"I view myself as a 'songwriter/singer' rather than a 'singer/songwriter' because I fell in love with the song first. So out of my love for the song comes the singing"
Tom Douglas is no stranger to country music, having written some of the genre's most emotive songs over the past 23 years - and has had songs recorded by artists outside of the country genre. The Grammy nominated song-writer has won multiple awards and if you are not familiar with his name you will undoubtedly be familiar with his songs, with cuts including Brett Eldredge's One Mississippi, David Nail's I'm A Fire, Tim McGraw's Number 37405 and Kenny Chesney's While He Still Knows Who I Am amongst others. A song-writing idol of mine, Tom's songs manage to immerse you in the vivid emotion of the lyrical journey throughout each song and Tom continues to create some of country music's strongest songs.
I was recently able to catch up with Tom and ask him some questions....
Your first number one as a song-writer came in 1994, how was the journey up to that point?
Well, the journey was a very circuitous route. I was 41 when I got my first song recorded...I'll just give you the brief story. I grew up in Atlanta, I grew up in a household that was creative, my father although he sold steel for United States Steel, my mother was an interior decorator so it was kind of a creative household. Music was everywhere, my father loved music and loved songs. My parents were much older when I was born, my father was born in 1911 and my mother was born in 1917 so they were older and I kind of grew up where the two predominant pillars in my household were education and job security so even though music was in my household the thought of me doing anything musically - even though I just love it always - it would really have been unheard of just because my parents had sacrificed to get me an education, I'd gone to high-school and college, graduate school and I did try to assimilate into the real world of blue suits and red ties, working in real estate. I've always had this musical bent, I love songs but at age 27 I kind of finally ran away from home and I just moved to Nashville without a particularly good plan just because I wanted to be around Nashville, around the song-writers, I love being there. I was a piano player in a band that did coffee houses, I was a tour manager, I cleaned houses and recording studios, I just kind of did a little bit of everything. I didn't get anything going song-writing wise so after my four year odyssey in Nashville I thought well at this time I'm 31 and everybody else I had grown up with was now married, they had their second promotion and their first house and I was 31 and broke and kind of starting over. I met my wife-to-be in Nashville so I thought right, I've now really lost ten years of my life messing around, I've got to get a real job, become a real person, I need to re-invent myself, I'm going to move to Dallas and get in the real estate business and really try to leave the song-writer behind in Nashville. I was doing that for a number of years but over time the soundtrack of my mind started playing again and I started thinking about music and song-writing. The truth of the matter is one day I was working in real estate and talking to perspective tenants about moving in to a shopping centre that I was leasing and at the same time I was having like an argument with God. I was saying to God it's weird that now at 39 I'm jaded, bitter and disappointed with the way my life has turned out, I'm in real estate but the truth of the matter is I'm a poet at heart. It was kind of one of those miserable moments and it was literally like God had answered me and said you've been worshipping the creation which is the song and success instead of the creator which is me, how's that working out for you? I thought to myself it's miserable, that's how it's working out. I don't really understand it but somehow I kind of realised that I'd made songs and music an idol and I was so focused on success, trying to do something that I thought somebody else would like, I really lost myself in the process. When you really do worship idols ultimately idols require that you sacrifice everything and they kind of destroy you. I was able to destroy the pull that wanting to be a successful song-writer had on me at that time and kind of turn my focus back to music being a God-given gift, I just wanted to enjoy it and slowly I started loving music again and kind of fell back in love with the creative process. I started slowly writing songs, it was almost like I was frozen and I was slowly thawing out. About a year later I sat down and I said why don't I try telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I sat down and I wrote the song "Little Rock". That was probably 1992, I hoped I could give the song away to people but nobody was really...my friends liked it but that was about it! Amazingly I got reconnected with Paul Worley who was with Sony Publishing in 1993 at an Austin song-writer event and he took a cassette of my songs. I signed to Sony Publishing and I got my first song recorded at the ripe old age of 41.
How has it been working within the song-writing community in Nashville?
