For songwriter Keith Follese, who has co-written hits for Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Martina McBride, the ability to write music in many different styles has been a challenging and prosperous adventure.
In a recent interview, Follese recalled some of the highlights of his career and his long string of hits leading up to his award as ASCAP’s Songwriter Of The Year for 2001.
Growing up in Minneapolis, Follese credits his Midwestern work ethic for the success he enjoys today. ‘When I was 12, my parents started getting me out of bed to go help my dad work on the trucks,’ he recalled. ‘My mom said, ‘make hay when the sun shines.’ That’s what you learn up there.’ He also started singing and playing in bands, although he admits he wasn’t an exceptionally strong vocalist. ‘I wasn’t horrible, I got a record deal eventually, but I just didn’t have the kind of voice that great singers have.’
A&M Records in Los Angeles gave Follese his first record deal, but his subsequent album wasn’t released for two years. ‘That was really the kiss of death,’ he said, ‘because pop music changes so much.’ He tried to form a band in Los Angeles, but found it very difficult.
After 11 years in Los Angeles, Follese and his wife were new parents, and were looking for a place to raise their family. ‘A friend of ours who lived in Nashville said, ‘why don’t you come out here?’ We flew out to Nashville and we loved the people, and decided we were going to come back. At that point, I probably made one of the most astute observations I ever made in my life. I said I thought country music was going to become more contemporary. But it took a long time before it did, because I’m not the most country knife in the drawer.’
It was, however, a country artist who gave Follese his first #1 hit. Randy Travis recorded ‘Before You Kill Us All’ in February of 1993, and it went straight to number one on the country charts.
Faith Hill’s recording of ‘The Way You Love Me’ garnered Follese ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year award for 2001, and it was named co-winner with ‘I Hope You Dance’ for song of the year. The song was also nominated for a Grammy award.
‘I wrote ‘The Way You Love Me’ and cut the demo,’ Follese recalled. ‘It had lots of background parts that were on the chorus and I just couldn’t make it work, so I decided to put them on the breakdown chorus. My songplugger, Brad Allen, (who is Vice President of Follese’s company) heard the song and said, ‘when did you lose all your guts?’ I told him I couldn’t make it work. He said ‘that’s a hit, you’ve gotta make it work!’ So I called my engineer, and on Monday we got the background parts to work with the chorus and it sounded much better. So he (Allen) took it that day and played it for Missi Gallimore, who played it for (producer) Byron Gallimore on Tuesday. On Friday, they cut it on Faith and it went on the album. ‘Breathe’ was already number one. This was the last song to go on the album and it became the second single released.’
‘That was a really big record for us,’ said Follese, ‘and Faith is such a gracious artist. She sent me a big basket of flowers with a handwritten note when the song went to number one, then (she thanked me) again when it was nominated for a Grammy. She is really a special person and it’s nice to know she cares.’
Within a 12-month period, Follese had a song at number one for 15 weeks. ‘I actually knocked myself out of number one,’ he said. His consecutive hits ‘The Way You Love Me,’ ‘I Love You’ (recorded by Martina McBride), and ‘Something Like That’ (Tim McGraw) kept him at number one for a remarkable 10 weeks in a row. Another hit Follese had during that year was ‘Smile,’ by Lonestar.
Follese attributes his skill as a lyricist to his move to Nashville. ‘I really learned how to write lyrics in this town,’ he said. ‘It was like going to college. If you can’t write words, you can’t survive in this town. But this town will teach you how to write a song. In my opinion, some of the best writers in the world are in Nashville.’
Although he makes his home near Nashville, Follese doesn’t consider himself a country songwriter. ‘I really don’t like to categorize music,’ he said. ‘I like writing music- it turns out however it turns out. I love all kinds of music. To limit myself to writing one kind of music is the worst thing I could do. In the past couple of months I’ve written with (Canadian pop artist) Tal Bachman, Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys, Jo Dee Messina, Wynonna and (R&B writer/producer) Shep Crawford, so it’s been all over the planet. Musically, it’s been fun for me no matter what.’
Follese believes in being as flexible as possible when it comes to songwriting. ‘I write both music and lyrics. A lot of times when I go to L.A., I’ll end up being the lyricist or the melodist for a track.’ He writes for Encore Publishing, which is a Warner-Chappell joint venture. ‘I try to keep getting better at every facet of writing so that I’m not limited. If I get thrown into any situation, I’ll be able to make it work.’
Follese remains very busy, writing for, and collaborating with a wide range of artists. He has singles coming out by Marc Anthony and (J Records artist) Amanda Latona, and is working in the studio with Canadian singer/songwriter Dan Hill. ‘I feel so fortunate,’ he said. ‘I am able to not only meet some of my idols, but actually write songs with them.’
Jayne Moore is a freelance music/entertainment journalist. She has launched a new service, writing bios, articles and press releases. Moore can be contacted at [email protected]. You can also visit her website: www.musicgerm.com.