Writing Through the Decades - with Tim Nichols
A Blog Series By: Allison Barrett
We're back for another month of the Allison Asks co-writing adventure! This time Tim Nichols joined me to take us back to a couple of his hits and to give advice on how to write some new ones. Let's get started!
[ALLISON] Do you remember what your first co-write was like?
[TIM] Oh wow… I do remember some early co-writes and to me they still haven’t changed that much all these years later. That process still seems the same, although we start a little later now these days. When I first started writing we would start at 10 and we would do sessions, like two-a-days. We would do like musicians do. We’d start at 10 and write until one and then go grab lunch and we’d start again at two and write until five. Then at some point it changed. We’d start at 10:30, then it would go to one session a day. Now we start at 11 and it’s one session a day, or sometimes we start at 11:30, or we Zoom at 9 to try to finish a song and write until 11 and then rush down to Music Row for a write.
I feel like to me the writing process, the creation part, has really stayed the same and hasn’t changed all that much, especially on those first days with new co-writers there’s aways that ‘get to know you’ process which generally I look forward to always because for the most part everyone has a cool story on how they found their way. I think the other thing is to a very large degree we’re all the same person. There was something in us, this music thing, that made us move here from all over the country. We all have our different ways that we got here, but we all have so much in common in that we had to end up here in Nashville somehow.
[ALLISON] Yah! So, you’ve been writing for decades. Have you seen any trends or differences from the 90s and early 2000s versus now?
[TIM] I think when it gets down to the actual creative songwriting part it starts with ‘so do we have any ideas? What are we going to write today?’ To me that part is the same. Now, I got my first deal writing for Ronnie Millsap’s publishing company in 1986. He had a little independent company. At that time we had these spiral notebooks and so years ago when me and Mark Sanders wrote “Heads Carolina, Tails California” for Jo Dee, that was in a spiral notebook that the hall of fame has.
[ALLISON] Oh wow!
[TIM] Several years ago, they were collecting things from songwriters, so they have that particular notebook. Then there was the evolution of laptops. My buddy, Mark Sanders, he was the first one. He had an Apple computer and then we changed, and everybody made that jump to laptops. For me, there’s this songwriting program called Master Writer that I have used for years. A guy, Barry DeVorzon, kind of created it and his son Matt was involved. I’ve used it for years through all the different iterations that they had. First it was subscription based, then it went to cloud based, well it’s both now. At first you just paid whatever it was, maybe 99 bucks, and you used it until they upgraded the version and then you’d buy it.
[ALLISON] Like ProTools?
[TIM] Yah! Exactly right. So, I’ve just always used it, it keeps track of all the songs and the dates of creation and it’s just really a tool for me that I’ve used for the past however many years. Ultimately, the creative part to me hasn’t changed. You still say, ‘what’s the idea? Is it going to be tempo or ballad? What does that title say? Does someone have a piece of music? What’s the structure going to be? What’s the rhyme scheme going to be?’ To me those are all concrete things, the elements that have remained constant.
[ALLISON] So, you’re obviously a veteran in the room now. How is it different being in that position versus being the new writer?
[TIM] You’re right about that, I am the veteran which is a nice way to put it. The more seasoned. For one thing, I am writing with lots of new writers and especially when it’s the first time, I don’t want them, especially new artists… it’s about honesty. 95% percent of what I say is ‘this is not it’ so those first days I always kind of feel like I want to let whoever it is know, especially if it’s an artist, ‘hey look, don’t feel bad to say I don’t think I would say that or I don’t know that’s not it’ because I don’t want them to think ‘is it cool to say I don’t know if that’s the right line or not?’ It’s absolutely cool to say that. So to me that’s part of those first day kind of things, because ultimately we want the best song we can get and I want the best song for them. If they’re an artist making a record then I want them to feel like it’s their song and not just my song and they were in the room while it happened, especially if it’s me and another guy that I’ve been writing with for years and we’re writing with an artist for the first time. We need you to just shoot us straight here and don’t let us go in a direction that you wouldn’t go. There was this story and I can’t remember the artist, but the artist was writing with two other writers and of course they’re writing to get on that artist’s record and after they finished that artist said ‘well cool great work guys, who are we going to get to record this?’ and it’s like ‘WHAT?!’
[ALLISON] OH NO! Haha!
[TIM] Yah that’s not what you want to hear an artist say at the end of a write. So that’s kind of one of the other big things, like I said I got my first deal in ’86, so much of it now is I want to hear the newer writers what their ideas and thoughts are. I’m tired of my stuff! So, it’s like what do y’all have? What do you feel like? What’s happening in your life? It’s those kinds of things.
