Interview: Nashville Songwriters Jason Duke, Clay Mills, and Marty Dodson

By Andrew Ellis, Editor-in-Chief

Today is the beginning of the much anticipated Midwest CMA – SongTown Songwriter Forum that runs through Saturday night. Ahead of the big event, Jason Duke, Clay Mills, and Marty Dodson took some time to answer some questions.

What gave you the songwriting bug?

Jason Duke: Well, two things. I grew up listening to great singer-songwriter stuff like The Eagles, Jackson Browne, John Prine, James Taylor, etc. So that was part of it. The other big influence was the group of friends that I circled up with as high school was ending. They were all really talented singers, performers, and writers. Most of them went on to have record deals and publishing deals. To play catch up, I went to college. I’m actually one of the only ones still in music.

Clay Mills: When I was about 9, I would listen to my uncles rock cover band rehearsing and just thought it was the most amazing thing. Even though I was a little kid, I wrote a song for my uncle. I wanted to see if his band would play it. The song was not very good! But my uncle was encouraging.

Marty Dodson: I was always the kid who would read the album notes whenever I got a new album or CD. I was fascinated with where songs came from and loved to imagine what happened in the rooms where those songs were written. That gave me the bug to write my own songs.

Before you got to Nashville, did you have any other artist community to turn to for support?

Jason Duke: I grew up in Nashville. I fell into a very supportive group of people. Some were artists, some were writers, some’s parents were in music. Actually one in particular really exposed a lot of us to commercial country music. Janet and Johnny Slate owned a company that was crushing the game at the time. They were very kind to open up their doors and catalogs for us to all listen to. They had a bunch of great writers at the time.

Clay Mills: When I got out of high school, I moved to New York City and my song demos found their way to a jingle producer. He asked me to start writing TV commercials. It was good training for me to later move to Nashville and write for major artists. But it was not really a large supportive community of singer-songwriters like I found in Nashville; and then later with writers from all over the world through SongTown.

Marty Dodson: I grew up in Nashville, but didn’t know anyone in the business so I didn’t really have any sort of creative community to lean on. I didn’t know anyone else who wrote songs, so it was a very isolated pursuit. That’s one of the many reasons we started SongTown.

When you moved to Nashville what was your initial intention?

Jason Duke: Well, since I grew up here, my initial intention was to hate country music. I have no idea what I was going to do with life. I was honestly never really overly great at anything.

Clay Mills: I moved to Nashville to be a full-time songwriter, write songs I love, and get those songs recorded by major artists. It worked out big eventually, but I wasn’t an overnight success!

Marty Dodson: I moved to Nashville when I was 5 so my intention was to pass Kindergarten.

What do you remember about getting your first cut?

Jason Duke: Well, truth be told, my very first cut was a little independent record. As far as I was concerned I was gonna be rich. It seemed almost too easy to get it. I wrote it with the artist. Of course, not much ever came of it. But, I thought that was the beginning. I remember thinking, “This song is gonna win a Grammy. It’s so good that it will rise above all other songs and will ride some sort of magic carpet all the way to the top.” Turns out, with no promotion budget, no label, and only being a regional artist doesn’t help your chances very much.

My first major cut was not major at first. It was on an unknown artist who was on an unproven label. I was extremely excited, because it was a cut with all friends and produced by two more friends. I was also excited because we had been told it was going to be the second single, but that was before the first single with an unknown artist on an unproven label was released. However, I remember being full of hope. I also remember getting that first mastered copy of it. Man, it sounded like it belonged on radio. I brought it home and played it for my wife, and she cried. But then (because she’s a realist in her words), she quickly reminded me that it was an unknown artist on an unproven label. I remember very well, getting more and more excited as the debut single for the artist topped the charts. I knew we were next. I remember hearing it on the radio the first time. The real radio. Not XM, not Spotify. The real radio. I heard the VERY FIRST spin. Right here in Nashville. The DJ played it twice in a row! I pulled over and lost it. The unknown artist on an unproven label (Kelsea Ballerini on Black River) took it all the way to #1. Changed my life.

Clay Mills: I remember seeing my 3 year old son dancing around the living room as Beautiful Mess came on the radio. A moment I’ll never forget.

Marty Dodson: It was an amazing feeling to put in that cassette and hear MY song. The most amazing part was going to a show and hearing the crowd sing along with it. Very cool feeling!

What was the first lesson you learned in Nashville that helped you as a songwriter?

Jason Duke: Showing up is the name of the game. You will learn, improve, meet people, gain opportunities, etc. just by making sure you show up. Rather it’s show up for work, show up for the event, show up for a workshop, show up for the celebration, whatever it is, you must show up. It’s easy not to show up. You have work, you have priorities, you are hungover, you just don’t want to, you are afraid, you aren’t getting paid. Man I can come up with 100 excuses that people get in their own way with. Whatever you do, show up.

Also, a positive, genuine,energetic, “can do” attitude is almost as big as any other quality you may possess as a writer. I am not the best lyricist, not the best melody guy, I don’t do tracks, I’m not the artist. I’ve made a career out of being easy to work with. 

Clay Mills: Nashville doesn’t need more songs and songwriters. But it always has room for good songs and talented writers.

Marty Dodson: When I finally realized that my pretty good songs weren’t good enough and that I was going to have to work really hard to elevate my writing to a pro level, it caused me to take writing much more seriously and to not accept “good” as an end result. I had a mentor be very blunt with me and it caused me to really honestly look at what was lacking with my music.

Are there any myths you want to clear up about songwriting in Nashville?

Jason Duke: It’s not impossible. It’s not a “good ole boys” club. You can absolutely get a deal as “just a writer”. Writer’s block doesn’t exist.

Clay Mills: A lot of people think it’s impossible to break into the business if you don’t have money, and/or know the right people. This could not be further from the truth. I see people all the time, moving to town and making friends and landing publishing deals. Is it easy? Of course not. But if you are driven to improve your writing daily and make friends, the sky’s the limit.

Marty Dodson: No one is trying to “keep you out”. I often hear people say “It’s a closed system. You can’t break in as an outsider.” That’s false. Everyone in Nashville is looking for a hit song. If you have one (or more), the doors are ALL open to you.

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