In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
For all its soapiness, one thing ABC’s Nashville gets right—besides Connie Britton’s hair—is its music. The drama might fudge a little on details about record contracts and the evil nature of publicists, but the songs chosen by T Bone Burnett, Buddy Miller, and Frankie Pine for the show are always pretty spot-on, presenting both a realistic version of the current landscape of country music as well as an occasional glimpse at a sharp and idyllic take on the genre’s future.
As webseries like ABC’s “On The Record” show, there’s a whole process to finding and curating the tunes that are incorporated into the show. Unlike Glee, almost all the songs that show up on Nashville are originals, not covers. And those songs have to fit into not only a singer’s range, but also a character’s arc.
Songwriter Bob DiPiero has written thousands of songs, including 15 No. 1 country hits for acts like Tim McGraw, The Oak Ridge Boys, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, and Faith Hill. He’s also written a number of songs for the show, including tracks like “American Beauty” and “It’s My Life,” both of which Rayna James (Britton) sang during season one. The A.V. Club grabbed DiPiero while he was preparing for his hosting gig as part of the CMA Songwriters Series and asked him about his (and other songwriters’) behind-the-scenes work on Nashville.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start basic: How do songs get picked to be on Nashville?
Bob DiPiero: There is a producer and a music team who are part of the Nashville production team. They’re responsible for choosing music that’s used on Nashville. The first step is to find out who those people are and how you can connect with them and how you can offer your songs to them as a songwriter.
AVC: Is that something that you as a songwriter do, or are you signed to a songwriting agent, and that person does that for you?
BD: It’s difficult, because there’s not an easy answer to what you just asked. There’s not any one process. It’s as different as each songwriter that approaches that show. It could be as easy as a personal relationship. Callie Khouri is the creator of Nashville, and she’s been a friend of mine for close to 30 years. So I was very fortunate to have that connection. That being said, the songs I had that I wanted [for] the show still had to be vetted through this process.
I had my connection, and it can be as easy as that or as difficult as using a publishing company or a lawyer or knowing the actual music producer of that show. There’s no one way. But obviously it helps to know the players of the game.
AVC: Which songs have you written for the show?
BD: “American Beauty” was on there. And there was also a song called “It’s My Life” that’s one of my favorites.
AVC: Are those songs that you wrote independently and then brought to the show, or were they songs you were commissioned to write?
BD: Both of those that you just gave examples of happened.
“It’s My Life” worked because it was explained to me in that episode what scene they required that particular song for. It was a song that was supposed to be uptempo where the singer is supposed to be talking about being independent and full of herself, and that song and the lyrics and the arrangement just happened to fit into that particular scene.
As far as the other song, “American Beauty,” I was talking to one of the music producers, and she explained to me a scene where the character was going to be singing a song that was promoting a perfume within the episode. I just happened to have a song title in my little bag of song ideas that kind of worked with that. That song was written kind of toward that idea.
AVC: Do you have a sense of how many people are competing to have songs on the show? The general public may not be aware of just how big the songwriting community is in the town of Nashville.
BD: I think that’s a very true statement. Not many people think about a songwriting community or a songwriter. We’re invisible stars, in a way. But like anything in the music business or the entertainment business, it is ultra competitive. There are hundreds of writers with thousands of songs competing for maybe a dozen slots at any time.
AVC: But that competition seems reasonable, because of the way the show is built. The songs used on the show are so important that they just have to be right.
BD: I think one of the reasons the show is so successful is even though it’s not the unvarnished truth of Nashville, it tries to be as authentic as it can regarding the music. You take a day in the life of a superstar who’s fading and a superstar who’s rising and all the songwriters and producers that surround it, then you throw in some soap opera. That being said, I think what makes that show work is that they are trying to be as authentic as possible. And one of the keys is the songs they choose. They’re real songs. They’re not parodies of songs they think country music happens to sound like. These are all real songs written by very, very good songwriters.
AVC: If you didn’t sell “It’s My Life” to the show, you could have sold it to Faith Hill.
BD: That’s exactly right.
AVC: Do you think the show accurately represents songwriters in Nashville? What about the scenes at the Bluebird Café?
