The songwriters of Nashville publishing company Carnival Music find common ground with honchos at Yazoo Brewing at Music Row beer summit.

By ADAM GOLD

One thing songwriters Marla Cannon-Goodman, Derik Hultquist, Jedd Hughes, Mando Saenz and Hailey Whitters — five of the flagship tunesmiths on the roster of independent Nashville publishing company — can agree on, is that their office is an anomaly on Music Row. With walls covered in chalkboard paint, and quirky touches like vintage episodes of Gunsmoke or Hee Haw rolling on flat screens in the background for inspiration, the office’s dedicated bar / art studio / common space, a sitcom-like incubator of lyrics and melodies, the songwriters congregate in is anything but antiseptic.

Hultquist says having a place to go to write that isn’t his living room in his pajamas inspires a more creative mindset. “And we’ve got a killer snack game here,” Whitters adds with a laugh, noting there’s also
and help make musical water cooler moments happen. Cannon-Goodman, the writer behind punch-drunk country radio hits the likes of Tracy Byrd’s 2002 Billboard country Number One “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo,” says she comes up with most of her best song ideas on the drive into the office. “I think it’s the anticipation of going in to write that sparks something in me,” she explains.

It’s downright impossible to imagine where country music would be without alcohol. That, along with subjects ranging from search for inspiration to the battle between art and commerce, are among the many common-ground topics of discussion at the end of sweaty Tennessee weekday, when these songwriters are joined by Yazoo Brewing Co. founder Linus Hall and Brandon Jones, head of the Nashville flagship Brewery’s sour and wild barrel aging program, for a freewheeling roundtable and the similarities between penning tunes and brewing barley pop.

“So you started Yazoo?” Saenz, who’s landed cuts with the likes of Lee Ann Womack, Whiskey Myers and Eli Young band, says to Hall. “That’s heavy, man.” Hall caught the brewing bug while growing up in Mississippi, after seeing a friend’s pot growing operation. Being a more law-abiding type, he took that inspiration to the less green (but more legal) pastures of brewing beer. Later, long before brewing beer (or Nashville, for that matter) was hip, Hall found himself living in Nashville, married, working as a tire engineer for Bridgestone, and doing home brewing as a hobby. He gained a reputation for giving away great beer, and eventually quit his Joe job to start selling it. Fifteen years after founding Yazoo with his wife, Lila Hall, the brewery rolls out somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 barrels a year.

As the hours go on, empties take up more and more real estate on the coffee table, and the talk over the sounds of popping tops and clanging Yazoo bottles only gets more real, like how when it comes to spiking lyrics with booze references, the rule is often liquor before beer.

“Beer doesn’t sing as good as whiskey does,” Saenz says with a quiet, matter-of-fact Texas rasp.

“Beer’s not as sad as whiskey,” offers Cannon-Goodman.

“It’s hard to get in as much trouble with beer as it is with whiskey,” singer- songwriter Hultquist adds.

Nevertheless, Jones relates to the musical artistic process when it comes to distilling and bottling the slices of life he sees, smells and hears in daily life for Yazoo batches big and small.

“In the inspiration you’re talking about for songwriting, and the inspiration for what we try to put into beer, I always look at this sense of place and time,” Jones says, mentioning Cannon-Goodman’s creatively productive drives to work. “You can make an alcoholic beverage — that’s super easy. … But giving people a sense of place and time, that’s what I always try to convey in these beers.”

Whitters wants to know how Hall and Jones come up with some of the more colorful names in Yazoo’s brown bottle portfolio, like Sly Rye Porter and Embrace the Funk. Much of the inspiration comes from Nineties hip-hop, Jones admits. “It’s just ridiculous stuff that I think up, and like, ‘we should do one-off kegs of these things,’ and go with it,” he explains, noting how one recent spit-balling session between him and Hall yielded a series of beers called “Ramblings of a Madman.”

Hughes, a South Australia native whose collaborated with heavy hitters like Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Sheryl Crow, says that’s not unlike the perennial creative clambake that is the Carnival offices. “A lot of times you’ll be out of ideas and hope that somebody else has one,” he says. “And then a lot of times [one] will come from conversation and somebody will spark something.”

The organic simplicity of that process might seem demystifying for industry outsiders who’ve gotten their ideas of how the Music Row sausage is made from the hit (but soon to end) nighttime soap opera Nashville. “I’ve had one cut come out of The Bluebird [Café],” Cannon-Goodman says of the famed hole-in-the-wall writers’ haunt that’s been a fixture of the show, where the tunesmiths behind many of country music’s biggest hits now often find themselves playing for a room packed with tourists who think they’re hearing cover song performances.

