“For the Love of Songwriting” with Chuck Cannon
By Emily J Ramey
Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel
Chuck Cannon ambles down from his house in the woods to meet me, dressed in his finest beach wear, the remainder of a day on the lake with his three children.He shows me to his studio, a building separate from the house that once served as a garage, although you’d never know it: the stuccoed walls, rusted chandeliers, and dark curtains possess an old world, renaissance atmosphere, meant, I’m sure, to be conducive to the kind of flowing artistic talent so common to that era.Cannon offers me a tiny mug of fine espresso, and as we talk, he alternately sips his own cup and steps onto the front porch to puff on a cigar stub, its smoke fragrant and somehow foreign.It didn’t take me long to make up my mind – I like Chuck Cannon.
As a person, Chuck Cannon is decidedly amiable and renders a cool, easygoing charisma that instantly permeates the conversation.As a songwriter, that charisma is concentrated in his profoundly soulful mind to produce expressive songs steeped with grace, simplicity, and depth.Cannon writes incessantly, now just expounding his already massive and esteemed catalog, but the man had to begin somewhere.
Cannon grew up in South Carolina in a family of music lovers and Pentecostal preachers.His initial influences were broad and numerous – anything from The Beatles to Sinatra to Johnny Cash and Isaac Hayes.And as it turns out, Cannon had an early flair for writing as well.
“I wrote poetry as a kid, which was kind of odd because I was a bit of a jock too.You know it’s always odd when jocks doing anything like that.Actually, it got me into a couple of fights with those guys.”
When asked about advice given and impressions made as a burgeoning young songwriter and the development of his own technique, Cannon admits to very little uniformity in his songwriting approach.
“There are a lot of songwriters that are more method-oriented than I am.Sometimes a piece of music will inspire a song.Sometimes a line will inspire a song.I typically spend most of my time, when I’m actively trying to write a song, trying to think of a concept.And after that, a first line… because really, really good [first lines] are rare,” Cannon states.“I learned that lesson actually while I was at Belmont.”
As a music business student at Belmont (then Belmont College), Cannon ended up in the office of producer great Blake Mevis as part of an audio project.But Mevis recognized the songwriter in young Cannon and offered the boy his best advice, which he still remembers:
“He said, ‘Let me tell you about songwriting, because that’s where it starts,’ and I was all ears.He said, ‘What’s the most important line of a song?’ and very quickly I went, ‘Oh, the hook.’And he went, ‘Wrong.Dead wrong.’And of course, I was, I think, 20 years old, full of piss and vinegar, and already knew every damn thing; all I needed to do was get all these old guys that were running the town to listen to me for a few minutes,” Cannon laughs.“So, I said, ‘Okay, what is it?’And he said, ‘Well, it’s the first line.’And I said, ‘Really… okay, well, give me an example.’And he gave me the example, ‘It’s the third hardest thing I’ll ever do/Leaving here without you.’
“Now, Emily, what do you want to know?[You want to know] what happens next, and the only way you can find out is to listen to the rest of the song,” Cannon nearly whispers.“If I had to point to one thing – one single piece of advice – that was more informative to me, and more formative as a songwriter, I would have to jump up on the coffee table in front of Bob Dylan and say, ‘That’s it right there.’”
From that moment, Chuck Cannon took off, rocketing into Nashville’s notoriously fastidious songwriters’ realm and making a name for himself with proof of his talent as a wordsmith and musician.
One of Cannon’s first notable compositions was “I Love the Way You Love Me,” a No. 1 hit for John Michael Montgomery in 1993, which Cannon co-wrote with Victoria Shaw.This song also won the Song of the Year award at the Academy of Country Music awards, which is awarded to songwriters.From there, Cannon began working primarily for Toby Keith, including “Me Too,” “Dream Walkin’,” “We Were in Love,” “Getcha Some,” “If a Man Answers,” and “When Love Fades” in the late 1990s, “How Do You Like Me Now?!” in 2000, and “American Soldier” in 2003-2004.