[ALLISON] That’s awesome! I can’t believe if you were trying to write an album, that you would write a whole song and know that you don’t want it. So, you mentioned ‘Heads Carolina.’ You weren’t in on the ‘She Had Me At’ write, but you of course still got credit?
[TIM] So yah, the way that works is it’s called an interpolation. The way those things are structured is the creators of the original song are credited on the new song as well. And they did such an incredible job. Mark and I could not have been happier with Cole, and Thomas Rhett, and Ashley Gorley, and Jesse Frasure. What they did and how they incorporated ‘Heads Carolina’ and turned that into ‘She Had Me At Heads Carolina.’ So that’s the way that works. We’re all six credited on it and we’re so happy and just last week it made the final nomination for ACM Song of The Year. It’s very exciting.
[ALLISON] Do you remember writing the original version with Mark?
[TIM] Absolutely. I’m a big audio book guy. I’m always listening to audio books. So, the idea came from an audio book. The main character, he was from Texas, and things were not going well for him and he decided he needed to get out of Texas. He figured he could decide where to go by flipping a coin. If it came up heads he was going to go to California and if it came up tails he was going to go to Mexico. So, it came from that and Mark was writing for Reba McEntire’s publishing company, Starstruck, at the time when we wrote it. We wrote it over there 26 or 27 years ago.
[ALLISON] That’s the version I grew up with so I was going to be a critic on the new version, but I also think they did a great job. I was impressed.
[TIM] Me too!
[ALLISON] So, do you have a co-write that was your most memorable? Was it that one or do you have another one that will aways stick out to you?
[TIM] Well, the day Craig Wiseman and I wrote ‘Live Like You Were Dying,’ and I’ve talked about this many times over the years, it started out just like any other day. It was JUST another day. We were just talking and having coffee in his office and I was telling him about a story that I had heard the day before about a friend of ours who had had this health scare and we weren’t even talking about song ideas, but it came from that conversation. So that just goes to show that you just have to show up. Must be present to win. That has been such a big lesson for me. The day that started just like any other day has been like no other day. I’ll never forget that day.
[ALLISON] No one is going to forget that song either! Those were all of the questions that I had planned, but are there any tips that you have for our members?
[TIM] One, this is hard. Songwriting, this is not easy. You have to love it, because it’s just too hard if you don't, but if you do then that makes it a little easier if you love it. The other thing is the more you do it, I think creativity is like a muscle. The more you do it, like exercise, hopefully the better you’re going to be at it, the better you’re going to get at it. If you are a new writer, chances are your songs are going to be better six months from now than they are today and six months from there. So, you just have to stay after it. The other thing is, and this is difficult, especially in the beginning, is when you hear no. Rejection. Nobody likes to hear ‘we don’t want your song.’ That’s tough, but it goes along with if you want to be a songwriter it’s just part of it. I understand now when people pass on my songs, which still happens on a daily basis, that’s not personal. Nobody means it personal. They’re not saying that it’s not a good song, it’s just not the song that they’re looking for on that particular day. If you could remember that sometimes it makes that rejection a little bit easier. Say you’re playing a song for a publisher for the first time. Sure, you’re going to be nervous and you want them to love you’re song. Well, they want to love your song too. They’re hoping your song is going to be great! Finding hit songs is what keeps their doors open. They want to love your song, just know that going in. The problem is, again, writing hit songs is really hard. It takes a while and you have to write a lot of bad songs and that’s just part of the process. I think everybody has to do that. I’ve written lots of bad songs, but thankfully part of that process is when you’re writing those early songs that aren’t great. At the time I feel like we have this built in self-defense mechanism that we don’t know they’re not great. We play them for our families and friends and they say ‘that’s a great song’ even when it’s not, but we can’t see that. I think it’s this built in defense mechanism that keeps us going. I feel like maybe if we know when we first start how far we are from where we need to be you might quit. I think there’s this defense mechanism we don’t really know so we keep going and we keep getting better, and when you look back at the songs you were writing two or three years ago it’s like ‘oooh yah that’s not very good’ and you can see where it’s not good. You can see where the melody is weak or where the melody wanders. You can see where the lyric dots don’t connect. It’s like ‘what in the world was I talking about in this second verse?’ You see all of those things. So, you have to keep showing up and don’t take rejection personal because no one means it personal.
[ALLISON] You nailed it! A lot of our writers are in that stage now and are trying to get their first pub deal so that’s great advice.