Like numerous Music City songwriters and vocalists, Paul Sikes always enjoys playing at the Bluebird Cafe. The famed spot is known as a songwriter's haven, a place where audiences pay attention to lyrics and no one constantly hounds someone for a drink order in the middle of a tender narrative or emphatic performance.
But a spot during one of the Cafe's writer's round events at the end of May proved especially fruitful for Sikes. Hoda Kotb, co-host of the Today show's fourth hour, was in attendance, and she didn't try to hide her enthusiasm for Sikes' performance or music. She not only took photos of him during his number, but spoke with him after the show.
"I didn't really expect anything to come of it," Sikes said during a recent phone interview. "She was very nice and really seemed to enjoy things, but I thought it was just another of those things. Then I hear that she's been talking about the set on the air, and saying all kinds of wonderful things. I was happy about that as well. But I certainly didn't expect what happened next."
Some NBC producers contacted Sikes via Twitter and asked if he would be interested in making an appearance on Today. "It didn't take me very long to answer yes," Sikes said, laughing. He appeared live on the program July 13, playing his composition "My Epitaph."
Since then, things have exploded for Sikes. The LP Craft, which was released to iTunes July 9, made it to No. 2 on iTunes' singer/songwriter list. "My Epitaph" also reached the No. 2 spot within the same category. An additional two songs also made the Top 100 in that category, and the LP peaked at #41 among all iTunes album releases. It also earned a five-star rating. The experience has definitely changed Sikes' approach and viewpoint regarding his work and his professional direction.
"I never thought about being an artist," Sikes said. "It has always been a thing for me of writing tunes and thinking about how others would view them and whether they could get some airplay or get recorded on an LP. I've loved playing in many of the small places around town, but in terms of having my own hit, it's just not something I ever thought about.
"But now, with the exposure and success of the release, I've found myself concentrating a bit more on my own music in terms of performing it, rather than just having it out there for others."
A Nashville native, Sikes also finds it a bit intriguing that Craft did so well in the singer/songwriter area, and that much of his appeal and exposure has been in the country and Americana fields.
"My background is really more in jazz and classical, though I liked all kinds of music growing up," Sikes explained. "When I began playing the guitar at 13, that helped turn my head into country music, and I really fell in love with it."
That eclectic background is reflected on Craft, though "My Epitaph" has both the intense musical accompaniment and the gripping storylines that are the hallmark of country. There are also some numbers that reflect his jazz touches and other with an Americana feel. The exuberant vocals and polished lyrical style were honed during his days as a student at Lipscomb University, where he completed a minor in classical guitar.
Sikes later earned a recording-industry degree with an emphasis on music business at Middle Tennessee State University. He persevered through the usual run of odd and day jobs awaiting his shot as a writer, which came in 2007. The first Sikes composition to make it onto any LP was the cut "The Extra Miles," which was recorded by Emerson Drive.
Later came a year on the road as a guitarist for Jennette McCurdy and Brett Eldredge, before he inked a publishing deal with Sony ATV in 2011. While there for a year, such performers as Billy Dean, Josh Gracin, Jordyn Shellhart and Texas' Justin van Sant recorded his tunes.
He was one of 125 semi-finalists for Nashville Star a few years ago, and Sikes estimates he's written and produced more than 500 songs during his time in Nashville. Now Sikes is looking at expanding his profile, both as a vocalist and a producer. He's started a production company, 7-Layer Records, and is working on several projects. But he's also hopeful that possibly "My Epitaph" or Craft will make the move from the underground to the mainstream, though he has no illusions about his chances.
"Nashville is the greatest place in the world for songwriters, and also the toughest," Sikes said. "People here know the value of a lyric, and they recognize and honor great music. You really have to bring your top game every day, and even then you might not get your songs recorded. Being on Today was an honor, and having that push means a lot.
"But I know that there are still many things I need to do for myself, and that's what I will be doing from now on. If there's a demand for my music, I'll be happy to go out and do some touring. But I'm just as happy producing cuts for others and writing songs, because that's what I've always enjoying doing the most — writing and singing."