10 Ways to Slay Your Next Nashville Writers’ Round

I went to a show last week featuring 5 young songwriters. After the first round, I quit listening and started writing this blog post. Over the last 16 years as a professional songwriter I’ve played and attended countless writers’ rounds with Hall of Fame songwriters and new writers alike. Since I started teaching songwriting and music business classes 7 years ago I’ve been to a hundred writers rounds with students playing their first shows. I’ve seen the best and the worst. I’ve witnessed unforgettable moments of musical sublimity and utter train wrecks of musical awkwardness. Now that live music has begun to come back, here are Ten Practical Tips to help you thrive in a traditional Nashville writers’ round.

A Nashville-style writers’ round (shortened from the phrase “Songwriters In the Round) refers to a concert featuring three or more songwriters who will each play 3 or 4 songs in turn in a round-robin format. The focus is on the song itself more than the performance with each writer sharing a brief story behind the song followed by a simple acoustic performance of the song.

1) Remember, they are ALL new songs to us! No one in the room has ever heard your music so “I wrote it last week” and “I wrote it last year” are equally irrelevant statements to your audience. Never say “do you guys wanna hear a new one?” We don’t have a choice. Just play us great songs.

2) Always choose a few more songs than you’re allowed to play. Then read the room, read the energy, react to the song just played. When you’re preparing, you’re only thinking about YOUR songs but OUR story arc as an audience involves how all of the songs fit together. If the other writers have just played three emotional ballads in a row then it doesn’t matter if you planned on your second song being that emotional ballad. Change it up or your song will just get lost. AS you select which songs to play, bring some variety – some tempo, a 6/8 thing, a super sappy ballad, something funny or cute or clever. Don’t just play what YOU WANT to play. That’s selfish. Serve the audience by learning how to give them a great night of entertainment.

3) DON’T talk too much. I’ve been guilty of this too often. Don’t tell us what the lyric is gonna tell us. Just sing it. If you have to explain the song for us to understand it then it isn’t a well written song. If you’re going to talk before the song, then just set up the story briefly. Let the song be one part of the story arc. Or tell us a little about what it’s like to be a songwriter. Most audiences think songwriting is a mystical, transcendental experience. What’s it actually like in the writer’s room? How did the idea come up? How many re-writes did it take before you got it to where it is now? BRIEFLY give us a glimpse into the writer’s life. Remember, the less you all talk the more songs you all get to play. The more you talk, the more time you’re stealing from the other writers.

4) DO Say your name too much. And say the names of the other writers on the stage with you.  “Thats Haley Rush everybody. I’m Melody McHitt and this one’s called “Please Like My Song.” And then at the end offer ”thanks everybody. I’m @desperate4attention on insta. Let’s be friends!. Hey, Kelly McBride, what do you have for us next?” And say the names of your co-writers. Always give credit to your co-writers because a writers round is about the songs.

5) Funny always wins. A well-rehearsed, well-timed joke can break the ever-present tension between songs. then once you get the laugh, don’t ruin it with extra comments. Just lob the joke-grenade and then move on. Even a funny song is a great way to win the crowd. YOU want to show em how awesome you are as a serious writer. But THEY want to have a fun night out listening to live music. Using one of your four songs (or even one moment in a song) to bring some levity to the evening will be deeply appreciated by your audience. *CAVEAT* if you’re just not funny don’t try this. Don’t use your Mom as a judge of whether or not your joke is funny. She is biologically required to laugh at your jokes. Find another way to grab the attention of the audience.

6) Unapologetically play the hits but don’t ever expect that they know the song. Even a smash will only be familiar to a sliver of the audience. “If you know this one, sing along” falls flat almost every time I’ve heard a writer try it. Just say “an artist named Garth Brooks recorded this one and I’m really proud of it” and then sing it. Honestly, if a song you’ve written has had even a little commercial success it’s worth celebrating but don’t assume your success has been noticeable to anyone else. Just play the hits and let them speak for themselves. Hit writers always prefer to play new songs because we don’t play shows very often. The audience is there for the hits so don’t be selfish by playing that artsy, navel-gazing, tone-poem you’ve been working on. Sing to serve!

7) Never apologize for something before your song. When you say “I’ve had a cold this week so please forgive my voice” or “I hope I remember how to play this new one,” you’re asking us to judge your voice or to watch for mistakes. Most folks won’t even notice the thing you’re self-conscious about if you don’t you TELL them to notice it.

8) Resist the urge to play along or sing harmonies with the other writers unless you are a) the co-writer who knows the song well, or b) you‘re a world class instrumentalist and they’ve asked you to play along. Even then, be selective about when you play along. Too much noodling distracts from your fellow writers.

9) Figure out a way to work in a super-familiar cover to your set and you will win the room. Going into a familiar chorus or singalong part at the end or bridge of your song can be a refreshing way to let people participate. They’ve been listening to unfamiliar songs all night.  Something familiar will feel like pure oxygen. How to choose a cover: pick something EVERYONE will know. Don’t cover an artist that is stylistically similar to you. Put your unique song on something totally different from you and we’ll remember YOU instead of remembering the artist you sound like. If you sound like Kelsea Ballerini, cover a Michael Jackson song and let us sing along.

10) Think through your endings. Too often, writers add an awkward chord chop at the end of a ballad just because they feel awkward and aren’t sure what to do. As songwriters, we’re in the catharsis business. End your song in a way that honors our feelings. That musical moment makes a difference so don’t waste it.

You don’t have to be in Nashville to find a great writers’ round. They’re popping up all over the globe. If you can’t find one, search out a great venue and ask them if you can host one. Then invite me and I’ll cheer you on from the cheap seats!

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