Once I got that first song recorded? I still had this healthy mistrust for Nashville so I stayed in Dallas and I didn't move my family up here - by this time I had three children - I didn't move to Nashville until I was 46. I moved to Nashville one week a month and I did that for four years and finally moved here in 1997 so I've been here 20 years now the second time. Nashville's a great city to live in but song-writing is breathtakingly hard, you've got to love the process, it's a real roller-coaster. It's just fraught with uncertainty, I really wouldn't recommend most people doing it unless you just absolutely have it do it, if you just can't do anything else then do it but otherwise there's got to be an easier way to go. It's a very collaborative town, people are very welcoming, I've loved being here again the second time. I've found my group of collaborators so it's been a lot of fun, a lot of heartache and misery but a lot of fun [laughs].
Your songs are incredibly emotive, where do you find the inspiration for writing?
I don't really know, I don't really know why...I think getting a later start at it gave me a little bit more depth than somebody 20. Now I'm 64 so now I'm not just the father in the room, now I'm the grandfather in the room! I guess a little more serious issues have always appealed to me more than hot girls and cold beer - I mention hot girls and cold beer but I can't seem to write about it authentically so there's always been a certain issue I guess involved in what I do. Songs really are important, I'm sure you can tell songs have always been important to me. It's a big responsibility, words can destroy or words can heal, songs can, art can, so I don't know, I think I've always felt that heavy responsibility that goes along with the songs.
Which has been the hardest song for you to write?
I guess the notable one that literally took seven years was "The House That Built Me". My friend Allen Shamblin and I started on that song...we went to the Sundance resort - it's also a film festival - but the Sundance resort to play in the summer of 2003, that song wasn't recorded until 2010 so Allen and I, obviously we didn't work on it constantly but we worked on it on and off for about 7 years, that was really difficult. We started on the idea...Allen came in one morning at breakfast - we were out in Utah - and he had been reading some articles and books and he said instead of a song about houses that we built he said I think houses have memories, what if there was a song called 'the house that built me'? As soon as he said that the red lights started flashing, sirens started screaming and I knew that was an amazing idea. I said Allen you've got to promise me you will not utter those words to anybody until we get back to Nashville. So we got back to Nashville and started working on the song, we wrote the song, demoed the song, turned it in, the publisher was like 'yeah that's really cool' which you know is code word for they don't get it or they don't think it has any commercial potential. The song kind of kept coming up and we'd get together and talk about it but I guess about 6 years after we first started on it I was just thinking about that song, thinking about Allen and I called him up one day and said remember that song 'The House That Built Me''?, he said yeah, I said I just think there's something there that's not been revealed yet. He came over a couple of days later and we just took the lyric, put it on the coffee table and went from the start of it all the way down to the end and over the course of a day we really started taking out information. We had too much information in the song so it kind of became simpler and simpler. We also didn't have until the very end the line "if I could just come in I swear I'll leave, won't take nothing but a memory" and that line is probably as important as the hook. So anyway, that was probably the most challenging but at the same time the most gratifying.
How did it feel the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
I can remember that...it was probably 1994, I was living in Dallas, I think my son was just born. It was about 8 o'clock at night, we were literally...I can remember where I was...we were driving on a street in Dallas called Lubbock Lane in a grey station wagon, two of the children were asleep in the back and we were listening to the radio and "Little Rock" came on. It was really really surreal, there's something about hearing a song on the radio that's different than hearing it anywhere else. That's probably still the best to hear songs, out of a crummy car stereo! I don't know why that is but it just sounds so good.
Which song from any artist do you wish you'd written?
Oh gosh! I think about that...Probably "Make You Feel My Love" the Bob Dylan song, I think that's probably just about perfect, I really love that.
Do you have any particular artist in mind when writing?
Well not exactly. If you know that a big artist is recording soon, like Keith Urban or Carrie Underwood or Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney it's hard not to somewhere in the back of your mind think this might be good for so-and-so but I've never really had success at tailoring a song for a particular artist, I've never been good at that. It's better to just follow the song that's in the room, let it see where it's supposed to take you.
Have you ever had an artist cut a track that you wouldn't necessarily expect?
Honestly once I've finished writing a song I try to quickly distance myself from the song, it in a sense becomes the enemy at that point. It wants you to focus on it, it starts talking back to you, you didn't really get the cadence right or the music was not quite right...the song almost takes a life of it's own to capture you and keep you from writing the next song. So I try to have a really hands off relationship on songs once they're written. For creative people the most important song to me is really the next song, I try not to think about the last song.
