For a website that’s all about the stories behind the songs, hearing “I don’t really have a story behind the songs” strikes a rather ominous chord. Honestly, how can there not be a story behind so many #1 Country hits?
That was before we discovered that Tommy Lee lied.
Because he does have stories. Really great stories. Stories about working with Reba McEntire, and going on the road with Brooks and Dunn, and having a song recorded by Country Music icon Conway Twitty. He took us behind the scenes of his massive hits, told us about his little-fish experience, explained how Dr. Seuss influenced his songwriting, and took a moment to reflect on the wonder of the ukulele.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): How did you get your start in songwriting?
Tommy Lee James: I probably started writing songs when I was 12 or 13. I got into local bands, and I was definitely a slow learner and copycat, did all the things that everybody did. You hear stuff and you try to recreate it. I played in bands and everything, and finally decided I had to move somewhere, and decided to move to Nashville. I actually didn’t move here to be a songwriter, I basically moved here to be a singer. I could always sing and play. I started playing ukulele and singing around my neighborhood when I was 6 or 7 years old, and everybody would be patting me on the head and encouraging me. I took piano lessons and did that whole deal, but I always thought that I was gonna be a rock star. Everybody told me I was, and I believed them.
And then you finally get here and you realize that the record deal is just the beginning. When I got to Nashville I realized that a new artist isn’t gonna get top-shelf songs unless you’re one of the few on the label. So I was encouraged to start writing my own songs. If you’re not going to be given a song, you’re going to have to try to write it. And I got a publishing deal with Reba McEntire’s company, Starstruck, and started doing the Nashville co-writing thing every day. I wrote about a thousand really bad songs. It was total baby steps. It was one of those things where I moved here and thought I was gonna be famous within the month, and I think two years later I finally got a publishing deal.
It was quite a while before I got my first cut, but my record never actually came out. But I started writing with a higher level of co-writers. It’s like playing tennis with somebody; if you’re playing with somebody better than you, it’s going to make you better. I feel like I just kept improving and learning from the people who I was writing with, and went from there. Then one day I realized I’m not on that road to being an artist, I’m on the road to being a songwriter. It’s a switch where you think you’re on one path, but you’re really on the other one. And I just never stopped songwriting from that point on, and I never lost a lot of the contacts that I made when I had the record deal. And it just kind of went from there.
SF: How does it work to get into the Nashville co-writing scene?
Tommy Lee: How they do it here, it’s like they don’t necessarily wait on inspiration. I think the normal time here is 10:30 in the morning, and you have an appointment with either one or two people usually, and you start throwing out ideas with each other. And hopefully you come up with a verse and chorus by lunch, you go eat lunch, and you write the second verse after lunch and do a little work tape… It’s kind of an unnatural process. Then once you’ve got four or five songs that you feel are worthy, you do a demo session with live players. That was 20 years ago, for me, and it’s still kind of how they do it here.
SF: Do you get put into rooms, then, with people that you’ve never met?
Tommy Lee: Yeah, a lot, because you have to keep trying to expand your circle. I’m not as open to it as I used to be. But if you’re closed to it, you might miss out on opportunities of people that are worth it. It’s weird, I’ve been doing so much writing outside of Nashville lately, the more I’ve been writing outside of Nashville, I see a different side of it now, where it’s a much slower process, and you’re building the track as you’re writing, It’s all going hand-in-hand.
But the Nashville thing, it’s almost like going to school. You learn how to do it on a real grassroots level, and once you learn that process, nobody can ever take that away from you. It’s a craft that you learn, but you still have to have the inspiration.
SF: This almost sounds like a hamster wheel kind of thing. Can you tell me about a song of yours that you put a lot of your life into, and a lot of your feelings into? Is there anything out there like that of yours?
Tommy Lee: I’m sure there are. It’s tough, because I feel like I put myself into almost all my songs. Not necessarily biographically, but emotionally. Because there aren’t that many song ideas, really. So when you’re a professional songwriter you tend to write the same ideas over and over and over. Especially if you’re in that commercial vein, there just aren’t that many ways to go.
