Every year hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring songwriters come pouring into the Nashville market with dreams of hearing their lyrics and melodies on top country acts. Writers like Trey Bruce, a TN. native that went from rocking the bars of Memphis, to becoming an ACM nominated, Emmy and ASCAP award winning, and multiple #1 hit songwriter. Some of his songs have been recorded and performed by Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, LeAnn Rimes, ZZ Top, Lyndyrd Skynyrd, and more. He has had placements on television programs like: The Biggest Loser, American Idol, The X Factor and Pretty Little Liars. And as a producer, Trey has made records with Chris LeDoux, Trace Adkins, and Rebecca Lynn Howard, just to name a few. That’s My Gig recently caught up with Trey to find out what’s really happening in the world of publishing and songwriting, as the music business continues to transform.
By: Bri Blaire
TMG: Trey, first of all, thanks for taking the time to share your story with That’s My Gig. We are honored! You have led a very diverse life in the music industry: having written and produced songs with major artists, while working on your own projects as an artist. When did music first become a part of your life?
TREY: When I was a pre-teen, I became addicted to music, as a listener and a consumer. But I never formally studied any instruments.
TMG: So, when did you start gigging out in Memphis?
TREY: When I was a junior in high school, I started playing in clubs and bars in and around Memphis as a drummer.
TMG: How did the goal of becoming a professional drummer transfer into songwriting and producing?
TREY: I was in my early 20s when I realized that I was bound to be a songwriter and not a rockstar drummer. Being a producer was never in my sights until I was asked to do it.
TMG: How did you make the decision to leave Memphis and move to Nashville?
TREY: Memphis only served as a place to be born. And it was fertile ground for working on my chops in bars as a musician. There was nothing of the “music business” in Memphis, and as soon as I realized that, I left. I came to Nashville and immediately began stumbling my way up.
TMG: When did songwriting become part of your musical goals?
TREY: I started writing in high school because I was in bands. But the day I moved to Nashville, my focus regarding writing was only to get cuts.
TMG: Memphis is only a few hours away from Nashville, was the move a smooth transition for you?
TREY: I packed my bags and came here on short notice. I wasted a little time renting a house out in the country and driving back to Memphis every week to gig. But when I finally moved to Nashville proper, I rented a house on the east side of town, got a day job, and started looking for my way in to the music business via songwriting.
TMG: Once you were settled in Nashville, was it hard getting in on writing sessions?
TREY: After moving to east Nashville, I got a job painting cars in a shop close to my house. And I was playing drums and writing in a couple of rock bands. Everyone in Nashville that I met was a no-named writer, so the chance to be social and surrounded by like-minded people was easy. I eventually moved to Franklin and got a job delivering pizza at night so I could write during the day.
TMG: Did you show up to Nashville with a demo of your songs, ready to hand out, or did you record a demo once you arrived?
TREY: After I moved to Nashville, I wrote and recorded them on some sort of little hand-held cassette recorder: basically writer work tapes. It was in the car, over hours and hours of delivering pizza, listening to the radio, and Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love record, that I first had the thought that I actually liked country music. That’s when I began learning how to write country instead of bad rock songs.
TMG: What did your original work tape consist of?
TREY: I had about 8 songs and I played the guitar and sang on them. There were no other musicians on my demos. That work tape is what I actually used to get my first publishing deal.
TMG: I read that country artist Shelby Lynn, cut your first demo. How did you get that demo in front of her?
TREY: I met with a few publishers that said I needed to keep working at things. I met with one publisher who was taken with me enough to walk me around the building and he introduced me to a few of the big writers that happened to be there that day. On the 3rd or 4th day of my publisher tour, I met a guy named Al Cooley at MCA Music. He wasn’t happy that I’d gotten a meeting with him. And about five minutes into it, he admitted that he thought I was someone else as he was fumbling through his paper calendar, trying to figure out why he was meeting with me. He allowed me to play one song for him and that’s all it took for him to get his boss, Noel Fox. They invited me back the next week to write with one of their writers, named Lisa Silver. We wrote a song called, “Things are Tough All Over”. Al put our song on a proper demo session that was happening at the in-house studio. When it was finished, he played it for the head of CBS records, Bob Montgomery. Bob loved it and put it on HOLD. That’s when Al called and offered me a pub deal. I took it: $8,000 per year for a three year deal. I was off!
TMG: You went on to form your own indie publishing company, Big Tractor Music. How did that all come together?
TREY: During the last days of my 3 year MCA deal, I had a song in the charts called “Look Heart No Hands”, on Randy Travis. Scott Hendricks was a record producer, already hot and getting much hotter, and he’d began cutting a few of my songs on some of his artists. Scott heard my deal was almost up and called me out of the blue one day, asking what I was going to do next, regarding publishing. He told me he would start a company if I would come write for him, and I told him that I needed to sleep on it. The next day, I went to see him and said, “Yes”. We opened Big Tractor Music. For the first 12 months, he shared his office with me. The coffee machine was in the closet and there was an extra couch and chair across from his desk. I wrote when he was out of the room, gone to lunch, in the studio, or I would find a vacant office at the end of the hall, ect, etc.
