The Leff Exchange podcast: A conversation with songwriting legend Mark Sanders

One of the pervasive myths about any creative pursuit is that the best artists are able to tap into some kind of divine inspiration. The truth is a bit less interesting: it takes a lot of hard work, day in and day out, to find your voice and a process that can produce consistently high-quality work.

Country music songwriter Mark Sanders is intimately familiar with the persistence it takes to break through. Along the way, he has mastered the craft of songwriting, achieving a level of success many could only hope for. Even if you don’t recognize his name immediately, you’ve heard his work. Over the course of his career, he’s written 14 number one songs for country music royalty and hundreds more for a wide range of artists.

In this conversation, Sanders discusses his influences, his approach to collaboration, the importance of a good rhyme, and the Nashville industry machine.

Scott: Thanks so much for being here to talk. I’m really honored to have you as a guest.

Mark: Well, it’s great to be here. I’m getting old and I don’t get many calls for interviews anymore.

Scott: There’s a lot to cover and it makes sense, I guess, to start at the beginning, which is how you decided to make that leap from an interest in music in your bedroom to actually making it a career.

Mark: The advantage that I’ve had through my whole career is that I couldn’t do anything else for a living that made any money. I taught school for a few years, and I still have bad dreams about that. And if someone calls me Mr. Sanders, I have flashbacks.

I always talk about my brother because I always looked up to him, and he was just a year older. But he could hold a steady job. He worked at Disneyland for 10 years and then was a yearbook rep for like 35 years. And in the time he worked at Disneyland, I probably had 35 jobs. I just couldn’t keep a job, and I wasn’t a good carpenter, which is really important when you get to Nashville. Because if you’re a good carpenter—forget it; you’re going to be able to make a living and you won’t be able to stay in the music business. Dealing with disappointment on a daily basis is what I used to call it. On the way up, it’s really hard.

Scott: You studied literature in college.

Mark: I did.

Scott: I’m curious how you drew on that in your songwriting and whether that served as a foundation for your approach to it.

Mark: It certainly helped my approach in that I had read all these books. Most of the people I wrote with hadn’t read all the books that I’d read. So that was an advantage for me. But the other advantage was, when I went to Fullerton Junior College and I took English lit., the professor taught us all about assonants and consonants and metering and all that, and I learned a lot from that. I learned that iambic pentameter is sort of the white person’s language. The way a white person best lays out what they’re trying to say. And if you look at “I Hope You Dance,” I think it’s in iambic pentameter, so who knows.

Scott: So it seems that that was material you were drawing from, but it wasn’t necessarily front and center. It seeped into your approach.

Mark: Yeah, it seeped in. What I used to do to get ideas was go to the bookstore and just read book titles. Or just read books looking for ideas. There are certain authors who just seem to have more hook lines flying left and right in their books. I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything by Kinky Friedman, who is also a songwriter and singer and ran for the governorship in Texas. But he wrote these little mystery books about Greenwich Village, and he had hooks flying left and right in those books. I would write them down and then just go see if I could write something using them, or I’d look at them for 10 years and finally one would come through. So definitely, my career is based on literature.

Scott: One of the great disservices to me is when you hear artists say, “Well, I wrote this in about 10 minutes and it just happened to be a hit.”

Mark: That cuts right into my heart.

Scott: People start to think that that’s how it’s done. Could you describe your approach to the craft?

Mark: Well, you have to work a lot. I always wanted to go to work. So I felt good going to work every day and writing songs. Because, I thought, if you’re a man, you’re supposed to go to work during the day. You would just start from the very beginning, basically. You sit and talk and see who’s getting divorced and who isn’t, and then you see who has an idea.

One day, my friends Bob DiPiero and John Jarrard and I were sitting in John’s depressing apartment, because he was blind and he had divorced his wife for some crazy reason. And we’re sitting there and Bob says, “Well, last night, I went and saw Forrest Gump,” and he said, “Forrest Gump says a lot of funny things in that movie. He says, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates’ and yada yada yada.” He says, “And toward the end of the movie, Forrest Gump says, ‘Then Jenny appeared out of the blue, clear sky.’” And we kind of were, “Yeah, OK.” And he says, “That’s what I want to write. I want to write a song called ‘Out of the Blue Clear Sky.’” So we did. It was quick. It took about two hours. And we wrote it and it sat for a while. Then George Strait recorded it, and it was a big single. Who would have known?

Scott: When you’re writing songs, what is the anchor idea that makes you realize that you have something there, that makes you stop casting around, to say, “I think we’ve found it”?

