Quick! Who wrote “Love Me Tender?” What about “Girls Just Want to Have Fun?”
It’s a safe guess that the names Ken Darby and Robert Hazard aren’t as easy to recall as Elvis Presley or Cyndi Lauper. And while Prince wrote “Purple Rain,” few know that it was written as a country song, meant for Stevie Nicks. When he sent her the 10- minute instrumental version, Nicks said, “I just got scared.”
The stories that lie behind our favorite songs — and the people who wrote them — often get lost somewhere between a pad of paper and the stage … or, in some cases, stadium.
Nashville Songwriters “In the Round” is coming to Key West Theater on Saturday, April 27. With it will come Rob Hatch, Paul Jenkins and Justin Wilson, who have written hits for some of the biggest names in Nashville. They will take the stage with tunes that are likely to be familiar, while the stories are not.
Kelly Norman, executive director of Key West Theater, credits her husband, singer-songwriter Nick Norman, for the idea. “We’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville,” she said, “and I’ve have been lucky enough to sit in rooms with successful songwriters and my husband has been lucky enough to be on stage with them. It’s always amazing hearing a song you’ve known for 20 years and finally learning the story behind the song or the person that wrote it.”
The Normans’ vision was also to allow songwriters to get exposure and credit for their work, and to allow locals to get to know “the face behind the music.”
Justin Wilson, from Georgia, has scored over 20 cuts and singles in the course of his career, writing for the likes of Blake Shelton, Craig Campbell, Joe Nichols and Randy Houser. His song “Kiss You in the Morning,” sung by Michael Ray, hit number one. Paul Jenkins, hailing from Texas, was nominated for Breakthrough Writer of the Year by Music Row Magazine in 2011 and has written for Rascal Flatts, Jason Aldean, Chris Young and Dierks Bentley.
For Rob Hatch, returning to Key West is a bit of a homecoming. The native Floridian is from Cross City, 50 miles west of Gainesville, and he has taken part in the Key West Songwriters’ Festival for over 15 years. He’s written number one hits like “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” and collaborated with Faith Hill, Luke Bryan, Gretchen Wilson and George Jones. But perhaps the most interesting story is his collaboration with Johnny Cash, posthumously.
“A couple years ago,” he said, “I got to be friends with John Carter Cash, and he has what we call the holy grail.” Cash, son of legendary duo Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, had what Hatch called “the holy grail”—a collection of half-written songs and poems by his late father. Having worked with the likes of Sheryl Crow and Bono on collaborations with his father’s music, Cash said to Hatch: “You wouldn’t want to finish these songs with Dad, would you?”
Cash sent Hatch a poem by his father called “My Song,” still on letterhead in his handwriting. It was written in 1970. “I only listened to Johnny Cash in the 1970s for two weeks,” said Hatch, agonizing over whether to “make it fresh and new or write it like you’re writing it with Johnny.” He opted for the latter, using only the words Cash had put on the page, but refashioning them into a chorus and verses. He said, “I thought I had a good start on it, and when I played it for John, he said, ‘That’s the song.’”
Cash wanted to cut the song, record it at Cash Cabin, the famed recording studio built (as a cabin) by Johnny Cash himself, and host to many other massive musicians. They did just that — Randy Houser did a version and Runaway June did a female version, which will be on the next album of Johnny Cash’s brilliant scribblings.
“I wanted to write it like he was in the room, and I was making it with him,” said Hatch.
He will tell stories like this and many more at “In the Round,” like the early days of the difficulty of making it in Nashville: “They said it would take 10 years, and my first number one was 10 years and two months. Nashville beats you down before it pays you out.” He also offers hints of the stories behind his number ones, like “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” inspired by his late grandfather. The song spans the death of high school friends to superstars. “Those are basically true stories,” he said, and acknowledged that the now-famous song “sat around for seven years and no one wanted it.”
Stories like that will perhaps be music to the ears of aspiring writers and songwriters of Key West. The island is a natural fit for a group coming from Music City.
“Key West has a creative fun vibe that feels a lot like Nashville,” Hatch said, “but with better weather and not a lot of traffic. The people down here love music and it makes it super fun to play.”
“And maybe I can slide a piece of Blue Heaven pie in between sets.” Fortunately, it isn’t so far away.
Nashville Songwriters “In The Round” with Rob Hatch, Paul Jenkins & Justin Wilson
Key West Theater | 512 Eaton Street | Key West
April 27th, 2019 | Show: 8 p.m. | Doors: 7 p.m.