TMG: So after being on both sides of the publishing spectrum, I’m sure you know the “ins” and “outs” of the business better than anyone. Tell us, how do Nashville newbies typically get Pub. Deals in today’s music world?
TREY: From Big Tractor days to now, the process has changed several times over, but currently it is harder than ever, and it’s probably going to stay that way for a while. Because album sales have diminished, publishers can’t sign as many writers and they can no longer gamble, as freely, on alternative types of writers. They have to concentrate on writers that have direct relationships with the artists and the producers that cut their songs. Album cuts will not make a publisher enough money anymore to keep those alternative types of writers signed: there are few exceptions to this in these times. With better sales, will come better and deeper pools of writers at the publishing level.
TMG: Your first big cut, “Look Heart No Hands”, had great success. What was the inspiration behind the song and how did it go from the original idea to Randy Travis’ album?
TREY: I wrote this in the basement of the old MCA Music building on 17th with Russell Smith. I had the title idea and Russell had this really elegant and sparse melody and phrasing for the chorus that came in mostly two syllable bursts. It was a sprinkling of ingredients and not really in complete thoughts and sentences. But it was so pure and simple that the words painted all that you needed to know about this feeling of love. The next day we did a live guitar/vocal: I played guitar and Russell sang. Gary Burr was walking by and we asked him to sing the background vocal part. That was the demo. Dave Loggins was running the creative arm of MCA at the time, and he and I drove the song over to the producer’s office: Kyle Lehning. We walked past the receptionist, who was screaming that Kyle was in a meeting and we couldn’t go in. Dave ignored her and I followed. I was a new writer and very green. I simply did what Dave told me to do. We walked into the meeting, and the meeting was with the legendary songwriter, Hugh Presswood. Kyle was not amused with us barging in. In an effort to get rid of us, he told Dave he would listen, and then we would have to leave. Kyle listened all the way through to the end, and then he said, “Can I put this on HOLD for Randy Travis?” It became the single on Randy’s first greatest hits package, and went to #1 in nine weeks. That song changed my life. I had a good list of Randy cuts and #1s after “Look Heart No Hands”. He usually cut the best songs I could write, often songs that I couldn’t get cut by anyone else.
TMG: That’s a great story! So, how can a new writer get their song in front of the right people and get noticed?
TREY: They need a publisher of their own, or a few co-writers that have good publishers.
TMG: A lot of writers outside of the major music markets believe they can just mail their demos into publishers, or to the artists themselves, and there is a chance they could really be discovered or get a cut. What are the odds of this becoming a reality?
TREY: Slim to none, in my experience.
TMG: You mentioned that the songwriting business has changed dramatically since you got your first cut. What is a current approach for aspiring songwriters, that you would recommend?
TREY: The songwriting business has definitely changed because the music business has changed. Change happens all the time. Permanent change happens less often, but that’s what we have now. The one thing that hasn’t changed, is that for a writer to get noticed, he or she has to get out and play all of the writer clubs. Say “hi” and meet everyone you run into in these places. Be available. Make eye contact. Smile. Play a great song. In Nashville, it would take a lot of effort to not meet people and not find someone that wants to hear you sing in a club, and not make friends with others like yourself.
TMG: What are some of the writing/production projects you are currently working on, or have been working on over the past 12 months?
TREY: I just got one of my artists signed to Big Machine Records: Lauren Jenkins. I’m in the process of producing her record right now. I have an artist called One Arm Train that I am also excited about.
I recently started a duo with Loni Rose, called King’s Bullet. We wrote and recorded an 8 song EP and put it on iTunes, strictly as a way to get syncs disguised as an artist. The disguise worked so well that we got offered a record deal through Sony Red via a cold call on Facebook. I resisted until I couldn’t any longer, and we’ve since written and recorded the rest of the record. We turned it in to the label, Red River/Sony Red, and they say that it’s coming out summer of 2014.
TMG: If you could go back in time, before you officially entered the world of the music business, and give “90s Trey” three points of advice, what would they be?
1) Take Piano Lessons.
2) Eat healthy, always.
3) Diversify with everything.
TMG: So, after receiving 13 ASCAP Awards, an Emmy Award, 5 #1 singles, multiple top 5 & 10 hits, an Academy Of Country Music Song of the Year nomination, and developing & producing top acts, what’s left on your bucket list?
TREY: I don’t have a bucket list, or a tattoo for that matter.
TMG: Well, who needs one with a resume like yours!? Trey, thanks again for hanging out with That’s My Gig. We are looking forward to watching your career as you continue on in success.