“Burning Up Nashville” with Sage Keffer
By Emily J Ramey
Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel
Sage Keffer is excited about country music. And I’m not just talking about looking forward to getting a hit song on the radio, or enthusiastic about his upcoming album, or optimistic that the CMT reality show he’s featured in this spring is going to garner some well-warranted publicity. This man is buzzing with contagious energy.
As I sit down with him in his office on 18th Ave. in Nashville, Keffer is positively bursting with anecdotes and witticisms and lessons learned. At first, I thought Sage Keffer might have just had a little too much coffee that morning or that he was just thrilled about all the opportunities he’s come across since he made the infamous move to Music City, but over the course of our interview, I realize that he’s just a dynamic kind of guy, and when you get him talking about his journey and his experiences in country music, he’s refreshingly passionate about every step of the way, burning for each new endeavor on his way up.
Sage Keffer, in his own words, is capable of a well-blended variety of genres: “it goes anywhere from rock and country to jazz and country; there’s even a bit of a Latin mixture.” In my words, Keffer has an uncanny ability to transform between songs and manifest himself and his voice in each new number with unconventionally diverse skill and delightful effortlessness. However, in talking with Sage, he reveals that his natural presence and musical ability didn’t always come easy.
“When I moved to Nashville I didn’t know how to play the guitar,” Keffer admits. “If I thought about it, I could make a D chord, C chord, and that was about it.” Keffer, young, green, and ambitious, didn’t let idle his fingers for long, though.
“I was told to go to the Bluebird Cafe, and I started hanging out there, and I saw this lady named Ellen Britton, and I thought, what do you know? I found a guitar teacher,” Keffer laughs. “Little did I know that there’re musicians everywhere here and it’s hard not to find a guitar teacher or songwriter.
“I took lessons from her for quite some time,” Keffer continues, “and then when the money started running short, I started mowing her yard in exchange for lessons. I did that for a couple of summers, and I just can’t say enough great things about her.
“My goal initially was to just get to the point where I could accompany myself, but now I even give a guitar lesson or two now. I’m certainly no Brad Paisley or Keith Urban, you know, but I can do alright,” he finishes.
Astounded at the brazen courage with which Keffer replanted himself and his dreams in Nashville, I am compelled to unearth his musical past.
“I grew up playing the violin in orchestra and I also sang in choir, so I had classical music theory behind me,” Keffer replies, but it seems evident that his true passion has always been in singing country music though.
“By the time my freshman year ended at the University of Denver, I was like, ‘I do not want to be a vocal major anymore,’ because I was learning how to sing in Old English and Italian. And my heart’s always been in country music. […] My goal has always been move to Nashville. […] So I finished up my degree in psychology, and moved down here immediately.”
“In kindergarten,” Keffer explains further, “I wanted to be a singer, an actor, a writer, a boxer, and an astronaut, and I always knew I wanted to sing country music, so when I graduated college, I thought I could either move to LA, do acting, and then get into country music, or move to Nashville, do country music, and then get into acting. I always admired the careers of Dwight Yoakam or Harry Connick, Jr. who have been able to do well in both and be pretty well respected in both.”
When asked, “Why country music?” Keffer’s answer is honest and simple: “Country music has always been influential to me because it’s always been about real life – the trials and the tribulations… and the good, happy stuff too.”
For Sage Keffer country music was a given. And Nashville was an easy choice; however, making it in this city harbored unforeseen challenges for the Colorado native – songwriting being the most prominent, and the most formidable.
“The reason I’m here is because I love performing onstage, so when I moved out here, I had not done much writing,” he tells me. “I had composed some music growing up and in college, not a whole lot of journaling or writing, so when I moved out here, I found out writing was huge.”
But of course, Keffer was not to be discouraged. He saw his lack of experience not as a barrier but as a call to action.
“I started attending the Bluebird every night, I started studying, I’d go see Jason Blume’s class over at BMI, I got involved with NSAI,” recalls Keffer. “I started studying songwriting, since that was going to be very important as one of the key aspects of being an artist here in Nashville. You pretty much have to do it all.”
In just the short amount of time I’ve known Sage Keffer, it seems obvious to me the kind of man he is: undaunted and hard-working, optimistic and full of life. Keffer is willing to talk about how far he’s come and how much he has yet to do. I can almost anticipate his next words about cultivating his songwriting expertise:
“I’ve done a whole lot of bad writing, trying to get better. That’s what it takes. You have got to be willing to put yourself out there and mess up a whole lot in order to ever get something right.
