Georgia Middleman is one Nashville's most accomplished singer/songwriters. She has had songs recorded by Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Keith Urban, who in 2010 took "I'm In," which she co-wrote with Radney Foster, to the top of the country charts. Originally from Texas, Georgia earned a degree in acting from NYU and then moved to Nashville.
She earned a publishing deal with Polygram and then a record deal with Giant Records. Her solo records include Endless Possibilites on Giant Records and the independent Unchanged and Things I Didn't Know I Knew.
She and husband Gary Burr recently began “Nashville to New York.” The series brings esteemed Nashville songwriters to New York City for an evening of songs and stories in an intimate setting. Georgia graciously took time to chat with us about the series as well as songwriting and much more.
You started writing songs at a very young age. Did you know then that music was what you wanted to do professionally?
You know what’s funny? My songwriting came out of a fear of singing. I was singing on stage in different honky tonks and clubs throughout Texas when I was ten years. I had to get up there in front of a live audience and it scared me! I was terrified of the stage because I never got to rehearse with a band. People said to me ‘well you just need to know the standards, just sing those; the band will know the music to those songs.’ It made me so anxiety ridden that I thought to myself ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ And I was ten!
So then I started writing songs, I guess just 'cause I wanted to express myself. By the time I got into my teens, I suddenly felt that I needed to sing and that need came out of songwriting, which was so natural for me. I felt that singing was now something I had to do, which made it necessary and fun. All of a sudden I had a voice to sing from because I was a songwriter. Songwriting actually helped me on so many levels.
You must have overcome that anxiety because at seventeen years old you were opening for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
I was actually fourteen so I was still in that same nerve-wrecking place! But when I opened for them I sang the same four songs I always sang: "Delta Dawn," "The Gambler," "Texas" (When I Die), and "Coal Miner's Daughter." I sang those songs everywhere, so by the time I was a teenager I was really good at them.
Having started writing and performing so young, who were your influences?
It’s funny because when I took my first guitar lesson at age ten I just couldn’t learn how to read music. I wasn’t a good student and I got bored. When I was twelve, I had a teacher, named Melody, who really spoke my language and understood me. She taught me a Joni Mitchell song via tablature, which is a different way of learning guitar, and I just loved it. You know, a student learns however they do and when I started learning that way it became fun for me and I began experimenting with chords. Learning the guitar is what really brought out my songwriting.
Growing up, we had a mix of traditional pop and country in our house. My family were big country music fans. We loved Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline. In addition to those artists, I listened to Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Burt Bacharach and James Taylor. Between the pop and country, I really learned to appreciate the structure of a song at ten years old. From country music, I really got a sense of story telling and lyrics. From pop, I learned about melody. As a songwriter, I tried to put them both together.
From Texas you came to NYU for college. How did you get from New York to Nashville?
When I lived in New York, I had friend in Nashville who knew how much I liked to write and how much I just loved songs. He told me that I had to come visit him because they had songwriters’ nights in Nashville and I would love it. I went for a visit and brought my guitar. We went to a writers’ night and I couldn’t believe the camaraderie between the writers, some of whom were professionals and some of whom were still aspiring writers. I wasn’t ready to go on stage yet, but I learned so much! I would sit there enraptured, and just be in awe. I then went to the Bluebird Cafe, where all of the late shows were the pros, and knew I had to live in Nashville because I had to be surrounded by that energy.
So, after I graduated NYU, I moved to Nashville. In Nashville, I was surrounded by amazingly brilliant songwriters, like Don Schlitz and Gary Burr. The writers in Nashville, to me, are the best anywhere. This is why I chose Nashville to learn my craft.
It was a magical time, but the irony is that all of the businesses at the time were run in houses, which looked very accessible. I thought I could knock on doors and people would let me in, but in actuality it was so much harder than that. However, I did the work and eventually I got a publishing deal, started getting cuts and it went really well. But it’s a learning curve.
You have such an amazingly successful career. Is there anyone that you want to co-write with or write for that you haven’t?
Wow that’s a really good question. I’m so lucky I write with people whom I adore and respect. I’m sure there are, but I honestly can’t think of anyone right now.
You wrote the song “When the Right One Comes Along,” which was featured on the television show Nashville, with newcomers Striking Matches. Who do you think are the up and coming singer songwriters in Nashville?
