The casual country fan might not know the names Bob DiPiero, Craig Wiseman, Brett James and Radney Foster, but even the casual music fan knows their songs. On Thursday night, the quartet performed their greatest tracks, almost all of which were made famous by other artists, at New York’s Joe’s Pub as part of the CMA Songwriters Series, which started a decade ago. But it was much more than a hit parade — on top of the music, the musicians gave the audience insight into the songwriting business, revealed the stories behind their beloved tunes, shared anecdotes that were both hilarious and heartfelt, and traded good-natured barbs.
DiPiero served as the evening’s host, though it didn’t seem like the guys needed much coordinating. They dutifully took their turns talking and performing, one song at a time, stage right to left, though there were many times when they interrupted each other, both for lighthearted zingers and stories praising the featured songwriter. Wiseman — who donned a black shirt with a shiny AC/DC logo —was particularly fond of making sure the audience had the pleasure of getting him another beer, while DiPiero admitted that his allergy to alcohol always made him “break out in handcuffs.” Foster asked everyone to be polite and, relatively, not raunchy because his 80-year-old mother came up from Texas for the show, along with several other family members. Of course, the audience gave her a big round of applause.
The friendship in this fraternity of country songwriters runs deep, with obvious affection — and maybe a tad bit of “why didn’t I think of that line” envy — evident during the performances. Wiseman recounted how he ended up recording co-writer Dallas Davidson’s offhand comment about rednecks and edited it into the “red, red, red, red, red, red, redneck” refrain of Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.” James relayed how honored he was to be part of “I Hold On,” which Dierks Bentley has deemed his most personal song of all time. Foster recalled how some “skinny kid from Australia,” otherwise known as Keith Urban, turned “Raining on Sunday” into a hit, and admitted his family now makes Sunday pancakes in the “Keith Urban memorial kitchen.”
Not to be topped was Wiseman, who admitted that when he was once asked to collaborate with an artist on a song about a sick wife, he instead crafted a tune called “Titty’s Beer.” “And a redneck angel sang,” he said about the moment he, after hitting creative wall after wall, came up with a song that would be a lot more appealing than lyrics about illness. Colt Ford ended up recording “Titty’s Beer,” and Wiseman swears it’s just a pun, because he would never, ever objectify anything about “the fairer sex.”
The best indication of the dudes’ ability to cross over to other genres came when James sang “Mr. Know It All,” the hugely successful single he helped pen for Kelly Clarkson. DiPiero, who’s penned his fair share of hits, took a few minutes to jokingly complain about how Little Big Town borrowed their name from his publishing company, and Rascal Flatts decided to pursue music after jamming on his classic, “The Church On Cumberland Road” — yet neither of them have ever “cut a damn one of my songs.”
The night ended, fittingly, with “Live Like You Were Dying,” a Grammy-winning hit for Tim McGraw that Wiseman co-wrote. He prefaced it with a story about how he learned to play the G chord at a Bible camp, then realized he could play a few more chords off of that and probably write a few tunes of his own. Needing some bucks, he went back to that same camp to work as a counselor and met an attractive arts and crafts teacher, who just happens to now be his wife of 21 years.