Interview with Emmy Award Winning Songwriter & Producer Trey Bruce
An Inside Look at Nashville’s Country Music Movers and Shakers
Featuring: Trey Bruce
Emmy Award Winning Songwriter & Producer
By Frances and Harry Date – Song Matchmakers Network
Emmy Award winning songwriter, Trey Bruce, moved to Nashville just in time for the 1990’s country music boom. Trey was a rock drummer from Memphis so…..what could go wrong? He credits a copy of Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love as the bridge he had to cross to make the trip, lyrically & spiritually. Luckily, Trey’s first demo got cut immediately by Shelby Lynn and was a top 15 hit. As a result, he signed his first publishing deal with MCA Music.
After three years at MCA, in 1993, Trey co-founded a small indie publishing company, Big Tractor Music, with record producer Scott Hendricks. There he received 13 ASCAP Awards, an Emmy Award, five #1 singles, multiple top 5 & 10 hits and an Academy of Country Music Song of the Year nomination.
During the Big Tractor years, Trey developed a love for coffee and long nights in the studio, so he became a record producer. Trey’s first and still favorite record to make was Chris LeDoux’s critically acclaimed One Road Man followed by four Trace Adkins albums and Rebecca Lynn Howard’s Forgive. Over one-thousand songs later, Trey left Big Tractor in 2005 to partner with Kenny MacPherson and became VP of A&R and Creative for Chrysalis Music in the Nashville office.
At Chrysalis, Trey signed and developed new artists, such as GAC’s KingBilly, wrote a ton of new songs, and built a catalog of roughly 800 songs in five years, as well as cuts in the rock format and #1 singles in Australia and Canada. In 2010 Trey partnered with The Royalty Network in NY/LA and since that time has cuts in pop, rock and country formats as well as film and TV.
1. SMN: As a producer, what challenges do you most often deal with?
TB: That’s a good question. There’s so many…… The biggest challenge is to make everyone on the list of people involved with the artist happy.
SMN: Of all the areas that have challenges, which area is the toughest?
TB: I think the toughest part of producing is finding songs that everyone likes. The artist has a vision and the manager has a vision, ….then there’s A&R, the label radio promo guys, etc. etc.
2. SMN: In your opinion, what is the most important role of a producer?
TB: To make the artist feel the freedom to really create the song and/or the record they want to create so that when they start singing, they feel like, “Man this is the one,” and feel like they can experiment without thinking they are going to mess up. Some of them are real self-conscious, and some of them aren’t, but they just want to feel that they’re going down the path they hear in their head. They spent a lot of time telling a lot of people along the way what they wanted to be, and sometimes they don’t articulate it right, or it doesn’t get received right. So finding that thing and being able to speak it and get it on the tape the way they hear it in their head, that always seems to be the most important thing I can do…… to get them to a place where they say, “That’s what I wanted”..
3. SMN: What projects taught you the most about producing?
TB: I think because I knew as little as I could’ve known when I made my first record, that one would be where I learned the most in a short amount of time. My first record was with Chris LeDoux, and all I did was just run in the studio with my demo crew and make demos that we called records, so I didn’t know much about it. I was learning as I went.
4. SMN: As a producer, what was your most rewarding experience?
TB: My most rewarding experience is when the artist is happy with the record and we have a successful release. When both of those things line up at the same time I’m feeling really good. Because you can have a record that the artist loves that doesn’t become successful and on the other hand I’ve had labels release singles on artists that were hits, while the artist was calling me on the phone saying they don’t like the single and they wish it wasn’t the one being picked for release. If everyone is happy at the same time…that’s rewarding.
5. SMN: What would you like others to say about you as a producer?
TB: I would hope they would say…. that I know how to translate what they hear in their head to tape. To get their musical vision recorded and get it to represent them the way they imagine it.
SMN: Now you’re referring to songs, arrangements, grooves?
TB: Production. The kind of record they hear in their head. We should be able to make any kind of record they want, no matter what the songs are. You can take any song and make any kind of record with it, almost without exception. So, once the songs are picked, that’s just the first step. Deciding how to make the record out of it is something else. I don’t think a lot of artists know that any song can make any kind of record. I think they think the record has already been set in stone when they just hear the demo of the song, and I don’t think that’s true.
SMN: I know there are times where we’ve heard the demo, and then we’ve heard the record, and they were the same.
