Texas Songwriters Compete with Nashville

by Simon Murray on August 22, 2016 in Entertainment, Music,
Patricia Vonne2

Most singer-songwriters have a story to tell, and these two sitting in a low lit room in the video are no exception. They are Jennifer B & the Groove, a genre-bending band encompassing blues, roots-rock, Texas Red Dirt and Americana.

One is Jennifer B. To her left, a man—who goes by the moniker “Dr. D”—is wearing a cowboy hat, a collared shirt covered in large swatches of purple tie-dye, and a pursed smile. Jennifer B has on a modish hat atop a head of pigtails, large shiny earrings, and a pendant necklace in the likeness of a barren tree; its thick roots gnarled around its base, its many branches spreading skyward.

She’s frank and sincere as she answers a question from an off-screen interviewer. Though we never hear the question, the answer is revelatory. “It’s a reflecting song,” says Jennifer B. “To measure good, sometimes you have to experience the bad in order to appreciate where you’re at.”

The song is aptly titled “I’m Having My Time,” and she’s soon singing it onstage with her band; her big, booming, full-throated voice singing, “I’ve climbed as high as I can climb / this journey to my top / now I’m standing at the edge and looking over but no one dare to make me stop / I’ve had my time.” You sense this timeliness is true in multiple ways, including this moment, or their performance on the Austin music TV show, KNVA’s “Songwriters across Texas.”

Thanks to executive producer Pitt Garrett, singer-songwriters across Texas are indeed having their time. The brainchild of Garrett, “Songwriters across Texas” is now in its fourth year, providing emerging songwriters with a platform to share their music, be discovered, and tell their story.

Garrett, also a songwriter, got the idea for the show after a conversation with Owens “Boomer” Castleman. A Dallas guitarist who had a stint with the pop group The Lewis & Clarke Expedition, and who would go on to record, as a soloist, the chart-topping song “Judy Mae,” Boomer had also founded the independent country music record label, BNA Records in Nashville.

“He heard a song I’d written for a friend,” Garrett recalls, “and said ‘Pitt, you can really write songs, you ought to continue it.’ Very encouraging to hear from a guy like that.”

But, encouragement very quickly turned to discouragement for Garrett. The 69-year-old, semi-retired insurance business owner, who had moonlighted most of his life as a guitar-playing songwriter, repeatedly bumped up against the words “no unsolicited material” when trying to sell his songs to Nashville record labels. Boomer (who passed away last year) had warned him about the major country music publishers who hire their own in-house songwriters; which is part of the reason why country, like pop music, suffers from the same formulaic stagnation. “They don’t want your stuff, they don’t want my stuff, they don’t want anybody’s stuff—no outside material allowed,” says Garrett.

This insularity goes back to the outlaw movement of the 1970s and early 1980s. Outlaw described artists like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who opposed the commercial control of the Nashville recording industry. These “outlaws” chose instead to record with producers and musicians they preferred.

After repeated rejection, Garrett went into a depression. He started thinking about “all the artists that have no earthly idea of what they’re up against” and “all the incredibly beautiful music that’s being written that isn’t being heard.” That’s when he decided to do something about it.

In 2012, Garrett went to KNVA, an Austin TV station, and contracted with them for a year. “Songwriters across Texas”—which started, humbly, with 3,000 live viewers and is now at 30,000—was born.

Says Garrett, “We knew we couldn’t go through the mountain [Nashville], but maybe we could go around [it].”

To be featured on the show, the criteria are: the musician must live in Texas (or be Texas-born); have written a song; be promoting said song (or songs); and have a good reputation with the venues around the state. The exposure the show provides is unlike anything many of these musicians have seen.

When Austinite Leeann Atherton first came on the show, Garrett told her she was going to be heard by close to 6,000 people. She replied, “Pitt, I can’t get in front of that many people in 10 years.”

To date, “Songwriters across Texas” has featured well over 150 bands and artists, encompassing all kinds of genres. And it’s all about the artists and the “beautiful music they write,” emphasizes Garrett. Which is why, during the programming, the artists are interviewed and then allowed to play one of their songs in its entirety. “We don’t interrupt it,” says Garrett. “The song is the star of the show.”