Mark: I would write with one other person or two other people, and somebody has to be in charge to make the decision. So somebody has to decide: this is it. This is what we’re going to write. With Bob and John, me and Bob were kind of the two in-charge guys, and we would say OK, let’s write that. But typically, if I was writing with one other person, I had to be the in-charge guy, or it was like I lost my gift. If I couldn’t make the decisions on what worked, then nothing worked for me. I lost all my confidence, if that makes sense.

Scott: It must take a special kind of approach to work collaboratively with other creative people. It’s something that we do in our line of work. What attributes do you feel like you had that made you a good collaborator and then, also, someone who was able to take charge when needed?

Mark: On the collaborative side, for a couple of years in the ’80s when I was still trying to break through, I worked with a couple of therapists as a cofacilitator of therapy groups. So I have a certain gift for therapy and talking about people’s lives and asking them the right questions and getting the stuff out.

I like to hear about people’s lives. I like to hear the stories, and in the Nashville music business, they’re the most amazing stories of depressing lives. You just can’t believe that these guys made it through that life, including me. What was the other part of the question?

Scott: The part about being able to take charge and make those decisions between two people.

Mark: That’s just being an ass. Saying, “I’m in charge. Sorry, guys.” Somebody’s got to be the asshole.

Scott: You mentioned that when songwriters first write in Nashville, they write the worst songs of their lives. I imagine part of that is about being dropped into such a competitive environment. How did you deal with that and how did you get past it?

Mark: Well, you just have to work through it. The thing is, you get here and you think, “Well, I’m going to write songs like on the radio.” You don’t realize what you haven’t learned and what you don’t know. So you try to write a song like what’s on the radio, and you take it to a publisher or someone in town and they go, “Oh my God, that’s the worst song I’ve ever heard.” Then you go, “Oh. OK.” Then you realize you don’t want to really play songs for people anymore.

I know you asked about writing about your own life. When you get to town, that’s all you’ve been writing about, usually, is your own life. I continued that in my first publishing deal, and the engineer would say when I went in to make work takes, “Oh, it’s wrist-slashing time again,” because I had a particularly sad life and I’m a particularly sad person. I came to realize that maybe that’s not what’s going to sell. Maybe people on the radio don’t want to hear about why your life sucks so bad.

It’s a long process. It’s that learning curve. I had a lot to learn; it only took me about 10 years, which is I guess fairly typical for me. I don’t know if it’s typical for everybody else.

Scott: Part of what we do in our line of work with clients is that we translate some of their thoughts and then we show it to them. They need to see enough of themselves in it so that they can put their name on it. But it also requires us putting some of ourselves into it, too. In your songwriting process, did you ever write songs thinking, “This is going to be a perfect song” for such-and-such artist? Or were you writing on spec and then the songs get shopped around and they catch the eye of someone like Faith Hill or George Strait?

Mark: Mine was the second. I just tried to write the best song. I’ve tried it both ways and I’ve seen it done both ways. What happens when you try to write what the artist wants, the artist is hemming themselves in if they record it. This is my mark and this is what they want to hear, so nobody else is going to like it, and it’s not going to be as good a song, I think. The other approach is to just write the best song that you can and maybe one out of 10 works, but they might be big.

I had a song by Faith Hill called “It Matters to Me,” and it’s really the only song that’s straight out of my life. My wife and I were having a big fight that week, and I was supposed to write with my friend Ed Hill on Friday, and I called and I said, “Ed, I’m too depressed. We’re having a big fight and I don’t really want to write.” And he said, “Ah, come on, Mark.” Ed’s a persuasive guy—he would complain and whine and moan. “Come on. Let’s just try to get something.”

So, I said, “OK, Ed. We’ll write.” So on Friday morning he said, “I have this idea for a song.” He would have a rotten piece of paper with little things written down on it, and he’d start reading some of them to me. On this particular day, he said, “I have this idea called ‘It Matters to Me.’” And I thought, “Oh my God. I know exactly what this is about. This is about me and my wife and the fact that I haven’t really talked to her all week.”

In my first marriage, I learned what an ass I was, and I learned how to say it and how to put it in prose or poetry. And I just developed this talent of writing from the woman’s point of view. I knew that this was a woman’s song because it does matter to me—when we don’t talk, when we don’t touch, when it doesn’t feel like we’re really in love. So Ed and I wrote this song, and then we went to lunch. And it was a number one hit for Faith Hill. But if we had sat down with Faith Hill and tried to write a song, it would have been stupid. It just wouldn’t have happened. Plus, we would have been smitten with her.