BD: I think it generally shows the Bluebird; the actual setting is 100 percent the Bluebird. If you watch the early shows, the Bluebird scenes were actually shot in the real, original Bluebird Café. As the show gained popularity, the producers of the show actually built a sound stage of the interior of the Bluebird to the point where if you were blindfolded and went inside the sound stage, then took your blindfold off, you would totally believe you were in the Bluebird Café. It is an exact replica, which I think just adds to the authenticity of the show. The scenes you see happen could have happened or might happen in the Bluebird. I don’t think anything that has been shown has been outlandish or ridiculous, where you’d say, “That would never happen.” What they show are things that just might have happened or have been based on stories about something similar happening in the Bluebird Café or about somebody’s success in the music business.
AVC: Do you think having songs on the show has had any affect on your career, or is it just another notch in your belt?
BD: You know, I think it’s a fun thing. I don’t think that it’s changed my world, so to speak. It’s just another creative outlet for songs that I have written during my career, which has been a pretty long and blessed one. It’s just fun to be involved in such an interesting show that has obviously drawn a lot of people to Nashville, Tennessee.
There’s a marked difference between before the show Nashville started airing and after. A lot of people are coming to Nashville because of what they’ve seen on the show. It has a big impact. For me, it’s just great to be involved in something as new and successful as a show like Nashville.
AVC: You’ve written for people like Reba McEntire and Tim McGraw. Is writing for them at all similar to writing something for the show?
BD: I’m always trying to write the best song I can write on that day. That never changes. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing for a TV show, strictly for an artist, or writing with another writer. I’m always trying to write the very best song I can write in that moment. That never changes. Rather, the method never changes. How inspired I am to write that song can sometimes change.
Unfortunately, I make my living writing songs, and a lot of whether I want to invest my time in this particular song or in this particular project has to do with how much time I have. It’s, “Is this worth my effort? What am I going to receive back, besides a pat on the back?”
It’s different for every songwriter. For a new songwriter, a young songwriter that is just starting out in Nashville, having a song placed on Nashville is life-changing, career-changing. They’ve had nothing happen in their career up to that point. For someone like myself, I am grateful to have it happen and I’m really happy. I look forward to having more, but it’s not affecting and impacting my world as much as it would someone who moved here a year ago and went, “Someone wants my song in this big TV show.”
AVC: Like Gunnar and Scarlett on the show.
BD: Exactly. I’ve met a lot of the actors on the show, and there are a few of them that either are songwriters or really want to be great songwriters. They’re just such big fans of our songwriting community in Nashville. They understand the differences between “I wrote a song” and “Oh, this person here wrote a song, and it is really a great song.” They see and understand the difference, and it’s great. It’s a mutual admiration society between the songwriting community and the Nashville team.
AVC: How does the money from something like Nashville compare to the money you’d get from writing a song for Faith Hill? Can you explain the royalty process?
BD: That’s a really difficult question to answer in 25 words or less. Ultimately, here’s what happens: A songwriter does not sell a song to an artist. It’s more like a songwriter rents a song to an artist. That artist does not own that song. A songwriter owns the intellectual copyright to that song. What usually happens is that the artist hears the song, realizes that song fits their image or their voice, and so they choose to record that song. Once that song becomes a hit, or whatever happens to it, the song reverts to the songwriter and the owner of that copyright.
As far as money, it depends the show. Is it for Nashville, or is it for the movie The Blind Side that I had a song in? Each show is different. There’s no “one fee fits all.” In Nashville, they treat the song as a work-for-hire, which means they say, “This is what we’re going to pay to use your song. This is all we’re going to pay you to use your song.” The only way your song will have a chance of actually earning any kind of income above this relatively small fee is if the song actually ends up on iTunes and people actually download it. When the song actually gets purchased, that’s how a writer makes money as the owner of the copyright. Or if the song ends up on the radio by one of the artists on Nashville. Now, I don’t think anybody’s had a bona fide hit yet.
AVC: No, not really.
BD: I don’t know how much true income has been generated on those songs.
