Thom Shepherd is one of these down to earth musicians I’ve mentioned in my various articles. The kind so comfortable with themselves and their music they don’t try to please. They are just who they are; comfortable.
Thom wore a perpetual smile on his face for the 45 minutes we chatted in his office just off Music Row, and was accommodating in more ways than one. This two-times cancer survivor is unabashed about his brush with death; which he agreed was fodder for songwriting, his love for country music, and respect for his fellow musician and partner Megan Linville.
Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Thom Shepherd has written songs recorded by various artists and is the winner of an Achievement Award from the Nashville Songwriters Association. He proudly boosts of three hits since his move to Nashville. The first, “Riding with Private Malone” was written before he even had a publishing deal. “Private Malone” which was recorded by David Ball, made it to #2 on the country chart. Thom was also responsible for “Redneck Yacht Club”, co-writing this second hit with Steve Williams. The song was recorded by Craig Morgan. At the time of this interview Thom had a Texas #1 three weeks in a row with “Beer Season” recorded by Kevin Fowler.
Yet, songwriting began as a sideline to the man who wanted to be a producer, filmmaker, even a director! It was in college in Virginia where Thom studied for a degree in communication. He also began playing music on the side. His gig schedule was so full that when given an internship in Washington DC, he turned it down. But this he did, he packed his bags for Nashville in the year 1993, around the time of the country music boom. There he got himself a day job, earning his publishing deal three years later.
I am not entirely new to the country music scene, having lived in Dallas for a fair few years and having had the honour of being the first thereminist and tin-whistle player to perform at the Grapevine Opry. I wrote and performed a Shueh-li original “Sweet Talker” for the show’s 21st anniversary. I am also not entirely new to the life of a musician and composer, but I had never considered devoting my life like Thom and many others, to writing songs for someone other than myself to sing! How brave I thought …
Thom has succeeded where many have not, and churned out hits by using his talent and intuition for good writing. Is success illusive or attainable? “Lots of hard work, you have to write a lot of songs to get a hit song!” he replied.
What is it about the lyrics that makes country music so appealingly real? It is rustic, raw and one can immediately relate to it. A great song can always be cast as a country song said Thom as he sites Dolly Parton’s take on the Whitney Houston song “I will always love you”.
Despite his success as a songwriter, he still plays at least a hundred gigs a year. He tells me that he writes songs so he has “something to play when I play!”
Megan nods in support. She works hard but admits that it is tougher being a female in the business. I can empathise with this sentiment. Many people find it convenient to label women in music as “chick singers”; often then not a euphemism for “the lady is just for display, does not have to do the heavy work, is probably not the brains behind the operation” and several other kind but misguided notions. Furthermore, sisters have to band together to support each other, yet we are sometimes ‘our’ worst critics.
The five of us take a walk from Thom’s office back to the Tin Roof, where like true entertainers, he and Megan jump on stage and show us what country music is all about.
While Thom knows that his music stands out because of his perspective on life that comes out in his lyrics, Megan realises that unlike most other female country singers her voice occupies a lower register and that is her unique trait.
I am listening to Thom’s CD “Turning Point”. A must CD to check out for all y’all country music aficionados.
But hold them horses, we are still waiting for the recipe to writing a successful song, aren’t we? Well, aren’t we!
This I did not have to wrench from Thom. He generously gave it to me.
Thom’s Recipe for a hit song as paraphrased by Shueh-li :
- Take a bag from your stash of ‘regular’ writing.
- Always make each one a touching story.
- Select the idea for the song from a title, hook or concept and work it in like you mean it.
- Choosing the title or the 1st line of chorus as the hook is a good start. If in doubt, either one will make the song sweet.
- Now mix in a bag of words forming the 1st verse.
- Bring it around once (2nd verse).
- Add a bridge to bind the ingredients together.
- Top it off with a generous amount of the chorus remembering that the hook could be its 1st line.
- Bake it in an authentic oven for as long as it takes to make it rise to the occasion.
Speaking of authenticity, being real is about being believable. To be believable, one needs to be very good at what one does. There are certain situations though where the stereotype doesn’t quite allow for a remarkable change.
Could I pull off country music? Thom did not want to hurt my feelings but was fearful that my asian persuasion might be met with raised eyebrows.
(Check out Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, who has made quite a splash in country music, and, Grapevine Opry artist Marcus Leary; see article Take Me Home Country Road.
Standing out could, in fact, be your ticket to success. “Stay true to yourself.” is Megan’s word of advise. Thom’s successes were not the songs he thought would make it as hits either. “The stuff I like is usually not what’s on the radio. Everyone has something unique to offer. That’s what makes artists interesting. They are not just copying someone else’s style.”
The final word on the street is, write as often as you can, meet people and network. “Don’t expect them to come to you,” said Megan. And if I may add, the right time and place could just make your hard work and talent pay off!
Video Clip # 1
Video Clip # 2
Read Nashville; a Prelude to a journey into the 3rd coast for a list of videos on my YouTube Oceanachine channel and articles about my trip to uncover the diverse nature of the music scene in the music city.
So have you ever wondered how a songwriter makes money?
This is where the publisher comes in. A publisher who might be a company or individual signs you on to be a writer and/or pitches your songs. When your songs gets recorded, you get paid a mechanical license.
The industry standard is that the writer and publisher split the monies made from the sales 50/50. This arrangement is fluid especially in this day and age where we have deals that include digital downloads, ringtone downloads and more. It is up to you to shop around.
Photos & videos (c) 2009/10 Shueh-li Ong (unless specified, all articles written by Shueh-li Ong bear the photography, videography and digital work of its author.