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Bernie Nelson On ‘Blue’, His Extensive Songwriting Career And A Look Behind The Country Music Industry Curtain – Interview


Legendary country music artist and songwriter Bernie Nelson may not be a name you immediately know, but you will have heard his cuts from the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Conway Twitty, Kenny Chesney, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ricky Van Shelton, Wynonna, John Anderson, Chris LeDoux, Colin Raye and many more. A couple of years ago, however, he stepped back into his artist shoes, using his extensive experience working with his heroes and a newfound edge in his voice to record ‘Blue’, which hit stores last year. First single ‘Lonelyville’ went to #1 on the Hotdisc chart, receiving airplay on both sides of the Atlantic, and new single ‘Little Bit’ looks to repeat the feat. Bernie is also working on a book, recounting some of the many amazing stories he has collected over the years of how classic songs were written, including speaking to plenty of artists and songwriters for their take, such as Willie Nelson. He is working on a new album, too, and following his radio tour of the UK and Ireland (just completed), he intends to return to these shores on a proper tour in the fall. I caught up with him last weekend when he stopped over in Liverpool and we chatted about the new music, his time in the UK, some of his stories about the likes of Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney, his incredible songwriting career and how the Nashville music industry has changed over the years.

On ‘Blue’, his recent singles, and the UK

Vickye: Your current single is ‘Little Bit’? Can you tell me a little bit about that song, the writing, the recording of it?

Bernie: Well, there are six songs on the CD that precariously ended up on the CD, and they were written with me by non-professional songwriters, through my Weekend At Bernie’s [songwriting retreat sessions]. And there are three songs on the record that I wrote with a gentleman who was a master plumber, had never had a song recorded, never had a song cut – and ‘Moment With The Moon’, ‘Stays In A Honky-Tonk’ and ‘Little Bit’ [were written by us]. ‘Little Bit’ was one of those things where he said something, and I know there’s an Alan Jackson song that is kind of close to that so I wanted to steer away from it as much as we could, but then I just wanted to get into that feel. I didn’t really concern myself with [the fact] it doesn’t fit today’s market and stuff, I just wanted a fun song like kind of a George Strait, Alan Jackson thing. That’s where we put it. After checking the temperature for the UK we thought it would do well here.

Vickye: What’s the reaction been like thus far?

Bernie: All the stations we’ve gone to have been playing it, they love it, so I think that’s good. We did the dance mix, we put the dance mix out.

Vickye: So you’re not averse to putting modern twists on the old sound?

Bernie: No I [don’t] think so. I like writing with the younger writers. I’m always wanting to evolve, but I like to bring what I have learned and what I have been able to do over the last ‘x’ amount of years to what they have. Take my talents, my history and bring it to their new sound. There’s lots of new writers I write with. We wrote the other day with a new girl [Emily Jubb] – she’s a friend of Taylor Swift’s, and it was a very modern-sounding song, but it was fun for me because it had some fresh new lyrics in it which are hard to find these days.

Vickye: Your last single was ‘Lonelyville’ and it reached #1 on the Hotdisc chart, didn’t it?

Bernie: Yeah, ‘Lonelyville’ – when the title came out, another Weekend At Bernie’s [write] – in my head it took me Roy Orbison meets Chris Isaac type thing. I kinda really wanted to get that feel. We got into the studio and the guitar player Troy Lancaster had a bare tone and he put a lot of treble on it.

Vickye: Were you surprised by some of the traction that it got in the UK?

Bernie: I’m surprised – you know, this is all new to me, that Americana and traditional country music would be so popular here, because in my mind I always associate it with the pop culture and stuff. So it was very exciting to me. To spend a week at number one, let alone three weeks at number one, and to get the feedback we got, the reviews we got… it’s really wonderful.

Vickye: Both of those songs are on the album ‘Blue’. What made you decide to put that album together?