Striking Matches, definitely. I am really excited for them because they just signed their first record deal. There’s a girl named Karla Davis who is from North Carolina and now lives in Nashville. She is pop country, and has such a beautiful voice. I have high hopes for her. Also, Gary and I are working with Hannah Baldwin who has a very traditional voice. She's kind of a throwback to the old country and a little powerhouse. I see her doing very well.
In addition to all that you do, you are also one third of the trio Blue Sky Riders, along with Gary Burr and Kenny Loggins. You released an album in 2013. Are you working on anything new?
We are writing for our second record and this summer we will hit the road opening for Kenny Loggins solo tour. We’re very busy!
Is there one record that you are listening to right now on repeat?
I love Sara Barallies; I think she is so good! I listen to her song “Brave” for inspiration because lyrically and melodically, it’s just so well written. There's also a ballad I love to put on called “Christine’s Refrigerator,” which is the most stunning song and is written by John Margolis and Don Rosler. It is a great study on writing and just so beautiful. Check out that song because it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
Earlier this year, in March, Georgia and Gary premiered “Nashville to New York." Patterned after the famous "In The Round" nights at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, "Nashville to New York" brings Nashville’s top songwriters to the Big Apple to play and tell the stories behind the songs.
Congratulations on the first show of the series! It was a huge success!
Thank you! They [The Cutting Room] told us that if we get seventy people they would be happy. We were so happy to work with the club; we didn’t want to let them down. Well, that night, we had almost three hundred people at the show! I always knew it, but it goes to prove that there is a country music audience in New York.
Talk a little about why you started “Nashville to New York.”
We really wanted to honor the songwriter. These people are known for being behind the scenes and we wanted to bring them to the forefront because so many of them are excellent performers as well. It's always cool to hear an artist play his or her hit song, but there's nothing quite like hearing it sung by the guy or girl who created it. There's something really special about that.
What made you decide to bring the series to New York City?
Because I love New York! I adore the city, and any chance I get I want to come back and visit. We have a friend who runs the CMA Songwriters Series [at Joe’s Pub] and another who has a songwriter show at Birdland. I have never been to Joe’s and done that, but Gary has. Every time we see a listing for that series, we get so jealous (laughing) because they are so lucky to come to NYC and do that.
We always wanted to do a songwriters’ show and when The Cutting Room approached us we were so excited! “Nashville to New York” is an outlet for what we love and a great opportunity to bring writers to New York. It is a way to combine the two cities with something special to it.
How often do you plan on having the series?
We plan on doing the series every three months; so four times a year. Our next show is June 10th with Gretchen Peters and Dave Berg. I am a huge fan of Gretchen, but have never met her. I do know Dave and he’s just awesome and amazing.
I imagine you have a tremendous pool of writer friends to choose from. How will you decide who to bring along?
We have a wish list that Gary and I sat down and wrote. We want to mix it up with people who don’t normally play together and people we have never worked with, which will be fun. In Nashville a lot of time I play with the people I’m comfortable with. It’s fun to stir it up because you never know what’s going to happen in a show when people meet each other for the first time. We hope everybody [on our list] will agree to do it. The writers we bring along are people who we are huge fans of and who we love. We feel like we have a front row seat, too. We are playing on stage, but we are also listening to these amazing writers. We love what they do and I think the audience will too.
How do you decide what to play?
There’s a flow to a show like this. We don’t come in with a set list, and nothing is scripted. Because we have never played with the combination of people who we bring, we don’t know exactly what they'll sing. We don’t have anything written down; we just kind of go off the person who just played before us, which really is how a song gets written. There may be something a co-writer says to trigger something and bring that something out of you. This is the same exact philosophy. If the person before me plays a song and the audience is laughing, that may make me want to play a certain song. If there are too many ballads, it gets boring. We want the audience to have fun, so our job is to keep mixing it up.
The writers who we bring are people who can keep a show interesting because they write all kinds of songs. We will have up-tempo songs, ballads, hit songs you know, and songs you haven’t heard yet that may one day be hits. We like to keep it balanced and include whatever the energy of the show calls for. Basically, the goal for the show is to keep it engaging for the audience, to keep them interested, and of course to have fun.
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