TB: Sure that happens all the time. There are good reasons for that. One is that sometimes the demos of the songs are just so good that there’s no reason to change it…..The producer then knows that the demo production was a gift and he shouldn’t mess it up. And then sometimes it’s just ….honestly, lazy producing. Copy and paste.
SMN: That is interesting. Recently we heard a Trace Adkins song, and it was the country version, and then we went on the Internet and it was the pop/dance version, the same song with totally different treatment. And it was the same vocal, I’m sure; they just do something around it for the radio remixes. It’s interesting how that changes.
6. SMN: What do you look for when choosing an artist to produce?
TB: Somebody that’s a little different than everything that I’m hearing. You have to be patient to wait for those, because there’s a lot of them that all sound like each other. So I try to find somebody that’s either writing words a little bit differently than everybody else or has just a different tone, just a different voice, and just get behind them without scaring them off, just try to find out where they want to go and see if that’s anywhere that’s going to be something that can be commercial down the line. If it’s not, sometimes I’m really patient and I spend a couple of years following their vision so I don’t scare them off– until I think they’re confident enough and secure enough to move into a wider place without changing them, and without breaking the thing that I thought was original about them in the first place.
7. SMN: What artists are you working with now?
TB: I’ve got a new girl names Lauren Jenkins. She’s really good. She is signing her record deal this month. I pitched her in May, and we have the record deal already.
SMN: Which label?
TB: I can’t say because it’s not signed yet. I sent one song and three pictures to four labels. One called back in about fifteen minutes, one called back in a day, and one called back three weeks later and it was too late because we already had a deal on the table.
SMN: Is she country?
TB: You know what, I wrote the song with her in January, and I recorded it and mixed it right here (in Nashville), and in May I called her and said, “What if we pitched this in Nashville? Let me just throw it to a couple of guys and see what happens.” Fifteen minutes later, my phone was ringing. So she flew in to town, we met with record labels and got a deal. It went to paper in eight days.
SMN: That’s incredible. Is it a power ballad, or what?
TB: No. It’s not a ballad or uptempo really…. just a mid-tempo…quirky song. It’s just one of these artists that came along about two or three years ago, crossed my radar, and I thought her voice was really unique. I didn’t know what she was; I just thought she was really unique. So I said, “Lets write some songs.” So we started writing. She didn’t want to be commercial; her song ideas she was bringing in were six or seven minutes long; there was no form. If she did a melody that was a hook, she wouldn’t do it again…..and I’d say “You gotta do that twice!” (Laughs) And so, to tell her that, for her, that was me pushing her in a popular direction. Whether it was pop country, pop, whatever, just popular. So I had to be really careful with her because I could have run her off really fast. I was her first experience because she was eighteen or something. So we wrote for about two years, and in January she was here, and we wrote for three days, and then I said, “Tomorrow, we are going to push this thing a little farther, we are going to push it towards radio just a little bit more.” It was nowhere near where Nashville radio is, but her voice is so unique that three of the four record labels heard it and went, “We gotta meet that girl.”
SMN: Wow, that’s amazing. So you’ll be producing her on the deal?
TB: Yes. And we’ll be doing that record this fall.
8. SMN: How do you look for songs for your artists?
TB: Well, traditionally with publishers. I call a bunch of pluggers and say, “I’m looking for songs for this artist and this is criteria,” and they send them to me. More and more right now the young artists are trying to write them all. About half of them I find are speaking a language that I’m not going to find a lot of people who are going to say that for them. One reason is because I’ve already prequalified the artist not to be something I’ve already heard, so every ball cap country writer in Nashville isn’t writing a song for them already. I’ve got a duo called One Armed Train that I really am sold on, and they’re writing words that are just for them. So I’m kind of finding songs their own writing efforts or by putting them with co-writers. I just started working with another girl I really like named Paulina Jayne from Detroit. Great artist. She’s saying something in a different way, so I can’t really put her with any other writers right now because I’m scared they’ll say, “You can’t say it that way….or… you have to do it this way,” and they’re just going to put her back into the copy and paste factory. I want her to keep doing what’s a little bit different. It’s not that it’s so different that it doesn’t work. I can find a lot of those. But different enough that it’s attractive and still right down the middle, those are really hard to find..
9. SMN: What are you primarily listening for when you listen to music for a project; what gets your attention?
TB: Melody is the first thing I notice. If it moves me then I react and start listening to what the lyric has to say.
