Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Songwriter Tom Douglas

May 18, 2013
Nashville songwriter Tom Douglas quoted a famous line by Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim-“God is in the details”-when pinpointing what makes certain song lyrics stir an emotional response in a listener. In discussing several of his own country music hits, Douglas repeatedly honed in on specific, personal details in his songwriting, saying those are the lines listeners tend to connect with most strongly.

“The more personal language you use, the more universal the song becomes,” Douglas said.

Douglas, who teaches a course on lyric writing at Belmont University, delved into songwriting theory while discussing his career. He was the subject of the quarterly Poets and Prophets series at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The series honors songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music.

Before the program started, BMI Assistant Vice President Clay Bradley presented Douglas with BMI Million-Air certificates for four of his songs, Tim McGraw’s “Southern Voice” (one million in airplay) and “Grown Men Don’t Cry (two million), Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” (one million), and Lady Antebellum’s “I Run to You” (two million.)

“That’s four songs with six million airplays, which equals three hundred thousand hours, or thirty-four consecutive years of airplay,” said Bradley, adding that Douglas’s song catalog has had twenty million spins on radio stations. “Tom’s songs are a big part of American culture.”

Following Bradley’s presentation, Douglas sat at a grand Baldwin piano and performed “The House That Built Me,” which he co-wrote with Allen Shamblin, and which was named 2010 Song of the Year by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, for the version recorded by Lambert.

For the interview portion of the program, Douglas told host Michael Gray that “The House That Built Me” took six or seven years to finish. The idea came when Shamblin mentioned he had been tossing around an idea about how houses have memories. As Douglas recalled, “Allen said, ‘Only, instead of you building the house, how about if it was about the house that built me.’”

Douglas loved the idea and asked Shamblin not to mention it to anyone else. They began writing the song, soon afterward turning it into their song publisher, Nashville-based Sony/ATV Music. Twice, the publisher sent it back, asking the writers to keep working on it, saying it was a good idea but too complicated as written.

“The simpler we made it, the more the story presented itself,” Douglas said. “The more intimate, intricate, personal details that Allen and I put in the song-the handprints on the front steps, the dog buried in the backyard, mama cutting out pictures in magazines for years-the stronger it became.”

Born in Atlanta in 1953, Douglas came to full-time songwriting in Nashville relatively late in life. His father, a salesman for U.S. Steel, was a music fan and “especially loved songs,” Douglas said, remembering listening to vinyl LPs on a large console stereo. “Dad loved the Beatles and Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson. He was a songwriter’s man.”

Douglas obsessed on lyrics from an early age. “I really fell in love with the words,” he said. “Hank Williams is Shakespeare-esque in his use of language.” He cited Jimmy Webb’s songs for Glen Campbell as favorites, and said that hearing “Your Song” by Elton John lit a fire inside him. “I had to learn how to play that song,” Douglas said.

As he matured, he realized he was drawn to narrative writers, describing a songwriting path that stretched from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. “The real storytellers,” Douglas said. “That’s what I fell in love with.”

As the songwriter explained, he believes he had poetic leanings going back to early adulthood. He learned piano and loved writing songs, but he also fought against nurturing the artistic sensibility inside him. “In the manner in which I was raised, which was pretty middle class-my mother worked, my father worked, money was always on the table as something we talked about-I felt a responsibility to do something with myself. There was always the tension between the guy in the business suit with the red tie and the poet who was drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.”

After getting a business degree from Oglethorpe University in Georgia and an MBA from Georgia State University, Douglas pursued a variety of business jobs, some of them involving music, such as promoting concerts or plugging the songs of Atlanta-based publisher Lowery Music Group to record producers and artists. “There was always this tension between the practical side and the artistic side,” he said.

Finally, in his late thirties, Douglas decided he could give time to both sides of his nature. “I realized the real estate salesman could also be the poet,” he said. “It was such a relief, and what God had intended for me to be all along, but I was running from that, feeling guilty about the way I was made instead of just letting them co-exist.”

About the time Douglas had that epiphany, he wrote the song “Little Rock” while working as a real estate broker in Dallas. ” ‘Little Rock’ is about this one guy who has been the protagonist in almost all of my songs,” he explained. “I say this and people think I’m joking, but I really do sense the brokenness in me, and I sense the brokenness in the world. I have to remind myself constantly of redemption. All these songs are about that. It’s almost constantly retelling the story of the prodigal child and coming back home again.”

After writing “Little Rock,” Douglas included it among songs he took to a songwriting seminar in Austin, Texas. There he ran into Nashville-based guitarist Paul Worley, whom Douglas had met when he lived in Nashville from 1980 to 1984, working as a song plugger and writing a few songs that were cut by artists in the contemporary Christian field. Worley recognized Douglas’s voice on a tape played during the seminar, and afterward Douglas gave Worley a tape with several songs he’d written and recorded. On the strength of those songs, especially “Little Rock,” Worley signed Douglas to a songwriting contract with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

At the time, in the early 1990s, Worley was producing albums for various artists. “Paul got the song to Collin Raye, and the rest was history,” Douglas said, as Raye’s version of “Little Rock” went to #2 in 1994. Raye went on to have hits with the Douglas co-writes “Love Remains” and “The Gift.”

On the strength of his early successes, Douglas and his family moved to Nashville in 1997. Shortly after that, Worley had a hand in another successful cut for Douglas. Martina McBride, whom Worley produced, cut “Love’s the Only House,” a song co-written by Douglas and Buzz Cason that reached #3 on the country singles chart in 2000.

Douglas compared the structure of the song to one often used by Springsteen, Dylan, and U2, with the verses featuring detailed vignettes while the chorus repeats to passionate lines over and over, with the same three chords used in both the verses and chorus. “From a songwriting template sort of thing, that’s where that comes from,” Douglas said.

McBride met with Douglas and shifted a few pronouns and words so that a woman could sing the song, initially written from a male perspective. For Saturday’s program, Douglas brought an early demo version of the song, so that listeners could hear how it changed from its original incarnation to what McBride recorded.

The museum audience also heard a medley of four recordings of Tim McGraw songs co-written by Douglas, including “Grown Men Don’t Cry,” “My Little Girl,” “Let It Go,” and “Southern Voice.” “I’m a big fan of Tim’s,” Douglas said. “All writers, they have certain voices that whisper in the back of their mind as they’re writing songs. You can’t help but be influenced if you know a big artist. I’ve gotten to know Tim, and he’s a great guy. He’s really so kind and helpful and nice.”

Douglas has established a similar rapport with Lady Antebellum, writing their first #1 hit, 2009’s “Run to You,” and another hit the following year, the #6 “Hello World.” The songwriter also talked about how he enjoys writing as much today as when he started, and that he recently has been inspired collaborating with twenty-year-olds with Mohawk haircuts and drum loops to create country music in the twenty-first century.

Asked what advice he gives his college students, Douglas said, “What we tell our students is what we tell ourselves: You try to find your own voice, your own way of looking at the world. You have to detach yourself from the end result. You can’t do this thinking about whether the song is going to be commercial or if it’s going to be a hit. You’re just trying to tell a story and tell the truth to yourself, and to do it in a way that is meaningful.”

-Michael McCall