Songwriter Tia Sillers Talks About Writing The Classic Hit Song “I Hope You Dance” For Lee Ann Womack, And Writing Her Songs

Tia Sillers with Mark D. Sanders.
Tia Sillers with co-writer, Mark D. Sanders.

Nashville songwriter Tia Sillers has enjoyed steady success during the past several years, co-writing hits for the Dixie Chicks, Pam Tillis, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and George Ducas. But her latest hit, the inspirational “I Hope You Dance,” (co-written by Mark D. Sanders) has become a milestone achievement. This song, which became a #1 country hit and Top 20 pop hit for Lee Ann Womack, recently won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song and the CMA & ACM Awards for Song Of The Year.

“I Hope You Dance,” which was first released as a single in March 2000, has shown remarkable staying power on the charts. It became a major country hit last summer, staying atop the Billboard country chart for five weeks. Then in December, pop and Adult Contemporary stations began playing the record, with the song eventually reaching #1 on the AC chart as well as achieving major pop success. In addition, the popularity of “I Hope You Dance” has led to the release of a book by Sillers & Sanders, which contains poems and writings inspired by the song.

Sillers grew up in the Nashville area, but it wasn’t always her intention to become a songwriter or author. “I was from Nashville, but my family didn’t know anyone in country music,” recalled Sillers. “I went to the University of North Carolina for undergrad and grad school, focusing on business and communications, and I got my masters there. But it wasn’t until I was working on my dissertation, that I started writing songs.”

“When I finished my masters, I came back to Nashville for awhile,” said Sillers. “My mom took me to the Bluebird Café, and (legendary songwriter) Don Schlitz was performing that night. I had such a great time watching him perform and being around other songwriters and musicians, that it influenced my decision to stay in Nashville and pursue my songwriting.”

It wasn’t long before Sillers had written and recorded demos which impressed producer Tom Collins, and she signed a publishing deal in 1991 with his company, Collins Music. Sillers began collaborating with several writers and artists, and a song she wrote with Liberty artist George Ducas, called “Lipstick Promises,” became a Top 5 hit in 1994.

Sillers then met singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Selby, who quickly became one of her top writing collaborators. “Mark is a great blues writer and musician, and I wanted to write the blues like he did, which turned out to be harder than it looked,” explained Sillers. “But I was lucky, and we started writing a song called ‘Deja Voodoo.’ Then we hooked up with tremendous blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who was only 17-years-old at the time. Kenny co-wrote ‘Deja Voodoo’ with us and recorded it, and it became a Top 5 rock hit. This was the beginning of a great collaboration between Kenny, Mark and myself. We have now written many songs together, including the hit ‘Blue On Black’ from Kenny’s second album.”

Tia Sillers
Tia Sillers

In the summer of 1997, Sillers had another hit with “Land Of The Living,” which was a Top 5 single for Pam Tillis. However, a career breakthrough occurred in 1998, when she co-wrote (with Mark Selby) the #1 country hit, “There’s Your Trouble,” for the Dixie Chicks. The trio’s debut album, Wide Open Spaces, became one of the biggest selling albums in country music history, selling 10 million copies.

“There’s Your Trouble” was not only a top seller, but it made a strong impression on hit songwriter, Mark D. Sanders, whom Sillers had been wanting to collaborate with. “Mark Sanders called me up to say he loved ‘There’s Your Trouble,’ and that he would like to collaborate with me,” said Sillers. “This was great, because Mark is a wonderful writer, and I’d been wanting to write with him for years.”

Sillers & Sanders wrote a song called “I Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” which was recorded by Martina McBride. But it was their collaboration on “I Hope You Dance” in September of 1999, which became their milestone achievement. The song was written during a particularly difficult time for Sillers, when she was in the midst of divorce proceedings.

“For ‘I Hope You Dance,’ I had written the opening line, ‘I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,'” recalled Sillers. “I had just broken up with someone, going through a brutal divorce. I needed to get away, so I went to a beach on the Florida Gulf Coast. Sitting on the beach and reflecting about the break-up, I felt so small and inconsequential. But out of this difficult time came the inspiration to write ‘I Hope You Dance.’ As I was leaving the beach, I remember thinking that things weren’t really so bad, that I would get through it. That’s when I came up with the line, ‘I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.'”

The following week, Sillers returned to Nashville and collaborated on the song with Mark Sanders. “It was still an emotional time for me,” explained Sillers. “I alternately cried and babbled during the writing session. But Mark made everything better; he was great to work with. We wrote the song very quickly, finishing the song in just a day or two.”

Once the demo was recorded, Sillers’ publishing representatives, Pat Finch (Vice President) and Curtis Green (Sr. Creative Director) of Famous Music, played “I Hope You Dance” for Lee Ann Womack’s producer, Mark Wright. Wright immediately loved the song, and he played it for Womack, who also loved it. A recording session was quickly booked, and the song was recorded shortly thereafter. Womack sang the song, accompanied by vocals from country group, Sons Of The Desert.

“I Hope You Dance” was named the title of Womack’s album, and the single had an immediate impact at radio, and with the Nashville music community. “The response to the song was beautiful,” said Sillers. “Someone told me a story, that when great songwriter Matraca Berg was driving and first heard the song on the radio, she pulled off the road because she loved it and said, ‘Thank God.'”

“I Hope You Dance” went on to multi-format success on the country, pop and Adult Contemporary charts. Womack’s album has now reached double platinum status, selling two million units. The song had become so popular, that Nashville book publisher Rutledge Hill Press approached Sillers & Sanders to write a book about the song. The 64-page book, also titled I Hope You Dance, has been released and entered the New York Times bestseller list, with almost 200,000 copies sold to date.

The all-around success of “I Hope You Dance” has made the past year a tremendous one for Sillers. “A year ago, I had no idea things were going to go so well,” she explained. “I was going through a divorce, things were difficult, and there was no way of knowing that great things were about to happen. But now, a year later, it’s been incredible. I have a hit record and book, we won the Grammy, CMA & ACM Awards, and I’m in a wonderful new relationship. And I’ll be flying off to Paris soon, traveling with the love of my life!”

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