SMN: Have you ever gone back to writers and asked them to rewrite a line or verse to make it up to the melody?
TB: Maybe once or twice. And I’m saying that because I’m sure I probably have, but it wasn’t notable enough that I remember what it was. Seems like I may have asked an artist that I was working with if they could fix something. One day Trace was on the mic singing a song neither of us wrote and suddenly he wasn’t happy with it…..he thought he wanted a little bridge section….so we wrote something on the spot, he sang it and then I contacted the writers to be sure they were cool with it.
10. SMN: Trey, you’re an Emmy Award winning songwriter. You’ve written eight number one singles including “Look Heart,” “No Hands,” “ Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man” and “Whisper My Name” by Randy Travis, “How Your Love Makes Me Feel” by Diamond Rio, and “Nothin That A Little Bit of You Won’t Cure” by Lee Roy Parnell. Do you still write a lot, or do you do more producing than writing?
TB: No, I still write a lot. In the last three years, I’ve demoed about 190 songs. It’s not what I was putting out seven or eight years ago, but it’s a lot now..
SMN: And when you say demo, do you go in with a full orchestration or just guitar vocals?
TB: No, those are all full demos.
SMN: Is there a certain studio you like to work with?
TB: I’ve gone through several in Nashville. I’ve been tracking a lot at SoundStage over the last few years. In the old days we would track and then go down the hall and do vocals, then go down the hall again and mix. But now, I go in and track and bring the hard drive home and finish it all here. That way I can go really slow and spend a couple of extra weeks and make $800 demos sound like $3,000 demo records. I do more than half of my demos at home now. In January, I wrote all that month for Rascal Flatts, so all of February I was doing the demos. I went to town and booked a room and players and we cut eight or ten songs in a day, and I came home and finished them over a period of three or four weeks. It depends on the project.
SMN: Do you do the vocals here too? (in his home studio)
11. SMN: How do you prefer to write, from a hook, an idea, or starting with a groove?
TB: Doesn’t matter to me. I mean, if there’s an artist in the room, which more and more there is when I sit down, I ask them what they want to write about. If they don’t know, and a lot of times they don’t, I’ll say, depending on their age, “Are you pissed off at your teacher, your mom, boyfriend, girlfriend? What’s going on with you? You got a three legged dog? Talk to me.” (Laughs) And they usually go, “Well, there’s this boy…,”or, “There’s this girl…” For me, for my own devices, I usually just careen down a hill with no breaks waiting to land on the title. And I don’t know the title until I get there, usually.
SMN: Do you just start establishing a groove and start spitting words out?
TB: Yes. I just spit words out and I’ll watch for them to react. If I think they’re with me, we keep going. If they say I don’t think I’d go there, then I change gears. Left to my own devices I just pick up a guitar and start making noise until the song starts flowing.
SMN: Before you do anything else?
TB: Yeah. I just got an Alabama single today on a song that I wrote by myself, but I wasn’t thinking about anybody for it. With artists, I ask them what they’ve got on their mind, because there are only so many things you can write about when it’s an artist and they are looking for their first single. You can only shoot so wide.
SMN: So when you’re writing by yourself, you do some words first, and then you see where that leads you?
TB: Usually I’ll do the words first, and a lot of the times I’ll get them in my car or when I’m out running. And then I put them on my phone, and when I get home I’ll look at them.
SMN: Maybe just three or four lines?
TB: Well, if I start spitting something out I’ll probably spit out a couple of verses or a verse; something that might be a chorus but still not sure if I have a title yet, necessarily. Then I come home and sit down with the guitar. That’s probably my favorite way to write.
SMN: Ok, so basically starting with a lyric?
TB: Yeah. A concept.
SMN: Which isn’t probably typical?
TB: I don’t know what typical is for everyone else. All the artists are all different, and that takes up more of your writing time more than before, because they want to get in the room. I used to vet that process out pretty good, where I would make sure that a writer was coming in. I remember when Rebecca Lynn Howard came in; I knew she could write, and when she got in the room the first day we wrote, we wrote a song that got cut. I mean, she was a child. But these days, they all want to write their record. They think that makes it artistic. It doesn’t really. It’s just another branch of it. It didn’t do anything for Garth [Brooks], Randy Travis, George Strait, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire; they didn’t write their records yet they are all artists without any doubt.