Keffer then sums up his overall philosophy on songwriting material: “As an artist, I believe in singing the best material available. I believe that a lot of my own material now is holding up along with the other material that I’ve been pitched, and finally of the same caliber.
“What I’m saying,” he clarifies, “is that I’m not opposed to cutting outside material. I’ll probably always be a half-and-half type of person. I think Alan Jackson has been wise – he cuts his own best material, and he also takes in outside material that’s also terrific, and to me, that’s the smart way to go.”
As far as writing style goes, Sage Keffer is a self-proclaimed ideas person, but I’m certain he brings his musical chops to the table as well; he’s just too humble to say so.
“I love writing with people that are great lyricists,” Keffer tells me. “I love going into co-writing sessions with most of music already done and then hashing out the lyrics together, or sometimes I’ll get lyrics, and I’ll come back to them with three different songs, and say, ‘Which melody do you like?’
“I’m more of a music person and an ideas person,” he explains, “and I’m still working on the lyrics aspect of it. […] I know what I’m looking for musically, but in terms of topics and lyrics, probably what I write about is stuff that is more of a day-to-day kind of thing, about real life – both the joys and the lows of real life. I don’t have a certain agenda that’s on my mind.
“I like to use my own personal experiences, but I also believe as an artist, we are actors. We don’t always have to sing about something that happened to us. It’s just important that we’re able to relate,” Keffer concludes profoundly.
So, Sage Keffer learned how to play guitar and how to write songs after he came to Nashville. I suppose the only thing we know he brought with him in the move was his voice, and he wasted no time making an impression on Music City. In fact, he’s a three-time veteran of our own Nashville Star.
“I made it to the nationals, all three seasons. That was great training. Let me tell you – you don’t do contests to win. I mean sure, it’s great if you win, but it’s all part of your training,” Keffer elaborates. “If you can have a strong enough stomach to go up there and have those judges rip you to shreds in front of everybody, then you can start handling bigger things. I’m constantly putting myself in challenging situations.”
But Nashville Star probably seems like a walk in the park compared to the challenging situation Keffer got himself into last year. Sage will be making an appearance on CMT’s reality show Running Wild with Ted Nugent airing in the spring.
“We filmed it last February at a ranch in Waco, TX. Working with Ted Nugent was certainly very interesting,” he describes. “He is definitely a larger-than-life character when the camera is rolling, and tones it down slightly when the camera is off. He is… an entertainer.
“Being on a reality show is…,” Keffer trails off, searching for an appropriate word. “Well, [Nugent] hunts us for 24 hours in the wilderness, so it was a very, very rough time. The whole show was pretty rough. They withheld water, they withheld food, I got six hours of sleep over three days, and I’ve never been so cold in my life. Reality TV is certainly an interesting format of entertainment.
“I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to be on the show, though,” he sums up, “and I learned a lot about myself by being on the show because it was such a large challenge that I ended up doing things that I didn’t know I could do.”
Looking into the future beyond the TV show, Sage Keffer’s got a lot happening, most importantly the pending release of his second full-length album. I, of course, sought out a little insight on the new material.
“The difference between my first CD and my second CD is that on [Rules of the Game], I didn’t know any better and I thought it was okay to do a wide variety of material, but on this new album I’ve really been working to distill myself down in order to be more marketable and recognizable,” Keffer reveals. “When we were looking to track my second CD, I said, ‘We’re looking at a combination between Dwight Yoakam, Chris Isaac, and George Strait – moody, interesting rhythms, but still traditional enough to be just country.’”
My next question is predictably about tour schedules, but it looks like most of next year’s booking is still being finalized. All that’s certain is that Keffer is “working on booking some gigs in Europe, and [he’s] got a show at the Wildhorse here in Nashville on the 15th of December.”
Sage Keffer is not only a refreshingly diverse and capable new personality in country music, he’s also one of the most solid and unpretentious people I’ve ever met. He has an articulate idea of where he’s going, as well as a clear idea of where he’s from and the effort he’s put in to get to this stage. I think his own words better interpret the point I’m making:
“I really plan on living a pretty extraordinary life.”
And he’s making it happen… so that Nashville can burn a little brighter.