Scott: You have cowritten with someone like Garth Brooks. How does that process differ?

Mark: Well, Garth is a real songwriter. After the ’90s, when file sharing and everything came along, the managers realized that the artists weren’t making any money anymore, so they got into being songwriters. Some of them are really songwriters and some of them really aren’t. But Garth, he’s a songwriter through and through, and an artist. That’s such a combination. If I had been an artist too, I’d be living in a bigger house. Couple of them.

When I wrote with Garth, it was in 1989; we wrote two songs. The first one was “Victim of the Game” and the second one was called “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy.” “Victim of the Game” was on 19 million CDs. He sold 17 million and Trisha [Yearwood] sold 2 million [when she covered the song]. And “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy” was a song with Garth and Chris LeDoux. Sitting with Garth, I said to myself, “Get what you can, but this isn’t going to work,” because we spoke different languages. He’s about 15 years younger. And plus, I couldn’t be in charge. He was going to be in charge. He’s the artist. And I knew we weren’t going to write more songs. So I just wrote those songs with him and felt real lucky to have had the opportunity.

Scott: I’ve read a lot about that Nashville songwriting process: getting a couple or three writers together and, over the course of the day, writing the song. Could you explain how that process works? And is that something that you try to follow, or have you deviated from that approach?

Mark: Well, I followed it to a tee during the years of my career. I was in there every day with a person or two people and writing a song. It’s like Bob DiPiero said: “It’s the coin of the realm.” You’ve got to write a lot of songs. They’re like tomatoes. When you go to the grocery store, you pick through the tomatoes and you see which one you like.

And it’s the same with songs. If I demoed five songs, which is what I would demo, I’d do the session in the morning with six or seven musicians. In the afternoon, the singers would come in and do the lead vocals, and in the evening the background vocals would get done one way or another. And then we’d mix it the next day. It was just this factory. It’s what they did in Motown, too. It works really good as long as everybody cooperates.

Scott: You must have felt a sense of accomplishment to be able to create something that wasn’t there before and a couple days later, it’s a fully fledged demo that is then making its way around town.

Mark: Yeah. And then you’d just write some more songs. See, if you concentrate on what you’ve done, then you start worrying about: Is this going to get cut? Are they pitching it? I would just turn it in and I didn’t want to know anything until I heard it on the radio, basically, because you hear a lot of promises early on. It’s like my wife said: “You just can’t believe what anybody says in this business, in this town, until you hear it on the radio.”

Just keep working, write another song. Grow another tomato.

Scott: Can you think of instances where you wrote a song that you thought was pretty good, it didn’t get any traction, but you felt like there was something in there? And maybe you took that idea and reshaped it a bit and it turned into a different kind of song that people like?

Mark: I knew you’d ask me that, but no, I didn’t really ever do that. But little pieces of songs I might take out, or I might have had this line in a song that I thought of, and I’d say, “Well, that one’s never going to get cut; maybe I could try it here.” And I would hear lines in other people’s songs who I had written with, and I didn’t write the song on the radio with them but they’d take a line. There was a hill on the way to Bellevue, Tennessee, from Nashville called Nine Mile Hill, and I put that in a song with this guy and then he put it in a song with another guy and then Randy Travis had it on the radio. So what are you supposed to do then? That’s one of the problems with cowriting.

Scott: When you were working with your cowriters and one of them mentioned that kernel of an idea, in your mind, could you almost immediately hear where the song was going to go? Or would you get maybe a verse or two into it and then need to bounce things off your cowriters to try to get over the finish line?

Mark: We would write the song together. I ended up writing with people that I liked and I knew had good rhymes and who had good ideas and everything. My approach was always: you start with the idea and you see where it goes. After my big streak of hits, I wrote with some guys who would say, “Oh, yeah. I know exactly how the second verse and the bridge are going to go and what they’re going to say.” And I’m thinking, “Oh, how depressing.” I want the story to tell itself, kind of. And what would determine the story for me was the rhymes, basically. It’s weird, but the rhymes are really important.

And I’ve listened to other people’s songs, like Don Schlitz, who wrote “The Gambler,” and he’s just one of the greatest writers ever. And I noticed his rhymes aren’t necessarily that interesting, but he always knew what he wanted to say. I didn’t really typically know what I wanted to say, but I looked for interesting rhymes. It’s just an approach. It’s how it worked for me. So I would always be looking in my rhyming dictionary.

One day, in my rhyming dictionary, I saw rhymes with, say, goat, there’s root beer float. And I thought, “Root beer float?” So I had to put that in a song. And then there was certain rhymes I would hear in songs, I’d go, “Well, they just wrote that song because of that rhyme.” Rhyming is an addiction. It’s great fun. I love rhyming.

