Writing Up: An Interview With EMI Writer Keith Anderson
We are at a local coffee shop in Bellevue, Tennessee. Keith Anderson just completed a 90-minute workout at a local gym, where he can be found there about any morning, Monday through Friday. Keith signed a publishing contract with EMI Publishing in 2001.
[Doak Turner] Tell me a little about yourself and your songwriting.
Keith Anderson I grew up in a little town in Northeast Oklahoma, in Miami, right on the border of Missouri and Arkansas. I started writing songs in
late junior high or early high school. My brother was my musical influence, the first to start playing in our family. He taught himself guitar, and later taught me to play the guitar. He needed a drummer at the time, so I became a drummer and a harmony singer for my brother’s band. Don Henley was one of my big heroes at the time.
After doing that gig, I taught myself some piano chords and started writing for fun, wouldn’t even play any of those songs for anybody now, but that is when I got the buzz. Then I went to college at Oklahoma State, where I played on the college baseball team. I really started putting songs together during those years.
After getting my degree, I moved to Dallas and took a construction-engineering job. There is such a big country music scene in Dallas and I fell in love with the music again, quit my engineering job, and decided to go for it (the music business). I concentrated on my writing, put together a band, and started playing at a popular place called The Grapevine Opry. Lee Ann Rimes, Kix Brooks, Linda Davis had been a part of that venue in the past years.
[Doak Turner] Don Henley was one of your influences, who else influenced your songwriting?
Keith Anderson Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard, one of the best storytellers. I was an Eagles freak, as I loved harmonies. I was also a big fan of Huey Lewis, James Taylor, Jim Croce and other writers who were storytellers.
[Doak Turner] When you write now, is it all country or a couple other genres thrown in the mix, or do you just write from the heart and see what happens?
Keith Anderson I grew up with such a weird influence, because of where I grew up in Oklahoma. Steve and Cassie Gaines of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame were from my hometown, so we had a Southern rock influence. Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, John Cougar Mellencamp, and I was an '80s rock freak. I got into the country scene about the time that Willie Nelson’s Stardust, Red Headed Stranger and those kinds of albums started becoming popular. I also loved The Judds and Restless Heart after seeing them in concert. Restless Heart, because of how they combined the '80s rock with the country edge. I don't write a lot of stone country songs, even though my big cut was "Beer Run" (George Jones and Garth Brooks). I have an acoustic drive like John Cougar Mellencamp, Restless Heart and Eagles sound.
My brother had Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits and we used to listen to it every day when he drove me to school, along with the other singers mentioned previously. The time in the car listening to those singers and songwriters had a big impact on my music.
[Doak Turner] Prior to moving to Nashville, did you participate in a songwriting workshop to learn the craft of songwriting?
Keith Anderson I didn’t even know about those kinds of organizations. I was just so driven. When I decided to do it, I just set goals to listen, learn, and pay attention to songs and the business. I always loved English class in high school and college, the writing of stories and what you could do with pictures of words. I learned to take that, with my love of music and melody, to put the two of those together. I wish I had known about organizations like Nashville Songwriters Association International. I had to learn just by being intense and go, go, go. [A songwriting organization] sure could of cut off a lot of edges if I had known about NSAI.
[Doak Turner] How did you find out about NSAI?
Keith Anderson I was in Nashville, I knew record labels, hit songwriters names, which ones I needed to talk to and how the business works. I heard of a couple of the organizations that I needed to join. I was doing a show with John Rich [formerly of Lonestar and now of the new duo of Big and Rich]. Bart Herbison [Executive Director of NSAI] came to see John play that night. John talked about NSAI to the crowd that night. George Ducas was also in the round, who is a big songwriter, and also had a lot of good things to say about NSAI. I knew I needed to get involved with the organization and joined NSAI later that week.
[Doak Turner] How has NSAI helped you?
Keith Anderson NSAI has been a good support system, and it has been fun for me to be involved in the workshops in my hometown area, the Tulsa, Oklahoma and the Joplin and Springfield, Missouri workshops. I try to do things with the workshops when I go home. NSAI has been great about getting me out to different places, like “Music Row to Charlotte 2001,” and allowing me to play Tin Pan South week in Nashville.
[Doak Turner] Did you cowrite prior to coming to Nashville?
