Photos by Lou Montesano
Beneath the Cutting Room’s ornate proscenium, Nashville came to Manhattan in the form of four working country music songwriters who also happened to play and sing pretty dang well. Georgia Middleman and husband Gary Burr co-hosted the semi-regular event, promoted as “Nashville in New York.” The couple was joined on this particular evening by Tony Arata, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Dennis Matkosky.
The names might not be familiar even to hard-core country fans, but the songs they have written over the past few decades certainly are. Big-time stars like Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, LeAnn Rimes, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride and Boz Scaggs have recorded songs penned by these writers. With Matkosky on piano and the others on acoustic guitars, the foursome traded off performing their compositions and sharing stories about the songs and the songwriting business.
And, oh, the stories they told. Today’s Nashville scene is not unlike New York’s Tin Pan Alley of the early 20th century or Carole King’s days in the Brill Building where tunesmiths toiled and pitched their songs to producers and artists, hoping that one of their compositions would be recorded by someone of note and become a hit. The Nashville writers also shared how certain songs came into being, from an actual experience to a toss-away line or a sentence pulled from a magazine. Phrases such as “Don’t Make Me Laugh” and “I Thought You’d Never Leave” can be turned into clever and bittersweet songs in the hands of a talented songwriter.
Middleman is originally from San Antonio, while husband Burr, who once had the unenviable task of replacing the golden-voiced Vince Gill in Pure Prairie League, hails from the country music hotbed of Meriden, Connecticut. In addition to their individual careers, the couple has teamed with Kenny Loggins, known in songwriting circles as “the soundtrack king” for his successful work in Hollywood. Together with Loggins, the threesome write and perform as the Blue Sky Riders.
Before settling in Nashville, McKoskey spent several years in Los Angeles, bringing a Randy Newman sensibility to the mix. Humble and unassuming but more than capable of holding his own was Arata, singing his songs and telling tales in his authentic Georgia-reared voice about Garth Brooks, Chet Atkins and other giants with whom he has worked.
Further adding to the musical gumbo, guests hopped up from the audience to join the foursome on stage. Manhattan-born Victoria Shaw sat down at the piano and delivered “I Love The Way You Love Me,” a ballad as worthy of Broadway as country music radio. And Mark Hudson, a long-time musical associate of Ringo Starr (and Kate Hudson’s uncle), added even more spice as he told the hilarious tale of failing to sell a “sure-fire hit” he’d written to Don Henley and the Eagles. To demonstrate just how great the song would have sounded with the Eagles’ trademark harmonies, he summoned Timothy B. Schmit to the stage to create a short but very sweet three-part harmony.
Georgia Middleman and Gary Burr will be back at the Cutting Room with different songwriting friends for another night of Nashville in New York. Even if country music is not your thing, there’s enough crossover to other genres that you’re likely to hear some things you’ll enjoy and have heard somewhere before.