Bernie: Well, I had vacated my seat as an artist a long time ago, and became successful as a songwriter. But two things had happened – I had found a place in my vocal that I really liked, it’s deeper, it’s less refined than it was before. So when that sound started coming out of my vocal and the songs started coming together, I met with some people and they said we’d like to put a record together with you and I thought well, great, then what are we gonna do with it? So now we’re finding out what we’re gonna do with it. There are some songs on the record that I had to step myself on, wasn’t sure they worked for me but it turned out they did.

Vickye: Do you have a favorite song on the record, for the lyrics or the melodies, that really is important to you?

Bernie: I think my favorite song on the record is ‘Saving That For You’. It’s just such a special song. I like the feel of it, it’s reminiscent of a song that Jason Wade recorded for the movie Shrek called ‘You Belong To Me’, has really that kind of quirky little feel to it. And I love the words. I just love knowing that there’s people out there that have so many things they haven’t done yet, and it’s probably because they haven’t found the right person to do it with yet.

What else have you got coming up this year?

Bernie: We’re doing as much as we can in Texas, because I’m just drawn to it. As much as I’m eager to play here and have people embrace me and learn about who I am, I definitely want to get into the Texas market because the filters are a lot smaller in Texas. You don’t have to have a brand, you don’t have to be limited to what you can do. Texas listeners, Texas crowds, they’re pretty forgiving as far as not being a bro-country artist and stuff.

Vickye: I know so many artists who [don’t get mainstream airplay], but they have number ones in Texas.

Bernie: I ask myself with the Eli Young Band, are they happy? Because they’re not the Eli Young Band that was in Texas. Look at Pat Green, was a monstrous artist in Texas, came to Nashville and signed with Mercury, and they tried to homogenize him and he didn’t sell any records. It’s like we love you! Come to Nashville, we wanna change you. There’s your ego that says I wanna be a country artist and I wanna be a well-known household name, but I would be comfier being a household name in Lubbock, Texas as much as Baltimore. If I have a fanbase where I show up and there’s five, six hundred people at one of my shows to hear me sing locked up in Lubbock, then I’m happy there. That doesn’t mean I want to limit where I play, who I play to, it’s just that that’s where I know I’m comfortable. I’m evolving as an artist and I love where that’s taken me.

Vickye: So I hear you’re in the process of recording a new record already?

Bernie: Yeah we’ve recorded probably three songs already. I don’t think the new CD will be thirteen pieces, it might be, but I have such a backlog of songs that I really like. The question is do they all belong together? Are there too many of this type of song? I remember listening to Eric Church one time and he was saying that he left three or four of his favorite songs off his record, that’s how good his record was, and I thought what a ridiculous thing to say. But what he’s saying is I love this song, I absolutely love this song, but it doesn’t belong in this project. And so many of my friends who are artists I see them doing that. I know that Garth Brooks recorded three or four albums’ worth of songs, and only twelve cuts.

Vickye: Do you know Kristian Bush from the duo Sugarland? He wrote and recorded I think three hundred songs for his debut project. And there’s I think only twelve songs on there.

Bernie: It’s easy to do. Years ago I used to sing demos for Randy Travis, a lot of other big artists – Vince Gill – it was because they wanted to pitch these songs, but they had their voice on the demo and they couldn’t pitch them with their voice on the demo. Because they’d say, well why don’t you record it? They had to disguise ‘em.

Vickye: Also there was Ashley Monroe, who only put nine songs on her most recent record back in 2013, and people were saying why is it so short? We want more. And apparently they had quite a few songs that just didn’t really fit with the vibe of the record. I think that’s quite a widespread thing.

Bernie: Well there’s two things that you can do. You can make an [LP], like thirteen songs like I did – I mean when I first did it I was like boy, that’s just not normal, then I looked at Luke Bryan and he had thirteen songs on his record. The other side of the spin would be, let’s put a five song, six song CD together, put it out there, and maybe do one single. And at the end of maybe eight months, put another CD out.

Vickye: A lot of people do that now.

