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Past, Present and Future Align in Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Inductions

today10/11/2023

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Early in his emergence as a national country artist, Keith Urban assembled a string of singles that reveled in the moment.

“Days Go By,” “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me,” “Somebody Like You,” “Raining on Sunday” and “You’re My Better Half” — some of them from the appropriately named album Be Here — celebrated living life in the present rather than wallowing in the past or stressing about the future. Mastering that is one of the biggest challenges of day-to-day existence in the device-encumbered 21st century. But it has always been a huge hurdle for creators, particularly when business — with its need to plan future marketing and account for past expenses — distracts from making art in the moment.

Urban and fellow composers Kix Brooks, David Lee Murphy, Casey Beathard and Rafe Van Hoy will face an intersection of past, present and future tonight (Oct. 11) when they’re officially inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The event at the Music City Center is by definition a celebration that occurs in the moment, but it’s an achievement built on previous accomplishments, and the enshrinement creates a marker that will exist in a permanent future.

Urban is likely as prepared for that clash of time stamps as is possible, given how often he has encouraged listeners to grab the moment as it arrives. He recognizes the importance of embracing the now as a steppingstone between the established past and the unknown future.

“I like feeling a part of a through line,” he says, “where I’ve come from, how I got to be where I am, but mostly, I’ve always looked forward.”

Finding the glory in a moment is frequently the task at hand in writing hits. Many fans, often when commuting to or from a job they dislike, look to find escape in recordings that help make their present moments better.

Songs that focus on the instant as it passes can certainly accomplish that, though material that draws on the past or imagines a future event can have value in the current moment, too. Figuring out what kind of song to create is frequently a decision best made by reading the room.

“I like those live-in-the-moment kind of things because I try to [live like] that,” Murphy says. “But I look back fondly on things that I’ve done. So I just kind of take them as they come.”

Murphy has indeed created some lasting songs in present tense: His own “Party Crowd,” the Kenny Chesney hit “Living in Fast Forward” and Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor” all focus on events as they unfold. His 1996 hit “The Road You Leave Behind” leans on past childhood lessons to create a worthwhile present, and his Chesney duet, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” applies optimism to future uncertainty.

The other Hall of Fame entrants have similar mixes. Beathard’s “Don’t Blink,” made famous by Chesney, employs a centenarian character whose advice for successful living is to experience each moment while it’s here. The Eric Church co-write “Like a Wrecking Ball” anticipates a rockin’ bedroom in the very near future. And Beathard’s Jeff Bates hit, “The Love Song,” looks back to understand key relationships.

Brooks’ hit list as a writer includes The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s backward-glancing “Modern Day Romance,” Brooks & Dunn’sright-now declaration “Brand New Man” and a celebration of future possibilities, “Only in America.” But he was living in the present when he wrote it.

Brooks remembers that “Only in America” came together after he and songwriters Don Cook and Ronnie Rogers had spent the day four-wheeling. He describes it as “grown men getting corny, just going, ‘God, are we lucky to be born on this part of the planet?’ We complain about our world sometimes, but man, you know, we are blessed to just have been born here. No matter what your background is, the opportunity is there.”

Creating in the present is tricky — yoga and meditation are currently trendy in part because people find it so difficult to tune into what’s happening now. That’s one of the hurdles that makes the songwriting process — and any other creative endeavors — so challenging. Younger songwriters who are just sticking their toes in the water are prone to get distracted by imagining the song’s future as they create it. Veteran writers more often get hung up by their accumulated experience, measuring the current writing session against previous successes and failures.

The now, of course, is all that’s available. Getting rid of the years of clutter from the past is key to making the most of each fleeting moment as it passes.

“A friend of mine said I had beginner’s mind,” notes Urban. “And I think that’s probably what it is, where I truly walk into a studio to make a record, almost thinking, ‘How do I do this? What? How?’ Where I have no real feelings at all that I’ve ever done a record. And it’s not something I have to try to do. It’s just naturally how I feel. It’s a blank canvas, and it feels very fresh and brand new and exhilarating and anxiety-ridden and everything all at once.”

As simple as that sounds, time is a jumble. Even when writing in the present tense, most songs are informed by other time frames. As an example, the biggest hit for the late John Jarrard, who’ll be added to the Hall of Fame as a legacy entry, was arguably George Strait’s “Blue Clear Sky,” which centered on the instant when a single person recognizes their soul mate. But the present has power because it’s informed by past disappointments. And Jarrard quite often mixed time frames. The Collin Raye cut “My Kind of Girl” and Tracy Lawrence’s “Is That a Tear” paired verses grounded in the past with choruses firmly in the current moment, and his John Schneider cut, “What’s a Memory Like You (Doing in a Love Like This),” blends past and present in a troubling haze.

Van Hoy, meanwhile, earned his first hit with George Jones & Tammy Wynette’s“Golden Ring,” a story song that traces a series of present-tense events in the life cycle of a piece of jewelry. His most enduring song — “What’s Forever For,” recorded numerous times before Michael Martin Murphey cut the hit version — is obsessed with the future.

The Hall of Fame inductees have mostly come to terms with that issue. As they celebrate the present moment at the Oct. 11 ceremony, they have enough past experience to recognize the successful futures they created weren’t necessarily shaped by the songs they expected.

“You never know,” Van Hoy says, “which of those are going to connect and hang around.” 

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