Scott: You were talking about getting better at finishing songs as you became more experienced. I’ve heard other writers say the same thing—that part of that experience is understanding which songs to leave behind. Which ones have some legs, and you put in that extra work. What does that extra work entail to get it over the finish line?

Mark: You just want to get where every line works. In “It Matters to Me,” I thought we were done with the song and in the demo session, the singer—whose name is Melanie Crittenden, just a great singer—she sang this one line and I thought, “That line’s not right.” So I reshaped it and I said, “Melanie, will you sing this?” I can’t remember the line right now. That would be, typically, when I could hear the song sung back to me, that’s when I would pick out things that needed to be changed.

My friend Tim Nicholson and I wrote a song called, “(This Ain’t) No Thinking Thing.” It was based on an old software program for kids in the ’90s called Thinking Things. I said, “Tim, I got this idea.” The original idea was there’s such a thing as thinking too much, and we ended up with thinking things. But we had written the whole song and we were going to demo it at 2 o’clock one day and I called Tim and I said, “We need to rewrite the chorus this morning because it’s not right.” And so we did. I needed that confidence to write well, to be able to say, “This isn’t right and we need to fix it.” That’s a gift. And if I don’t have that gift, then my whole thing flies out the window backwards, like my mother-in-law used to say.

Scott: When you started to go on your string of 14 number one hits, did it change your process at all? And how did it change the way people thought of your songs? Of course, they must have thought you had the hot hand. But were they coming to you for something specific that only you could provide?

Mark: On my biggest streak, I was writing for Reba McEntire’s publishing company. I’d had “It Matters to Me,” and “Heads Carolina, Tails California” for female artists, and I think Reba started getting a little upset. She thought, “Well, that could have been a hit for me.”

So she actually had a big meeting of songwriters at the ASCAP building on Music Row because she was getting ready to do a record and she wanted people to bring her their best songs, basically. At this meeting, and I hadn’t really talked to her about it all, she said, “I missed ‘Heads Carolina’ and I missed ‘It Matters to Me.’” And I thought, “Oh, goodness. I didn’t realize she felt like that.” But I had just done a demo and I had two songs that I knew might be up her alley, and I gave her a tape of those two songs. And I said, “You know, you might like these, Reba.” And I hate pitching songs. That’s the last thing I would have ever wanted to do was pitch a song, but I gave them to Reba and she cut both of them.

One of them was a single. It’s called “I’d Rather Ride Around With You.” It got to like, number two, and she played it in her show for years. You just never know what’s going to happen. I also think that song, in particular, kind of ended my run. I think people said, “Ugh, he’s so clever. Get out of here. That’s enough.” I really do think that that was kind of the tipping point. And I knew it was going to happen. My hot streak lasted maybe three years. Probably 12 months of it I was really hot and then it was starting to die down. Which is a good time to sell my catalog and go to another publisher and start over. And that’s what I did.

Scott: How often did you cut a demo and really fall in love with it, and then hear the artist’s version of it and think: it’s missing just a little bit of what I feel makes it special?

Mark: In the ’80s, that happened a lot. I wasn’t even writing hits, but the producers weren’t very good. Or there were suspects among them. But in the ’90s, during my time, a lot of time the producers just did the demo over but made it better. There was one song on Chely Wright where Tony Brown was the producer. He’s a great producer, and he’d cut a lot of my songs and he did them really well. But on this one song, we’d had this crazy piano player playing on the demo and it was almost like he was bending strings on a piano, which you can’t do. But he was hitting it so hard, and in the record, they didn’t have that guy playing piano and I thought, “It’s missing something.” But that was really the only time. The producers ended up being good friends and they did so good with it. I was proud of them.

Scott: On the converse side, were there any songs that you wrote and then when you heard the artist, it took it to such a completely different place that it almost felt like a different song to you?

Mark: No. In Nashville, they don’t do that. They’re looking for what they want to hear and if they hear it, they’re going to copy it and make a record of it. That’s how it typically works. The only thing I would hear was—it might bring me to tears. When I heard Faith Hill singing “It Matters to Me,” I was just in tears driving home. And I’m thinking, “My gosh.” And we still lived in the same house where we had the fight. It was really something, that one. And to hear George Strait singing your song is such a thrill. That’s a real voice. And to hear Garth singing. The voices in Nashville are great. I feel honored to have worked with these people who have such great voices and the great musicians. These are top-notch people. And they have to be nice. Or if they’re not nice, they’d better be really talented.

