Spotlight on Nashville talent: Three songwriters tell tales of creating the hits

Courtesy photos JT Garber and Dana Snyder, a local couple, are behind Round the Mountain, which produces Songs & Stories Vol. 6 will be held June 28 at the Mishler Theatre.

Nashville songwriters Michael White, Gary Harrison and Shelley Skidmore take the Mishler Theatre stage June 28 to share their passion writing hits for Blake Shelton, Deana Carter and Reba McEntire, respectively.

Their songs: “The Baby” by Shelton, “Strawberry Wine,” by Carter and “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain,” by Reba are how these bards bare their souls with personal tales of tragedy and triumph expressed in lyric lines and memorable melodies.

Much like Dorothy reveals the Wizard in the classic “Oz” tale, Songs & Stories shines the light on these modern composers of timeless songs. They are styled after writers rounds — opportunities for songwriters to demo songs — held at places like Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, popularized by TV’s “Nashville,” and similar venues.

Songs & Stories, is produced by Round the Mountain, a passion project of local couple Dana Snyder and JT Garber, and brings Tennessee to the Mountain City in Central Pennsylvania.

Not a country music lover? Don’t let that keep you away, Garber said and Tiffany Stuckey of Hollidaysburg confirmed.

Stuckey, who works for Arts Altoona, interviewed Garber and Snyder for work purposes and went home and told her husband Matt Stuckey of Stuckey Automotive they were buying tickets to the first show in February of 2018. Then, when Round the Mountain looked for sponsors they approached Stuckey Automotive (then Stuckey Ford/Stuckey Subaru).

“We hopped right on board because there is nothing like this being offered in Altoona,” Tiffany said. “I am not a country music fan — I am straight up about that. It’s more like VH1’s Storyteller because it’s all acoustic with just the singers and the guitars in the round. It’s really, really good vibe music with these fascinating back stories woven through. Even though I am not a country music fan, I know Garth Brooks’ ‘The Dance’ and it’s the quintessential wedding song. To have the writer sing it to us the way he envisioned it was phenomenal. There is an incredible amount of talent for a low price offered at the beautiful Mishler Theatre.”

As sponsors, the Stuckeys have invited employees and friends to attend the shows.

“We have some employees that went once and then haven’t missed a single show because they loved it so much,” Tiffany Stuckey said, adding they wanted to support local residents who are supporting the arts in the area and living their dreams here in Blair County.

Like Altoona, the Nashville song-writing scene is close knit, so the singer/songwriters often know each other and these performers has written together previously in various iterations.

“We’ve wanted to bring Michael and Gary in for awhile and Shelley provides great balance,” Garber said, as they seek performers who spark chemistry on stage, he explained.

“Obviously we want to educate the area and bring in notable names with big hits — recognizable song titles that help the audience relate to them,” he said. “Nashville is about who knows who. We usually start with one person and then think about the chemistry each performer will bring. It’s important to bring folks on stage who are comfortable with each other … that’s when the magic comes out and they play off each other and they say the funniest and most heart-felt things because they can be vulnerable when they are comfortable with each other.”

Songwriter Phillip White, who came to Altoona in a previous “Songs & Stories” show, said many people don’t realize the singers of popular tunes most likely didn’t write the lyrics or music nor do listeners realize how prolific songwriters are and how difficult it is to have a song recorded and have it become a hit. White estimates that he’s written more than 4,500 songs during his 27 years in Nashville.

Among those, White co-wrote The 2003 Academy of Country Music Song of the Year, entitled “I’m Movin’ On” recorded by Rascal Flatts. It took about 15 minutes for he and his co-writer D. Vincent Williams to compose and became “an unexpected hit” because the ballad differed from songs getting played on radio stations at that time.

“I think because at the time it was a ballad and a really deep and poetic song at a time when the focus was on up-tempo songs,” White said. “A Nashville disc jockey played the song on his show and the phones just lit up. Then, they tested it and decided to release it as the third single from that album. It was a bit of a surprise and it overcame obstacles as it didn’t sound like a commercial hit.”

An Alabama native, White has written hits for some of the biggest names in the industry: George Strait, Luke Bryan, Chris Ledoux, Vince Gill, Bonnie Tyler, Blake Shelton, Scotty McCreery, Darius Rucker, Wynonna, Blake Shelton and Reba — including the theme to her TV show — “I’m a Survivor.”

“It was all Reba’s doing,” White said, noting Reba has recorded three of his compositions. Both “I’m Movin’ On” and “I’m a Survivor” are relatable for listeners and show attendees.

“The biggest compliment I get is when someone walks up after a show and say that song got me through a hard and difficulty time,” White said.

His previous experience in Altoona has him eager to return.

“I love that theater,” he said of the historic Mishler. “I love playing old theaters and this is among the most beautiful with incredible acoustics. As big as it is, it still has a very intimate feel so the setting works so well for songwriters telling their stories.”

Like most artisans, songwriters speak in a different language unique to the music business, Garber said. To help the audience understand the references made by the performers, Snyder compiled a list of common music industry terms in a musical glossary at the end of the program.

“For example, on the surface most people would understand the term ‘co-writing’ but what most people don’t know is that almost all songs are co-written and most songs are written by others and not by the performing artist,” Garber said. “Usually, co-writers split the credit on songs evenly so it doesn’t matter who does what. The norm, most of the time, is the writers are both bouncing words and phrases back and forth. They are equals who learn not to be married to one idea. Every song starts with a story. Most often a song starts with the lyrics as it’s all about the words.”

Garber explained further.

“More so with country music (than other genres), most songs tell a story and paint a picture” and Round the Mountain’s goal “is show how much work goes into the writing and hit-making process by all involved. We want to paint a picture of what it takes to go from words scribbled on a piece of paper to becoming a hit by George Strait or Reba.”

What differentiates Songs & Stories for a concert, he explained, is it’s the composers telling the stories behind the songs.

“You may be able to tell generally what a song is about. But it’s really not until you’ve heard the person who has written it tell the story about the specifics, such as a divorce or a heartbreak. Sometimes it’s not always literal to their lives but metaphorical. When someone gets vulnerable it is so powerful. When they go out there and share from their hearts you understand a song is made from pain and joy.”

Mirror staff writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

If you go

What: From Nashville: Songs & Stories, Vol. 6, featuring Gary Harrison, Shelley Skidmore and Michael White

When: 8 p.m. June 28

Where: Mishler Theatre

Tickets: $20 to $30, military/veteran discount available