Chart-topping songwriter Billy Montana, upstate-New-York-native-turned-Nashville-songwriter whose works include Garth Brooks’ record-breaking single “More Than A Memory,” Sara Evans’ smash “Suds in the Bucket,” the Grammy-nominated “Bring On the Rain,” recorded by Jo Dee Messina with Tim McGraw, sits down with Cristy Zuazua for The Writer’s Share to talk about songwriting, life, and his collaborative process.
The Writer’s Share: How did you go from majoring in agriculture in college to singer/songwriting?
Billy Montana: It wasn’t really my intention to go into music as a career. I loved singing and playing in bands and occasionally writing songs, but didn’t know it was feasible to make a living making music. I wanted to be a farmer because the life style was appealing to me. When my band got signed to a Warner Bros Records deal in 1985, I shifted gears and focused more on music than farming. The record deal opened the door for me to pursue music as a career.
TWS: Growing up as a kid, I remember listening to some of the songs you written – including “More Than a Memory” and thinking that Garth Brooks wrote it. Is that something you see commonly, and has that changed due to things like YouTube and Wikipedia?
BM: I think most people believe that the recording artists write their own songs. Many of the artists I grew up listening to did write most of their own songs, so as a songwriter, I’m not bothered or offended by that at all. The artists are in the public eye and songwriters are behind the scenes and personally, I like it that way. I kind of like it when people are surprised that I wrote a hit they heard on the radio. I don’t think youtube and Wikipedia have changed the perception all that much. When I was young, I used to read the liner notes on records specifically to see who wrote the songs. It interested me. A person can still find that info these days if they’re curious enough.
TWS: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in songwriting over the course of your career?
BM: The biggest change is how challenging it has become to survive in the business, due mostly to way music is marketed and sold. The growth in popularity of country music (which really began to occur in the ’90s) brought with it an influx of not only writers, but publishers, artists, labels, etc. The music business was thriving in Nashville. Record sales were at record levels and just getting a cut on an album project would potentially earn a decent amount of money. Today, songs are cherry-picked and complete albums are not selling in great numbers. You’ve got to have hits to have measurable income in the current climate. Album cuts won’t get it done. The effect is a shrinking number of publishers, writers, studios, – pretty much everything associated with the business of music. It also makes songwriters way more cognizant of trying to write something that will even get on the radio, which can lead to limiting artistic expression.
TWS: Chicken or egg question – does the tune of a song or the lyrics come first when you’re writing and composing?
BM: It varies which comes first, lyric or melody. I have a list of titles or thoughts that I think will make for a good song. Sometimes those ideas prompt a melody. Just as often, noodling around on a guitar or piano will sometimes set the mood for an appropriate lyric. The two happen almost simultaneously during a writing session. It’s like they feed off each other.
TWS: Is a writing retreat like the one where you write “Hard to Love” with Ben Glover and John Ozier a common practice when you’re co-writing, or how does the collaboration work for you?
BM: I like collaboration for the following reasons: 1) two heads (or three) are usually better than one. When I’m drawing a blank, chances are my co-writer is not, and vice versa. 2) There’s instant feedback with co-writing. You can ask your co-writer, “Is this brilliant or stupid??” It can be a fine line. 3) Once the song is completed, since each writer has a publisher representing the song, more people are pitching the song to record labels, recording artists, etc. The song is getting around more and therefore the chance of it being recorded increases.
Retreats are good because they put us in a setting where it’s easier to think outside the box. Creatively, we get a fresh perspective. Logistically, since we’re usually somewhere out of town, we can work all hours of the day and/or night, however the spirit moves us. Retreats have been fruitful for me.
TWS: You mentioned that writing “More than a Memory” was a singular experience in your life – what made writing that song so different?
BM: “More Than a Memory” was a cool write because it came from a real place. Lee Brice, Kyle Jacobs and I wrote it and it was Lee’s title and idea. He had had some one in his life that he had difficulty moving on from. Lee and Kyle presented me with the title and I loved it immediately because I already knew what the song was going to be about before we wrote a single word. I think that makes a good title! Our job that day was to capture true emotion and the song actually came pretty quickly. It ended up getting recorded by Garth Brooks soon after it was written, was released as his “comeback” single in early fall of ’07 and debuted on the Billboard and R & R Country Singles charts at #1. That had never happened in the history of the country music charts, and I doubt it will ever happen again.
TWS: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about professional songwriting?
BM: I wish more people knew that professional songwriting is a real job – an occupation. It’s not just a hobby where you get lucky and get a song recorded and have a hit. Sacrifices have been made to become successful, just like with any occupation. It takes work and dedication and a desire to get better at the craft. A lot of folks think anybody can write a song, and that may be true, but that doesn’t make you a “songwriter.”
TWS: What was it like writing a song with [your singer/songwriter son] Randy for the first time?
BM: It had a lot of similarities to writing with any up and coming songwriter. You try to get to know each other’s style, likes and dislikes, writing preferences, etc. Hopefully, I took off my “dad” hat and put on my co-writer hat that day. (You’ll have to ask him if that’s his perception!) He had really good ideas and is truly one of my favorite co-writers. Without a doubt, he is blessed with the gift of songwriting and, like most of what he attempts, is a quick study and fast learner. I really believe we’re going to be hearing his songs on the radio in the not-too-distant future.
TWS: In your new album, “Songs for Sale,” you compare songwriting to other professions that contribute to society – what inspired you to make that the title track?
BM: The song “Songs For Sale” is a recognition that everybody is gifted with different talents and callings in life, and hopefully it serves as a tribute to that observation. It’s the title track of my CD because I felt like it best depicted where my head was at the time I was making the album. In a sense, it’s the story of my life!
TWS: Can’t wait to see the show!