Hit tunesmith Jim Beavers backed into a full-time career as a songwriter. With his goals set on the business side and dreams of running his own record company, Beavers began following the cliché, starting in the mailroom. He began moving up the ladder in the music industry, but after a decade of mostly working the business side while tinkering with songwriting, he decided to give up the board room for the writing room.
Since then, Beavers has written eight #1 country hits including “Drink A Beer” (recorded by Luke Bryan), “Felt Good on My Lips” (Tim McGraw), “Why Don’t We Just Dance” (Josh Turner), “Am I The Only One,” “Sideways” and “5-1-5-0″ (Dierks Bentley). He’s also written chart hits like “Red Solo Cup” (Toby Keith), “Trying To Stop Your Leaving” (Dierks Bentley), “Don’t” (Billy Currington), “Watching Airplanes” (Gary Allan), “Lovin’ You Is Fun” (Easton Corbin) and “American Hearts” (Faith Hill).
In addition, Beavers has had dozens of songs recorded by such artists as Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Trace Adkins, Brooks & Dunn, Brad Paisley and others.
In this new interview, Beavers, who is signed with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, talks about the inside perspective on songwriting, the fluke of landing a smash hit for Toby Keith and the special mind meld he has with fellow hit songwriter and brother, Brett Beavers.
BC: What jobs have you worked in the music business?
Beavers: I kind of grew up playing music and writing songs for fun. In college in Texas, where I grew up, I played in a lot of bands. That’s kind of how I made my spending money was playing clubs, playing country covers and stuff like that. When I graduated college, my goal, I thought at the time, was to move to Nashville and hopefully run a record company some day. At that point I didn’t have any long term designs of staying on the creative side. I was interested in the business side. At least I thought so.
My first job was in the mailroom of Capitol Records. I ended up working there for five or six years in the finance department, which was a great educational process. That was where Garth Brooks was blowing up. There was a whole lot going on not only in the town but at that label specifically. While I was in the finance department, I realized that part of the building specifically wasn’t what I was wanting to do long-term. I had a little stint in there where I was an artist/manager. A friend of mind got a record deal—a guy named Deryl Dodd on Columbia Records. I left that job to be his manager. He had a lot of stuff go wrong with his career path, not the least of which was he got really ill. Everything kind of stopped. Kind of concurrently, a friend of mine from high school, Lee Ann Womack, got a record deal. She and I are from the same little town in East Texas, Jacksonville. I went out with her for a while on the road as a road manager and sometimes playing guitar for her as well. I did that for a couple of years. (Producer/music exec) Scott Hendricks opened up a new label, Virgin Records, which is part of EMI. I worked there in the marketing department for a few years. After a few years of that, I really started feeling more and more drawn to the creative side again.
I had been writing songs for fun for myself when I would get home at night. I ended up getting a couple of songs cut, getting real lucky. I kept feeling like I was maybe not doing what I was supposed to be doing yet. After having lived here for about 10 years in Nashville, I finally took off the business hat and put on the writing hat and started writing fulltime. Then, I went out with Lee Ann for a while as a musician on the weekends. I didn’t really start writing much later than most people do.
There’s sometimes when I feel like I may have wasted some good writing time, but it’s kind of hard to put too much credence into that because I feel like everything I learned working at a record company, and everything I learned working on the road has helped me be a better writer. I’m more well-rounded as far as what the market is looking for.
BC: I would think that kind of background not only helped you know the music industry, but it gave you a better position to pitch your songs.
Beavers: Definitely, it helped me. I had the experience of being in those label meetings where we’re listening to potential singles and deciding which ones are going to radio. Having a deep understanding of how radio works, and why they play the songs they play, helped me filter out the songs I was writing once I started writing. A lot of people don’t have that advantage. They start off writing from the heart and writing songs they really love doing. It takes them those same 10 years to understand the business side of what we do.
I did know a lot of people, a lot of writers and even a few artists. In fact, my first single I had was a song I co-wrote with Dierks Bentley, and I knew him from working at Capitol Records because that’s where he had gotten his record deal.
BC: You said you used to do songwriting for the fun of it. When did you feel like you had the ability to make a go of it?
Beavers: To be honest, I always did feel like I had a pretty innate ability to write songs. Even when I was working at the label, I would listen to the new songs recorded by the artists, and I would say, mostly to myself—it’s going to sound cocky—I could write better songs than that. The song that I wrote last week is way better than these. That’s all in your head…you don’t put much credence to it. After that went on for a few years, there seemed to be a more persistent voice in my head, saying you have the ability to do this. You just need to put in the work and put in the time and believe in yourself before anybody else will.
BC: Do you prefer to co-write or write by yourself?
Beavers: I’m sure my story is not unlike everybody else. Everybody starts writing songs by themselves. Then, inevitably, the town is going to push you into co-writing for a lot of different reasons, many of them are business reasons, and a lot of them are for creative reasons. There are those certain writers you’re going to find that you really click with really well, and 1 +1 will equal 3 when you get together. There’s a lot of other reasons to co-write, such as writing with the artist, which is an obvious reason to write with them, or another writer has a relationship with an artist. Or very often another writer who has a certain skill set that you don’t, and you’re trying to really complement each other.
