most of the artists were looking material, not writing it. So, that was it. The song was king.

Now, the biggest change I’ve seen through my 37 years in town is the way songwriters have to do business now – and there is the business of songwriting, not just the creative side. The business of songwriting requires a lot of writing with artists, more and more. A little thing called a “360 deal” came into play, where the labels are getting a piece of the action on all aspects of an artists’ career – writing, production, publishing, merch sales, and all of that. So it’s kind of pushing artists more towards writing, which has changed the landscape for non-artist songwriters. The business has changed, and it makes it great for writers who can embrace that, but when you’ve got a longer term perspective of it and you’ve seen it over the years, it makes me long for the days when the song did everything.

TWS: How has digital distribution affected songwriters in the past few years?

BH: Digital? It caught everyone off guard, and we’re still dealing with old models on how we get paid. Some old regulations on how we get paid are a real problem. We can’t negotiate our own rates for those things like digital streaming, and it’s created a mess. I think that as time goes by, it’ll work its way out, but the people who are getting hurt right now are the ones that need to be making a living right now at it now, and it’s hard for them. In the early stages of the digital thing, the smaller file-creators like the people who create songs, images, those who created text files like poems and books got hit first. But now it’s TV shows, it’s movies, computer programs, it’s everything, because the bandwidth is getting faster and bigger and bigger forms of intellectual property are getting hurt out there. So now there are more people in the fight. But it took a while to bring those other people in and to get them working together to fix this. But it’s all got to work itself out or intellectual property in all forms is going to be in trouble and the world will no longer have great creators of works if we can’t protect them in some way.

TWS: What kinds of projects are you working on now?

BH: I’m always writing. I don’t think I’ve ever written less than about 80 songs a year, so I write about 80-120, ever since I’ve been in town. I keep that part of my career going all the time, but like I said earlier, the opportunities for those songs have changed. I always maintained a hand in artist development too, dating all the way back to, gosh, I guess before I used to produce Kathy Mattea. I got Kathy her record deal way back and produced one album on her. We made all the mistakes on that album, so I only did the one, but I did get her her record deal, and a lot of other artists since then. I’ve worked with a lot of independents, tried to help them in the studio, cut records, etc. I ended up meeting Gary Allan out in California and brought him to town, got his record deal for him on Decca [Records] and co-produced his first three albums. And then there’s kind of a new crop of people I’m working with; I’m not ready to start talking about them yet, but there’s a few that I really believe in. We’ve been spending a little development time, so we’ll see where it goes.

For me, it’s always been a great way to get to know someone creatively and on the business side by writing songs with them. So, in a way, the artist/writer combination, it’s a fun thing, now, even though it’s not the way things used to be, because I’ll write with an artist and I’ll learn a lot about them as a person. I’ll learn a lot about what they’re looking for on the business side of things, and how to write what makes them tick. It helps me make that decision of whether or not I might be able to help them get to the next level, either get that record deal, or get some sort of development thing going for them. I see that as an important way to stay in the business and not just isolate somewhere and write songs and hope that somebody hears one. I really want to go the extra step and try to get my songs involved with artists on the ground level, so the longer I can stay with that, the better. I’m not a young writer anymore, so my time is [laughs] starting to maybe, get towards the latter part of my career, let’s put it that way. But this seems like the best way to spend my time in the current day songwriting world.

TWS: We’re so glad you are part of the Writers Share!

BH: I really appreciate presenters – and the way you’re creating a venue down [in Birmingham], which is great for songwriters. I do a lot of shows every year, mainly because I just love doing it. I love getting out and performing the songs, I love meeting people, and people seem to like what we do. It keeps me alive and having fun with it, you know? It is still “show biz” so as long as good presenters like you continue to like what we’re bringing to your listeners, then it really is great for everyone.