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You know that feeling when you’re introduced to a great songwriter and you just want to hear everything they’ve ever written? Well, I like to take it a step further. I love to follow the songwriting chain. It’s not enough for me to love a writer. I want to know who their songwriting heroes are, and who their heroes’ heroes are…who inspired them to turn this hobby into a full-time daydream.

Walt Aldridge told me not to say this out loud (haha), but for me it was Debbie Gibson. Yup. Closet bubblegum fan here. 12-year-old me didn’t know you could write your own songs until then (although I’m not sure where I thought they came from before that). From there it was Baez, Dylan, John Denver, Garth (and all his co-writers), Bono, Christina Aguilera, Plant, Joe Cocker, Cobain, Dave Matthews, Eminem, Skynyrd, Henley, Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, Kenny Chesney, Hillary Lindsay, Phil Vassar (and that was all before I moved to  Nashville), friends who have become mentors and mentors who have become friends…many of whom are on the list below. I could give you name after inspiring name.

I figured I wasn’t alone in this, so I asked a handful of songwriters to give me a sample of who inspires them and why. They graciously complied. I hope this list will give you a chance to do some digging, do a little songwriter exploration. Make sure you look up the ones giving the quotes, too! You just might find your new favorite writer.

Jeff Anderson: “Tom Petty might have been my biggest influence, unconsciously, because Tom Petty! I always thought he took what seemed to be insignificant details and tied them together in the chorus, so it always packed a punch.”

Tony Arata: “Otis Redding. He could write, he could sing, he was from my beloved home, Georgia.”

Kelly Archer: “Gosh, so many songwriters I look up to! One of my favorites is Darrell Scott. Darrell Scott was one of the first real storytellers I discovered on my way to Nashville. “Heartbreak town” was on the Dixie Chicks “Fly” record and I must have listened to it a million times. One of my first times at The Bluebird Cafe he was the feature band and I bought his CD with his version, which felt very full circle. Funny how a song about Chasing your dreams in Nashville and how it would break your heart made me want to chase a dream here even more. That’s a great songwriter. I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Steele and Sarah Buxton for melodies. The melody of What Hurts the most and Stupid Boy/Ocean just kill me every time.”

Victoria Banks: “Before I moved to Nashville, I nerded out about reading album credits and figuring out who the songwriters were behind the songs that moved me the most.  I wrote them in a little pocket-sized notebook I carried around with me: each writer’s name in alphabetical order, with the song title underneath. I started recognizing the same writers’ names over and over again, and I put a star beside the ones that had the biggest list of my favorites. Matraca Berg was a HUGE influence for me…I got to the point where I could just hear a certain turn of phrase with one of her powerful soaring melodies behind it and know I was listening to a Matraca song, no matter which artist was singing it. I still can’t listen to “The Dreaming Fields” without being brought to tears every time because it’s the perfect coupling of melody with lyric. Tony Arata was a really big favorite too…his way of looking at life through metaphors just blew my mind open into seeing the whole world differently.  I mean, “A dollar would be plenty to buy twenty of us, until true love is added to these handfuls of dust”!!!?? That’s just…wow.  THAT shows you where the lyrical bar is set for Nashville songwriters.  I just aspire to be capable of delivering that kind of wisdom”

Phil Barton: “Liz Rose is one of the hardest working songwriters I’ve been lucky enough to be around. Her body of work is very inspiring from Little Big Town to Taylor Swift to Bonnie Raitt to Kenny Chesney to Miranda Lambert, just to name a few. Her consistency and energy in a room is something I look up too. Just has a way of delivering a great lyric that makes you care about it, which is why her songs connect with so many listeners to music all over the world. Andrew Farris…the first record I ever brought was “I NEED YOU TONIGHT’ INXS (there first US #1) and inspired this Australian boy to want to move to the USA and have my swing at writing a #1 song in America …. in the last few years we’ve become friends with the legendary Australian songwriter and even got to play several shows together at the Bluebird, which were pretty amazing for me as such a fan.”

Ryan Bizarri: “Tony Arata’s lyrics are profound and his subjects are bigger than life. Then you meet the guy and it only gets better!”

Terri Jo Box: “Boy that IS a tough one! I’m gonna go with Bobby Pinson. Every line could be its own hook. Huge fan. Daily question in all my writes…WWBPD” (What Would Bobby Pinson Do).