SMN: Do you think they want to write their own for their own monetary reasons?
TB: There’s some of that. A manager or uncle or somebody’s told them that that’s the only way they can make money. They don’t realize that’s not true. I still have artists go, “My uncle said that I can’t make any money unless I write the record.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me!?” There’s so much money to be made. I mean, Randy Travis isn’t a multi-platinum artist. Not like Taylor [Swift], or the Dixie Chicks. He would sell a million, maybe two million on a big record, didn’t write any songs, and he’s got houses all over the world. George Strait, same thing. These artists are selling millions and writing half their record and selling pajamas, birthday candles, plates, sleeping bags, bicycles, everything. There is so much money for them to make without being a songwriter.
And Miranda’s [Lambert] my model. When these young artists come in and want to write their whole record, I say , “Miranda Lambert, two albums ago, cut “House That Built Me,” written by a couple of 50-something year old guys out in the country. Because she couldn’t out-write that song, and she or somebody was smart enough to know that, it changed her life.” You could go how many cuts deep in that record, it’s a good record, and she wrote a couple by herself I think, but when it gets to that song, it changes her life. If that song wasn’t on the record, who knows how it would’ve ended up…. But that one changed her life. In my opinion she doesn’t have a song as big as “The House That Built Me” on the current record, but she still can still ski behind The House That Built Me for years while she waits on another one. That’s what I tell young artists. If you came here to be a singer, then do that. Let your writing catch up with you when it does. But you’re twenty. You’re not going to write The House That Built Me yet, probably. So you write as good as you can and let me find songs as good as I can for you. Don’t let your artistry wait on your songwriting to catch up, because it’s not going to happen. It’s probably not going to happen. (Laughs)
SMN: I thought the records companies, because of less money with the digital downloads and everything that’s going on, that a lot of record companies want the artist to write so that they then get a piece of the publishing as well as the record?
TB: There’s no point in a label wanting the artist to write if the label doesn’t have a solid control composition clause or a sister- publishing company.
Some record labels have publishing companies now and they sign the artist to both and find ways to work the artists debt and recoupment against each other from both income streams to make up for the change in full album sales.
12. SMN: You’ve had cuts by artists like: Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, Mark Willis, Diamond Rio, Marty Stuart, Faith Hill, Gary Allan, Clay Walker, LeAnn Rimes, Alabama, and the lists goes on and on. Do you have any “rules” that you impose on yourself in your writing?
TB: Not as far as form. I know if I’m writing for a first single I have some rules. If the artist says we’ve cut twelve songs and we’re still trying to beat the first single, I know I’ve got to squeeze something in a really small target. But if I’m just writing for a film that I know about, it’s rule per song. If I’m writing with Richard Marx, I make sure there’s a syllable for every note he gives me because they’re great. The melodies are crazy. If I’m writing something that’s going to be more Springsteen, Wallflowers, Train kind of thing, I know the melody and meter is not as important because you can wrap it around, you can let a couple notes dangle off and meet back up at the top of the next line. So I don’t have any rules. It’s really not rules, it’s tools. I have a tool for this; I have a tool for that, and I pull that tool out of that’s the job I have to do.
13. SMN: How do you find song ideas?
TB: I don’t know. I just watch movies, read books, listen to people talk. I try to think that I haven’t gotten desensitized to listening to people talk when I’m in a restaurant or coffee shop and know that they’re saying things all around me that are titles. But sometimes I think I do get a little rusty and don’t catch them like I used to do. But I just try to think of a new way to say the same old thing. That’s a real, premeditated way to do it. And I just meander. I just let stuff meander in my head when I’m running or when I’m in a car. And then something always comes out. I don’t panic anymore about it. I just know if I open the roof something will probably fall in. Sometimes when I’ve got different guitars lying around, if I just look at one the right way and pick it up and just play a chord, thinking, “I wonder if there’s something in this thing today,” sometimes there is, and it always amazes me. I have no idea where it’s going, and all of a sudden it pops out.
14. SMN: That is amazing. If you were a songwriter just arriving in Nashville today, what would you do? What is good advice for new writers trying to get themselves a deal or get a song cut?
TB: I would say, “Get as close to as many artists as you can get to.” It’s the artists that are making the records. If you know three kids that are close to record deals, publishing deals, or production deals, try to become friends with all three of them and become their co-writing buddy.
