A CONVERSATION WITH SONGWRITER, TRAVIS MEADOWS
ONE MAN. ONE GUITAR. AND THE TRUTH.
Jason Aldean’s hit song about Nashville, “Crazy Town,” describes rolling into town and shaking off the “where you came from dust” so you can become somebody famous. “It’s a crazy town full of neon dreams, Everybody plays everybody sings.” That’s the artist side of things. Sell your soul to the devil for a hit record. For every artist who comes to Nashville hoping the city is a dream catcher, there’s a songwriter who moves there to tell stories. He’s not looking to shake off where he came from because that’s the foundation of his character and the source of his inspiration. While an artist may be willing to edit his image, a songwriter is only as good as the truth he can tell. Travis Meadows didn’t come to Nashville with aspirations of standing in a neon spotlight or becoming a songwriter. He was a songwriter long before he set foot in Music City and fame wasn’t something he coveted. His craft is dependent on taking life’s moments of stark reality and turning them into lyrics. “Davidson County Police” is a song Travis wrote that describes some of his truth. Blue lights shining in his face, it’s as if he was asked to take a songwriter’s oath: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Hand on the Bible, Travis answers in the affirmative. The truth is all he knows.
To be a songwriter, you must first be a writer. In Travis’ words, “You either are or you aren’t a writer. You don’t become one.” For Travis, the writing started around age six or seven when be began rhyming things, writing poems. His progression from poetry to songwriting took place casually in his childhood. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the dirt beneath his songwriting roots. About the age of ten, he started playing drums and learning rock songs. KISS’ “Detroit Rock City” and Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” were among the first he recalled having played. Around eleven, he connected the dots between poetry and songwriting. He wrote a poem and started making up words. “Lonely Heart” was his first song. A tectonic shift in his life happened when he was eleven, the age he remembers his first addiction started. He describes himself as having an addictive personality. When he does something, it’s all or nothing. His songwriting would become a product of those addictions and an addiction in itself. This was the beginning of Travis’ lifelong need to write songs.
You might expect that Travis Meadows cut his songwriting teeth and his performance skills in Nashville. He didn’t. When Travis stepped off the bus, or got out of the car, the sign he saw said ‘Gatlinburg.’ Around the age of 21, Travis moved to Gatlinburg and learned to play the guitar. This would be no casual preoccupation. When he was learning something new, it consumed him. He would play a song for 24 hours, marking it indelibly in his mind. One of those he learned was “Helpless” by Neil Young. Travis said he never followed bands much. He was more a fan of the singer/songwriters like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. What led to his taking a seat behind a microphone, putting a guitar in his hands, and singing his songs to entertain people wasn’t emulating those musicians he admired. It was a fellow Mississippian turned Tennessee resident that caught his eye. Watching Elvis movies, Travis saw a regular guy going about his life turn into something special when he picked up a guitar and started to sing. People suddenly paid attention to him. Encouraged, Travis started performing for the lunch crowd at a deli in Gatlinburg. He says he started out playing just three songs. He added a fourth and eventually was able to make selections from 100 songs he knew. This was the beginning of a dream for Travis that would lead to his making a bucket list move a few years down the road.
Travis didn’t move to Nashville to become a famous songwriter. He moved to Nashville because he wanted to write with the best songwriters. Starting out an unknown entity in Music City, he went about trying to get a publishing deal. He’d had a few hits on Christian radio but now had to get the guys in the country market to pay attention to him. He had a series of meetings where he was playing some Christian songs while the guy that was supposed to be listening to him was otherwise occupied checking his email. At the last of these meetings, he decided to play some country tunes. This made the listener start taking notes. A day or two later, he had three publishers meetings. He said the first two went so bad he didn’t bother to go to the third one. He left demoralized. Songwriting was what he’d come to Nashville to do. There was no plan B. What happened next he describes as “the beginning of the end that started the beginning.”
After an unplanned hiatus from songwriting, Travis found his way back to his passion. He says he traded dingy, dank bars for open mic and writer’s nights at more reputable establishments. These places are the proving grounds for some of Nashville’s best songwriters. Surrounding himself with new walls and new faces was the inspiration he needed to write again on a level that might just land him a publishing deal. He described this new source of inspiration as “digging water from a different well.” Travis had been writing songs for an Australian country singer named Adam Brand. On the day that Scott Gunter from Universal came to see him perform, he played three of those songs. Unlike his previous experiences, this turned out to be a life changing day in a good way. Scott loved the performance and signed him to a publishing contract. He also learned that day that Adam Brand had recorded one of his songs. I doubt it happens often that a newly signed songwriter has a recorded song on the first day of his publishing contract. This would be his lucky day. If you ask Travis how he landed this deal, he’ll attribute it to luck as much as his credentials as a songwriter. He says landing a deal is a crap shoot based on the particular day and whose ear is doing the listening. Music is subjective by nature. Just as we choose music based on what we’re in the mood to hear at a given time, so might the guy whose job it is to decide the fate of your deal. Your future as a professional songwriter may be at the mercy of his mood.