Has co-writing ever found you in unexpected situations?
Well there's some where it just clearly doesn't work. Co-writing's a little bit like love, it is or it isn't and if it's not it's like the most miserable blind date you've ever been on. When it works it's glorious! I've had some amazing days...honestly I'll write 115, 120 songs a year and I do enjoy all the songs where I couldn't finish it but in the back of my mind I do know that only maybe 5 to 10 of those songs will really be significant to other people...will only respond to just a few of those songs. Like I say, just as soon as the song's finished, the work tape's done and the co-writer leaves it's really pretty anti-climatic. It's like a mountain top experience, almost like Greek mythology, like Sisyphus, as soon as you get the ball up to the top of the mound it's going to roll back down - co-writing's kind of like that.
If you could give any advice to any aspiring song-writers what would it be?
Well gosh, that's a good question. I think maybe the single greatest thing that I did that really helped me lyrically is read, reading great literature. Even if you might think I don't really like to read I just think great literature, whether it be Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Shakespeare or Ernest Hemingway or Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, if you read great literature and always keep a great book going somehow or another that's going to affect your love of language, your use of language, certainly your ability to tell stories in a pretty traumatic fashion. That's probably the best thing that I did and just try to enjoy it! Try to enjoy it and not think about whether anybody else is going to get it or not. I think if you get it and you love it that's going to affect your co-writer, they're going to enjoy it. Try not to be too serious with it and just enjoy every time you get to create and collaborate with somebody.
My parents actually bought me a copy of the book you co-wrote with Tim McGraw a few years ago, what made you decide you wanted to be a part of that?
Tim and I had written a song that was used in the movie Flicka - "My Little Girl" - and a book publisher reached out to us and just thought it might be an interesting children's book. I don't think it was anything Tim or I had an idea to do but once it was presented it was really a lot of fun. I love taking an art form and watching it kind of merge into another art form so it was really really fun. It's a sweet story, I really love children's books - they're really hard to do because there's so few words! The illustrator, particularly in the first book, they're just amazing artists, it really makes the story come to life with those pictures.
As part of your Shatter The Madness project you released some recordings to iTunes, how did it feel to have a different side of the overall experience?
Working with Allen we loved the process of the songs, loved doing the videos that was really fun, building websites but to be honest with you the response we got was so underwhelming that Allen and I really scratched our heads thinking maybe we missed the mark. Literally I think between all four songs and the videos we might have sold maybe 100 downloads of the songs...I know you can't measure something like that necessarily by numbers but numbers do dictate interest. I think it had served the purpose it was supposed to but I'd hoped that it would have a broader reach which it didn't seem to have commercially but you can't really worry about that. You just have to let it be the art and just share it with anybody and everybody that will listen and trust that it's going to get to the right people somehow. We loved doing it but again it was disappointing that we got such little feedback.
How was the project born?
I think just trying to figure out different ways to expose our music and our songs, songs that we love that didn't get recorded, we thought well let's take them directly to the public. With the internet you can get anything out to anybody within hours. Getting anybody anywhere to care about it is a whole different matter. So I think we loved these songs and were frustrated that we couldn't get the songs recorded or that nobody was hearing the songs, we kind of felt they were timely messages, particularly in light of the political climate in America and uncertainty in the world we just thought the songs addressed some of that. Like most things artistically with me somehow the genesis seems to be always out of frustration...frustration or surrender.
I'm sure a UK audience would love to see you live, are there any plans for you to come and play some shows over here?
Well strangely enough yeah, I would love to do that. I need to just think about that...there's some things I'd like to do. I'm actually getting ready to release a fiction book called "Songwriter's Bleed Ink" and I've got 10 songs that are coming out, songs kind of as a companion piece to this fiction book I've got. I've got all this material, I've just got to figure out how to get traction with the public. Anyway I've got some new music coming out sometime probably this Fall as a companion piece to the book...that'd be fun...that'd be my swan song, my first and last time coming to England to play.
Hopefully not the last time!
[laughs] You never know.
Thank you so much to Tom for his time! You can find the Shatter The Madness songs on iTunes here and make sure you keep on eye out for Songwriter's Bleed Ink later this year.