AVC: There are the soundtrack albums, and people buy those songs on iTunes, so probably some money is made, but not a ton.
BD: You’re not going to go out and buy a Ferrari with it. You’re not going to retire for the rest of your life on it.
You actually touched upon something that’s a big, big deal: the fact that so much music now is quote-unquote “free” to the general public. They just feel they don’t have to pay for it, and they can just listen to it. That really has had a deep impact on the songwriting community. And Nashville is part of that situation. I mean, it’s not that Nashville is trying to get anything for free, but it’s just a general problem creative people have now that there’s Spotify and those kind of places. They don’t pay an owner or a songwriter.
AVC: Well, that could even apply to Nashville. Some of these songs, they’ll perform them six or seven times over the course of a season. For a song like “American Beauty,” Rayna did the commercial, and that was it. But for “Wrong Song,” Rayna and Juliette’s big duet, they performed that a number of times.
BD: Yes. And that can generate a respectable amount of money. It can. But I don’t know if the casual listener might think, “Oh my God, that’s millions of dollars’ worth.” That’s not the case. Or even, “That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars.” That’s not necessarily the case. But if a song like that became a bona fide hit, on the radio, selling a million copies, that really generates income.
Like I said, in somebody else’s world, it’s the biggest thing that ever happened in their career. In my world, it’s a wonderful thing that has happened in my career. At this stage, I’m very blessed that I’m still current, that I still matter, that I still speak the language of 2014 and I’m not stuck in the language of 1998 or 2003, if that makes any sense at all.
AVC: It’s interesting how trends circle around, though. If you only spoke the language of the ’60s or ’70s, or of Appalachian bluegrass, you could apply that to songs that are popular now.
BD: That’s another thing that’s very interesting about Nashville. I had a conversation with T Bone Burnett, who was the original musical producer. His view was that he wanted to create a soundtrack that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with what happens to be on contemporary radio. He wanted to create a soundtrack for that TV show that reflected his tastes, or what he thought country music should be. It’s not generally how country music is in 2014, which I thought was really interesting. It’s like he wanted to invent an alternate universe with the kind of music that’s getting played on Nashville. So he really didn’t rely on—at least at that point—like, “This has got to sound like Luke Bryan,” or this has got to sound like whomever you might want to choose.
AVC: There aren’t as many songs about trucks on the show as there are on the radio.
BD: Right, right. You don’t hear that much on that show. You hear a different kind of song.
T Bone is such a student of where the music comes from, where the music grew from. And now Buddy Miller is handling that job, and he’s the same guy. He’s such a student of the music. He’s not out to create another “Cruise” or any song that happened to be a big hit this year on the radio. He’s out to create this alternate universe of songs in this alternate universe called Nashville. That’s interesting. Well, to me it is. It probably sounds nuts to anybody else.
AVC: No, it makes sense. That kind of thinking could also give the show a longer shelf life. If you watch it in 10 years, it won’t sound so dated.
BD: I think so. It’s a brilliant idea.
I was watching a ’90s movie last night, with terrible haircuts and women with these gigantic shoulder pads and all this fashion. It was like, “Holy moly, what is that?” But it was of that era and of that moment. I think the fact that these guys are creating this kind of music in the universe of the show Nashville will give it kind of a timeless quality.
AVC: It could also make fans of the show go back and check out other country singers. For example, if you like Deacon, you might like George Jones. If you like Rayna, check out Tanya Tucker.
BD: That’s my hope. And I think in some respects, it is happening. Once again, I go back to T Bone Burnett: We were working on a song for the show that he and I wrote together, or he wanted to get written. I said, “Well, what should it sound like?” He gave me references of artists that were around 20, 30 years ago. He says, “Well, follow the music back. Where did the character get their background in the music?” And that’s what I did. I followed the music back, went back to artists that probably nobody is aware of right now and listened to where these ideas sprung from.
It’s my hope that the general public goes back and realizes, “Holy moly, the country music business didn’t start in 2009.”
AVC: And that Taylor Swift wasn’t the first female country singer.
BD: Right. There’s people like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn and amazing female artists that allowed her to have the kind of career she’s having. That’s the hope.