Bernie: A lot of people do that, and especially when you’re touring.

Vickye: So will this be your first UK tour?

Bernie: It will be. We’ve toured Ireland, we’ve toured Scotland, now England [on a radio tour] – I hate to use this term but I’m like a racehorse. I’m just chomping at the bit to go play! When we set up the radio tour I said can we just go do some shows? No. Just doing radio. But I wanna go play! And the reason I wanna go play is twofold: one, it’s what I do and I love doing it, and it’s a whole new audience for me. It’s not Kentucky, it’s not Alabama, it’s not Colorado. It’s a whole new culture of people, and I wanna see if what I do is appealing, and if it is then I wanna do a bunch of them. And it’s not for the money – I love the response I get from people who go wow, that’s really cool!

Recently when the album came out one of the reviews we got, he chastised me for one of the songs on the CD and said, Bernie Nelson’s a great artist, and it sounds like on this song Bernie Nelson’s trying to be one of the new artists and stuff, and he doesn’t need to do that. And I pay attention to that. I really do. As much as I wanna get a Tyler Farr cut, or a David Nail cut, or even a Florida Georgia Line cut, as much as I wanna get those – not because of the money but because I wanna say yes! I’m still very cool with the new sound. But more importantly I just wanna write songs that matter. But like the song we wrote with Taylor Swift’s friend [Emily Jubb] – it’s not a life-changing song but it’s a very catchy song, so.

On his songwriting career and a modern Nashville

Vickye: I definitely think that there is a place for bro-country and catchy country pop songs. Would you say that maybe they’re too [prevalent in] the mainstream at this point, and there needs to be a little bit more substance on radio?

Bernie: I sure hope so. I hope they are, because what that does – in my ‘x’ amount of years in Nashville, this is not a new thing. If you go back to the mid-90s, we had groups like Restless Heart, and Wynonna was shifting gears, and you had a lot of groups that were leaning towards the pop side. ‘I Swear’ was cut by Boys II Men. And so you saw a big shift in country music. A lot of people came to Nashville from LA and New York for that reason, and they wanted to write pop country songs, and my thought is this: right now the market is fairly well saturated with that kind of sound, which makes what I do, what makes what a lot of new artists coming up do, very appealing. It’s refreshing, it’s like you’ve been drinking Cool Aid for three years and all of a sudden somebody offers you a Pepsi. It’s kinda nice.

Vickye: (laughs) Yeah I suppose. Do you think that radio could help out these artists a little bit more?

Bernie: We have the annual Country Radio Seminar, and they have these panels and they keep trying to iron it out, but I think the truth of the matter is that nobody’s going to break what’s working. And as much as everybody tells me, we wants something fresh, we want great lyrics, we want one of those life-changing songs, they’re going to continue putting out what’s working. Much like Kenny Chesney – we were sent a pitch list, and it would say no beach songs, no Mexico songs, no drinking songs. And so we wouldn’t pitch ‘em, and then the album would come out and it would have seven beach songs on it! The three singles would be all about Kenny at the beach, you know. A reference that I like to go to is that Gretchen Wilson, who was a party animal, and wrote and sang party songs, party party party (and a great singer by the way), if she’d have branched for one or two songs, something that touched you, something that appealed to you, I think she’d still be doing well. Look at Miranda Lambert, ‘Gunpowder & Lead’ and all these hardcore songs. She was in a place where she just felt like she was not being herself. The story I heard from the writers of that song was that she was at the end of her rope as far as her career was. And then ‘House That Built Me’ came along and she was like yes, that’s me, I wanna be me. And she sang this song in a very stripped-down track that my friend Frank Liddell recorded, and it worked. And it vindicated her, much in the same way ‘Drink A Beer’ did for Luke. Luke Bryan singing all these party party party, then he sings a really touching song called ‘Drink A Beer’. I think that lets people see that you’re not just one-sided, you’re multi-sided. That’s important.

