Grammy-nominated songwriter Jay Knowles, whose songs have been recorded by George Strait, Alan Jackson, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Rodney Atkins, David Nail, Joe Nichols, Billy Ray Cyrus,
Trace Adkins, Jack Ingram, and many others, sits down with Cristy Zuazua for The Writer’s Share. Knowles’ song “She’ll Leave You With A Smile” was George Strait’s 50th #1 single and received the Million-Air Award from BMI.
The Writers Share: Thanks for talking with us today! Can you start by talking to us a little about how you ended up on Music Row?
Jay Knowles: I was born in Texas, but I grew up in Nashville. My dad is a finger-style solo guitar player, and when we were living in Dallas he met Chet Atkins, who encouraged him to move to Nashville. So he did. My dad’s good friends were in the day-to-day country music-making business, so I grew up around it, knowing it existed and was a job. I was becoming more aware of country music in high school, and ended up writing songs and towards the end of college, playing them for people in Nashville like David Conrad [of Almo Irving Publishing]. He was a friend of my dad’s because he was also a guitar player. I would play him songs, and he would tell me they were terrible and to come back next time I thought I had something that was good. And I would do that every 6 months or so. He’d always say, “I’m going to treat you as if I’m paying you to do this, not as if you’re a friend of mine who I’ve known since he was a kid, and I’m going to be just as hard on you as I would if you were one of my writers.” And it was really helpful for me to get an idea of the level it had to be on, early on. His voice remains in my head, to this day, whenever I’m working.
So when I got out of college, I moved back here, and was waitin’ tables and pulling weeds, and all those things you do when you’re young. Within a year or so, I met a guy named Woody Bomar, who was running a publishing company and he liked a tape that I put together. Back then, I was super young, and they hardly paid me any money, but John Scott Sherrill, Steve Seskin and Bob Dipiero, and they were some of the biggest guys in town. So I got to sit in my little room and make up my songs that nobody cared about, but I watched those guys do their job, and every now and then I got to write a song with them, too. It was like my grad school for how to do this – watching, learning, seeing how they carried themselves, and going to shows where they were playing. At the end of that 4 years, I had no songs recorded at all, but they re-signed me, and during that fifth year I wrote George Strait’s “She’ll Leave You With a Smile,” and a couple other things, and ended up justifying their faith in me. Early on, it was slow going, but it set me free to do what I wanted to do and learn. I think Woody’s theory was if he threw me to the lions too soon, I was so young and green that I would have colored what I did and lost whatever was interesting about my way of doing things.
TWS: How has being a songwriter affected the way you see the world?
JK: There are people who are writers who are also performers and they kind of have a unique weirdness to them, but when you’re a guy who writes songs, blending into the world and watching it is a large part of what you do. And you end up, in a way, not growing up a lot, because you’re experiencing the world more the way a younger person does, where everything is kind of new and interesting all the time. You’re much more interested in people you meet, because that’s kind of in the job. When two songwriters meet each other, they tend to talk about things that are a little bit more heartfelt and important to their own selves, and are a lot more open to those kinds of expressions from other people, because it’s the job. On a daily basis, we open our hearts up to the joys and sorrows of human existence. It’s a whole different deal than working at a bank or something like that.
TWS: You’ve done a lot of co-writing over the course of your career – how does that process usually work?
JK: So much of that varies. In co-writing, there’s usually one person who has a bead on an idea a little more than the other, so you can say, ‘oh he’s really got the thing figured out, I’m going to let him drive for a little while.’ And then it’s my job at that point, to let him do the big thinking and trust his instincts, or for him to trust mine, and we provide those guideposts or a sounding board for each other. And as the song’s going down, one person might say, ‘man, I don’t know what comes next,’ and the other person takes the wheel. It also depends on if one person is more of a musician and one person is more of a word person, and you can defer to that. Often, I will lean on someone who’s not as musically skilled because they’re going to do something I wouldn’t normally do and that’s one of the fun things about writing with people.
When you have people who you’ve been writing with for 15 or 20 years, that can be a dangerous thing, because you can get into a rut of doing the same thing over and over, but by the same token, you know how to push each other’s buttons. With somebody like my buddy Trent Summar, I know how to ignore him when he’s bothering me, he also knows to keep talking when that happens, because he knows that usually when he’s bothering me, he’s about to come up with something that’s really good. And sometimes we’ll write with a third person, and he knows what I look like when I’m about to come up with something and he’ll make them shut up so I can think. Or distract. We each kind of know what each other’s things look like, and so we can kind of push each other’s buttons. if we were by ourselves we wouldn’t necessarily know how to do, we’d be so deep into our own thoughts. As you do that, you learn there’s a lot of trust involved.
TWS: What’s the recipe for good song?
JK: I really believe the chief thing is that all the different parts work together. There are three main elements – what’s in your brain, what’s in your heart, and what makes your booty move. Each of those things are crucial to making a song be a great song, but it’s not like each one has to be perfect to make the song great. If they lyrics make you think too much, it’s not going to touch your heart. But if a song reaches your heart too much, your brain goes, “ugh, that’s too corny,” and something that’s not making your foot tap is kind of like, why is that even a song? That should probably just be a poem or you should just tell me what you want to say. It really is the interconnectedness of all of those things that makes a song great. There’s a lot of things that are very important to people, which move people deeply, that generally don’t make great song topics. As much as I love my kids, there’s not a lot of great songs about people who love their kids. The great songs are always about loving somebody and the best ones aren’t even really about loving someone who ends up being your life partner. They’re usually about loving someone who you think is going to be that right now, or [who] you wish was but broke your heart. So . . . the depth of the emotion of the thing is not as crucial as the intensity of the emotion at the moment that you’re conveying. But then, like I say, if it’s not making you tap your toe, then… so what?
TWS: You recently played a show at WorkPlay in Birmingham with us. How do you usually decide what to play?
JK: It depends on kind of the crowd. I have some more rockin’ things I’ll play if the crowd’s kind of distracted – it gets their attention. Usually, I’ll play one song I enjoy playing and I’m not sure who else is going to like it. If I’m playing a show with somebody like Trent, I’ll play something we wrote together because it’s fun to do that, and we’ll kind of chime in on each other’s stuff. Even when you’ve written a bunch of songs, what you do in front of people is kind of a different. I have songs I think would be hit songs for the radio that I’ve played in front of an audience that hadn’t heard it before, and they get bored with it, because they don’t know it. On the other hand, that kind of song really translates in a setting like WorkPlay because people can hear, and they’re listening to the words and performance more closely.
TWS: You just released your latest album, ‘Tennessee.’ Can you tell us a little about what went into its making?
JK: I made ‘Jay Knowles, Tennessee’ and ‘Jay Knowles Breaks His Own Record’ in my home studio… which is really just a Mac and a few pieces of recording gear. I was able to play and sing everything, which is one of those fun things technology lets you do, for better or worse. It started off as a way to entertain myself and record songs to make them sound more like I want music to sound like, and less trying to gear them specifically toward what Country Radio. It’s an offbeat form of artistic expression, but I’ve had a fun time doing it over the years.