Keith Anderson Barely, as I wrote mainly by myself. Brian Simpson, who I was in a band with in Dallas, became a great friend. I really did not know a lot about cowriting. We started writing songs together. He now writes for Encore Music, and wrote the Brad Martin song, “Before I Knew Better.” He has a song on the Pinmonkey CD, a song on Chalee Tennison’s CD, just got a Martina [McBride] cut, and is really on fire as a songwriter. Now we are both in Nashville, doing well.
[Doak Turner] Cowriting has definitely helped you career?
Keith Anderson When you first move to Nashville, it can be a shot in the dark, as you are out meeting people, hearing songs you like, meeting people at the level where you are with your songwriting. You get together with other writers. Sometimes it clicks, and sometimes it doesn’t. You do not know if you are going to be learning from them, or if they are going to be learning from you.
I was fortunate my first year, to start playing out with George Ducas and getting in with some really big name songwriters like George, Jeffrey Steele, Bob Dipiero, and Victoria Shaw. When you get in with those songwriters, it is like going to college, and that is one of the benefits of cowriting. I try to take advantage of those situations to learn and watch how they [the hit songwriters] put together a melody, how they fumble through writing the song.
Kim Williams is one of the best at that process. You get an idea, put it in a line of your song, saying, “That is good enough.” Kim will find a different idea, a different rhyme scheme, and a different line to say the same thing and make it better. He is amazing.
[Doak Turner] Tell me about your first “writing up” experience, meaning writing with a hit songwriter. How did it happen, were you intimidated, what were your thoughts?
Keith Anderson It was with George Ducas. I met George playing flag football on a previous trip to town. He is such a competitor and didn’t know anything about me as an artist or writer. He told me to call him up when I moved to town so we could play sports together. I played softball with him in the spring and summer, where we developed a friendship together, and he asked to hear some of my songs. I have never asked a bigger writer to write with me. That is the worst thing you can do in this town. You just wait until the time is right, when they will ask you. George was so laid back. It was a really great, first time cowriting experience with a big-name songwriter. I still play that first song we wrote together in my band. And we still write every week. On the other hand, I have written with very famous songwriters and it just did not go very well. The chemistry just was not there during the cowriting session.
[Doak Turner] When you write up, do you always take the song ideas to the cowriting session?
Keith Anderson The newer writer is usually expected to bring the idea. Most of the great writers have written every idea at least twice. They are just looking for a new angle or some new way of looking at something. If you can bring them a totally new idea, they love it.
[Doak Turner] How did you prepare for those sessions?
Keith Anderson I had a core group of ideas that I knew were really good for when I came to town. I never brought those to the table until I started writing up with those hit songwriters.
To this day, when I get a really good idea, I still save those ideas for those particular songwriters. However, with those great writers that I mentioned previously, they just love the process of songwriting so much, they do not care whose ideas we use, they just want to write a good song. They have brought the ideas as many times as I have. We sit down and talk about what is going on, and somewhere in the conversation we get our ideas for a song. The best songs that I have written were not calculated ideas, just writing about life.
[Doak Turner] How many trips did you make to Nashville before you moved and when did you know it was time?
Keith Anderson It is different for everyone. I had only made one trip before the big move. I had a lot of friends that encouraged me to move from Dallas to Nashville. I was a goal setter and knew what goals were obtainable, and what level I should try to reach in Dallas, as far as putting a band together, performing experience, a comfort level with playing the guitar in public. I made sure I was at those levels and had put together a demo product that I would feel good playing for publishers before I made the move.
I wanted to move to Nashville with a plan. So many people move to Nashville with dreams and they are so far from being prepared, they sit and do nothing for a year or two, then move back home because they need to make money. They need to have their plan and a flexible way to make money if they are going to move to Nashville. I was prepared, had a lot of radio experience, letters of recommendation from Texas radio stations, a polished demo and a plan. My demo was recorded with a band called Western Flyer, so it was a solid project, sounded good, and I felt I was ready. I moved about a year and a half after having that solid demo.
[Doak Turner] What did your family and friends say about your move?