Vickye: You mentioned Kenny Chesney before. I hear you’ve got some stories about him before he made it big?

Bernie: I teach songwriting, I teach people about the music business, when I have the time (I don’t have the time right now). Kenny is like Garth, like Blake, like Miranda, like Taylor Swift – they had a hearing problem, they couldn’t understand the word no, it didn’t register in their head. No, we don’t wanna sign you, no, you’re not what we’re looking for, no, you’re not any good. And Kenny and I were work-out buddies – there was a gym right off Music Row and a lot of us went there. Randy Travis, Aaron Tippin, Billy Ray Cyrus, and we all trained in this gym. Kenny was one of my work-out buddies and Kenny was parking cars at the time. One of the functions for one of my songs that I went to where I had an award, Kenny parked my car there. And then Kenny got signed to RCA, and I saw him on what was the Crown Royal tour, he was the opening act. Kenny with a little black cowboy hat and a guitar. No band, you know. And he’s out there just singing his songs and stuff, and he never gave up. Much like Garth. Garth was turned down by every record label in town, and he got together with a friend of mine Kent Blazy, and they wrote a song. Garth’s manager said to the record label Capitol – look, they’ve got this new song, and if you’ll just come hear ‘em sing this one song at the Bluebird, you might catch the vision of Garth. Cause I hadn’t caught the vision of Garth, and I did many shows with Garth. I thought he was a great singer, had some really cool songs, but when you hear ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’, you can’t help but see that glimmer that there’s something there that’s special. So early on Capitol Records saw that vision and they gave him a single album record.

Vickye: And the rest is history.

Bernie: I think it’s still history in the making, I think he’s one of those guys that’s still making history yet so. The other thing I’ve learned about Kenny, and Taylor, and Garth, and Blake… are you just don’t sit on your laurels. You don’t go, well I’ve got a hit record. Well, what else you got? Because you have to become – in the media – you have to keep creating yourself. You just can’t go, well I made a great record, they love my record – you have to do more than put great records out. You have to do more than be a recording artist. You have to be a commodity, you have to be someone everyone wants to talk about. I think it’s important, and those guys are media geniuses.

Vickye: Yeah I mean the world moves so fast now, you have to constantly be on top of it. And feed the media – you have to give people a reason to talk about you.

Bernie: Well the fact that Taylor has 55 million people following her. I don’t think I have that many people on my Twitter right now! It’s such a powerful thing. If I send a tweet out to Blake Shelton, who’s an old friend of mine, and he tweets back, “Bernie I’ve heard your record, I really like it,” boom. That’s a powerful thing. It’s just amazing what the power of social media is.

There was this group a few years ago who were destined to be huge called The Civil Wars. But they split up right? So they were doing Jimmy Fallon one night, and Justin Timberlake was on the show. And Justin and [Joy Williams] became great friends. So he produced her new record, and boom, she’s out there with Justin Timberlake now. And Garth, his first song ‘Too Young To Feel This Damn Old’ mentions Chris LeDoux. Nobody knew who Chris LeDoux was! I mean I knew Chris LeDoux because I played Wyoming, and you had to play Chris LeDoux songs in Wyoming because that’s where all the cowboys were and we did all these rodeos and stuff. So I knew Chris LeDoux and I’d met him a few times, but because Garth Brooks mentioned Chris LeDoux in a song, long before social media, he picked up this new following. These cowboys and rodeo people, that drained into the college crowd and next thing you know you’ve got a grassroots thing going on. Social media’s huge.

Vickye: Well I know Joe Diffie had a mini-comeback a few years when Jason Aldean did ‘1994’!

Bernie: A lot of those guys were my friends – Joe Diffie, Tracy Lawrence, Darryl Worley, Lee Roy Parnell… they’re all buddies of mine, and they didn’t have the mega success that Garth and Alan Jackson and George Strait did, but they have had twelve number ones and sold ten million records. So they’re established, and the fact that we’re running out of legends – George Jones is gone, Johnny Cash is gone, Waylon’s gone, so we need new legends and lo and behold people who would be I think average country artists are now considered legends, and people wanna go see them. So Tracy Lawrence is out with two buses now and a semi-truck, playing all these big venues with all these new artists. I love that.

