If there's any doubt that something magical, unpredictable and inspirational can happen when country songwriters are gathered together, incredulity was put to rest once and for all on the stage at New York's Best Buy Theater in Times Square on Wednesday night, as tunesmiths Darius Rucker, Bob Di Piero, Luke Laird and Rivers Rutherford sang, played, joked and regaled enthusiastic concertgoers with stories of how some of their best-known songs came to life.
The occasion was the latest in the CMA Songwriters Series. Held on the same day the show's headlining artist, Darius Rucker, was in New York to help reveal the 2014 CMA Awards nominations, this spotlight on songs and their writers is now an international event. Since launching in 2005 at Joe's Pub in New York, the CMA Songwriters Series has featured 127 of music's most gifted storytellers, who have collectively scored 61 CMA Song of the Year nominations. Since 2005, more than 75 shows have been staged in New York, Boston, Belfast, Dublin, Los Angeles, Paris, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress. Two BBC broadcast specials were taped in London and Ireland.
Songwriters Hall of Fame member Bob DiPiero (Montgomery Gentry's "Gone," "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl" for Brooks & Dunn) injected humor into the proceedings but also gave the crowd a few lessons in Songwriting 101. Employing the standard "guitar pull" configuration (seated side-by-side, guitars at the ready), each of the writers was free to contribute backing vocals, guitar licks, foot taps, or even an occasional comment mid-song. Youngstown, Ohio, native DiPiero kicked off the evening with his 2009 hit for Tim McGraw, "Southern Voice," saying, "I call this a love letter to the south."
During his first turn at the mic, Rucker explained that when he was making his first country album, he got together to write with songwriter-producer Frank Rogers. The two of them came up with the acrimonious divorce tune, "All I Want."
"But we decided to write a song we could actually play for our wives," he added, explaining the impetus for the singer's 2009 Number One hit, "Alright."
Luke Laird introduced the Kenny Chesney chart-climber "American Kids," which he penned with Rodney Clawson and Shane McAnally, and was ably assisted by the occasionally rowdy crowd in performing the song.
Rivers Rutherford, who joked that he hails from "Meth-issippi," recalled sitting on a curb in front of New York's La Guardia during a three-hour layover right after 9/11, and encountering some of the city's "nice cops." Since he had a long wait before his flight, he called to ask his wife to meet him at the airport to trade suitcases with him so she could take his dirty clothes and leave him with some clean ones for his trip. Her terse response: "One time." After returning from the trip he was talking with co-writer David Lee Murphy, and the two co-wrote what would become another Kenny Chesney smash, "Living in Fast Forward."
"I wrote this next song while Rivers was telling that story," DiPiero deadpanned after Rutherford's performance.
Rucker explained that the 1994 Hootie & The Blowfish hit, "Let Her Cry" was inspired by a night of bar-hopping while in college, which led to a burning desire to write a version of the Black Crowes' "She Talks to Angels" for one of his favorite artists, Bonnie Raitt.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it's just that easy," DiPiero quipped after Rucker's performance. "Get drunk, go home and write a hit song."
Luke Laird's stories were generally more concise and compact than those of his fellow songwriters, and his hits were certainly crowd-pleasing, including Eric Church's "Give Me Back My Hometown" and "Drink in My Hand."
"It's a lovefest," DiPiero said at one point. "The endorphins are everywhere, like love spores out in the audience."
Although he teased the other writers for their wordy song intros, DiPiero told the lengthiest, but perhaps most educational, story of the night, revealing how he was inspired, after seeing the movie Forrest Gump, to write a song with the nonsensical title "Blue Clear Sky."
"Forrest was talking about his girlfriend Jenny," DiPiero said. "Jenny was this broken hippie girl. She would come and she would go, and she would come and she would go. Personally, I never figured out if she was just a broken angel or a ho. But bless her heart… Jenny came back and Forrest was talking about her. He said, 'Jenny was gone and all of a sudden out of the blue clear sky, she came back.' And I thought, 'Blue clear sky, that's backwards. That can't be right. It's clear blue sky, that crazy Forrest Gump! He's a freak! He loves that Jenny and he says shit backwards!'"
DiPiero then explained that he got a phone call from George Strait, who was in the recording studio, trying to convince him that the title was wrong.
"So I told him about Forrest Gump… 'life is like a box of chocolates' and the fact that Forrest Gump said 'blue clear sky.' Silence on the phone. George Strait ain't makin' a noise. I said, 'George, what you think you're going to do?' He goes, 'Do you think there's many Gumpsters out there?' I said, 'Come again?' I said, 'Yes, the movie theater was full of Gumpsters.' What was I going to tell him? When I walked out there was a line full of people getting ready to get Gumpster-ized!'"
As the evening drew to a close, Rivers Rutherford began telling the story of how he wrote "Stealing Cinderella" for his future father-in-law. "Now when I play it, I play it for my daughters [who are both in college]."
Echoing a sentiment that many in the audience may have had during the entire evening of one memorable song after another, Rucker suddenly interrupted the performance by saying, "I can't believe you wrote that. I love that song."
The love of song continues with the PBS concert series Front and Center. In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the CMA Songwriters Series, Dierks Bentley and singer-songwriters Ross Copperman, Jon Randall, Brett James and Jim Beavers participated in an episode which will air in the fall. Lady Antebellum also took the stage for an upcoming episode, alongside Laird, Josh Kear, Abe Stoklasa, Rodney Clawson and Tom Douglas.