But one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written is a song that Gary Allen recorded called “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful.” I wrote that with Cyndi Thompson, who’s a country artist. And for some reason that song just kind of came out and just felt real to me. It was one of those things we wrote in an hour and a half. Dr. Seuss was kind of an inspiration, because it’s about life and kind of a self-help song, a pick-me-up song. And it has a little bit of that Dr. Seuss simplicity, which I think really works. We got on a roll with that, and it’s funny, one door opens and you just follow that path, and it works. And you don’t have to fight it too much. I love songs like that, that just come out easily and feel natural and feel somewhat inspired emotionally.
SF: And this song that you’re talking about, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful,” it almost sounds like you’re talking about somebody that died?
Tommy Lee: Yeah, it’s kind of open-ended. It could be either one.
SF: You didn’t have anything specific in mind for that?
Tommy Lee: No, we didn’t. And it was written with no particular artist in mind, but to me the perfect artist that could have sung it, sung it. Gary Allen did this really aching vocal that really gave you chills. The song is only as good as the singer sometimes – as the delivery. He sang it like he meant it.
SF: And along that same vein, is there any other song out there of yours that was the perfect marriage of singer to song?
Tommy Lee: I think I’ve been really lucky in that respect, and for the most part it tends to take care of itself. Most of the songs that I’ve had success with found the right artist. I have a song called “She’s My Kind Of Rain” that Tim McGraw recorded, which is a really… I’d say “out there” song for country radio. And I don’t think anybody else would have recorded it but Tim. And Tim’s probably the only person that could have had a hit with something that poetic and that non-country, and it was just the perfect timing that he liked it and wanted to cut it. But his voice on that song just kills me, it’s just a great record. So I think the song is kind of like the foundation, but then the singer and the production have to really bring something home to make it work.
SF: On “She’s My Kind Of Rain,” can you tell me how that one came about?
Tommy Lee: Yeah. I co-wrote that song with a friend of mine, Robin Lerner, who’s a great lyricist in L.A., and we’ve been writing for a few years together. She is completely different from writing with anybody else that I co-write with. She just makes me start playing stuff. So I just played with the music, just kind of messing around. And I pretty much had the music in five minutes. It kind of came out, just a moment of inspiration. And then she went away and wrote the whole lyric and then came back and played it for me. And I was like, Oh my gosh! She wrote the whole lyric, which is really amazing, because it’s just so poetic and just so beautiful.
I don’t have any story on that song. I mean, there’s some lines in there, I don’t know what they mean. And I don’t know if Robin would tell you, either. Because I think she likes the fact that it’s open to interpretation, which is really unusual for a country song, because in Nashville we really like to spell out what we’re saying. So I think that’s what’s really cool about it. And I’ve never asked her. There’s some great images there.
There’s two songs that I didn’t write any lyrics on. There’s “She’s My Kind Of Rain,” and then “Wrong Again,” Martina McBride had a hit with that, and I wrote that with Cynthia Weil. And it’s the same thing. I came up with the music in 5 or 10 minutes, and Cynthia wrote the whole lyric. And those two songs were unusual because I wasn’t part of the lyric.
SF: Let me ask you about Jo Dee Messina, “I Wish.” Can you talk to me about that?
Tommy Lee: I wrote that song with Ed Hill. (laughs) We wrote that song when Diane Warren was just dominating the charts. I just wanted to write a song like a Diane Warren song, (laughing) just like a classic song that had some modulations in it, and an inspirational lyric. In Nashville we’re always looking for the way to turn a song around, turn a hook around. I don’t do that very much, I pretty much write really straight hooks. But the end of that, the chorus is kind of like “May The Road Rise To Meet You,” you know the Irish blessing kind of thing? “I wish this, I wish you all the best,” and all that stuff. But then at the end it says, “I wish you still loved me.” So I was just trying to turn it around, and I came up with that literally five minutes before I walked in to write with Ed. And he liked it.
But that’s generally my way of doing it; I’m frantically trying to think of something to write on my way to my writing appointment, so I don’t have to go in empty handed. That’s basically my mode of operation. Sometimes it’s best to work under pressure. I guess I’m different from a lot of Nashville writers where you write too many songs, and you’re on – like you said – a hamster wheel. It’s just hard to find time to sit down and go, “Okay, I’m going to write a song about this; here’s what I want to say.” For me, it doesn’t normally happen like that where there’s a story – like a puzzle story behind the song.