“How Do You Like Me Now?!” was the No. 1 Country Song of the Year according to the Billboard Year-End charts. Both it and “I Love the Way You Love Me” earned Eight-Million-Air Awards from BMI for receiving eight million spins on radio.
Cannon also self-released two albums: God Shaped Hole and Love and Money in 2006 and 2008, respectively, bringing to light his own gritty, soulful voice that resonates within his lyrics – intoning words that come from an enigmatic yet unaffected place.His albums prove that Cannon possesses a rare versatility to write both universally evocative songs as well as his personally significant melodies.
Beyond serving as one of Music City’s leading writers, Cannon has become a voice for his fellow songsmiths.Nashville Underground is a triumph in whose foundation Cannon played a key part.Nashville Underground is a record label designed to showcase the best of Nashville’s hit songwriters performing their own work.NU releases samplers with back-to-back award-winning tracks, and boasts a cast that includes such characters as Bob DiPiero, Stephony Smith, Gary Burr, Beth Nielson Chapman, and Jeffrey Steele, among many others.
When asked about success outside songwriting, Cannon insists, “One of my greatest honors was to be elected President of the Nashville Songwriters Association International.”However in 2003, Cannon denied an amendment to the NSAI constitution which would have allowed him to serve a third term as President.In the end, he said, administration was meant for other people.Cannon still serves on their Executive Board and Legislative Committees, working to “make the world aware of the songwriter,” but he was itching to get back to just writing songs.
“Me – I get up everyday, and I haven’t been able to sleep all night because I’m trying to figure out something to write.I’m trying to get these buzzing songs out of my head, out so that I can sleep.I love the process,” Cannon confesses.“There’s always kind of a mixed emotion at the moment of finishing… Have you ever read a really good book and you start trying to slow down towards the end?I love the process.I love every aspect of the process of writing.”
Cannon is not only extremely fond of the process of writing on his own, but also of writing with other songwriters and does so regularly.
“Probably my go-to guy is Chuck Jones.He wrote, ‘I’ve seen the seven wonders of the world/The moon in all its phases/But your love amazes me.’I mean, he rhymed ‘phases’ and ‘amazes’ – how genius is that?”
Cannon makes a point of approaching each particular songwriting session with a slightly different attitude, but always with the foremost objective of learning.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a co-writing situation where I didn’t learn something.From the most jaded, crusty guy that’s been writing hits since the 50s to the wild-eyed and innocent ‘oh-I-just-want-to-write-a-song.’I actively seek it out,” Cannon asserts.“I go into writing sessions with ‘What am I supposed to learn here today?’I honestly think that has been one of the key ingredients to any success that I’ve had.
“… [But] the important thing is listening, being really present, so I can actually help turn what they’re trying to say into lyric and melody.I love songwriters,” Cannon finishes.
Next on the Agenda
Most recently, Cannon is gearing up to set sail through the Caribbean on Cayamo 2010: A Journey Through Song. The festival will be departing from Miami on February 21, 2010, and making stops in beautiful Belize City, Belize and Costa Maya, Mexico. Cannon will be joining a stellar singer/songwriter line-up for this five-day journey.
Cayamo announced some returning artists this year as well as some new faces. Favorites Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, Buddy Miller, John Hiatt, Darrell Scott, Shawn Mullins, Vienna Teng and Katie Herzig, will board Cayamo alongside newcomers Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Allison Moorer, Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers, Rachael Yamagata, and plenty more artists that will be announced throughout the year.Those updates, prices, and other information about Cayamo can be found at www.cayamo.com.
Cannon is also working on a third album and touring consistently throughout the rest of 2009.
Chuck Cannon is one of those songwriters that will be contributing until his pen gives out, and writing in his head after that, until the day he dies.Like any true Nashvillian, music is in his blood.We as Music City will forever be happy to claim him as one of our own.