So Travis Meadows is now a professional songwriter living in Nashville. His dream come true! I’d always wondered how songwriters make money, so I took this opportunity to ask one. Travis’ response: “Hell if I know.” He says quarterly checks appear in his mailbox and calls it “magic money.” Explaining what he did know, he summarized the two types of royalties that songwriters earn. Performance Royalties are paid when music is performed publicly. This would include radio, in a bar, over Spotify and Pandora, etc. PROs (performance rights organizations) such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, collect performance royalties from music users and subsequently pay the songwriters and publishers. Mechanical Royalties are paid to songwriters and artists whenever music is sold. This would include vinyl and CD sales as well as streaming. For songwriters, mechanical royalties are set by the government (9 cents for every dollar earned via sale). To receive his royalty check, Travis had to decide which PRO he wished to join. He was with ASCAP for 15 years before switching to BMI. The rate of payout fluctuates and often determines which PRO a songwriter will sign with. Travis doesn’t dwell on the subject of money when talking about songwriting. He says if you got into songwriting to make money, you’d be better off as a plumber. For him, it’s never been about making money. Commercial success rarely happens to writers. In his words, “Writers write because there’s something on the inside that needs to get out.”
While songwriting is Travis Meadows’ occupation, it’s not a nine to five gig. Inspiration can come at all hours to a writer and may strike when you have nothing more than a napkin to write on. Creative passion doesn’t punch a time clock, nor can it be ordered up like a hamburger with toppings that suit the consumer. Songwriters have taken a beating for the cliched sound of country radio these days, lambasted as if they’ve suddenly run out of words. Travis says he pays no attention to country radio. He keeps busy – “head down and hands on the plow.” His spark comes from inside and his songs reflect the truth that built the man. He quoted Harlan Perry Howard, a hall of fame songwriter, when relating the belief from which he writes. “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Travis understands the role radio plays, often filling commute time with non-thinking music. Someone has to write the music to fill that spot and there are songwriters who do that exceptionally well. For something deeper, you’ll have to look outside the box. Many have been quick to report the demise of good songwriting in country music, never having looked past the store window that radio represents. Great songs are written every day by truth tellers like Travis Meadows, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear them. Travis says that sometimes great songs slip through to country radio, but historically, the best cuts never do. For the holy grail of Nashville songwriting, attend a Writers’ Round.
Travis Meadows played a Writers’ Round at Douglas Corner recently with friends, Lucie Silvas and Tyler Bryant. Patti McClintic was there for that event and had this to say about the experience: “Travis is enjoying commercial success with hit songs he’s written for Jake Owen, “What We Ain’t Got,” and Dierks Bentley, “Riser.” He played both of those songs for the crowd gathered at Douglas Corner and they were well received, but it was his lesser known songs that brought down the house.” Patti said it was difficult to choose which songs she felt most impacted by and which she would talk about because all of his selections deserved a mention. The two she settled on were “Minefield” from Travis’ 2011 album, Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, and “Black” from his 2007 album, My Life 101. In her words, ““Minefield” speaks to anyone who has ever found themselves in a dark place, found the light, and succumbed to the darkness once again, generally thanks to one’s own poor decisions. To hear Meadows explain how this song came about, reveals how honest he is about his own difficult past. He makes no apologies for that past, and rightfully so. “Black” is a song written for a grandfather that served as a surrogate father for Meadows as a boy. The relationship was a good one and left him with fond memories. The title refers to the black coffee that “granddaddy” used to drink. “Real men drink their coffee black.” This song was so powerful, as I glanced across the capacity crowd, I could see people trying to nonchalantly wipe tears from their cheeks. Rare is the writer that can evoke such raw emotions from the listener.” In such a setting, Travis has the opportunity to explain his connection to the song and the circumstances that inspired its writing. Being in a room with several songwriters, all performing their powerful truths, is a cataclysmic experience. Patti called this the “perfect storm of songwriting” and summed up her review by saying, “It was the best ten bucks I ever spent.”
