Songwriting University exists to help aspiring songwriters to hone their craft. Co-founded by music industry icons Michael Blanton, Gary Glover, Billy Sprague, and Joe Beck, the University offers songwriters the unique opportunity to co-write with a hit co-songwriter from their illustrious staff.
With over 3,000 major cuts in Country, Pop, Christian, and Foreign music, contributions to over 50 GRAMMY-nominated and winning songs, and over 100 No. 1 songs, the Songwriting University staff includes the likes of Randy Thomas ("Butterfly Kisses"), Brian White ("Watching You"), Steve Siler ("I Will Follow Christ"), Bill Shore ("Wild Horses"), Bobby E. Boyd ("Bless the Broken Road"), Wayne Tester ("The Change"), Dennis Kurtilla ("He Will Carry Me"), and Ed Nicholson ("The Stone Was Rolled Away"), among other lauded songwriters.
We are honored to talk to one of the owners of Songwriting University Michael Blanton to talk about his career and his involvement in Songwriting University.
Q: Michael, thanks for doing this interview with us. You were once the A&R Representative and the co-founder of Reunion Records, how and why did you decide to be a record executive?
I always wanted to be in music, and actually had moved to Nashville in my college days to pursue getting into music, but realized once I got here that these musicians in Nashville are legit. Ha. I did do some early artist management and sound engineering at Opryland, but eventually gave up and moved back to Texas to get into politics, working with the Chamber of Commerce.
After I was back in Texas, I got a call from Word Records asking if I would like to interview for a junior A&R position. I took that job, making $12K a year, and Amy was one of my first artists. I worked as an A&R representative until I started desiring to sign my own artists, and then I felt the compulsion to start my own company. I joined forces with Dan Harrell, who was Amy's brother-in-law, and a banker.
I brought my creative skills together with his banking skills and we launched BLANTON/HARRELL Productions with Amy Grant as our first client in 1980. We were her production and management company, with big hopes to change the world. I don't know that you ever decide in the early days to become a record exec, as much as you pray to just succeed, and trust God's going to help you pay your electric bill.
Q: You have launched the careers of many CCM artists. When you look at upcoming artists what do you normally look out for?
That's a bit of a hard question, and it's not as simple as a black and white answer. Of course we all have things we like or dislike-that's what makes us so unique. We all don't like the same thing, thank the Lord. But I realized early on that I had an "ear" for something different in music and in vocals that others were passing by.
Rich Mullins, for instance, was such a unique character, and I don't know that his voice was particularly identifiable when he first arrived, but man, his melodies and lyrics were out of this world. When I hear something and God gives me some kind of vision for that artist, that's when I usually get super excited to want to sign and develop an artist, and trust the Lord to lead where we're going. So it's kind of a gut thing in me that leads me to sign the artists I sign.
Q: One of the artists you have had worked with is Amy Grant. What was Amy like in her early days? Did you know she was going to be so huge in the industry?
Well...Amy was and still is one of the most amazing ladies I could have ever grown up in music with. When I was in Nashville the first time, I was dating one of her sisters and Amy was in my youth group that Brown Bannister and I co-led. So, we knew each other, even before my being hired at Word. When we all started running together with Blanton/Harrell in 1980, my/our dream was to be strong people of faith, but go play on the Billboard Top 40 page, and do our best to be on the main stage and encourage so many kids wherever they were in their walk of life, whether believers or not, to pursue walking in the light. That light of course in our minds was Jesus.
Q: You have executive produced three of Amy Grant's records, namely "Unguarded," "Lead me On," and "Heart in Motion." What precisely was your role in the making of those iconic albums?
I actually was the Executive Producer for all of Amy's projects from the very beginning thru 2009. Because I was kind of a big brother in Amy's career, I would be the one pushing her on each project regarding the selection or style of songs, what producer to work with, or the art direction for each project, or the sequencing of songs for each project.
Also, helping name the CD projects, and then helping to produce what we actually put on stage for our road shows. We would sit in our bus after a concert and I would have pages of notes to discuss about what to do, or not do at the shows. So I was very involved in all creative elements from selecting a song, to producing that same song on stage but now with the lights and sound for that song when we played it live.
