By Abby Anastasio
When the students going on the 2017 Berklee Nashville Trip boarded the bus in Boston, none of us anticipated that our 25-hour journey would include a breakdown and subsequent pit stop at a secluded Waffle House franchise in the small town of Lexington, VA. Even more surprised than all of us were the employees at that location, who were given no warning that 120 hungry, tired college students were about to touch down and make their day interesting. Within minutes, the tiny restaurant filled with deafening chatter, one student had queued up “All Star” by Smash Mouth on the jukebox, and the hashbrowns were flying from the first order until the bus was finally fixed. As funny as it is to look back on all of us invading that Waffle House, the week in Nashville that followed was far less stressfully spontaneous. Having gone on the trip the year prior, I had a vague idea of what I was getting into, but this trip proved to be a very fresh experience in many ways.
We started each day at Warner Music Nashville’s headquarters in the heart of Music Row, soaking up knowledge from Music City’s finest songwriters, session players, producers, and management powerhouses. We started off strong; veteran songwriter Gary Burr delivered the keynote speech, sharing several pearls of wisdom for the aspiring writers in the room. One thing he said that really stuck with me was that every song should have a “north star:” a five-word summary of the song’s message. He gave Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as an example; the north star of that song, as Burr interpreted it, is “you’re in sh*t? I’m there.” I’ve utilized that concept in several songs I’ve written since the trip ended, and I’ve found it helps me condense my ideas and make sure the song makes sense from the first verse to the last chorus.
Immediately after Burr’s keynote, we took in a panel by producers Eric Masse, Frank Liddell, and Tom Hambridge. In this panel, Liddell dispensed my favorite sound bite from the entire trip: “I like music that’s from people, not for people.” That hit home for a large number of the students I spoke to afterwards, as we’re often taught in classes at Berklee that a song must be commercially viable above all else. Liddell’s sentiment was also echoed in the clinic given a few days later by Allen Shamblin, a perennial Nashville Trip favorite and a co-writer on Bonnie Raitt’s career-defining hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Shamblin told the writers in the room to “write your deepest joys and deepest sorrows,” because without authenticity, commercial success will feel shallow and superficial.
Though Nashville’s roots are unquestionably planted in country music, we took in some non-country-oriented clinics as well. I appreciated that opportunity, because I love Nashville as a city, but I don’t plan to work on country music when I move there – that isn’t my experience or my story to tell, and the city itself is diversifying genre-wise to include a wider range of musical perspectives. One such perspective came from hit songwriter Claude Kelly, who is responsible for bringing us such iconic tracks as “Grenade” by Bruno Mars and “Circus” by Britney Spears. Along with his musical partner Chuck Harmony—the two record together as Louis York—Kelly has recently founded a collective in Nashville called Weirdo Workshop, which represents Louis York and a handful of other artists. Kelly built his career writing for other artists, and shared with us that when writing for someone else, you have to ground the song in something real that that artist can tap into when recording. In that regard, Kelly shared, “being a songwriter is like being a therapist.”
In addition to the clinics we were fortunate to take in every day, we also ventured out to explore Nashville’s many studios. I went on the excursion to Southern Ground Studios, and though I am by no means an audio engineer, it was still amazing to see the room where the Zac Brown Band records their material. We also had the opportunity to take a field trip to the Grand Ole Opry one night, where we took in performances by Chris Janson, Kristian Bush of Sugarland, and country legend Trace Adkins—from backstage. Going backstage at the Opry will go down in history as one of the coolest moments of my life, bar none. There are 18 dressing rooms, all with a specific theme; the “Now That’s Funny” dressing room is reserved for comedy acts that come through the Opry, while the “Women of Country” room is reserved for, well, the incredible women of country.
It took me a while to realize this, as I’m decidedly not a country artist, but going on the Nashville Trip two years in a row has truly proven to me that Nashville is where I need to be. This trip never fails to inspire me. The music community is inclusive and encouraging, there is so much room for growth, and networking feels more genuine there than any other music town I’ve visited. If you haven’t experienced Nashville for yourself yet, I highly suggest you look into going on the trip in 2018—or book a trip down to Music City yourself!
Abby Anastasio is a singer-songwriter hailing from rainy Seattle, Washington. She writes extensively for other artists, while simultaneously pursuing her own solo project—she describes it as “sad girl indie rock” music in the vein of Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. She graduated from Berklee College of Music in May 2017 with a Bachelor of Music in Songwriting.