Monty Powell knows how to write a hit song. He has done it for plenty of artists, including Tim McGraw, Restless Heart, LeAnn Rimes and Keith Urban.
But then, he's been at it since he was an 11-year-old North Georgia boy, discovering his inner songsmith by putting his own words to the melodies of John Denver.
"A lot of people start with poems, and then discover music," said Powell, who has plied his trade on Nashville's Music Row for many years. He's also written for rock bands like Better Than Ezra and Royal Bliss. Powell now lives most of the year in Huntsville, with his wife, singer Anna Wilson.
"I blended music and poems from the get-go and realized really soon I had to have my own music," said Powell. "So I picked up a guitar and started learning how to play."
Though he first used guitar as a means to a songwriting end, he became proficient enough that he became a six-string hired hand long before he became a best-selling songsmith.
It is in this capacity he has played several Top of Utah shows this summer, including one backing wife Wilson and the Crescent Super Band on Saturday at Wolf Mountain.
In the blood and stars
Powell comes from a musical family. His father was a songwriter and singer who went to Nashville, Tenn., in the 1960s.
"He made a couple of independent little records that never did much," said Powell. "We got the local radio stations to play it, and we thought that was a big deal. The notion of writing a song and creating music, such a rare thing and so foreign to 300 million households, was actually kind of common in mine."
Powell said he played in high school bands, and he kept writing through his teens. But he didn't think of songwriting as a profession until he went to college in Nashville, at David Lipscomb University, a faith-based school where his parents met.
"I got a scholarship there in their recruiting band," Powell said, "I was thinking I would probably be an attorney, even though all that time I was playing and performing."
He spent two years in college before it dawned on him that his music could be a career. Powell first landed jobs as a guitar player, having made an impression on a few pros who saw him with the college band.
"I started playing in some local, but pretty well-known, Nashville bands, and from there got to meet professional musicians, people who did this for a living. It got me thinking."
In the mid-1980s, he started getting jobs touring with Christian rock bands when that genre was starting to take off.
"During that time, I was still writing songs, kind of on the side. And then I got a gig writing jingles for advertising for a couple years. That was the first time I kind of connected money and commerce with writing as a profession. That was when I thought, 'Maybe I can write a hit song.' "
Powell said he learned a number of trade tricks during his jingle-writing tenure that he still uses today.
"When you create a jingle, you do it in the very small box that the advertiser has given you. It shuts down a little of this notion that the canvas is just unlimited, that I can say anything I want to."
He notes there are some artists who are the exception to that big-canvas rule -- for example, Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen.
"If you have that kind of platform and skill as a writer, then you can invite people into your own cult. But when you are a hit songwriter, you have to find that thing that people can sing and that millions of others can relate to. I really think the advertising industry helped hone that craft in me."
After learning to win ears with those 30-second advertising spots, Powell said, getting 3 1/2 minutes to say his piece felt like he'd been unshackled. By that time, he said he had learned that collaboration was king in Nashville. He reached out to a couple of experienced songwriters. Several found him worthy to work with.
"One of them was Van Stephenson, who went on to be with Blackheart, and who wrote for Restless Heart and Kenny Rogers and others. He was one of the guys who took me under his wing -- signed and published songwriters with hits."
Powell said he learned craftsmanship from the seasoned songsmiths, and realizes now it was a beneficial two-way street for both sage and student.
"It is good to find that new wellspring to invigorate your career. We helped each other out. They had the craft of a veteran, and I brought new, young energy to what they were doing. I have moved into that position now, the experienced songwriter who sometimes works with new talent. It's often inspiring."
For a song
The first big hit Powell had was "Dancy's Dream," which he wrote with Tim DuBois and Greg Jennings for Restless Heart in 1990.
"I tell you, I was ready. I thought, 'Here we go.' No doubt in my mind. But I think that is one of the great things about becoming a professional at anything. I don't think someone who sells carpet is surprised every time it happens. To me, having a No. 1 song and having people record my music was the natural outcome. I think that is one of the things that separates the amateur from the professional. If you do this for a living, you dedicate the time and resources to do it, you find out relatively quickly if you have what it takes."
Is there a trick or some special hoodoo that Powell reaches for to write a hit?
"It's a less indefinable piece of magic than anyone realizes," he said. "It is more about craft, piecing the puzzle together in a way that strikes an audience as fresh and familiar at the same time."
Behind the spotlight
Powell said it has never bothered him that he wasn't the one making hits out of his own songs.
"I always wanted to be behind the scenes," he said. "I was always much more comfortable sitting around with a half-dozen people and getting a much more one-on-one reaction. And so to me, it has been really great to see these songs go out to people who really define themselves by their public persona, and do a great job for them."
His wife is one such artist, and one he feels blessed to work with.
"It works for us as a performing/writing couple -- and when it works, it is the greatest thing in the world," he said. He laughed. "Now, if it didn't work, it would be 24 hours of hell."
He said they are both excited for the upcoming show in their Ogden Valley home.
