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Interview with Songwriter: Larry W. Johnson
By Christian Lamitschka ( Ch.Lamitschka@t-online.de )
CSO European Contributing Journalist

CH: Larry, you are one of the most famous song writers in Nashville, how is the business here?

L: Very competitive. There is more and more of an influx of writers from out of town, like New York and Los Angeles, and most of the artists write now. Your best bet of getting a major cut these days is to write with the artists. Otherwise it is like it has always been, politics are the same and it takes lots of work.

CH: What was the latest song you wrote and which of your songs became a hit?

L: My biggest song to date was "Don't Take The Girl" by Tim McGraw. It was a Number One song. I wrote it together with Craig Martin from West Virginia.

CH: Which artists do you work together with?

L: I have not actually written with a major recording artist. Mostly I write with songwriters, like Jim Sales and David Chamberlain. I have been trying to do some writing with Larry Cordle but he is very busy at the moment. Like for the Tim McGraw album, I mainly worked together with a little circle of writers, including Jerry Lassiter, Jean Simmons and others. From time to time I sit down with a new writer, writers from out of state, like Illinois, California and other places.

CH: Do you think that the lyrics of a song can change peoples' minds?

L: Definitely - I always felt that people need to be, not particularly careful, but watch what they say as far as any kind of major statements are concerned because a lot of people take music very seriously. Up until just recently most people thought that whoever sang a song, wrote that song and that they were singing about their own life all the time. That is the reason why a lot of artists do not want to sing songs which will create images they do not want to have.

CH: Do you think that Alan Jackson's song about, "911" is one of the songs which did change peoples' minds?

L: Definitely - because that song hit a lot of people very close to home. You have Alan Jackson talking about the sadness and the anger, on the other end of the spectrum you've got Toby Keith talking about kicking their butt in retaliation--- it kind of balances out. But songs like that affect everybody that listens one way or another, either they totally agree or disagree.

CH: The CMA gave many awards to artists, production companies and TV stations. Do you think it would be a good idea for the CMA to give an award to the songwriters as well?

L: Yes, I think it is a good idea. In fact they do give an award for "Song Of The Year" to the writers. In 1994/1995 I was nominated for the CMA Award myself, but I didn't get it. I have been nominated for many awards and it always is a great feeling to have your work recognized.

CH: If you hear a song you may know the artist singing it, but most of the time you do not know the songwriter. Do you think that this is an advantage for the songwriter to be left undisturbed in his work?

L: No, I think it is exactly the opposite. "Don’t Take The Girl" was a big hit on the charts for me. We were guests on "Crooke and Chase", a country music show on The Nashville Network, and we have done interviews from coast to coast. We did the trend-setting stations in Texas, California, Oklahoma and other influential states, We were on the phones with places we could not visit in order to make the songwriters more well known, because so many people do not know who the writers are. The people in the business, who make the decisions, the producers and the executives, who go out and look for songs can find out who the writer is. For the people who make the business by buying the records and spending the money that makes the stars the stars and make the business work, however, it would be nice for them to know who the writer is all the time, so that the writer also gets recognized for their work. If there is no good song, there is not hit.

CH: Looking at past and present ways of business, where do you see the biggest difference for the songwriters?

L: Today they are getting more recognition. More and more songwriters come forward and become artists. For instance "Too much months at the end of the money" a hit by Billy Hill, was written by Bob Dipiero and the group, because they were all songwriters. The biggest difference now and then is that companies like BMI do work harder today to get the money for their writers that they deserve. They handle litigation law suites, get the licensing done and so on. So, today we actually have somebody out in the field taking care of us. That has not always been the case. This has been an ongoing process for years. There is somebody responsible to look after the songwriters well-being which relieves the songwriters of having to waste time going around knocking on doors and getting their money. They see to it that you get it. That makes it much easier to concentrate more on the creative part of songwriting if you don't have to worry about the business side.

CH: If you had the chance to change something in music business what would you change?

L: I would not say that any part of the country music business is totally wrong, but there is a trend that publishing companies have a mass of songs and are out there to sell them. If you, for example, have a big company that has a publishing company, a management company, an artist development company and a record label - what you want to do is to take your songs out of your catalog from your writers and get them cut by your artists on your label through your publishing company. But If you are just a writer and have several good songs, you look for a publisher, and if they are interested, you make a deal and sign your publishing over to them. From that point on they own that song. Therefore sometimes it happens that they take some very good material and it is never pitched, and therefore never recorded. A good friend of mine, for example told me once about his experiences with one of the biggest companies here. He worked with them for 24 years and in that time they only got two songs cut for him and he got the rest himself. He is really one of the most famous songwriters in the country music industry. So, I would like to a change in the contracts for songwriters stating that if within a reasonable period of time (say one or two years) the company does not use/publish your song, the publishing rights go back to the songwriter. That is called a reversion clause.

CH: How has the internet affected you as a songwriter?

L: Plus and minus. I am on the web all the time and know that there are sites were you can always download your music free. This is gradually getting stopped, but now they have chat rooms where people talk to each other and exchange copies of albums for free. Of course these practices have an effect on peoples' income because they do get less due to less record sales. Dallas Frazier, a great songwriter, told me once, "You will never get rich a hundred dollars at a time. You get rich on pennies." At that time the standard rate for airplay was 2 cents a song and back in the 70's his income from that was very, very respectable.