Cannon-Goodman recalls one night at The Bluebird when she watched songwriter Kendell Marvel poll the crowd for tourists, asking how many were from out of town, and have seen the show Nashville, before joking, “Well just so you know, Chip Esten ain’t gonna just walk in off the street and sit at the end of the bar.” And from behind she heard the Nashville star, beloved for his role as irascible songwriter and guitarist Deacon Claiborne, turn around and say, “I’m sitting here now.”

“[Nashville] is extremely competitive,” Hultquist muses, “probably even more so now than ever because of that TV show, and because of the popularity of this town and it being ‘It City.’ There’s probably 19 [songwriters] getting off the bus right now.”

Jones says that while Nashville’s ever-rising profile as a cultural citadel has brought Yazoo a host of upstart local craft breweries to compete with, it’s also given the city a more sophisticated collective palate.

“Nashville is growing up quite a bit in what I do,” he says. “Nashville’s definitely been in the beer scene within the past, you know, five, six, seven, eight years. Definitely they’re embracing really bitter IPAs, really hoppy floral IPAs. Now we’ve brought them into this whole thing that’s not PBR, and we’ve got all these other amazing characters and stouts and smoked beers. Now we’re going to bring them further through the doors, to this other place where only maybe one percent of the other [cities] are.

“One thing that irks me is this fine balance between novelty and precedent,” Hultquist says of the Music City’s trend-chasing songwriters. they know the framework that you typically [have] — especially country, is very formulaic — the [song] structures, like “this is what a song should sound like,” and you’re constantly using something that already exists as your template. Best case scenario, you’re going get a worse version of something that already exists.”

Hughes says Carnival doesn’t play that game. “I think Carnival has always been driven by songs, stories and the narrative and the lyric, and not about programming the most popular beat and chasing trends,” he says. “It’s very much a curated selection of people that really care about the craft of the song.”

Hall, when asked by Whitters how often he and Jones are torn between brewing beers they want to drink and beers they think will sell, says Yazoo has a similar philosophy to Carnival in terms of prioritizing taste over the finicky nature of trend- following consumers.

Hall explains, “we’ve kind of gotten to the scale where, the fun thing that Brandon does is there are big bottles sometimes that command a higher price — they’re [for] more of a niche audience — but if we [have] an idea we’re really thinking we want to take into our who two- or three-state network, then we run into, ‘How is this going to hit Main Street?’ … How are we going to get it onto enough shelves that we can make a big batch of it without dumbing down what we love about it in the first place?”

“That’s how we feel, too!” Whitters exclaims.

Jones also draws a parallel between balancing what’s topping country music charts and how trend conscious gatekeepers in beerland determine what bottles make it onto market shelves or into bar taps. “They don’t always have the public in mind,” he explains, saying he wonders if the songwriters ever feel encumbered by the same challenge.

“I don’t,” Cannon-Goodman says. “Because I want every song I write to be better than the one I wrote the day before.” “I’d be lying if I said that stuff doesn’t cross my mind all the time,” Whitters concedes. “It’s really hard to find that balance of, ‘Well, I want to get a cut because I need to get some money or I’m going to get dropped, or do I just try and write the best thing that I possibly can?’ That being said, anytime I’ve ever gotten a song cut, it was because I was doing that.”

Hall and Jones can relate.

As Jones explains: “You can have a great beer, but it’s really hard to get it to a massive audience if you’re not meeting with Kroger or you’re meeting with all these buyers, and they have all this national scan data, and how do you fit in to all that? They don’t care what the beer tastes like; they care what style it is and what marketing you’re going to put behind it.”

As this hangout winds down, the five songwriters, perhaps riding high on liquid courage, start passing around guitars along with their gratis bottles of Yazoo. Saenz opts to strum and sing his song “Pittsburgh,” an uncut nugget he played for Carnival co-founder Frank Liddell when at their first meeting more than a decade ago.

Hultquist brings the room to pin-prick silence, strumming on heartstrings with a new song called “Joan of Arc,” a ballad about a small town girl dying in a fiery car crash just as she was fixing to bust out. Whitters lightens the mood with a rendition of her breezy Little Big Town cut “Happy People.”

But, after watching Cannon-Goodman sing the 1997 classic she wrote for Lee Ann Womack, “The Fool,” with Hughes accompanying her on acoustic guitar, the beer- brewing interlopers in the room get a taste of the spontaneous moments of collaboration that are commonplace at Carnival, when the pair start woodshedding a beer song, inspired by the day’s summit, about how “just one always turns into one
more.”

For Hall, the barely gestating song triggers memories of getting stuck in bars in his early days hawking Yazoo DIY style, trying to make the day’s last sale, with his wife and newborn baby at home. Yazoo, like Nashville and its cream-of-crop tunesmiths, have a come a long way since then.