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Ten Questions With Rivers Rutherford
By Todd Sterling

I had the pleasure of meeting Rivers Rutherford at a party late last year celebrating his number one hit "These Are My People," co-written with Dave Berg and recorded by Rodney Atkins. Our exchange was brief, but what struck me about Mr. Rutherford was his genuine personality; there was nothing fake or contrived about the way he presented himself.

Each songwriter has his or her own thing, that special something that separates them from the rest of the pack. What sets Rutherford apart from most songwriters is the soulfulness with which he writes. Hit’s like "When I get Where I’m Going" and "Smoke Rings In The Dark" drip with a realness that just can’t be fabricated.

Recently, Rutherford took time out of his busy schedule to answer... "10 Questions".

TS: How would you describe your writing style?

RR: I always tell people songwriting is nothing more than amusing yourself. They don't call it working a guitar, it's playing. So I try to keep it fun. That doesn't mean it's not hard or frustrating, it certainly can be, but even when I’m writing a sad song or a heavy song, I’m having a good time.

TS: Where do you draw inspiration from?

RR: I write a lot of songs for my wife, Ali. I try to write what I'm feeling at that particular moment, and a lot of times I'm not even sure what that is, so it's kind of like fishing . . . throwing out a line and see what comes up.

TS: What is a typical writing session like for Rivers Rutherford?

RR: Wow. I don't know, I've never had a typical writing session. Sometimes I start with an idea, sometimes it's a melody, sometimes it's a hook, and sometimes it's nothing. Sometimes I start at the beginning, sometimes in the middle. There’s really no formula to it. The only common denominators I can think of are that I go in everyday, I almost exclusively co-write anymore, I like to start from an idea or a hook if I can, and I aim for the song that's going to cure cancer. If I can't get there, then I aim for song of the year. If that doesn't work, then I try to write a great hit song. And if that doesn't happen, then I write a piece of crap and call it practice.

TS: When you write a song, do you ever write with a particular artist in mind?

RR: Very rarely. If I'm producing an act I'll keep them in mind, but I'm usually trying to write a song that I would cut if I had a record deal. Then I cross my fingers and hope that somebody else would cut it too.

TS: What is your take on the art vs. commerce debate; how can a songwriter feed both sides?

RR: A person can only be who he or she is, and so I try to write songs that I like whether somebody else does or not. Fortunately, my favorite songs are hits so I tend to write songs that are hooky and short. If my favorite music was opera or jazz, I probably wouldn't write very many hits. That being said, there are times when I have written songs I was pretty sure wouldn't be hits (just) because I had to get them out of my system. That's very important because, in my opinion, every creative heart has two personalities, a child and a critic. The child likes to throw paint around the room and have fun, and the critic wants it all to be organized. When the kid in me gets his way all the time, I don't write too many hits, but when the critic dominates the kid, he shuts down and doesn't want to play. Getting those two to play well together is a lot like walking the edge of a razor.

TS: Who is your all-time favorite songwriter, and how has his or her writing influenced your own writing?

RR: I have several. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen come to mind. So does Jimmy Webb. I've tried to write big thoughts like Dylan, while keeping the imagery and language earthy like Springsteen. Jimmy Webb’s melodies and harmonies are so surprising; I've tried to be unique like that.

TS: Out of all the songs you’ve had cut, what is the one song that best sums up who you are as a songwriter?

RR: "When I Get Where I'm Going."

TS: What advice would you give someone who wants to make songwriting a career?

RR: If you can make it an avocation rather than a vocation, you're a lot better off. But if you can't sleep at night for fearing you're not getting all the songs out of your system and into the world, and you've tried every other way you know to make a living and it didn't work, then welcome to the profession.

TS: What are some of the biggest mistakes new writers make?

RR: Trying to write someone else's song. If I'm trying to write a Jeffrey Steele song, he's going to beat me every time. If you try to write my song, I'm going to beat you. Write your OWN song, because that's the one the world hasn't heard yet. Also, I hear a lot of writers talk about how their song is better than some piece of junk they heard on the radio. The trouble is that song is not your competition. That song was probably written by the artist or published by the producer. A songwriter's job is not to beat an inside song, it's to beat all the best outside songs, which means you have to have something that's not just good enough, but special.

TS: How do you define success?

RR: It has something to do with relationships. My relationship with God, my family, my friends, my industry. That's about as fine a point as I can put on it right now. I'll get back to you if I figure it out.


( Todd Sterling is a freelance writer and songwriter from Canada. www.myspace.com/toddsterling )

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