“You can look down Broadway in Nashville and see five blocks of honkytonks. And inside each ‘tonk there will be at least two stages and singers and songwriters playing their hearts out to get noticed,” said Johnny Gwynn ’07, a professional musician making his living as a songwriter in Nashville.
Guest-appearing in the Falmouth Academy Music Majors After School Activity taught by Mr. George Scharr, in a segment he called “Meet the Pros,” Gwynn talked about his life as a country songwriter. “All country songs don’t have to be about pickup trucks, cutoff jeans, and girls,” he said. “I also bartend and get some great fodder for my songs. As soon as people start drinking, titles fall out of their mouths.”
For example, once there was a guy at the bar who came in when the keg had been shut off. Gwynn was able to give him half of a glass and after telling him it was the bottom of the barrel, the customer said, “Bottom of the barrel, top of the world.” And there you go.
Preferring writing over performing, Gwynn collaborates a lot. “One thing that attracted me to Nashville is that I was really interested in the process of songwriting. I wanted to be the guy behind the scenes. I always felt way more energized writing songs. I’m good at performing, but it is hearing a song I wrote that jazzes me up.”
Typically, Gwynn writes with one or two other people. There might be a piano,
guitar, or two, with someone laying down drum beats on a computer. “There’s a saying in
Nashville that you write the song that’s in the room. When I walk in the room and someone has just broken up with their girlfriend, we might shift to write a sad song that day. Sometimes I want to funk out but end up writing bubblegum pop that day. You just have to be prepared to do whatever is presented to you.”
With a nod to Falmouth Academy, he told the students, “You know how to read and write and you would do a fine job in a Nashville songwriting environment because you have actually put pen to paper. In fact, some of you are going to see within a year or so that you will be correcting some of your dorm mates’ papers.”
Gwynn said it takes a couple of years to get established and he suggests that if you’re interested in songwriting that you write every day. “Find a prompt and free write. The more you write, the better. A quantity of songs will breed more quality.”
He attributes being uniquely prepared due to his jazz and improvisation experience at Falmouth Academy and on into college at Arizona State University, where he was an English major and a music minor. He can come up with melodies quickly, but he’s not “married” to them. “If what I compose doesn’t fit, I can throw something else out quickly.”
Gwynn’s songs have been played on the radio and, most recently, worked with Michael Keys on his album “Still Go Home.” In fact, Keys’ song “My City is Country” was written by Gwynn. “What I found is that you write for people on the same level as you. You never know who will hit it big and you want to be there with them. And, you write for the people in the bar.”Asked about tips for our aspiring student songwriters, Gwynn said to hit the chorus early, like within 15-20 seconds. Tom Petty would suggest, “Don’t bore us, hit the chorus.” Also, “if you can write a great Christmas song, you’re set. There are ‘millions’ of Hallmark movies, and they’re always looking for that song. Three minutes of a song can change your life.”