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Concert Review: Tin Pan South 2012

The names might not sound all that familiar -- at least not to the general public. The songs, however, will.

The names might not sound all that familiar -- at least not to the general public. The songs, however, will.

Nashville's annual Tin Pan South is all about honoring songwriters. In most cases, these men and women are hardly household names. Instead, they are the ones who write the songs that the household names then sing. That's especially true in Music City, where the big-name country stars rarely perform their own material.

Ever wonder about the people who write the songs for such top country acts as Garth Brooks, George Strait, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw? Well, many of those folks are just dying to make your acquaintance (or at least sell you a CD or two) at Tin Pan South.

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Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival

The festival, which the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) founded as a way to increase the profile of the American songwriter, just celebrated its 20th anniversary this past week with five nights (3/27-31) of intriguing showcases. Dozens of the nation's top tunesmiths performed each night at clubs, cafes and venues around Nashville. In many cases, they performed "in-the-round," sharing the stage with multiple songwriters and taking turns singing and strumming some of the most glorious looking acoustic guitars on the planet. Oh, and the stories they told between the songs might've have the best parts of the showcases.

Of course, Nashville is the perfect city to host such a festival -- nowhere is the art of songwriting more greatly valued than in Tennessee's capital city. The city's official slogan is, after all, "music calls us home." Plus, it's got some absolutely superb spots for enjoying the intimate live music experience -- and many of the best clubs and venues, including the legendary Bluebird Cafe (a crucial stop early in the careers of both Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift) and the super Rutledge, take part in Tin Pan South.

The lack of marquee headliners -- and, by that, I mean ones that wouldn't be readily identified by the general public -- might keep some people, especially out-of-towners, away from this festival. But if you profess to love quality songwriting, you should have an interest in Tin Pan South. You won't see a more impressive gathering of songwriting talents than at this event.

The festival's title, of course, is a play on New York's legendary Tin Pan Alley, which was the collective term for the Big Apple music publishers and writers that dominated popular song from the late 19th century through the first part of the 20th century. It's an entirely appropriate reference, given how significant Nashville has been to the music business for decades.

Not surprisingly, you'll hear a lot of country at Tin Pan South -- and you'll hear country from several different eras. Many of these songwriters have been cranking out hits for decades, so it's not uncommon to hear a tune that was a No. 1 smash for some old-school pro like Kenny Rogers and then, immediately after, a chart-topping single for a new-school talent like Lambert.

But this is not a strictly country party. You'll also hear from other genres -- most notably, Adult Contemporary (AC) and classic rock. And the one thing that you can count on saying -- or, at the very least, expect that someone sitting nearby will utter -- is, "I didn't know s/he wrote that song. I love that song!" People in the audience are constantly turning to each other, all wide-eyed and smiley, whenever a songwriter strikes upon something was a radio hit or achieved some other type of notoriety. What a great feeling -- surprise! -- and it's one that you don't often get from seeing the big-name artists perform.

I saw a number of great songwriters at this year's festival. I won't mention them all here -- just a few. Some of my favorites included Hayes Carll, a clever and wordy humorist who reminds a little of the great John Prine, and Jason Isbell, who is best known for his work with the alt-country troupe Drive-By Truckers.

I also greatly enjoyed the deep country blues of Chuck Cannon, the passionate pop-rock of Shawn Mullins and the classic-rock originals from Chas Sandford, who has had his tunes recorded by Stevie Nicks, Chicago and other significant rock/pop acts.

Finally being able to put a face with a song -- especially a favorite song -- is a fun process. It's at the very heart of Tin Pan South and, just as NSAI has hoped right from very start, it does help lift the awareness of the American songwriter.


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