Middle Americana

Listening in on the ASG Songwriters Symposium

Known quantities: (l-r) Bill Carter, Will Sexton, and Stephen Doster
Known quantities: (l-r) Bill Carter, Will Sexton, and Stephen Doster (Photo by Doug Freeman)

Packed inside a small conference room at the Downtown Hilton Garden Inn, two dozen songwriters sit in a semicircle in black business chairs. As musicians workshop their songs, guitar picking rings out in contrast to the sterile confines, white walls and fluorescent lights the antithesis of smoky bars and dark dance halls. For the nearly 100 participants gathered at last weekend's Austin Songwriters Group Songwriters Symposium, the event may be the most valuable gig they play all year.

The symposium, now in its fifth year, serves as the annual capstone to ASG's efforts to cultivate both the craft and commerce of songwriting, bringing together instruction from local veterans such as Will Sexton, Kimmie Rhodes, Bill Carter, and Ruth Ellsworth; opportunities to record demos and test new material; and endless sessions of song pitching to Nashville publishers led by BMI's Thomas Cain and Montage Music Group's Bobby Rymer.

"They're at all different levels," says ASG Executive Director Lee Duffy of the group's membership. "There are people that do it for money, people that do it for therapy, and people that do it just 'cause they have to. The goal isn't to get everybody to the same level. There are realistically maybe 10 writers that could break through to another level. We just want them to have every opportunity and access to outlets for their songs."

While ASG remains an intimate organization, under the recent direction of Duffy and President Rick Busby, the group, which now counts about 300 paying members, has consolidated its resources. Most of ASG's 22 years have consisted of informal coffeehouse workshops and picking parties, but since establishing the symposium, the group has begun to forge a reputation worthy of its home city. Last fall, ASG opened its first organizational headquarters, a comfortable duplex off South Lamar converted into a songwriter's haven with rooms for writing and a makeshift studio and performance space (www.austinsongwritersgroup.com).

"What we do here with ASG is really focus on the educational aspects of how to improve in your craft," offers Busby. "That's what the song-doctoring sessions throughout the year are about and the workshops here at the symposium."

The pitch sessions to Nashville publishers can sting with hard reality. By the end of the weekend, Rymer has heard songs from nearly every participant in the symposium, listening intently with eyes closed as the songwriters play recorded demos or pick out their tunes on guitar.

"I come down here with two sets of ears," says Rymer. "I come down here listening for Nashville and what they're looking for, but more importantly, I'm just looking for great songs, whatever format they fall into. The bulk of it, I can't do anything with, but turn over enough rocks, and you'll find something."

Betty Soo
Betty Soo (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

For Duffy and many of the members of the ASG, that bridge to Nashville is important, even though recent efforts by Save Austin Music to urge local government to help create more of an industry infrastructure in the city is met with a surprising dose of skepticism from the group. Those doubts are born from experience in the case of Bob Cheevers, who sought refuge in Austin after years of toiling in the Nashville machine.

"I loved living there and worked real hard, but there's a kind of toxicity to Nashville," admits Cheevers. "Once you get that dollar bill involved, it becomes about the dollar and the formula. In Nashville, L.A., and New York, they're still churning out commercial product, but the majors are dinosaurs now, and small indie labels have grown. The best news of all is that you can record a great record in your home – you can start your own label or publishing company.

"[ASG] is plugging into that."

The dichotomy of digital innovation and songwriters trying to penetrate the traditional system is an uneasy balance observable throughout the weekend. Rymer estimates that around a quarter of Montage Music Group's interest is now concerned with licensing to what was once considered alternative outlets: television and film. Yet the ambition of most ASG members is to place a song with an established act.

"People in Nashville like to go with known quantities," Rymer notes. "The heads of labels, A&R, artists, they like to cut songs from known, hit writers. It's a safer bet ... but there are folks that I've run in to down here and am pretty impressed with what they're doing, like Betty Soo."

Betty Soo serves as one of ASG's burgeoning homegrown notables. Having joined the organization's workshops in 2005 when she first began writing songs, they have helped hone her craft and network contacts that have led to her putting out her debut album, Little Tiny Secrets ("Texas Platters," Nov. 16, 2007), and touring nationally.

"I like that this symposium is just about the songwriting," offers Soo. "I wouldn't want it to be about performance – there are already things like that. You can go to South by Southwest or Americana [Festival] or the Folk Alliance and get as much information as you want about how to polish your performance.

"But if you want to build relationships with people in Nashville or those that allow you to pitch your songs, that's not findable or accessible information. That's what makes this a valuable and separate event for me."

Soo is also an anomaly in ASG. Her youthful twentysomething presence stands out in a room with writers mostly twice her age. ASG is creating a number of programs to involve local songwriters in their teens, but as yet, there's scant outreach from the organization to attract the young songwriters already shaping the sound of Austin's music future.

"It would be great to get some younger people involved, and it's a very country-oriented thing, which is fine, but in this town, a lot of the younger writers aren't country writers," notes Graham Weber, who hosts open mics at the Cactus Cafe and attended the symposium for the first time. "This could be a very valuable tool for so many people in this town who want to do better things for their music, in whatever way they want to interpret that."

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Austin Songwriters Group, Austin Songwriters Group Songwriters Symposium, ASG, Lee Duffy, Betty Soo, Graham Weber

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