I go to the Bluebird Café sometimes (in Nashville). Not as much as I used to go. You go there and you hear these great songwriters, and they tell the story behind the song. And I never do that, because I don’t really have a story behind the songs in the classic sense like, “Well, I was thinking about this when I wrote the song.” Because a lot of times I’ll start out with a melody and maybe a title. And then I think, what do I want to say? Where’s this going? Where does this title, or this idea, lead me? And I just try to take it from there, and try to capture emotion rather than glory a lot of the times. Even though I’ve had most of my success in Nashville, I think I tend to come out of a little more of a pop sensibility, because that was always what I would listen to, and that was more my background. Some people here in Nashville are just complete genius storytellers, and I don’t consider myself part of that group.
SF: Interestingly, some of the people that you’re talking about probably wouldn’t consider themselves part of that group, either.
Tommy Lee: Yeah, maybe not. Everybody sees themselves differently.
In this section, you'll learn why Tommy Lee likes the songs that rip your heart out, and why he's never analyzed them. You'll learn about some new talent he's producing, and why she's amazing. And most of all, you'll learn how a highly successful Nashville songwriter, who hobnobs with the biggest names in Country Music, is just like you.
SF: When you say that you tell it from a more emotional standpoint, is there anything that pops to your head, like, “Wow, I put a lot of emotion into this one”?
Tommy Lee: Yeah. They all do. But I’ll give you an example. I just got a cut on the new Pussycat Dolls record. It’s kind of what I’m into now. I wrote it with a great writer in L.A., Stephanie Ridel, and a young pop artist, Ashlyne Huff, and the simplicity of it I love. It’s raw emotion, that euphoric feeling when you’re in love, and you’ve found the person you’re looking for. If you can capture something that simple and honest in a song, I think that’s really what I’m after. As far as trying to save the world in a song, that’s a pretty high bar. Another song, “What I Really Meant To Say,” that I wrote with Cyndi Thompson and Chris Waters, I love the emotion of that song. It has this angst in it. And I tend to love those bittersweet things that kind of rip your heart out.
SF: Yeah, I don’t know how this could be just a songwriter session, because your lyrics do rip people’s hearts out.
Tommy Lee: But they’re not heavy, as far as intense or anything. I’m not a depressed person or anything. (laughing) I tend to be a very happy person. But there’s just a few parts emotionally that I tend to always go, and I don’t know why. As you can probably tell from our conversation, I don’t really analyze what I do. Because I’m scared to. Because I don’t want to demystify it. So I’ve never really analyzed it, but I always try to do what feels natural and what’s right. And what moves me are those really few bittersweet things like, “I love you but you’re leaving,” where it’s those real bittersweet situations. I’m not much on writing the up-tempo happy songs. I wish I was. I’d have more money.
SF: I could get all Dr. Phil on you and say, “You really need to analyze why it is that you’re afraid to analyze these songs of yours.”
Tommy Lee: I will someday. (laughing) Someday I’ll ask myself those hard questions.
SF: I read somewhere that Clint Black writes his most emotionally wrenching songs when he’s happy. He has to be happy to write those really depressing songs.
Tommy Lee: Well, when you’re a little bit older – as I am – you don’t have to be going through something to feel it again. You can remember what you were feeling. I remember in college I had this girl break my heart, and I remember listening to a Jackson Browne record, and I remember my roommate’s going, “God, man, that must really be depressing you.” But there’s something about that kind of song, when you’re feeling like that, that heals. It made me feel better. It feels like you’re not the only one feeling that kind of melancholy. And I’m interested in trying to write things that people feel. I’m not up for being too clever.
SF: I know you played with Brooks and Dunn. Can you talk to me about that?
Tommy Lee: I was only with them for a year. I didn’t have a record deal anymore, and it was a good opportunity. I got to write a song with Ronnie Dunn, it was a big hit for them, too, in the early days, called “A Man This Lonely.” So besides having a bunch of fun with those guys, I got to have a hit with Ronnie, too, so that was cool.
SF: Why did you stop touring with them?
Tommy Lee: Well, it’s just hard to do that and songwriting, too. I’m a pretty much Monday-through-Friday 10-5 writer.
SF: 10:30 to 5.
Tommy Lee: (laughing) 10:30 to 5, that’s right. And I really believed that was my future, not playing on the road. It’s fun and everything, but when you’re married and you have kids, it’s a lot of days away. Songwriting’s kind of the best of both worlds, where you can still perform your songs occasionally, you still get to do your music, do what you love, but you can also go home every night at 5 o’clock, too. It’s pretty nice.