"I tell you what, we love it so much out here. We just spent 11 days in Italy -- a gorgeous trip -- and 2/3 of the way through this amazing trip, I look at Anna and say, 'You're going to think I am crazy, but I miss Huntsville.' And she said, 'I didn't want to say anything, but me too!'
"As much as we travel and perform and stuff, all over the world, we really feel a special connection to this area."
Monty Powell’s songs
- “Days Go By,” Keith Urban
- “Tonight I Wanna Cry,” Keith Urban
- “She’s Gotta Be,” Keith Urban
- “These Are the Days,” Keith Urban
- “Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me,” Keith Urban
- “Shine,” Keith Urban
- “Tu Compania,” Keith Urban
- “Raise the Barn,” Keith Urban
- “Sweet Thing,” Keith Urban
- “Kiss a Girl,” Keith Urban
- “Till Summer Comes Around,” Keith Urban
- “Miss Me Baby,” Chris Cagle
- “What A Beautiful Day,” Chris Cagle
- “I Love It When She Does That,” Chris Cagle
- “Night on the Country,” Chris Cagle
- “It Takes Two,” Chris Cagle
- “Growin’ Love,” Chris Cagle
- “Just Love Me,” Chris Cagle
- “Look at What I’ve Done,” Chris Cagle
- “New York City Subway Rider,” Anna Wilson
- “It’s Got Me,” Anna Wilson
- “I Will Never Know,” Anna Wilson
- “Always the Same,” Anna Wilson
- “Norma Jean Riley,” Diamond Rio
- “Nowhere Bound,” Diamond Rio
- “Finished What We Started,” Diamond Rio
- “They Don’t Make Hearts Like They Used To,” Diamond Rio
- “The Ballad of Conley & Billy,” Diamond Rio
- “Pick Me Up,” Diamond Rio
- “Calling All Hearts,” Diamond Rio
- “Down by the Riverside,” Diamond Rio
- “I Was Meant to Be With You,” Diamond Rio
- “Kentucky Mine,” Diamond Rio
- “Old Weakness,” Diamond Rio
- “One of These Days,” Marcus Hummon
- “Straight As the Crow Flies,” Marcus Hummon
- “I Do,” Marcus Hummon
- “Could Have Been Me,” Billy Ray Cyrus
- “Words By Heart,” Billy Ray Cyrus
- “Ten Paces, Turn Around,” The Ministers
- “Perpetual Emotion,” The Ministers
- “Crying in Paradise,” The Ministers
- “To Whom It May Concern,” The Ministers
- “You Don’t Act Like My Woman,” James Otto
- “Damn Right,” James Otto
- “Angels,” Austin’s Bridge
- “Times Like These,” Austin’s Bridge
- “All I Ever Wanted,” Chuck Wicks
- “Good Time Coming on,” Chuck Wicks
- “Love Won,” Ray Kennedy
- “Easy Goin’, ” Ray Kennedy
- “Luckiest Man In The World,” Neil McCoy
- “I Am That Man,” Brooks & Dunn
- “When You Gonna Run To Me,” Lee Ann Womack
- “Let Me Be Wrong Again,” Sons of the Desert
- “Damn the Whiskey,” Brad Martin
- “Why Not Colorado,” McBride &The Ride
- “If a Man Ain’t Thinkin’, ” Jerry Kilgore
- “Radio Romance,” Canyon
- “Dancy’s Dream,” Restless Heart
- “I’ll Go Down Loving You,” Shenandoah
- “The Love That We Lost,” Chely Wright
- “Cowboy Band,” Billy Dean
- “This Is Me Missing You,” James House
- “One of These Days,” Tim McGraw
- “Pete’s Music City,” Alabama
- “Straight and Narrow,” Barbara Mandrell, Wild Rose
- “My Kind of Girl,” Collin Raye
- “Love Lessons,” Track Byrd
- “The Chain Just Broke,” Paulette Carlson
- “Between a Rock and a Heartache,” David Slater
- “Brand New Me,” Chad Brock
- “That’s Another Song,” Bryan White
- “Tender Moment,” Oak Ridge Boys
- “That Wasn’t Me,” Davis Daniel
- “Someone Else’s Tears,” James Prosser
- “Portrait Of An American Family,” Dusty Drake
- “I’m Not Afraid,” Michelle Wright
- “My Last Word,” Kathy Mattea
- “I Didn’t Think It Would Hurt,” Amanda Norman Sell
- “With or Without Me,” Jeff Wood
- “He Said, She Said,” Richie Havens, Anton Figg
- “I’m Ready When You Are,” Robert Ellis Orral
- “Courage of Daniel,” Wade Kimes
- “Don’t Let Go of My Heart,” Phil Keaggy
- “Friday Night,” Western Flyer
- “Pieces,” Rascal Flatts
- “I’m Done,” Jo Dee Messina
- “She Goes All the Way,” Rascal Flatts & Jamie Foxx
- “If I Knew Then,” Lady Antebellum
- “Stars Tonight,” Lady Antebellum
- “When the Parties Over,” Trent Tomlinson
- “Hey Love,” Better Than Ezra
- “Fancy Things,” Royal Bliss
- “Faces of Love,” Jeanette McCurdy
- Source: www.montypowell.com