Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Craig Wiseman
December 15, 2007
Craig Wiseman proves that success as a country music songwriter can depend on taking risks and ignoring formulas as much as it depends on craft and cleverness.
The Mississippi native returned to this point time and again while discussing his career during a two-hour program on December 15 in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater, as part of the museum’s Poets and Prophets series.
To start his program, Wiseman performed a medley of three of his compositions: “Summertime,” a hit for Kenny Chesney; “Something’s Gotta Give,” a hit for LeAnn Rimes; and, in the most recent example, “Love Me If You Can,” a hit for Toby Keith. Afterward, he talked about how the latter song broke many long-established taboos for country radio airplay.
“There’s a lot of classic no-no’s in that song,” the jovial, talkative songwriter told the crowd. “But with that song, you had to go to that place. The idea was to present someone who may make you a little uncomfortable, but this person is also like anybody else. They want to be loved, they want to be accepted.”
Wiseman recalled discussing the controversial aspects of the song with his co-writer, Chris Wallin. But they decided that if they stuck to acceptable radio themes, they would weaken the song’s impact. “With every line, we risked going a little too far,” Wiseman said. “But that’s the beauty of the song. That’s what makes it work.”
Wiseman’s credits include many lyrics that push hard against the edge of country music convention, including Brooks & Dunn’s “Believe,” Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff,” Tracy Lawrence’s “If the Good Die Young,” Tim McGraw’s “The Cowboy in Me” and “Live Like You Were Dying,” Montgomery Gentry’s “Hell Yeah,” and Phil Vassar’s “American Child.”
Wiseman was quick to say that he loves what he called “ditties”—fun, catchy, upbeat tunes that are about singing along and casting a good mood. “Really, the deep spiritual ballad things, a lot of times they come a lot faster,” he said.
Uptempo songs need to be crisper and more concise, Wiseman said. Therefore, they tend to feature fewer words and chords. He cited classic writer-artists like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard as masters of creating seemingly simple songs that contain air-tight craft, able to express so much in so few words.
“It’s like being a chef, and you’re given four ingredients to feed people a three-course meal,” he said. “And you do something where they never realize you only had four ingredients, because it’s so good. The craft and artistry of that is just, ‘Wow, man.’”
That’s the kind of focused impact Wiseman strives for when writing an accessible, contemporary country song. “A good uptempo song, if you look at it on paper, should look just like those old songs,” he said. “You have twelve or fourteen lines, and it goes by so fast that it can’t be very musically complicated. So you spend a lot of time making the song just right. There have been a lot of those ditties where I spend all day trying to make it simpler, where it just rolls off the tongue.”
Wiseman’s credits show how good he has become at capturing a snappy, good-time groove. His work includes Trace Adkins’s “Rough and Ready,” Brooks & Dunn’s “Hillbilly Deluxe,” Diamond Rio’s “Bubba Hyde,” Pat Green’s “Way Back Texas,” McGraw’s “Everywhere” and “Where the Green Grass Grows,” Vassar’s “Just Another Day in Paradise,” and many others.
Wiseman’s mastery of modern country songcraft has lifted him high among the genre’s most rewarded songwriters in the last decade. He was ASCAP’s Country Songwriter of the Year in 2003, 2005, and 2007, and, in 1997, Songwriter of the Year for both the Nashville Songwriter Association International and Music Row magazine. His songs have earned him honors at the Grammy Awards and from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.
For Wiseman, a gregarious guy who loves people and loves to stay busy, a dedicated work ethic and the sheer joy of doing what he does gives him the drive to keep creating, despite his achievements and wealth.
“I wake up raring to go, looking for another rhyme, every day,” he said. “You just never know how it’s going to go. Then you have to record the song, and you don’t know how that’s going to do, either. So you just never know how it will do. And I love that.”
Interviewed by museum editor Michael Gray, who hosted the program, Wiseman traced his life story. The central defining moment of his youth came in Mississippi, at age eleven, with the passing of his father. “He didn’t just die,” Wiseman said. “He was a pilot, and he went missing and had to be declared dead, and it was this long, drawn-out thing. I still go to funerals and think, ‘There he is,’ and you deal with it. There’s some grace in that. To not have that is a whole different trip.”
Wiseman started writing shortly after his father’s death. He took band class in high school, where he learned drums. During a performance of the Beatles’ “Michelle,” Wiseman started crying uncontrollably. “I assume that music was something that went as deep as my feelings for my father did,” he said. “There was something else that cozied up to that, and me and music have been buddies ever since.”
For many years, Wiseman played drums six nights a week in bands. The steady gigs gave him a work ethic that continues today. “I’ve been doing music every day since I was twelve years old,” he said. “It’s what I do.”
He began playing guitar because his brother brought one home, and playing cover songs at church camp helped him learn to play the major chords used in many popular songs. “I realized I could play a million songs if I knew these three or four chords,” he said. “Within a couple of days, I also realized I could write a million songs with these same chords.”
Wiseman moved to Nashville in 1985, working primarily as a drummer for several years. His first cut was by rock legend Roy Orbison, who recorded “The Only One” for his 1989 album, Mystery Girl. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when he started getting major cuts by Chesney, Lawrence, and McGraw, that Wiseman’s career took off.
As might be expected, of his many compositions “Live Like You Were Dying” has received the most widespread reaction among fans. Wiseman has heard thousands of inspiring responses from fans who personally related to the song. Some of their stories are printed in a similarly titled book. There’s also a movie in development with the same title, and a national worship campaign built around the lyrical message. “That song is not done with you yet,” Wiseman said with a laugh.
Wiseman also spoke about starting and managing his own independent publishing company, Big Loud Shirt, and co-starring in Hit Men of Music Row, a reality series on GAC: Great American Country network, with fellow writers and friends Bob DiPiero, Tony Mullins, and Jeffrey Steele. GAC recently picked up the series for a second season.
“Part of the excitement of being a songwriter is that it’s so unpredictable,” Wiseman said shortly before ending the program by reading a Christmas poem he wrote. “You never know what will happen with your songs, and what will happen next in your career. I wake up every morning and say, ‘Boy, I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen today.’”