Bekka Bramlett: “Tracy Chapman. All day long. Her debut album Fast Car knocked me outta my boots, ‘cuz it was so simple, poetic and just fearlessly autobiographical. It gave me hope in a million ways and still does!”

Sheena Brook: “If I had to choose one writer…there’s a quote on my wall from Sara Bareilles ‘let your words be anything but empty’. That inspires me often. I want to write songs that might be gut-wrenchingly emotional or laugh your head off hilarious but never empty without authenticity.”

Gary Burr: “I have many, many favorite songwriters. Writers who have influenced me, thrilled me and even made me want to give up and sell my pencil. Today I’m going to go with Paul Simon. He would be near the top of anyone’s list. I love how he will write an entire song and then take a left turn on the last verse…even introducing characters that you’ve never heard him talk about. Now those new characters deliver the body blow that slams the song home. The Boxer is a great example of that. He sings about himself for almost the whole song and then in the last verse he turns the song over to someone you haven’t MET yet. The bloodied athlete who is knocked down but gets back up. A great big sweaty metaphor. That’s the verse that kills me. How about Bridge Over Troubled Water. Who is Silver Girl? Where did she come from? Why does SHE wrap the song up in the last verse? I love that. A brilliant songwriting device.”

Jeremy Bussey: “Don Henley. Every lyric is painted with every color on the palette and delivered on a melodic canvas that you just never get tired of looking at.”

Chuck Cannon: “Just one? If it’s only one, I have to go with Leonard Cohen. Because…Lyric…and then there’s that ‘Hallelujah’ melody…and that Lyric.”

Allie Colleen: “Ashley McBryde. She did that Q & A at Belmont and she said she never starts on something she doesn’t care about when writing and that changed the game for me.”

Robyn Collins: “Indigo Girls because lyricsssss. They say things differently than anyone else: ‘and the mighty Mississippi’s mighty / but it starts in Minnesota / at a place that you could walk across / with five steps down / and I guess that’s how you started / like a pinprick to my heart / but at this point you rush right through me / and I start to drown’.”

Blue Foley: “One of my biggest influences throughout my entire career has been the gone-too-soon, late, great John Prine. The way he influenced me was angle and approach. His thought process was always so different and unique. It invites the listener in to sit on the furniture that he built in the room and then enjoy and/or truly feel the next three minutes of your life”

Scott Getlin: “The King Bob Dylan. It was his lyrics and the feminine nature of Neil Young’s voice that first really got to me. Dylan exploded my mind with imagery that I never knew music could create before. Neil let an aggressive and macho young lad know it was okay to be vulnerable. The Beatles (John in particular, for me), with their unforgettable hooks and songwriting were the commerciality we all strived for and The Boss??…well, come on. He was for New Jersey and the East Coast what The Beach Boys were for the West.”

Derrick Hampton: “My biggest influence…Jason Isbell by far. Everything down to his prepositions are perfect. If you want to be a better songwriter, study Isbell.”

Nicole Juniper: “Kacey Musgraves – she’s a down-to-earth and brilliant writer. Love her.”

Tony Lane: “Well, when I talk about the best songwriters, I have to remove Bob Dylan first, because there is Bob and then there is everyone else. Everyone else? Cole Porter to Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Webb, Gordon Lightfoot, John Stewart, and then on to Mickey Newbury, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Leonard Cohen.  I was starting to play the bars in Texas when the music exploded in the 70s with Jerry Jeff Walker doin Guy Clark, Waylon doin Billy Joe Shaver, Townes Van Zant, Willis Alan Ramsay, Steve Fromholtz etc. There are others, Bacharach and David, Mark Knopfler, Springsteen and so on….”

Thom Schuyler: “John Prine for identifying humanity with simplicity, humility and humor. Randy Newman for his melodic and lyrical brilliance. Paul Simon for his obvious gift that he nurtured from folk-singer to pop icon. Don Schlitz for his remarkable gifts as a story-teller and his continued relevance and dedication.”

Erica Sunshine Lee: “Stevie Nicks because of her genuine rawness, picturesque emotions and real-life heart-wrenching visuals.”

Megan Linville: “Ok, so…there are so many songwriters that have influenced me, but I have to say the one I was influenced by the most was my grandfather, Jerry McBee. He had songs recorded by Roy Orbison, Kitty Wells, Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, just to name a few. I grew up around music and his legacy made me want to continue making music and follow in his footsteps.”

Gina Maseratti: “Lennon and McCartney. Still amazes me to listen to them.”

