Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Mark D. Sanders

May 26, 2012
Mark D. Sanders can pinpoint the moment he evolved from an acoustic singer-songwriter focused on downcast, personal works into a Nashville hit-maker known for up-tempo toe-tappers and uplifting anthems.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Sanders wrote regularly with the late John Jarrard, whom he had met at a songwriting conference. Sanders had moved to Nashville in 1980 from Orange County, California, and he described his first songs after arriving as “the most depressing, wrist-slashing stuff imaginable-and it was all about my life.”

Around 1990, Jarrard suggested inviting songwriter Bob DiPiero to join them. ‘He’d had hits,” Sanders said of DiPiero. “He was a successful guy, and he was an up-tempo guy. I learned two things from Bob: How to write up-tempo, and how to write about somebody other than myself.”

When Diamond Rio cut “Mirror, Mirror”-a song written by Dipiero, Jarrard, and Sanders-the 1991 Top Ten hit changed Sanders’s fortunes after more than a decade of struggling. His songs began to incorporate faster grooves and simpler, catchier choruses, resulting in Sanders becoming one of the most successful country songwriters of the 1990s.

Sanders addressed his creative development as an honoree of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Poets and Prophets series, which honors songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. Sanders was ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year in 1997 and has won Grammy, CMA, and ACM awards for his work. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009.

Sanders opened the ninety-minute program performing, with Megan Mullins on fiddle, his song “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” a 1996 hit for Jo Dee Messina. The song idea came from co-writer Tim Nichols, who had read a book by author Robert James Waller that included a line about two characters who decided to flip a coin to see if they should go to Texas or to California. Messina’s first hit, “Heads Carolina, Tails California” reached #2 on the Billboard country singles chart.

“I’m from California, so I understood the California part, but Texas didn’t sound very good to me,” Sanders explained. “With Carolina, you have another coast, and I’ve always had a thing about Carolina. So I thought that would be cool: Carolina and California. Once you have an idea you feel good about, you go for it.”

Born in Los Angeles on September 7, 1950, Sanders was the youngest of five children. Family life proved fraught with challenges, as his father had difficulties holding jobs because of his alcoholism. His parents, after moving to California’s Orange County, eventually divorced. The kids split up to live in different homes, some with friends and some with relatives.

“We were the prototypical, dysfunctional alcoholic family,” Sanders said. “I was the wisecracking, left-handed, mascot child. For someone like that, this is about the only career you can have. It took me a long time to figure that out, but it’s true.”

Coming of age in the 1960s, Sanders grew up on the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Motown records. He also was influenced by the soundtracks of musicals, including Carousel and West Side Story, which were popular at the time. “I know all those by heart, which is odd when you get to Nashville,” he said.

Sanders cites another favorite-the Lovin’ Spoonful and its chief songwriter, John Sebastian-as guiding him toward folk music and early forms of country music. “When you hit the Lovin’ Spoonful, you are sort of veering toward country music,” Sanders said, saying he had heard the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit “Nashville Cats” on the radio recently.

Sanders’s mother ordered him a banjo from the Sears catalog when he was in his mid-teens. Not long afterward, he added a nylon-string guitar to his collection. He played it hidden in his room, noting that he never played in a band or pursued public performance as an outlet for his music. Instead, he came to songwriting through poetry.

“Studying literature and English runs in my family,” he said, explaining that he and two of his siblings studied those subjects in college. It was in his third year at the University of California, San Diego, that he realized he could combine his interests in poetry and music by writing songs. “It’s weird, being a music fan, that I didn’t think of that sooner,” he said.

His interest in literature played into his career, as he’s had several songs inspired by book titles or authors: “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” a 1995 #1 hit for Reba McEntire, is taken from the title of a novel by Carson McCullers; “Bobbie Ann Mason,” a 1995 Top Ten hit for Rick Trevino, is named for a well-regarded fiction author; and “Cold Dog Soup,” the title song of a 1999 album by Guy Clark, comes from a Stephen Dobyns book of the same name.
“I’ve always loved to read,” Sanders said. “It just seemed natural to draw on that in my songwriting.”

Clark, one of Sanders’s heroes, had played a role in Sanders’s musical history. While in California, Sanders embraced the rise of singer-songwriters, with Clark and James Taylor among his favorites. From there, Sanders listened to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and other country music. “When rock music turned toward heavy metal, I veered off into classic country and eclectic folk music,” he said. “I didn’t call myself a music scholar; I was more of a learner. Since I didn’t come from country music, I just learned as I went.”

After earning his teaching credential at the University of Arkansas, Sanders got married and became a junior high school English instructor in Orange, California. He also began dealing with depression, which made it difficult for him to teach. “I was driven to accomplish something, though,” he said, and he told his wife he wanted to pursue writing poetry or songs for a living. “Then I thought, ‘Poets never make any money, and sometimes songwriters do.’”

Because of his interest in folk and country music, Sanders knew where he stood his best chance of making it as a songwriter. He and his first wife moved to Nashville in 1980, encouraged by Dianne Petty from the performing rights organization SESAC. At first Sanders repeated what he considers a Music City truism: No matter how good your songs may be prior to living in Nashville, that when you first arrive in town, “you’ll write the worst songs in your life, because you’re trying to do what everybody else is doing.”

