Local singer-songwriter Ashley Raines recalls the first time he went to the Durango Songwriters Expo, back when it was actually held in Durango.
"One of the biggest impressions I remember was watching grown men cry," says Raines of the expo's critiquing sessions. "This was pre-American Idol, but it's kind of set up like that. You go into these rooms and there's two, three or four people who are industry insiders. For me, my first listening session was with Tony Ferguson, who was head of A&R for Interscope Records, the head of A&R from V2 Records, and a publisher."
That was back in 2000, and Raines did extremely well, earning a performance showcase as well as a publishing deal and membership in SESAC, the invitation-only performance rights organization whose elite roster includes such artists as Bob Dylan and the late Robert Johnson (whose royalties are presumably sent care of the devil).
"That was the best thing that came out of the songwriters expo for me," says Raines, who plays some 150 shows a year. "They collect royalties on my behalf and, you know, it saved my life."
Eight years later, Raines has been invited to perform again at next week's expo, which will be held for the first time here in the more accessible Colorado Springs.
Stupid boy, smart girl
For those with talent, potential and thick skin, this 12-year Colorado tradition (which has a sister event in Asheville, N.C.) offers the kind of evaluation and networking opportunity that even L.A.- and Nashville-based songwriters rarely get.
"I watched other guys who were in their 40s, including a real estate agent who had a CD with a couple of Eagles covers on it as well as his own tunes," says Raines. "And they can be brutal. ....
"If they like [your CD], you'll end up back in the person's hotel room with them, talking business. If they don't like it, they'll let you know in no uncertain terms."
Expo organizer Jim Attebery says four event graduates have been signed in the last two months: "One signed to the largest publishing deal over the last couple of years with Universal."
This year, nearly 40 music industry reps will attend, including numerous hit songwriters who will share their advice and their music.
The lineup will include NRBQ founder and Nashville hit-writer Big Al Anderson, Denver-born songstress Jill Sobule (who had a hit called "I Kissed a Girl" some 13 years before the relatively clueless Katy Perry) and 28-year-old Nashville phenom Sarah Buxton.
The songwriter of "Stupid Boy," which won Keith Urban a Grammy this year, Buxton advises young writers to study the history of songwriting.
"I love John Mayer he's one of my favorite contemporary songwriters," says the Kansas-born singer-songwriter, "but who are John Mayer's influences? Who are Jason Mraz's influences? Who are Jack Johnson's influences? Who are Norah Jones' influences? And then who are those people's influences? Because the further back you go, the more raw the music is."
Buxton herself recalls her own valuable, if brief, moment of mentoring during a backstage visit with Stevie Nicks.
"She basically said that if I really, really believed in myself, I'll make it happen. She was like, 'Take my place, girl!' I just thought to myself, 'I could fly right now, and I'm totally moving to Nashville. I'm going to be a songwriter.'"
The white Ray Charles
Not unexpectedly, both songwriters have faced disappointments along the way.
After Interscope and other industry heavyweights expressed interest, Raines moved out to Los Angeles but was slow to follow up on opportunities.
"I was green and I backed away a little bit. I even waited for six months to sign my SESAC contract. What got me to sign was Linda Lorence, the vice president of writer/publisher relations, who will be at this expo. She finally called me up one day and was like, 'Look, kid, all you got are your songs and your leather pants, and you ain't gonna fit into those leather pants forever.' So I signed the contract."
Um, leather pants?
"Oh yeah, man. I had some tailored brown leather pants that laced up in the front. I was sexy."
After songwriting stints with Adam Cohen (son of Leonard) and Sheryl Crow svengali David Baerwald, Raines began to miss touring. He returned to the road and, ultimately, the Springs.
While Raines ended up going the DIY route, he kept in touch with a fellow expo attendee named Alissa Moreno, who waitressed for eight years before writing the hit "Every Day" for Rascal Flatts.
Buxton, who likens songwriting collaborations to "making out with somebody," still faces frustrations with her recording career.
"I spent two years on the road promoting an album that never came out," she says.
But songwriting sessions with the likes of Al Anderson make up for it.
"It's like getting a chance to write with a white Ray Charles," says Buxton. "Ray Charles might be gone, but Al Anderson isn't, and I've written with him, so ha!
"We're all reinventing the wheel," adds Buxton. "You're never going to come up with anything nowadays that's 100 percent original, unless you get naked and light yourself on fire."