Vickye: Over here even, people like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton [play] packed out arena and stadium shows. Dolly Parton played Glastonbury last year and it was the biggest audience they’ve had ever had at that festival, which has been going for years.

Bernie: Right now I’m trying my best to get on the new Tanya Tucker record as a writer, and to get on Loretta Lynn’s record, because Loretta Lynn will not make another record. She’s 82 years old, and unless she goes on something like the circle album – I’m pretty sure the Dirt Band are doing one last Will The Circle Be Unbroken album – and those are records that I as a songcrafter would wanna be on. I want that stamp in the ground that says yes, I was one of these great pieces of work. I’ve been blessed to have been on three or four watershed records, and I wanna be on a few more of them. I won’t be on a George Jones record, or Waylon’s record, but several of my friends just got on this new record coming out which you’re gonna love, it’s a new duet record with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. It’s great. A friend of mine Jeff Prince, and Jimmy Melton never had big cuts, and they got together one day and Jeff Prince was talking about how much Willie loved Django, the guitar player, and Merle loved Jimmie Rogers, and they wrote a song called Django & Jimmie. They pitched it, and Merle and Willie went in the studio and recorded it, and they got a cut and the biggest of all cuts. As a songwriter, you ask me my favorite cuts, it would be my cut with Kristofferson, and my Conway cut, maybe my Dirt Band cut, because those are my icons, they’re my heroes. I don’t have a George Strait cut, I don’t have a Merle Haggard, so those are the ones you wanna hit.

Vickye: You’ve pretty much written for just about everybody in town over the years. I wanted to just nip back and ask how you got started.

Bernie: I learned a valuable lesson early on. I wrote at MCA Music when I came to town, but that wasn’t my first rodeo in the music business. I started off in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which was the home of the swampers and just an incredible different kind of music came out of there. Old time rock ‘n’ roll, the Allman Brothers, all came out of it, but there were two writers down there, two artist-writers down there, Robert Burn… and he had a slew of hits with Alabama, Earl Thomas Conley, Ronnie Milsap. And then a new kid named Mac MacAnally, Mac was 19 years old at the time and I didn’t know real much about either one of these guys and I soon found out that I was in immense deep waters, cause these guys were so talented. Mac could play anything, he sang like nobody I knew, and was just so talented, so I went back to Muscle Shoals, I got humbled, but I also became part of the Muscle Shoals bunch. Those guys were on my demos down there and all those players moved to Nashville in the late 80s, and I used them on all my sessions when I first came to town, and everybody wanted to know how come your records sound so cool? I’m like these guys are the best, and that changed a lot of people’s demo work and recording in Nashville.

Then I landed at MCA Music at ’84, ’85. Don Schlitz had written ‘The Gambler’, but he hadn’t really team-written with anybody yet. By playing the Bluebird a bunch, he hooked up with [a few songwriters, including] a guy named Paul Overstreet. I was literally in the room next door writing when they wrote ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, ‘I’d Choose You Again’, and a song called ‘On The Other Hand’. I was literally in the other room listening to them write it through the wall, while I was learning how to write. These guys had lyrics that I couldn’t write, and they had melodies that were unbelieveable, and they taught me to stop being such a hard rhymer, and write just what I wanna say. And the other thing was, they had a song plugger there who was the best in the business, and I had a song of mine that I wanted to get to a group called The Whites, and he said this is not what they’re looking for. I’m not gonna tell you again, don’t ask me to pitch this song to them. The Whites were really big at the time, and finally I said, well if I wanted to get this song to The Whites, how would I get to The Whites? He said their office is right across the street. And so I walked across the street and before I could come back across the street The Whites had heard it. The producer had heard it and he put it on hold, and it was my first cut, my first single, and I learned right away – one, I wrote it by myself, and two, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, don’t count on one person to go get something done for you.