Ashley McBryde: “One songwriter that influenced me greatly, and would end up being THE songwriter that said ‘you should move to town’ is Carl Jackson (Going Against the Grain, Mama Don’t Forget to Pray For Me, There Ain’t No Future in the Past, Hwy 40 Blues). I believe I was 12 or 13 when I first met him at SPBGMA on a trip here to Nashville. He became a mentor, helped me learn a little about publishing and has always been a guiding light for me. To this day his song Eugene and Diane is one of my all-time favorites. Thanks to that song and the night he played it for me (he had just written it) my spark of an idea to be a Nashville songwriter became a full-blown fire in my little heart”

Travis Meadows: “Well how could I say anyone but John Prine? His passing was like losing an anchor out in the middle of the sea. He was the North on any songwriting compass. The economy of his words. His phrasing and the depth of simple lines that made you want to live differently. Anyone that says they want to write songs should be required to listen to John Prine. I did and do to this day. Listen and learn something new every time.”

Julie Meirick: “Kris Kristofferson is the master of simple poetic sentences. The opening line of 3 of his most iconic songs are so uncomplicated, but somehow take me immediately to the place that he is. ‘Take the ribbon from your hair / shake it loose and let it fall’, ‘why me Lord, what have I ever done’, ‘I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt’…Harold Arlen was smart enough to put himself in a room with brilliant lyricists that perfectly matched his amazing melodies. Think of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ or ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ without those gorgeous melodies. Those melodies are what landed those songs in the American Songbook.”

Georgia Middleman: “I’m a huge fan of Randy Newman’s because of his melancholy melodies and the ‘unreliable narrator’ he sometimes uses to tell his stories. I love the element of ‘surprise’ in lyrics. When done right, those kinds of songs make me feel like I’m watching a mini-movie in three minutes. If you can wrap irony, poignancy and humor all up in a great groove or melody, you’ve got my utmost respect! And you’re brave especially if you’re willing to be politically incorrect about it. Growing up a ‘short person’ in this world, I hated Randy Newman until I was old enough to understand what he was doing. Then as a high school student who finally learned about ‘satire’, I found him BRILLIANT! Someone else who uses the element of “surprise” so well is Don Schlitz. He paints his characters so vividly and just when I think I know where the story is going, he hits me with an ending I didn’t see coming, like in “The Greatest” or “Learning to Live Again.” He’s a master at writing about the human condition. I’ve always been in awe of Burt Bacharach. His melodies are so beautiful and complex yet so simple. Those melodies made me want to be a songwriter because they knew how to soar and then land so perfectly in place that your heart was always a little better for it.”

Danny Myrick: “The OG songwriters in my gospel music world were Ronnie and Kenny Hinson from The Hinsons. ‘The Lighthouse’ was one of the biggest songs of my childhood. ‘Call Me Gone’ was the first time I understood what a ‘hook’ was. But Don Henley’s songs changed my world. ‘Peaceful Easy Feelin’ and ‘Tequila Sunrise’ were the staples of my brothers and I learning to sing harmonies. Then I heard ‘Desperado’. It was released in 1973 when Don Henley was 26 and Glen Frey was 25. Whaaat?? My response was ‘I’ll never write a song that good’. I’m in my 50’s now and I’m still trying.”

Ava Paige: “My biggest inspiration is Chris Stapleton…the way he writes, the way he plays the guitar, and that voice, he tells a story and it just draws you in.”

Courtney Lee Pierce: “Brian May (Queen) – he thinks outside the box and doesn’t go by ‘rules’…Freddie Mercury – lyrical genius…Alanis Morisette – her melodies.”

Becca Rae: “Hank Williams. His lyrics were beautifully poetic while staying simple and relatable. Little Jimmy Dickens said he wrote Hey Good Lookin’ in 5 minutes!”

Vickie Raye: “Lisa Carver hit me like a freight train. I didn’t know who she was, but another writer took me to a show at 12th & Porter where she was performing. I was in the front row. It was raw, honest, she was just ‘being her’. And the moment I heard ‘sodium thiopental drip’ used as a lyric, I thought ‘I want to be THAT good’.”

George Robinson: “Terri Jo Box. 1) She is an outstanding writer who is finally getting the national attention she deserves. Her co-writing influences can be heard throughout MANY of my other favorite writers as well. 2) As a bonus: I have attended over 15 years of shows she has hosted weekly starting at Dan McGuinness Girls Night & approximately 80-90% of the artists/writers I follow have played one of her many shows. Forget ‘6 degrees of separation’, with TJ I can get there in 2!”