Keith Anderson I have lived on the edge all my life. They know I am going to chase my dreams, and I thank God they support me. If I wanted to be a chess player, my family would have been at every chess match. My older brother is a physicist at NASA, I have an engineering degree, and my younger brother is a CPA. So we all have very different dreams. My older brother lives his music dreams through me, so he is real supportive. My little brother runs my website, www.keithanderson.com, so he is also very supportive.
I had graduated at the top of my engineering class in college, moved to Dallas, broke off an engagement, quit the engineering job, went back to school, got accepted to physical therapy in Dallas, got my heart broke by a different girl, then turned down physical therapy school to chase my music dreams! I am sure there are many people who think I am so unstable. But you know, there is something about music and my family understands that, and supports me. That is all that matters.
[Doak Turner] What did you do when you first got to Nashville?
Keith Anderson I had realistic goals, not expecting to sign a record deal when I first got to town. I swallowed my pride, as many do when moving to Nashville. Here was a number one engineering graduate, accepted to med school, who got a job waiting tables on Music Row. I made a lot of great music contacts that I still keep in contact with today. I always had a demo CD with me, but I never offered one to anyone unless they asked first. My roommate at the time knew a lot of people in the music industry and helped me set up a lot of meetings. I am an ASCAP member, and they also helped me out with the business.
[Doak Turner] How did ASCAP help you?
Keith Anderson A songwriter or artist meets and plays music for the ASCAP representative. If they believe in what you are doing, they know what publishers and record labels are looking for in songwriters and artists. They (ASCAP) sent me to the places that they thought I would fit in the business.
Most of the publishers that ASCAP sent me to asked me to cowrite with some of the songwriters in their publishing company. I was able to write some pretty cool stuff with those writers and I'm sure the publishers asked their writers about my abilities during the cowrites. This is how they determine whether you are a "real" writer or not.
I was able to meet with several people, about twenty different publishers and three record companies. No one signed me, although they liked what I was doing, which began the networking in the Nashville music business for me. They looked at me as someone that can do this in the future, and stayed in contact with me. During that time, I was waiting tables, knocking on doors, meeting and networking in Nashville, which is so important for anyone that wants to make it in the music business.
[Doak Turner] How did you eventually get your EMI publishing deal?
Keith Anderson In the beginning, you have your plans, being realistic. If you know you have it, you keep going and you do not take "No" for an answer. After two years, I was so lucky to have people like Jeffrey Steel, Victoria Shaw, Bob Dipiero, Craig Wiseman and Kim Williams ask me to write with them. I started building up a really good collection of songs, and I pulled back from going to the publishers. I knew that by waiting, I could get a better deal with a publisher and be able to make enough money to not have to work a second job in town. I wanted to make a living writing songs. I also had a song on hold three different times that I co-wrote with George Ducas and Bill Luther. It was on hold for Lonestar and Tim McGraw.
It would mean more money coming into a publishing deal. This is not the norm for most songwriters. I was working on an artist deal, which was appealing for the hit songwriters to write with me, as opposed to being only a songwriter. That is part of the business. I felt like I had really good songs at the time. I got real lucky with the “Beer Run” song with George Jones and Garth Brooks each putting the song on their new CDs. I had leverage and called my lawyer. I then started going to my dream publishing companies, places where I really wanted to write.
It was a really hard decision choosing which of those companies to sign a publishing deal. They all wanted a part of the “Beer Run” song, and said they always believed in me, were my best friends. I had to determine who was really going to help me beyond that one song. Who was going to help me reach my goals as a writer and an artist. I had three companies that really made it hard to choose which one to sign with at the time.
I could not have made a better choice, than signing with EMI. They are amazing.
Gary Overton is always open to talk with me and the other songwriters in the company, he is absolutely the best when it comes to publishers. Having “Beer Run” and the other strong songs in my catalog helped me secure a better deal than most first time songwriters.
[Doak Turner] How did “Beer Run” happen to be written and make both George Jones and Garth’s CDs?
Keith Anderson “Beer Run” happened by writing with Kim Williams. He has written songs that are on close to a hundred million of Garth’s CDs. I wrote “Beer Run” with Kim, George Ducas, Amanda Williams, and Kent Blazy. Amanda is Kim's daughter, who actually brought the idea to the room. She had just gotten back from college for the summer and told us about the saying "B-double E-double R-U-N." We had that same saying when I was in college, but I had forgotten about it until she brought it up. So, we wrote it. About a week later, Garth called Kim and said he was looking for songs for a new CD. Kim sent it to Garth, and he really liked it, but wanted a rewrite. I assume that was for the duet with George Jones. So it would have more of a Jones-type melody. Then we just hoped for the best.