 

CH: When did you begin your songwriter career?

L: My Dad had a bluegrass band when we lived in Indiana and I was just a child. They played at Bill Monroe’s Park on the weekends and we went with them. My two sisters and I wrote a song "Is It Wrong To Love You Darling" and sang it to my Dad when I was 8 years old. I got serious about songwriting when I was about 16 years old and at 20 I got a couple of bluegrass songs recorded. I came to Nashville for the first time in 1972 and met a lot of great people and songwriters. I got a lot of help from giants like Dallas Frazier and White Shafer. I met a lot of people, including Tommy Collins, who encouraged me and listened to my material. I left several times but eventually came back to stay, but didn't get any major action until 1991. I did some gospel music and bluegrass before I finally got the Tim McGraw cut. I do not get rich, but I make a living and I am proud of my work.

CH: Do you write only country music songs?

L: No, I write whatever I feel like at the time. I write a lot of gospel music, some bluegrass - whatever I feel like.

CH: How do you get the inspiration for your songs?

L: There is no formula. Sometimes you may sit at the bar and somebody will say something that gives you a title or an idea, sometimes you hear a line in a cartoon or a movie. Jerry Laseter, a great songwriter, and I were together and writing songs and we ran out of ideas and picked up the TV guide and there was a movie on called 'Look Who’s Talking', so we just changed that line for a song called "Look Who’s Walking". Sometimes you just watch a movie or the story line gets you and you come up with a title. Sometimes you just get a melody and words just seem to fit in - it is different every time.

CH: A current trend is to cover songs. Do you think that is a good idea?

L: I cannot say whether it is good or bad because it depends on the situation. It is most important that an artist record what he feels and if that is the motive for covering a song, because he or she likes it that much, then it is OK. Unfortunately though, there is many other reasons for covering and recording a song.

CH: Do you think it is fair that the artist who sings a song gets more money than the songwriter who wrote it?

L: I don’t know exactly what everybody gets that is involved in a song, because there are individual arrangements. The studio musicians get their pay per session, the artist gets whatever was agreed upon with the company and there is a pay scale for songwriters as well, which I find fair. The better the song, the more money you get because every time it is played you get paid.

CH: What needs to be special about a song for it to become a Number One hit?

L: If there were a formula at all on how to make a Number One song, it would be something like the right song recorded by the right artist and released at the right time. Many times when a song hits number one, people try to imitate that style in order to achieve the same results, it’s like a wave. But take for example "Don't Take The Girl", when the song came out, no one expected it to be so popular. It was number eleven on the charts before it was even released And by the time the video came out it was number one. It was just a phenomenal song, no one expected that. There is always a lot of talk about how much money goes into promoting a song and an artist. If a label has two artists who have a song on the charts, they look to see which on climbs higher and then they put all the money on that one to get it to Number One. If you hear a song often enough it programs you. You sing it even when you don't want to. Personally I believe for a song to become number one, it takes a great song with a great artist that the public wants to hear and the right people behind it to make sure it does get heard.

CH: CD sales are declining. How does that affect the songwriters, is their business declining as well?

L: Of course, when the sales decline it hurts everybody. From the bottom to the top, or the other way around, however you want to look at it. In our economy everything is somewhat down and it depends a lot on what goes on overseas. Back in the 90's when country music became pop there was a boom and it was the most popular music in the world. I hope that the decline in sales is just a phase and not a trend.

CH: Here in Nashville and many other places they are looking for new artists, people that can sing, in shows. Do you think it would be a good idea to also look for new songwriters in that way?

L: Yes, I think that would be great. Shows like Nashville Star are a great promotion because lots of people watch it. By the time the winner is decided, he or she already has an audience and people want to hear their songs. You hear the music often on the radio and their record sales are good because the whole country knows them. Yes, to have some kind of promotion contest for songwriters would be tremendous. The only thing is it would have to be like the Nashville Star. It would have to be non-professional. So they would need to bring in more of the hit songwriters to compete with me and everybody else. I believe any songwriter would like to see more recognition. Shortly I will go to Alabama for the International Songwriters Festival and it lasts for two weeks. There are people from Canada, Europe, and all over the US who just come and listen to the songwriters doing their own material. We meet a lot of people, make friends and have a really good time.

CH: What do you think makes a good songwriter?

L: There are a lot of people that write songs. Then there are songwriters who have honest feelings and respect for the art. It is like difference in just taking a picture and being a photographer. A real photographer can take a picture in his mind even when he does not have his camera with him. It is the same with a good songwriter, it is in his heart and his mind, being able to grasp an idea and close his eyes and see that story, or ballad, taking place. A song has to make you feel. If a song doesn’t make you feel anything, then it is not a good song. It has to make you happy, make you cry, make you want to get up and dance, anything. It has to hit you somewhere, otherwise it is not a great song.

CH: When you listen to country songs most of them talk about things like - My wife is gone - my dog is dead - I lost all my money --. What is it like with your own songs?

L: I have written some of those type of songs as well, sometimes they are just funny, which is also OK. But most of my songs have a real story that the majority of people can relate to. I have not lived all of them, but I know people who did. Some songs are just about a dream, something that you want to do and haven't done, or something that nobody has ever done. The content for me has to be something you can feel and make other people feel and believe it.

CH: Thank you for sharing your ideas with us Larry. 

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