Handshakes and Whiskey Shots: Country Songwriter Donovan Woods on Leaving Nashville
The Toronto songwriter talks about having a gun pulled on him and the trials of a songwriter in Music City.
Photo By Ryan Nolan
Nashville is a weird place. It’s one of those American cities where anything feels possible: like you could arrive as a country—or maybe in this case, Canadian—bumpkin, step off a bus after an overnight slog from Cheyenne, Omaha, Toronto, or wherever the hell else your dreams have smashed into a wall, walk into a bar, step to the mic, and be discovered. For songwriters, Nashville is akin to New York and Los Angeles. It’s country music’s mecca. And the feeling it inspires fills the southeastern air. “It’s that thrill that you could write some shitty song and become a millionaire, which happens all the time,” Donovan Woods, clad in a floppy toque, says over a beer in downtown Toronto. “People write shitty songs that anybody can write, and become millionaires.”
The closing track on Woods’ fourth full-length, Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled, wrestles with the soaring highs and brutal lows that the city inspires. On “Leaving Nashville”—co-written with Abe Stoklasa and recently recorded by that Lady Antebellum singer Charles Kelley—he sings about writing songs no one cares about, the problems with a business only interested in singles, and ending up “two weeks from sleeping in your car.” The chorus highlights the celebratory nature of the town, with references to whiskey shots and throwing up in parking lots. He tells me the first time he ever got a major label cut—a co-write on Tim McGraw’s “Portland, Maine”—he was taken out to party with one of the guys who owns the publishing company he was with, who just happened to be Green Bay Packers NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The rest of the company was Rodgers’ teammates Clay Matthews and Mason Crosby. VIP sections and going head-to-head drinking with massive football players led to a dark end. “Leaving Nashville” gets into the morning after of the city’s raucous evenings. “It’s just the idea that this is all contained in one night,” Woods says. “The exciting, celebratory bullshit always leads to puking in parking lots. And I did. I puked on the way home, puked when I got up in the morning. It was one of the worst nights of my life.”
But this is what Donovan Woods asked for. In his own words, “it’s what I deserve, and it’s what I deserve.” When he was a chubby kid living in Sarnia, Ontario, Woods’ sister told him, “you better get a skill set, because no girl's gonna fuck you unless you can like, do music.” He didn’t think he was cool or good-looking enough to be a singer, but figured there had to be a job where you just wrote songs. So when his family got the internet, the first thing he did was hit up Ask Jeeves and search “just songwriter” to see if it was an actual job. “And it was like, 'oh it is! It is a job! They work in Nashville, and they work for a company named Warner/Chappell.' I did all this research when I was like eight years old. And I was like, 'I’m gonna go to Nashville, and I’ll write songs for other people, and I’ll work for Warner/Chappell because that’s where all the best people are.' And that’s what I did.”
“I always feel like I’m gonna have to go back [to Sarnia] and live there. That’s a real worry,” he says. “I saw an interview with [NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew], where he was like, ‘every time I’m running with the ball, I just imagine those people who are trying to tackle me are trying to take me back to where I grew up.’” What outsiders think music industry success is and what it actually is are two very different things, though. While Woods eventually made it to a point where he was “living the dream,” the dream looked very different. He still had a day job, but it was becoming difficult to juggle along with his songwriting career. “If you’d have told me when I was 14: ‘you’re gonna have a record in the stores, songs on the radio, nominated for the highest award you can get in the whole country, but you’re gonna have a job where you still work 38 hours a week and it has nothing to do with anything,’ I would be like, ‘why? What happened? What did I do wrong? Do I have some sort of gambling debt?,’ he laughs. Eventually, his instinctual aversion to the 9-5 life caught up with him, and songwriting has been his full-time gig ever since. “It’s necessary for me to get drunk with football players,” he says. “It’s necessary. Unfortunately, it’s necessary.”