After arriving in town, Sanders attended an ASCAP workshop sponsored by the Nashville Songwriters Association International and met another songwriter, John Jarrard, and a music publisher, Woody Bomar. “Nashville can be like college, a generational thing,” Sanders said. “You meet these people, and you come up with them in the business.”

His first cut of stature came in 1983 when country star Mel Tillis recorded “A Matter of Wine.” “I was writing about my dad,” Sanders said. “And every time I would write about my dad, I would kill him. There was something psychological there.”

That characteristic changed when Sanders and co-writer John Jarrard began a longstanding writing partnership with Bob DiPiero. The three songwriters created a fictional country character who would serve as the protagonist in their songs. That guy appeared in the Diamond Rio hit, “Mirror, Mirror,” in the John Anderson hit “Money in the Bank,” and in an unrecorded song, “Snakeskin Boots.”

“Have you ever heard that song ‘Snakeskin Boots’?” Sanders asked. “No. That’s because there’s a fine line between ‘just stupid’ and $100,000. That’s what we called ‘the DiPiero line.’ ‘Snakeskin Boots’ fell on one side of it. ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Money in the Bank’ fell on the other side. We wrote a whole slew of songs like that. It was simple stuff. Bob basically taught me how to be a hillbilly.”

He credited his second wife, Cindy, who is from South Alabama, with enhancing his ability to grasp southern traits and colloquialisms. “It’s such a rich and colorful language in the South,” he said. “Just talking to Cindy-she was really country when I met her-was an education.”

He met Cindy working at Hillsboro High School, one of his jobs until songwriting became lucrative enough to cover his bills. His first song to get significant radio airplay was “Oh Carolina,” a Top 40 hit in 1984 for Vince Gill. In 1989, through music publishing contacts, he met Garth Brooks before the Oklahoman became famous. The two co-wrote a couple of songs, including “Victim of the Game,” an album cut on the blockbuster No Fences album, later recorded by Trisha Yearwood as well. With Brooks, Sanders also co-wrote “Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy?” the title cut for a 1992 album by Chris LeDoux, recorded as a duet with Brooks.

Before long, “Mirror Mirror” and “Money in the Bank” joined “Runnin’ Behind” by Tracy Lawrence and “If You’ve Got Love” by John Michael Montgomery as successful chart songs for Sanders. In 1995 and 1996, Sanders’s career “skyrocketed,” as program host Michael Gray described it. Gray recited a list of Sanders’s hits from that period: “Bobbie Ann Mason” by Rick Trevino; “They’re Playin’ Our Song” by Neal McCoy; “Walking to Jerusalem” by Tracy Byrd; “It Matters to Me” by Faith Hill; “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Reba McEntire; “Heads Carolina, Tails California” by Jo Dee Messina; “No News” and “Runnin’ Away with My Heart” by Lonestar; “Blue Clear Sky” by George Strait; “Don’t Get Me Started” by Rhett Akins; “Daddy’s Money” by Ricochet; “Vidalia” by Sammy Kershaw; “My Heart Has a History” by Paul Brandt; and “That’s Enough of That” by Mila Mason.

The streak didn’t stop there, as Sanders compiled several other hits through the 1990s. In 2000 came what ranks as his best-known cut, the crossover hit “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. Gray called it “an instant classic. Everyone knew it was one of those songs that would stand the test of time.”

Sanders wrote the hit with Tia Sillers, who came up with part of the chorus and the opening line. The song gelled quickly, Sanders said, as he balanced Sillers’s optimism with lines that brought in aspects of philosophy and potential darkness. “I understood the impact of it one night when I was at a Predators game and ran into Tim Dubois, who was head of Arista Records for a long time,” Sanders said. “He said, ‘Mark, that’s one of those decade songs that come along every ten years or so.’ I thought, ‘Oh OK, I understand it a little better.’”

Sanders also recognized that the song broke away from his reputation for fun, lighthearted material. “It’s a strange thing,” Sanders said with a smile, “because I’m the same guy who wrote ‘Money in the Bank’ and ‘Snakeskin Boots.’”

Sanders and Sillers also co-authored a book, I Hope You Dance, which sold more than two million units after Oprah Winfrey featured it on her daytime talk show. The two songwriters completed other books based on the song-“the only thing we haven’t written is a cookbook,” Sanders joked-and a Los Angeles film producer has spent ten years trying to find funding to make a movie under the same title. The film project recently turned into a documentary and has begun filming.

Sanders has had several hits and cuts since 2000, including Alan Jackson’s “That’d be Alright” and three songs on the hit debut album by Easton Corbin. “I’m sixty-one and hanging in there,” Sanders said with a laugh. “I write with a lot of young people now, and it keeps me going. It’s like therapy.”

Sanders and Mullins, who had performed “It Matters to Me” mid-program, ended the program with a guitar-and-fiddle version of “I Hope You Dance.”

-Michael McCall