Scott: I have a couple of questions related to that. One is: it takes a certain type of person to produce great work and not always get the credit. A lot of people know the artists that you’ve talked about, but they may not know your name. Did you ever have any issues with that?

Mark: No. Not back then. I was making so much money, it didn’t matter. My mother would not believe how well I’ve done. She died in 1994. But for the past few years, we’ve been going to Maui, my wife and I. And at the resort where we stay, there’s a restaurant and bar, and it’s the only bar I’ve ever been to where they know my name.

It’s happened so many times, I’ve got it down to an art. A couple sits down next to me and they say, “Where are you from and what do you do?” “Oh, I write songs.” And, “Oh, have you written anything I know?” I say, “Well, tell me the songs you know and I’ll tell you if I wrote any of them.” And then we get serious, and then they go, “Well, what did you write?” And I go, “Well, my most famous song is called ‘I Hope You Dance.’” And the woman, in the couple, her eyes just get watery and vacate and she’s just going, “Oh my God. You wrote that song?” I said, “Yeah. Yeah, I wrote it.”

One night, I was talking to this couple, and the guy was really into it. I guess he was a big country music fan. He couldn’t believe what I had done. And I said, “Yeah, it’s kind of ignominious.” And he says, “What does that mean?” I said, “That’s when you’re famous, but you have to tell people about it.” That’s where I am now.

Scott: The second question is, you mentioned if artists aren’t nice people, they’d better be really talented.

Mark: Yeah, well that’s songwriters, too.

Scott: And it kind of hints at the important of relationships. And I’d imagine Nashville is a small town, in some ways. How did you cultivate those relationships? And could you talk a little bit about what they meant to your career at certain times?

Mark: Well, they meant everything. The songwriter relationships, the publisher relationships. It’s all about relationships. The people that I came up with became the producers and the artists and the publishers. I knew Alan Jackson because he sang demos for us. I knew Garth because he sang demos and then I wrote a couple songs with him. I knew Lee Ann Womack because her husband was a writer at the publishing company at Reba’s. And he said, “You know, my wife has a record deal.” And we thought he was going to be the star. His name’s Jason Sellers. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s a great singer. And his wife, Lee Ann Womack, I had no idea. But she came and sang a couple demos for me. I was like, “OK.”

So it’s all about knowing some of these people. I had to be nice because I wasn’t as talented as some other people. I was just in awe of these talented people. I still don’t feel like I’m quite in the in-crowd. I was an English teacher. I’d just learned to do something because I had so much willpower to do it. I had the perseverance from my mother. I actually have two tattoos I got in Maui last year. Poetry, which came from my father, and perseverance, which came from my mother. If I hadn’t had both of those, I’d have been in big trouble. I had to feed my family somehow.

Scott: Speaking of family, I understand your daughter is following in your footsteps as a songwriter. Did you encourage that? And what advice did you give her?

Mark: Oh my God. It’s harder being the father of a would-be songwriter than being a songwriter. Plus I’m her publisher, to some degree. I pay her to write songs. And it’s just so hard. I tried giving her advice. I tried telling her what was wrong with her songs, but that didn’t work very well. I never liked anybody telling me what was wrong with my songs either. So I let her write them and if it’s something I really like, I just tell her. But I’m letting her do it herself. It’s going to be different. She has different needs and desires and reasons to write. And she’s written songs about me. She has this one called “The Bar.” She says, “You don’t know how high you set the bar.” Well, OK. I get it. Hers is completely different. Plus she’s a woman. It’s about 100 times harder for a woman in Nashville than a man. I think it was better in the ’90s when I was involved than it is now. It’s out of skew at this point.

Scott: Anything that people should know next time they hear that song on the radio. What it took to get it there. What would you tell them?

Mark: I would just say, it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy, until it got easy, and then it was really fun. Somebody asked me in an interview once, “What was the longest year in the ’80s?” I said, “From 1980 to 1990. That was the worst.” It’s so hard coming up, and there’s so many disappointments. I always say, “If you don’t enjoy writing songs, there’s no use in being in this because that’s where the joy is.” Even when I was making a lot of money, I would always find the joy in writing the song. And I’ve come to realize, I’m better at short-term goals than long-term goals. If you can do it in a day or two, I can handle it. If it takes a whole year, forget it.

Scott: Well, listen, I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk today. This was fascinating, and I just loved hearing your insights.

Mark: Well, thank you. It’s like my friend Bob would say: “I’ve talked enough about myself; now you talk about me.”

Scott: Take care. I’ll look forward to maybe crossing paths down the line.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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