Vickye: For someone that wants to become a songwriter now, do you think that the Nashville music industry is a much different world now, than what it was when you started?

Bernie: I’m not that entrenched in it like I was before. The one thing I can tell you from the past that I think is a little bit different, is if I heard a song that somebody wrote that I had nothing to do with, I would say gimme that song! And I would go pitch it to somebody because it made me look good, and I don’t think you see that so much anymore. They’re pretty self-enclosed in that aspect. The only other difference is that there are so many people in Nashville right now. In the mid-90s there were maybe three thousand staff writers on the job making money, and then we had the bloodbath because of digital downloading and stuff, the publishing companies had to cut back. I think that dropped down to about six hundred writers by the end of 2001. And now, there’s more writers in town, but I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of people making a living in songwriting, there’s just a lot more people writing songs.

Vickye: Well I think it’s pretty common now to go to Nashville, become a staff writer, and then during the day you have a day job.

Bernie: Yeah, you have to. There’s a lot of hit writers out there that have day jobs, and they’ve learned this money only lasts for so long. Certain amounts of the money are gone, the mechanical money is gone. You’re not gonna see somebody sell five million records as a rule anymore, but the radio money is really substantial. What used to pay $200,000 for a number one now is a million, two, something like that.

Vickye: Well I suppose that’s inflation.

Bernie: Yeah, exactly. The cost to put a show out on the road is phenomenal. I heard a number the other day, for Eric Church to pull outta Nashville is like $1.2 million. You can’t be George Strait and walk out there and go, here’s a song, and here’s a song – you have to have something that’s very entertaining. People are paying to be entertained, it’s not just play my hits, they want something. I mean look at Taylor. You have a book that comes with the show that tells you what each part of the show is about, it’s amazing!

Vickye: It costs a lot of money to promote to radio as well. Huge amounts now.

Bernie: It’s over half a million dollars just to get started at the big stations. There’s only limits on what you can do because the big boys are in control of that part of it.

Our conversations wanders onto the subject of Garth’s comeback, and his incredible ticket sales despite limited radio play, and Bernie begins musing on the launch of GhostTunes and its aim.

Bernie: I’m not Garth and if somebody wants to download a little bit, not download the whole album, I will take their money!

Vickye: (laughs) Yeah! You’ve gotta go with what works. For example, Taylor Swift took her music off Spotify and said, no, I’m only going to sell this rather than stream it. But then I’ve spoken to other acts who have said no, Spotify is great for us, because it gets us out there.

Bernie: It does get you out there. People say I made 60c on that record, and I’m like that’s not good, but then does it translate to $7 for a ticket sale, does it translate to $20 for a t-shirt, because somebody knows who I am from Spotify? It’s all being known, and Spotify gets me known. I’ll take that. I’m getting branded, I’m getting listened to by people who don’t know Bernie Nelson, and that’s important.

Vickye: How does the financial side of things work out for songwriters when a song is streamed?

Bernie: It’s very limited income. In some way you feel like you’re being abused, taken advantage of, and we have people in place who are helping us with that. BMI, and the NSAI are lobbying with congress to do that. Much like if I turn on my TV set and I watch Friends, Friends should be compensated for me watching their show even though I didn’t buy that episode of Friends, I am watching it. They get compensated because Chevy and State Form Insurance advertise on that TV network, so they get paid. So when you stream, we should get paid, but I don’t know how that works out.

Vickye: Do you think that [Tidal] would work better than some of the stuff that’s available now?

Bernie: Yeah, I think that’s a step up.

About Vickye

I run this joint. Country music blogger extraordinaire, fangirl, coffee drinker, Twitterer, bunny lover and rather too opinionated for her own good. Feminist and equal rights advocate. Has a laugh that you can hear for miles.
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