They Right the Songs

A group of area songwriters gathers to improve their tunes -- and take a shot at the bigtime.

It's Monday night -- prime time -- and Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and other stars glide across a Los Angeles stage, picking up trophies during the American Music Awards broadcast. Out in the audience, small clusters of songwriters become ecstatic with each announcement. In addition to feeling the rush of victory, they know that now they can expect even larger royalty checks for their writing efforts. Landing a song with a big star means big money, especially when the song's a winner.

On the same night in Denver, ten local songwriters -- members of the Denver chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International -- sit in a half-circle, thinking about their own songs. But instead of Garth Brooks's or Shania Twain's glowing thanks, the group's members hear Larry Thompson as his voice drifts across the room. "You gotta show me the furniture," Thompson says to a fellow songwriter, indicating a need for more detailed lyrics. "If you can't show me some furniture, it ain't gonna fly down there." Thompson knows what he's talking about, having spent four years "down there" in Nashville, writing and pitching songs. "I wrote every morning, got drunk every afternoon and socialized every night," he tells the group. "That's the way it worked." Tonight he's here to offer sobering thoughts on the work of his peers -- and to seek feedback on a tune of his own.

Of course, that's what everyone else is here for, too. Each month, the group gathers at the Academy of the Arts, at 455 South Platte River Drive, to discuss the craft and business of songwriting, in the hopes of someday hearing a major-label star call one of their names from the stage. During the sessions, the members play their own songs and critique those of their peers; their material stretches from country-flavored, entry-level offerings from amateur writers to a few radio-worthy selections from more experienced local performers. During the next three hours of Monday's meeting, the group discusses these songs to a degree seldom heard even in rehearsal rooms. Topics of conversation include current practices in Nashville, from song length and subject matter to the preferred time between a song's intro and its first hook. Members split hairs over word choices in lyrics ("Isn't a 'smoldering' fire on the way out?"), titles and whether one writer's bridge effectively connects the verse and the chorus.

Hail to the chief: NSAI president Randi Perkins.
Anthony Camera
Hail to the chief: NSAI president Randi Perkins.

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7 p.m. Monday, February 5, 303-695-8628
Academy of the Arts, 455 South Platte River Drive

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"I'm having trouble with this song," says Dave McKnight, before delivering his in-progress tune in a strong voice. It's got a solid melody, a handful of very good lines and a pleasing country-rock feel -- and at least a few pieces of "furniture." He completes the song and then takes his licks from the crowd, whose members acknowledge the song's merits while offering polite criticism on its perceived shortcomings. A few minutes later, Cindy Marotta subjects herself to the same drill. "This is the hardest thing," she says following the group's critique, "because you all are sitting here ripping my songs apart. But if that's what it takes to get better, fine."

Marotta's comment sounds a little like something you'd hear in a group counseling session -- which is what the NSAI meeting feels like at times. It's a sort of self-help gathering for songsmiths, where members offer warmth and encouragement to their musically addicted peers. And while the chances of a hit song rising directly from this circle may be remote, the group seems undaunted in its quest to connect with Music City's song buyers and performers. The group's Denver locale, Thompson reveals, is one of its biggest obstacles. "We can have a good song," Thompson says to his peers, "but it's got to be better than that. It's got to sing, it's got to have it all. Because there's a big difference [between] coming over the bridge from here in [Denver] and coming from Nashville."

Randi Perkins is the founder and leader of Denver's NSAI chapter, and closing the gap between Nashville and Denver is one of his goals. "If we can write songs we believe in and put them together with artists," he tells the group, "we can create our own scene here, and we wouldn't have to crack the Nashville market so much." A local songwriter and publisher, Perkins has been pitching songs in Nashville part-time for about three years. He's also got a pair of songwriting awards under his belt (an honorable-mention nod in the 1997 USA Songwriting Competition and second place in 1998's I Write the Songs contest) and a couple of songs under contract with a Nashville publisher.

A former financial officer with a Denver firm and now a freelance accountant, Perkins doesn't get paid for his NSAI efforts. His compensation comes in the form of free membership in the organization and, hopefully, help in reaching his own songwriting goals. The Denver NSAI chapter includes about thirty active members -- with newcomers showing up at every monthly meeting, some of whom drop in once and never return. "People come in with a song," Perkins says, "and are expecting us to go, 'That's the next hit.' And that never happens, so they don't come back."

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