"UNGUARDED" was a pivot-we wanted to show the mainstream audience as well as the Christian audience that we as believers could have fun...we could dance. Ha! We were on tour with the album "Straight Ahead" and happened to go to a movie theater in Colorado to see the first release of "Footloose" the movie. Amy and I and the band (Gary Chapman playing bass and Michael W. Smith playing keyboards and Wayne Kirkpatrick playing rhythm guitar) all decided we need to put some more energy and excitement into our next project, thus "UNGUARDED" was born.
Even the fact that on that LP, we had four different covers made for the release in the stores. Literally showing Amy in different dance moves, so if you happened to see those four covers at one time (by the way there is a poster showing those covers), it was a hint at the illusion that Amy was dancing.
Q: With "Heart in Motion" celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, what are your thoughts on this album?
This was such an important moment for Amy and our team because when we started in 1980, we all thought if we worked hard we could produce a song that could possibly land on the top of the Billboard charts in maybe two years, haha. While we did get some good chart activity earlier, it wasn't until "HEART in MOTION" that on this one CD, there were four songs that made the Top Ten on Billboard, and one additional song made top twenty, all in one year.
At the Grammys in 1992, we were nominated for 5 of the Top Pop Grammy nominations: best album, best record, best song ("Baby, Baby"), best female-pop vocal, best pop producer (Keith Thomas), and... we didn't win any, ha. But the fact that we finally had arrived to be nominated on the mainstage eleven years from the time we started was impressive, and we were still so thankful to the Lord for his grace and mercy leading our team.
When "Baby, Baby" hit #1 on the chart, Amy said to me, "While this is a huge success getting #1, the journey getting here in these eleven years has been more rewarding than the arrival at this destination." Indeed we had arrived, but by God's grace.
Q: You have recently co-founded Songwriting University. Tell us a little about the vision of this university.
This idea originated with two songwriters, Joe Beck and Billy Sprague, both very successful writers, who brought in Gary Glover and myself to help build and tell the story of Songwriting University.
Songwriting University is a digital on-line opportunity for any song writer enthusiast around the world to be able to book a co-writing session with one or more faculty writers at SU, that have already received Top 40/Top 10 success as songwriters in the Country, Pop, Americana and Christian music genres. The idea was to not only help support the iconic songwriters of Nashville who are now looking for more revenue opportunities since streaming has taken over the purchasing of CDs, but to also help us discover the new unheard-of writers around the world. Anyone who has access to the internet can go online and book a session with one of these Nashville writers, and work on their music or lyrics or just to memorialize an event in their life.
We also offer a songwriting curriculum and master classes for $9 a month that allow you to learn from the likes of Mike Reid ("I Can't Make You Love Me," made famous by Bonnie Raitt) and Gordon Kennedy ("Change the World," made famous by Eric Clapton).
And finally, we've launched two very successful songwriting contests this last year that have given away over $30k in prizes. In fact, our new song writing competition is just starting, and for $40 an entry you can submit any song, whether published or not.
Q: Who can enroll in this university? And who are some of the teachers at this school?
Anyone can submit, but let me be clear, you DO NOT have to be great at writing or singing to enjoy this opportunity. In fact, even if you're a family who's been locked-down due to Covid, you may want to reach out and write a song to memorialize this last year or some other family event. You can certainly go to our website and check out our faculty of writers, who are available to work with you on a session.
Q: Songwriting University offers aspiring songwriters and everyday music lovers the unique opportunity to co-write a song with an award-winning songwriter. How does that work, and do people need to take classes through Songwriting University before taking advantage of this opportunity?
No classes required, and we don't hand out a degree when you finish. This is clearly for those who want to work on their music and writing, one song at a time, whether they are an artists or just a closet writer who really just wants to write for their family and friends. It's for EVERYONE!
Q: Where can our readers find out more about the university and its various programs?
Check out Songwritingu.com, and you can go explore and see who and what we've got to offer for those interested.