BC: Are you more of a lyricist or melody writer?
Beavers: I like to think I’m a little bit good at everything. I do find myself being more of an idea guy and a lyricist guy or a melody guy. I’ve been playing guitar for a very long time, so I can usually find a good groove. I’ve noticed the longer I do, ideas seem to be the harder thing to find. I think a lot of writers are agreeing that once you’ve written several hundred songs, you kind of know how to write songs. What you’re now looking for is something to write about. The great ideas tend to be the hardest thing for me to find nowadays.
BC: You’ve had eight #1 songs. Are there a couple that stand out that you can tell the story behind-the-song?
Beavers: My first single was a song called “How Am I Doin’?” with Dierks Bentley, and it will always be special because it was my first one. That was the time when I really felt a little validation because there certainly had been a few years of writing with nothing going on. Just getting the validation that I could have something to do with a song that actually A) gets recorded, B) gets released and C) actually resonates with radio to the point to where it’s a Top 5 hit. It came along right at the last minute. I was about to have to go find another job when I got the good news on that one. That one kind of kept me and my family afloat financially and emotionally for a couple of years.
My second hit will always be very special. It’s a song called “Watching Airplanes” with Gary Allan. It’s probably still one of my most favorite songs that I’ve been a part of. It had a lot of cool credibility here in town. I wish I could write 20 more of them. They don’t come around very often.
“Red Solo Cup” was a really out-of-body experience. I wrote that with my brother (Brett Beavers) and the Warren Brothers. It’s a completely left field crazy song—we kind of wrote it just for fun and never thought anybody would record it. It was literally like catching lightning in a bottle. We laughed about the song and kind of thought it was funny. All we ever did was sit around a single microphone and that was our demo. Just the fact that any artist, much less somebody like Toby Keith heard it, and then had the balls to put it out was mind-boggling to me. Then, for it to be a kind of a phenomenon was nothing I could have ever predicted.
BC: Tell me about how Faith Hill’s “American Heart” came about.
Beavers: It wasn’t necessarily a big hit. I really like that song. I wrote it with my buddy, Jonathan Singleton, who I’ve had a lot of success with it. The genesis of that song was, about 2010, where there was some devastating tornadoes that ripped through Alabama. Jonathan and I, the day we were writing, were talking about them. We had seen the news stories and how destructive these tornadoes were to everybody’s property and psyche. We said we wish could write a song that would be worthy of being played in the background of some of these news stories, when you’re showing people coming together and picking up the pieces and supporting each other. I don’t remember which one of us said something about “you can’t break an American heart,” but as soon as we said that hook, we thought it was definitely worth chasing.
BC: You mentioned writing with your brother, Brett. How does it work when you guys get together to write?
Beavers: I think at this point we can read each other’s minds and probably, more importantly, we can openly debate something without there be anything personal involved. I can throw out a line that I maybe think is great. Brett will look at it and say that’s really not very good. I’ll trust him. He will do the same with me. There’s no replicating that trust in the room. Also, we’ve just developed a shorthand and style of how we write. We will quickly pick up on who’s driving the boat that day, and who’s not driving the boat that day. We trust each other to follow each other. I’ve got recordings of us singing and writing songs from before my voice changed, so it had be when I was around 11-years-old. We’ve been doing it for so long. We don’t do it all the time, maybe once or twice a month. I think there is definitely something special because we’ve been down so many roads with each other before.
BC: What advice do you have for songwriters?
Beavers: If you’re truly serious about being a professional songwriter, especially in the country market, you need to move to Nashville. The old “you must be present to win” adage is true. I’ve never met anybody who has had a meaningfully successful track record that didn’t live here. Concurrently with that is you need to be writing as close to every day as you can, because it’s going to take you writing that many songs not only to get good enough at it, but to increase your chances enough to actually get some songs recorded.
On the creative level, do the best to find other writers that you gel with. Do your best to challenge yourself, and determine what it is you’re really good at. If you can figure out that maybe you’re a stronger as a lyricist, then that can be your meal ticket to getting in rooms with people who consider themselves stronger melody writers or stronger groove or stronger track people. I see more and more specialization starting to happen. A lot of people think maybe there’s some wisdom to trying to be good at everything. It’s also really nice to say this is what I do, and I do it really well. In fact, I can do it almost better than anybody else. That’s a piece of advice that I think is starting to be more and more applicable going forward.
That’s it—work hard and write smart. Listen to the radio. My new thing I’ve been telling people is—do you want to hear your song at the Bluebird Cafe or the Bridgestone Arena (in Nashville)?
BC: When a songwriter comes to town, would you suggest going to the writer’s nights? How do you get people’s attention to begin with?
Beavers: I think for any new writer that’s getting to town, NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) is a great resource. It means just having a smiling face that can give you an answer to a question and maybe give you a place to walk into and feel like somebody cares. Writer’s nights are always great, not only for you to get up there and perform, but you’ll see some hit writers because more than likely there are going to be hit writers and publishers in the audience. Anything you can do to immerse yourself in the songwriting culture is going to pay off and help you meet people.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, GACTV.com, Bluegrass Music Profiles and ParentLife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.He is also on Google+