By Bob Doerschuk
© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
At a small studio just off of Music Row, Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann settled down on a couple of stools, shared a few jokes, tuned up their guitars and started playing some songs they had written together. They reminisced about how they came up with the tune, laughed or reflected seriously over the story told by the lyric.
In other words, they did pretty much what Nashville insiders have long witnessed at songwriter in-the-round gatherings. Since 2005, the CMA Songwriters Series has exported this unique practice to cities throughout the United States and abroad, spreading awareness of Music City’s writers and how they conjure hits for the stars.
On Sept. 11, the Series makes its first stop in Austin, Texas, at The Stage On Sixth. Brice and Niemann will be in the lineup, along with Randy Houser and host Bob DiPiero, performing before a sold-house house. Both took time to reflect on the upcoming event, as well as a bit of personal history.
HOW THEY MET
NIEMANN: Let me take this one, Lee, because I’m going to set it up for the truth (laughs). Back in the day, as young guys, we were maybe still having growing pains on how to be a good relationship partner, I suppose. So I had girls come up and confront me and get in my face, and I thought, “I’ve never seen this girl in my life!” Then I’d come to find out they thought I was Lee. And when I met Lee, he was like, “Hey, I need to talk to you. A lot of people keep getting mad at me because they think I’m you!” So we hit it off because we’d both been blamed for the other’s mischief (laughter).
BRICE: Doug Johnson, an unbelievable songwriter, was my mentor. The first time I ever met him, we walked into that Best Western Hotel that was near the old Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (in Nashville). It was Anthony Smith, Chris Wallin and Marcel, playing their songs. I’d never seen anything like this. I had just come to town, but I wanted to go home. I was like, “I don’t deserve to be here.” But I learned from Doug that you can work that (songwriting) muscle. You can be in the same room with these guys and be OK with it. Man, I lived to go to in-the-rounds. I go to them even to this day. You hear songs that inspire you to write. It reminds you what great songs are.
NIEMANN: I remember doing an in-the-round at Douglas Corner with Scotty Emerick, Bobby Pinson and Billy Currington. I hadn’t had any of my songs recorded by anybody, but they had some really cool tunes out. I remember how miserable it was to not only follow one of those guys but then have another one of them follow me with something colossal. It’s good to get in the game and get knocked down a couple times. Then you start breaking tackles and before you know it, you’re in the end zone. Someone get me a Gatorade (laughter).
BRICE: The rounds let us go back to when we first came to town and were doing this all the time. If Jerrod has a show and I’m around, or if I have a show and Jerrod is around, the first thing we want to do is get onstage together. Being onstage and playing music with someone you respect and enjoy, it’s the same thing as the rounds. We carry that into our big shows. Every night, I want to find a moment where I can keep the band offstage and play something with just myself and a guitar. Jerrod does the same thing. It’s a songwriter moment. It’s just part of who we are.
NIEMANN: But there is a huge difference between playing a normal show and getting onstage with songwriters you respect and appreciate. I love it because I’ve always been a big fan of songwriters. I get to be onstage, literally next to them, and that’s probably the coolest seat in the house. I also love being able to tell the story behind a song, and you may not have that much time to do that onstage (in your own show). And I love hearing the stories of the other writers — and just cutting up. You learn real quick, when you hear songwriters banter back and forth onstage, that everybody is very quick and clever, and you go, “Whoa, I see why that person has written 15 No. 1 hits!”
NIEMANN: Man, I tell you what. I finally ended up spending some real time in Texas over the last few years, and I’ve grown a passion for it. I’m from South Carolina, and Texans may not agree with this, but I think it’s like a big South Carolina. I’ve got a trip planned for two or three weeks from now down in Gruene, Texas, just writing songs with some friends of mine on the Guadalupe (River). And Austin, man … when I talk about music towns, it’s the second name that comes out of my mouth after Nashville, truthfully.
BRICE: Debuting the Songwriters Series in Austin seems absolutely natural in so many ways. A lot of our heroes got their break there. It’s such a creative, great city. We had the great honor of playing just after Brad Paisley on Lake Travis, in front of about 60,000 boats that had an estimated 100,000 drunk Texans (laughter).
NIEMANN: We actually wrote a song there, called “Shinin’ on Me,” which was the first single off my second album. We have a lot of good memories of Austin, and at Songwriters Series we hope to make a few more.
On Twitter: @LeeBrice; @JRodFromOz