SF: Any experiences that you have had with anybody that you have worked with that have just blown you away?
Tommy Lee: Well, I just finished producing an album with Ritchie McDonald. [Lonestar] And I’m really proud of the record. The first single is going to come out in about a month, and I just think he’s an amazing singer as well as an amazing person. It was really a great experience, it was just Ritchie and I decided to make his record. He asked me to work with him, and the freedom of that without having the record company involved was amazing, and a great experience. So now he’s signed on a label, and he’s getting ready to do his thing. But we’ve just got some incredible songs on there that I can’t wait for people to hear.
SF: And when is that due out?
Tommy Lee: I think the first single comes out the end of October.
SF: What’s the name of it?
Tommy Lee: I think it’s going to be called Slow Down. I’m really excited about that. And I’ve recently been working with this Australian artist, Delta Goodrum. We have her first single, it’s called, “In This Life.” And we had a few hits in Australia, and it’s just come to America, it’s been on VH1, and it’s in the Hot AC right now. She’s an amazing young artist to work with. Amazing person, amazing singer.
SF: And you’ve done some producing with them both?
Tommy Lee: Not with Delta, that was songwriting. With Ritchie I produced and wrote about half the record with him. With Delta I’m just a songwriter. John Shanks produced the first single. But I know she’s really gonna catch on in America. She’s a big star everywhere else but America. She was on Letterman the other night.
SF: And is she pop or country?
Tommy Lee: She’s pop.
SF: So you’re getting back to what you initially liked?
Tommy Lee: Yeah, I love all kinds of music. I think there’s good and bad in everything. I guess I’ve been to England 8 times this year already to write. And when I come back to Nashville to write, I appreciate it more. I appreciate it more than I would if I was here all the time writing, because there’s something very unique and great about what happens here. You know how it is, you go away and it makes you appreciate it. So there’s a balance there that I think really works for me, personally.
SF: Trisha Yearwood had a hit with “This Is Me You’re Talking To.”
Tommy Lee: Yeah. I’m really proud of that song. I love that song.
SF: Can you tell me anything else about that?
Tommy Lee: I wrote that with Karyn Rochelle, who’s an amazing songwriter, and an amazing singer, too. I can’t really remember if she had the title or what, but I came up with part of the melody. I wanted to write a really melodic kind of ballad. And all in that day we tried to find a real emotional strain there that we both liked. I’m really proud of that song, and then to have a cut with Trisha Yearwood, I think she’s just the best country singer.
SF: She’s got some ridiculous talent. You had a song with Conway Twitty.
Tommy Lee: Yeah, that was actually my first cut.
SF: There we go. “I Don’t Love You.”
Tommy Lee: “I Don’t Love You,” yeah, I wrote that with my friend Liz Hengber. When you get that first cut under your belt, that’s an amazing feeling. So many things fell through before I got that. But especially to have a cut by somebody like Conway, who’s a total legend and an icon. To have that voice on one of my songs, I remember how exciting that was.
SF: How did you get the news?
Tommy Lee: I guess my publisher told me. But the excitement is still there. I always can’t wait to hear the record or go out and buy it. To hear a really good singer like, Reba McEntire’s recorded a few of my songs, to hear her voice on a song, it’s really an amazing feeling. Especially somebody that can interpret a song like Conway, or Reba, one of those classic country artists.
SF: Can you tell me any examples of a song of yours that you wanted to have it done one way and somebody interpreted it another way, and you just went, Ugh, that’s terrible?
Tommy Lee: Um, gosh… not off the bat. If it gets to the point of recording, I’m usually pretty thorough. I’ve had a lot of things I wasn’t happy with, but usually those things never see the light of day. Usually if they’re good, they come out. And there’s been a lot of bad renditions of some things, but we don’t need to discuss that. (laughing)
SF: (laughing) Oh, we do. We do!
Tommy Lee: (laughs) I’ve been, for the most part, really pleased. I will say, sometimes you’ll hear your cut for the first time… sometimes I’ll get attached to a demo, and sometimes for the first 25-30 listens I think sometimes the demo might be better, but then after a while I start liking the record better. Sometimes it takes you a while to get used to something.
Tommy Lee: Yeah, it’s like anything else. You hear a song on the radio you think you hate, and then after they play it far too much, all of the sudden you’re singing along. (laughing)
SF: (laughs) That does happen. And then you just get all mad, “Damn it! I hated that song!”