[Doak Turner] Let’s talk about your artist deal.
Keith Anderson Like many singers that come to Nashville wanting to be artists, I ended up learning how to write songs. The best way to become an artist is to write a hit song. People realize who you are, and then you have an opportunity to showcase yourself as an artist.
My first two years, I played out a lot with just my guitar, doing songwriter's nights with friends. Eventually, I put together an acoustic band with acoustic guitars, vocals, and percussion, singing a lot of harmonies. We worked hard together to tighten it up and develop a good sound. Last year, I put together a full band with electric guitars, drums, and bass - a full sound. It was all based on goals that I had set. My publisher, EMI, really started getting behind me and we started putting together my pitch package.
There was a Jim Beam Country Band Search that was coming up in the near future. I had been to the last three years of the contest, realized what a good quality production that was, and how many music business professionals came to those shows. My band won the finals, which was in November of 2002. It was a huge boost in notoriety, as several of the label people were in attendance. Jim Beam has supported me so much already, getting me on as the opening act for a Montgomery Gentry concert in North Carolina, among many other things. I'll start showcasing for labels next month.
[Doak Turner] Was that your first time of playing to a large concert crowd?
Keith Anderson No, I've done a lot of radio sponsored events. I was part of the “Rick and Bubba Fat Fest” this past summer in Birmingham, Alabama, that had an attendance of about 10,000 people. And when I lived in Dallas, my band played a lot of the big radio-sponsored events there also. That is the fun part - playing to the big crowds.
[Doak Turner] What are your goals as an artist?
Keith Anderson For this year, I want to sign with a record label that really believes in me as an artist. The goal is not to just sign a record deal, but sign it with the right label. A lot of people sign a record deal, then get lost in the shuffle and do not fit in with the label. You have to find a label that is excited with what you are doing. Too many labels sign an artist with a good “buzz,” but once the artist signs, the label is not sure of what to do with them or loses interest in the artist. The goal is to get the "right" record deal and then start kicking butt!
[Doak Turner] Let’s say there are three major labels interested in you. What is going to be the thing that makes you want to sign with them? They are all going to tell you we love you, what are the deciding factors?
Keith Anderson Well, that would be a dream! But if I'm lucky enough for that to happen, it will be very hard, like choosing the publishing company. There was actually one of the other publishing companies that was leading the way, and my heart told me the best decision was EMI. That has proven to be the correct decision over and over again. You want it to be a clear-cut decision, nobody wants a hard decision. The bottom line is, the lights go out, you are there all alone in your quiet little place, you ask yourself, “What feels right”?
[Doak Turner] To wrap this up, any advice that you could give to a songwriter when he or she moves to Nashville?
Keith Anderson Be patient, do not push yourself on anyone. I saw something about a year and a half ago that I could not believe was happening. Kim Williams came out to see one of my shows, and I was walking him and his wife out to their car at The Broken Spoke. Some yahoo came up to Kim in the hallway, told Kim that he loved the songs he writes, and told Kim they needed to write. Kim had never met this guy and was taken back, but very graciously, did what he could to avoid this situation. Kim, in every way he could, asked the guy to send him something to listen to and told him that he was very busy at the time. The guy said, “OK, you’ll be sorry someday if you don’t write a song with me.”
That sums up a lot of how things work in this town (Nashville) when people come in with the wrong approach. He may have been a great writer, but with that attitude, he will never get the right support. You have to prove yourself. The big writers do not need to write with anyone else. They have their main, proven cowriters. The only way you are gong to get to write with those people is to prove yourself over time, develop your own buzz, and for them to hear about you and want to write with you.
That all comes down to finding a way to get a flexible job to make the money you need to live, and then get out and be heard. If you are an artist or a singer – get heard! I played the Bluebird Cafe and the Gibson Café, when it was open, and a lot of other different places when I first came to town. If you play out enough, someone is gong to hear you, and people will start talking about you, if you are legitimate.
[Doak Turner] Thank you for your time and best wishes for your continued success. We will hear great things from Keith Anderson in the future!