Cheered on by a chorus of crickets, nearly two dozen Nashville songwriters nervously take their place on the makeshift wooden stage just before sunset. A sense of hesitancy hovers in the air like the lingering smell of bug spray. These twenty-two cowriters, some of them first-time tunesmiths, are about to unveil their latest musical creations to the public.
In a lot of ways, the scene is similar to the countless writers’ nights that take place around town, but this event is different too it’s the final night of Camp Summer Song, a Music Row-funded program that teaches songwriting skills to 44 disadvantaged girls and boys ages 11 to 14. The campers spend their days enjoying the usual camp activities, but their evenings are spent working with professional songwriters. Each camper returns home with a tape of his songs, which were recorded in a temporary studio on the last day of camp.
“Everything was real fun because we feel like a family here,” says Chris Bryson, 13, an eighth-grader at Neely’s Bend Middle School. “When you work on songs, you get real deep with each other. All of a sudden, we started getting ideas, and songs popped into our heads. It was cool, because everybody contributed.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable singing in front of a lot of people, but here you can be yourself and not worry about people booing you.”
The only thing these campers all have in common is their uniform: standard-issue camp shirts, name tags that look like all-access passes, baggy shorts, and droopy white socks. Their backgrounds, their experiences are all different, as are the songs they’ve written. Unrequited love, broken promises, puppies, and even boogers figure into the subject matter.
Professional songwriter Cassondra Murray teamed up with campers Lance Tower, Justin Randolph, Adam Delille, and Montrea Haynes for a paean to young love, “Heaven Sittin’ Three Desks Down”: “ ‘I will look at the board and not my girlfriend’/I had to write it a hundred and twenty-five times./But there was nothin’ Miss Bishop could do to me to keep my eyes off you/And nothin’ she could say that would git you off my mind (cuz)/You were heaven sittin’ three desks down.” Bryson explains that songs such as this come from campers’ personal experiences: “Some of the guys, it was a regular thing, looking at girls.”
Young these songwriters may be, but some of their material is downright topical: Campers Dondre Sanders, Colbie Sherrill, Jesse Richards, counselor Terry Haynes, and professional songwriter Kathy Hussey address racism in “Colored Laces”: “I asked the man to bring me a pair/I put ’em on and he started to stare./He didn’t look at me this way before/I feel the same as when I came through the door..../Same way we see those of different races/He was judging me by my/Colored laces, colored laces.”
Interestingly, it was the lack of racial diversity on Music Row that partially inspired songwriter Renee Armand to create Camp Summer Song, now in its third year. She was talking to a friend about creating a memorial to Dale Franklin, the late executive director of Leadership Music, and the friend suggested a songwriting camp. “He said a phrase that stuck with me: ‘It’s as though there’s a 40-foot Plexiglas wall that runs the length of 16th Avenue.’ ” On one side of that wall is a lily-white $3-billion-a-year industry that reaches people across the country and even the world. On the other side is a low-income neighborhood from which many of its inhabitants will never escape.
“I didn’t believe that [the music industry] is just about honoring your roots because that is so self-serving,” says Armand, whose songs have been recorded by such far-ranging acts as Michael Jackson and Hoyt Axton. “Musically, we’re chewing our own arms here. We’re in a trap; it’s not a bad one for people who are doing well, but in the end, the music starts turning on itself. There has got to be more of a [minority] presence. We’re losing all of our talent to Atlanta.
Perhaps even more important, Armand says, is the fact that the children who participate in this program have something valuable to offer Music Row. If anything, their age is an asset. “There’s gold in these students. These kids are extremely talented, and they know what’s on the radio more than 90 percent of the A&R guys in town. All the kids the white kids, black kids, and pink and purple kids know all the words to all of the songs.
“Whatever the writers mean to say, it tells the truth, whether they’re 11 or 45. Children are not exempt from that ability. They have learned [from] radio and through MTV exactly what songs are all about. They don’t know it for sure, but when you show them, they say, ‘Right.’ There’s a sense of recognition.”
After Armand got the initial inspiration for the songwriting camp, she approached some fellow committee members at Nashville Songwriters Association International. She was about to resign her position with the organization, but instead she told the group about her idea. Many of the committee members flinched at the prospect of working so much for such little time in the limelight.
Fortunately, at least two people liked the idea: Mike Williams suggested that Armand contact his wife, Kathy Cloninger, who is president/CEO of the Girl Scouts, and Jon Vezner recommended that she hook up with the Country Music Foundation, which had already established the “Words and Music” program in Metro’s middle schools.
Having earned the support of both organizations, Armand began her fund-raising trek down Music Row. Allowing for a cost of $500 per camper, she had to raise annual expenses of about $25,000. “The first people I went to were [MCA’s] Tony Brown and [Warner Bros.’] Jim Ed Norman, and they both gave me money,” she says.
Her next step was to recruit some African American songwriters, so she called on urban music manager/producer Gail Hamilton for help. “We can’t have all white teachers and have half of our kids African American,” she says.
This year’s camp had one writer for every three campers. Keith Gordon, Janet McLaughlin, Jeff Pearson, Dana Reed, and Gavin West are among the professionals who’ve actively participated in the project. But children always remain the focus, Armand stresses.
“They start out as though they don’t have a clue, and they end up accomplishing a great deal of work,” she says. “At first, they’re a little wary and don’t really know what’s going to happen. Within two days, they have taken over the process and in many ways are creatively calling the shots. By the time it’s over, it is their work.”
But the kids don’t just learn to write songs. “They [also] learn collaboration. Each potential tortured, angst-ridden artist is now a cowriter. They have learned compromise without sacrificing their truth or integrity. They learn all of the songwriting basics form, structure, story line, and resolve. But we don’t hold them to it.”
The campers are also taught something that’s often in short supply on commercially driven Music Row. Bryson explains: “Dana Reed said, ‘You don’t have to worry about writing rock or country, just write what you feel.’ ”
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