Woods somewhat brushes off his wins in songwriting as luck, but he’s anything but an overnight success. “I’d already written through all the shitty songs I wrote in my 20s that were just no good,” he says. “I had figured it out. I think if I started going down when I was 25, I would be farther behind than I am now. Because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.” His gift for songwriting, as evidenced on Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled, is an effective economy of language. He has a knack for taking huge, universal feelings and distilling them into simple, poignant moments, like trying to erase an ex from memory on “We Never Met,” or meditating on the death of your hometown on the devastating “They Don’t Make Anything In That Town.” It’s fitting that when I ask if there’s such thing as a perfect song, he says it’s probably Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” a breezy, three-minute yearning from a working man to his love. Woods’ songs hit the same hearts in middle America, and that’s what makes them so good: everyone feels like that sometimes. And he can explain those feelings in a way anyone can understand.
Still, despite his songs being so relatable, there is an uneasiness in his music that suggests he hasn’t really figured out where he fits in. While it’s certainly not Nashville, he says, Woods is starting to get comfortable in Toronto after years of feeling like an outsider and even penning a “national anthem” for the city that gleefully bashes all the lame shit about the 6. Even suggesting the city might finally start to feel like home. “I romanticized the idea that I’d like the country,” he says. “Even though I’d like it for like 20 minutes. Or small towns. You know when you go to a small town and you’re like, ‘I could live here! I’d just get a house, and I’d write!’ And you think about all this bullshit. Then you’re there for two days, and you’re like, ‘get me the fuck outta here.’”Of course, Nashville might feel like a better option if there wasn’t such a cultural divide. Woods says a lot of the people he’s met down south get a kick out of Canadians and their socialist tendencies, and sometimes he has to be a bit on guard. “It’s like, ‘you don’t wanna know my opinions on this because I don’t even believe in God! And neither do my parents!’”
The second time he went to Music City, Woods was working with someone who really got a kick out of him—“a famous old-timey songwriter”—who invited him out for a drink after a night of writing. So they got drunk. And because of Nashville’s difficult layout and poor public transit, everyone drives all the time. This becomes an issue when coupled with the fact it’s a hard-drinkin’ town. So as they leave, the songwriter—who Woods could “absolutely not” name—is plastered, “like not able to walk,” and gets into his truck and offers Woods a ride. He doesn’t want to offend the songwriter and knows he should grab the keys but also doesn’t want to make a fuss, and suggests a cab. “How the fuck am I gonna get a cab?” the songwriter says. So Woods says he’ll just walk. But the songwriter won’t budge, and insists Woods get in. “I don’t wanna offend him,” Woods says.
“He’s a big deal, I’m trying to write with him more. He likes me. I’m at the passenger window of his truck and he’s like, ‘dude, come on, don’t do that to me. Don’t be a dick. Get in.’ And I’m like, ‘don’t worry about it, thank you, I appreciate it.’ He opens the console and he takes out a gun. Like a beautiful silver handgun. I’m standing at the passenger window. I don’t see guns. I’m terrified. I’m almost shitting my pants.” Not wanting to die in a parking lot, he gets in, the gun goes away, and the “fucking terrifying” drive to the hotel ensues, with Woods telling the driver when he’s about to run into things. He gets to his hotel room, and no one dies. “I told my publisher and he was like, “yeah. He does that type of shit. It’s funny, everyone thinks it’s kinda funny. Meanwhile, I’m fucking terrified,” he laughs.
Nashville is responsible for Donovan Woods’ worst hangovers, holding him at gunpoint, nearly giving him a heart attack weaving drunk through its streets. It hasn’t given him a million dollars, but it gave him his dream job, which means maybe Sarnia is just where he’s from, instead of where he might have to return for good. “As much as America confounds us, there are places where you can go and become a success,” he says. “You can become exactly the person you wanna become."
Matt Williams is gonna move to Nashville to write shitty songs and become a millionaire. Follow him on Twitter.