Andrew Rollins: “Merle Haggard…because he lived what he wrote, and he wrote what he lived”

Victoria Shaw: “Trying to narrow down my favorite writers to one or two is pretty much an impossible task for me.   Please don’t make me.  Now if you want like one or two hundred, I can do that easily…Cole Porter, Billy Joel, Carole King, The Gershwins, James Taylor, Joni Mitchel, Freddie Mercury …”

Paul Sikes: “I’ll say Jimmy Webb. The lyrical imagery and timeless musicality he has brought to pop and country music has been a huge influence on me as a writer and musician.”

Anthony Smith: “Kris Kristofferson influenced me most, because of his unique way of describing a moment, and painting the scenery of a song. His songs always sounded real and organic to me. He used words in ways that they had never been used before. His lyrics and melodies were their own language and spoke to the masses in such a universal way that they crossed all genres. His songwriting career was short, because of his interest in acting and touring, but his influence and impact as a songwriter on the music industry was such that, it literally changed the ways songs would forever be written. When I think of icon songwriters, I think of McCartney, Lennon, Dylan and Kristofferson…and in no particular order.”

Jeffrey Steele: “Well, I’ve been influenced by everyone from Queen to Haggard, Willie to Zeppelin and all points in between! Superstars and the flash in the pan! It’s all valid! What songwriter doesn’t want to write ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and in the same moment ‘Walkin’ On Sunshine’? They’re both just as valid. Tom T. Hall said, ‘you can tell everyone you know you’re a songwriter, but when you’re in that room you have to be yourself’!”

Tonya Lynette Stout: “Dolly. Too many songs to mention but her lyrics, her ways, her business, her songs, her melodies, her heart, her faith inspire me in all ways, always!”

Cheley Tackett: “I grew up on country music and became a huuuuuge Kathy Mattea fan when she showed up on the scene. I delved into the liner notes of my cassettes and discovered Don Henry was a frequent writer on her albums. ‘Where’ve You Been’ stunned me when I first heard it. Honestly, it knocked the breath out of me. It was unlike anything I’d heard in country before. He and Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner wrote it. Subsequently, Kathy recorded ‘Beautiful Fool’ and ‘Harley’. Both instantly became favorites of mine. Then I discovered Don’s recording ‘Wild in the Backyard’…I think it was on Sony maybe? It was quirky and clever, but emotionally layered. Genuinely unique…and that’s how Don’s writing stands. Most modern country fans would likely be most familiar with his Miranda Lambert cut ‘All Kinds of Kinds’. Nashville and life being funny the way they are, I’ve had the pleasure of being in an occasional writers’ round with Don. I was giddy but kept my cool (I think!). I still don’t think he knows that I’ve been completely obsessed with his songs for decades now. Reckon if you publish this, the cat’s out of the bag.”

Carly Tefft: “I’d say Sting is one of my favorites. If he’s doing a unique rhythmic melody, he simplifies the concept/words, but if it’s more straightforward melody, he’ll create such a unique storyline. His balance of melody and lyrics never ceases to amaze and inspire me.”

Laura Veltz: “My greatest inspiration comes from the people I write with the most. My co-writers are all crazy talented and magical, but the two that come to mind right now are Sam Ellis and Luke Dick. Sam’s writer and producer instincts are excellent and always aim directly at the heart. He doesn’t take any oxygen out of a room and seems to treat songwriting like a service industry, which I aspire to do as well. He knows how to let others shine, which is a skill set all its own. Luke Dick is a tour de force of a human. As a songwriter, filmmaker, band leader and in every other way he lives, he breathes creativity. His approach to writing songs is always slightly slanted, so with him, you can count on writing something that has never been attempted before. No matter how famous and important the other people are, he always seems like the biggest star in the room to me. Sam and Luke are also some of the most dear hearts walking earth.”

Kinsley Wood: “Brandi Carlile. She writes the truth, grabs your emotions, then rips your heart out and puts it right back in. Then she starts singing.”

About the Author:

Karleen Watt has been in Nashville for 17 years and is a regular performer at venues all over the Southeast including shows at the Nashville Ballet and of course, The Bluebird Cafe!  Her album, “Blue Sky Girl” was released in 2019. Karleen recently detailed her Nashville experience, one that mirrors that of many songwriters, when she co-wrote “Nashvillianaire” with Charles Esten and performed the song with him on the Grand Ole Opry.