Tommy Lee: (laughing) Yeah. You catch yourself saying that…
SF: There was a song that Brooks and Dunn and Reba did, a duet…
Tommy Lee: Yeah, “If You See Him/If You See Her.”
SF: Yeah. Where did that come from? Were you instrumental on the lyrics on that?
Tommy Lee: I co-wrote the lyric, yeah. I wrote that with my friend Terry McBride and Jennifer Kimball. We got together one day and it was one of those things… I hate to say it, but it was completely calculated, where I think it was something like Terry said, “Brooks and Dunn and Reba are looking for a duet.” And Jennifer goes, “Well, I have this idea called ‘If You See Him.’ I don’t think that’s a duet.” And then it was like, “Well, what about ‘If You See Him/If You See Her’?” And so that’s kind of how that came about. And we pretty much completely wrote it for Brooks and Dunn and Reba, and they recorded it. That hardly ever happens where you’re that calculated and it just works. But we just tailor-made it. When we were writing it, it was like, “Well, I don’t think Ronnie would say that,” “I don’t think Reba would say that.” We were actually using their names. And we were very pointed and focused, and it happened to work out, and they both liked it. And it made it through all the channels.
SF: So you get requests like that from artists, that are saying, “We’re looking for a specific sort of song”?
Tommy Lee: Well, yeah, we get briefs all the time, pitch sheets, “So-and-so’s looking for a certain type of thing.” And then sometimes you don’t take a lot of it seriously, because a lot of times that kind of stuff is wrong. For instance, you’ll get a, “So-and-so is looking for a Sheryl Crow-type song.” It might be a real traditional country artist, but that’ll be on the pitch sheets. But then when the record comes out, it doesn’t sound like Sheryl Crow, it still sounds like that artist. So you take all that stuff with a grain of salt, unless you have a real in on something, like, “Here’s what they’re looking for”… there’s a lot of that. Somebody hears a song and they like it, and they want another one.
SF: And they’re going to take it and tweak it to whatever fits them best no matter what.
Tommy Lee: Yeah. It’s all about trying to get songs recorded.
SF: Would you be able to guess how many writers there are in Nashville that do exactly what you do? The 10:30-5? What kind of competition do you have?
Tommy Lee: Oh my God, I don’t know. I mean, there’s a lot. But there’s a lot less than there used to be.
SF: A lot less?
Tommy Lee: Yeah. Because it’s just so much harder to make a living as a songwriter these days with downloading… It’s a much tighter market than it used to be in the early ‘90s. I mean, there were a lot of songwriters here. A lot of signed songwriters. And there’s just a lot less. But, no, I couldn’t even guess. I’m not going to try to guess how many songwriters there are. (laughing) There’s too many as far as I’m concerned.
SF: Are you a member of the Songwriters Guild?
Tommy Lee: I’m a member of the NSAI. The Nashville Songwriters Association International.
SF: I know that the Songwriters Guild specifically is going to court over the Internet downloading and all that kind of thing to try and make a better working wage for writers.
Tommy Lee: Yeah, NSAI has done a lot of fighting in Washington for that. And they’ve done a lot of great work, and I’m glad they are.
SF: Okay, one more question.
Tommy Lee: Yes?
SF: Why the ukulele?
Tommy Lee: (dramatic pause) God, good question. (laughs) Because my dad bought me one, I guess, because I was 6, and he thought I was too little for a guitar or something. I don’t know. My dad knew how to play some chords on the ukulele, and it’s kind of easier. It’s four strings, it’s nylon, it doesn’t hurt your fingers as much. And I could play the ukulele. Thank God I switched to guitar and piano.
SF: Could you still pick one up and play one today?
Tommy Lee: I could play a little bit, yeah. It’s pretty easy. It’s not rocket science. But I had a few songs I played on there, and it kind of got me going on my little road to other instruments. It was a springboard.
SF: And did you teach yourself, or did your dad teach you?
Tommy Lee: He taught me. He taught me some chords. And I still think about that, too. I think it’s really cool that he passed that down. He came from a family in Virginia, and there’s all this incredible bluegrass music. He came from that tradition where he played guitar a little bit, and everybody could play an instrument. I could kind of play before I could analyze it. Then it was too late. (Paging Dr. Phil…)