Outside the Writers’ Rounds, where the truth is less self evident, country music is a changing genre. There’s been a lot of debate about the sound of country music and where it’s headed in the future. Traditionalists want to pull the genre back to its roots while others think the time is right to push the boundaries. Travis keeps an open mind about the music and doesn’t see the need to compartmentalize it. He referenced Eric Church when talking about this subject, saying that his fans aren’t necessarily country fans. Eric has amassed a following based on his music and who he is. If this were a game of paper, rock, scissors, music beats genre. The impact of the digital age on music hasn’t been lost on Travis either. He says that people buy songs these days, not albums, and they make playlists that include different genres of music. He isn’t surprised that this type of genreless listening has found its way into the music and thinks it may not be such a bad thing. He also reminded me that this isn’t the first time country music has had its boundaries tested. In the 60s, Ray Price added orchestral parts to the music, breaking from the traditional honky tonk sounding arrangements that were the accepted norm of the day. Travis sees country as a genre in a box, imposing its own growth restrictions. As a songwriter whose craft depends on his growth as a person, he relishes the artistic freedom that growth allows.
Travis Meadows says he’s growing as a person and channeling that growth into a new album. There’s no time limit on the project and he’s not sure what the finished product will look like. As of now, he has about 17 songs for it but admits he has no idea what will end up on the record. What he does know is that this album will definitely be lighter than the first two. When he wrote Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, he says the purpose was to save a life. He never intended for it to be heard. When it was so overwhelmingly accepted and lauded for the truths it told, it cast a long shadow on what was to follow. Travis says just to get past the reverberations of Uncle Buzzy, he wrote and released Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business. He admits there was no other reason for it. This time, he wants things to happen organically. He’s playing shows, going about his daily life, and thinking about what he needs to say. In order to say something new, he says he has to answer the question, “Who is Travis today?” The music will reflect that personal growth.
For Travis Meadows, his life and his life’s work is in the songs he’s written, and he says he loves them all. I asked a hard question of a songwriter, to choose a few of his favorites from among the vast catalog. Travis said the list would change daily, but these rose to the top on this day: “Learning How To Live Alone” (Killin’ Uncle Buzzy), “Davidson County Police” (Killin’ Uncle Buzzy) because it was heavy and life changing, “Lucky One” (My Life 101), “My Life 101” (My Life 101) because it was his truth, not what they wanted to hear, “Old Ghosts” (Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business) because he made peace with the ghosts of his past by turning and looking at them, “Riser” (Dierks Bentley, Riser), and “What We Ain’t Got” (Jake Owen, Days Of Gold). Having come to Nashville to write with some of the best songwriters, I asked who he most enjoyed writing with. He said there were many, so just to name a few he listed Jeremy Spillman, Tony Lane, Tom Douglas, and Melissa Pearce. Travis said you never know what’s going to come out of a writing session, sometimes you come up empty, but every once in a while you come up with something great. With characteristic humility he said, “As a songwriter, you have to smile at heaven when you write something bigger than you because it’s too clever for you to have written.”
I requested an interview with Travis Meadows the songwriter, what I got as a bonus was a conversation with Travis Meadows the man. There is no separating the man from his work. His work is merely a manifestation of the the life he’s lived and the man he’s become. He spent a good many years of his life learning to be comfortable in his own skin. As he put it, “I had to learn to be me.” His songwriting is the embodiment of all that he’s learned and the truth of his actions. Commercial success is not what motivates him. He told me that he writes what he loves, not what you want to hear. At the end of the day, when he signs his name to a song he’s written, he does so knowing it was the best he could do that day. He’s become known for writing good songs. Even with the spotlight that writing hit songs for Jake Owen and Dierks Bentley has given him, Travis is most at home where songwriters gather. He said playing at the Ryman was not the pinnacle for him. Playing the 9 o’clock show at the Bluebird Cafe is a gratifying pat on the back that says he’s made it in a songwriter’s town, where the best of the best come to tell their truths. His was not a neon dream. Travis has found that success for a humble man is simply three chords and the truth.
Watch the video for Jake Owen’s “What We Ain’t Got”!
Songwriters: Travis Meadows, Travis Jerome Goff
Travis said when they wrote the song, it was with the idea that it would be a guy and a girl song. Jake’s video gave it new life. He said he never envisioned it like that and it’s become bigger than he ever thought it could be.
Visit Travis Meadows’ website: http://travismeadows.com/
Download Killin’ Uncle Buzzy on iTunes: HERE
Download Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business on iTunes: HERE
Download My Life 101 on iTunes: HERE
“My Life 101” – My Life 101
Download the song through iTunes: HERE
“Davidson County Police” – Killin’ Uncle Buzzy
Download the song through iTunes: HERE
Photographs courtesy of Bill McClintic at 90 East Photography.
Visit his website for contact information: http://www.90eastphotography.com/?fb_ref=Default
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