15. SMN: How can talented unknown songwriters compete with established hit writers for today’s cuts?
TB: I don’t know. I’m not sure I’ve ever known the answer to that one. It’s all networking and relationships. You can’t compete as far as getting your song into the A&R door. Sony writers and the Warner Chappell writers are getting their songs in the door. I don’t know how to get into that door if you’re not a published writer. But the way you compete with them is go back and get with the artists. I took one of my artists down to the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza about eight months ago, and I said, “This is just a writer’s round with a bunch of new writers who are going to be around eighteen to twenty-two years old; I want y’all to play this slot.” So I called somebody and got them on the slot. I went down there with them. It was like eight o’clock, Loews Vanderbilt Plaza on a Wednesday night at a little piano bar right off the main lobby. There were about twenty kids in there, and I had my little duo, One Armed Train, and they were getting ready to play. I saw Dianna Corcoran, who I met in Australia a couple years before, said “Hey Dianna, how’s it going?” She said, “let’s get together and write Trey.” I was in the room.
So we wrote a couple weeks later. She sent me the single just this morning. It’s coming out in three countries. But it’s because I just happened to be in the room. The way you compete is get off the couch and go out, and find those writer’s nights. There are writer’s nights everywhere now, it’s crazy. I went to one the other night down on Demonbreun to hear an artist that I really thought was good. It was crowded and jam packed with all the young writers and artist/ writer wannabees, and if I was a new writer, I would be going down there. I heard about six artists; This one kid got up, and his voice was amazing. I didn’t even get his name. I know who I can get his name from, because I saw who he was talking to, but that’s what I would be doing. I would be going, “Wow, that kid’s voice was great!” Someone else is going to think that, too. So I’m going to meet him right now and start writing songs with him.
16. SMN: What do you feel is the most exciting thing on the country music horizon?
TB: I don’t know. I can’t turn the radio on for more than about three seconds. Musically, there’s nothing going on for me. The fact that independent artists are starting to get their music out independently, that’s exciting to me. I mean, I think that everything that comes to pop and rock eventually comes to us, and independence is coming to us I think.
17. SMN: You worked with amazing artists like Trace Adkins and Rebecca Lynn Howard. Do you have any favorite stories that you’d like to share about working with them?
TB: You know, not really. It’s like all of those artists were so uneventful. They were just, I mean, Trace, he’s kind of grouchy, most mornings he’s not in the mood to do anything you want. He’s a nice guy, he’s a sweet human. He’s smart, but, you know, he’s grouchy about half the time.
SMN: You can edit this later if you choose to. (Laughs)
TB: Yeah. (Laughs) But I don’t really have a good story. He was having trouble with a lyric one time in the studio, and he knew Buddy Jewell was the demo singer, and he was like, “Call Buddy Jewell, get him to come sing it!” (Laughs) Buddy was a stunt singer for lots of writers, they were trying to get Trace cuts. The thing about Rebecca is she would get on the mic and just totally blow me away. And I’m prepared; I know this kid like the back of my hand. One time we were tracking at the Sound Kitchen, tracking her Forgive album, and she’s in the vocal booth, and I always made sure everything was right for her because she was probably going to sing part of her record from scratch. So the mic chain was ready to catch it if that happened.
She did something coming out of the third chorus in one of these songs, and I saw two or three of the players look over at the window at me, while they’re working on their parts. They heard what she did, and they all knew that a record got cut while they were tracking. They knew that her vocal had made it to tape. She’s always so casual about it.
SMN: Is there a song that made it to No. 1, and it surprised you?
TB: No. Songs that I’ve written or produced? Not really. There’s some that didn’t make it to #1 that surprised me. Usually if something goes No. 1, it’s not a surprise because there’s so many people involved working so hard to get it there. We pretty much know we are betting on this. So if it gets there, you’re not surprised, you’re relieved. You’re just relieved to get it there.
18. SMN: What question should we have asked that we didn’t?
TB: I couldn’t begin to tell you, I don’t know.
SMN: Thank you, Trey, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.
Thanks to Frances and Harry Date from Song Matchmakers Network – a boutique one stop music publisher, music licensing, and production company. Have a question you’d like us to ask or a person you’d like us to interview? Send them to [email protected].
For more information about us, see our website SongMatchmakersNetwork.com.