Top country music songwriters were joined by surprise guest Kenny Loggins
You love their music. You sing along to every word. I’m talking, of course, about the songwriters. Specifically, country music songwriters. To call them ‘unsung heroes’ would be a little ironic, given that these artists make their living by having their music interpreted by famous bands. However, songwriters tend to exist in the background. Sometimes they only appear as a parenthetical in a CD jacket, while stars like Rascal Flatts and George Strait turn those songs into big hits, and even bigger bucks.
Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman aim to put the spotlight where it belongs, with their semi-monthly “Nashville to New York” series at The Cutting Room in midtown Manhattan. Burr and Middleman are husband and wife, while being independently successful songwriters. Notably, Middleman is behind the Keith Urban hit, “I’m In,” and Burr co-wrote “One Night a Day,” which appeared on Garth Brooks’ 1993 album In Pieces, after the lyrics to a Bob Seger cover could not be faxed to the studio.
The talent on display in New York for the September 6th concert included Middleman, Burr, Tony Haselden, and Jeffrey Steele. Kenny Loggins appeared as a special guest for the entire night. He, Middleman, and Burr, began a group together in 2013, called Blue Sky Riders.
At the start of the show, Georgia told the crowd that they try to get The Cutting Room, “As close as possible to Blue Bird,” speaking of the famed Nashville listening cafe where many a megastars’ careers have started. In this, they succeed. Sitting on stage in a row of five stools, they performed in rounds, going down the line. Starting with Gary, than Kenny, than Georgia, on through Tony, and finishing with Jeffrey. This cycle occurred five times over the course of three hours.
Gary Burr has the voice of a storyteller: powerful, yet used with subtlety. This was best on display during “What Mattered Most,” a song of heartbreak and love lost that was Ty Herndon’s first number one song. Burr also acted as ringmaster, facilitating stories and helping the group decide on songs.
Kenny Loggins was the enigma of the night, being that many of the songs he performed, Loggins himself has made famous. His voice has stood the test of time, remaining ageless while his famous mane turns white. He got the biggest ovation of the night for “This is It,” which he performed after telling how he and co-writer Michael McDonald were stuck on how to finish the song until Loggins’ father went in for surgery.
Georgia Middleman used several of her turns to showcase the artistic mastery of Blue Sky Riders. Bandmates Loggins and Burr would join in, highlighting their vocal skills as a trio. The audience was as receptive of this music as they were more well-known hits, such as when Georgia broke into the aforementioned Keith Urban single, “I’m In.” That song, she said, gave her some of the financial comfort she sought as a songwriter.
Tony Haselden’s smokey voice and blues-infused guitar playing were on display during the latter half of his set, including “Who Da Baby Daddy?,” a contemporary retelling of the biblical story of the Nativity. For his first selections, Haselden chose “Mama Knows,” a hit for Shenendoah, and “You Know Me Better Than That,” a George Strait classic. During a story after the latter, Haselden recounted how his wife walked up to Strait-whom neither of them had met-and promptly thanked him for sending their children to college.
Jeffrey Steele could be a rock star and stand up comedian all-in-one, and he knows it. However, he prefers the quieter life of a songwriter. Steele is a lesson in why nobody interprets a song quite like the songwriter. Taking hits for other groups, including “These Days” and “My Town,” made famous by Rascal Flatts and Montgomery Gentry, respectively, Steele showed what true ownership of a song means. He belted out his numbers louder than the others while putting his guitar through the ringer. Middleman and Burr knew he would kill, because they gave him the final stool. Poor Gary, at the start of the line, was left to pick up the pieces of the house Steele brought down.
But that night, the performers were all on equal footing. The Cutting Room stage was a place where the artists could be themselves without the judgement or competition that comes with being a success. No one made jokes at the expense of another’s career. The stories passed around were told without a hint of bragging. It was a pure display of the backbone of country music: the songwriters and the fans coming together as one big family.
Kenny Loggins, the only pop star in the group, summed up the night and the music best when he said, “I have always admired country music for its ability to tell the truth.”