Donna Summer, the famous disco diva, received attention Tuesday night (April 3) for a talent often overshadowed by her vocal and stage abilities.
“It’s an honor to be recognized as a songwriter rather than a singer,” she told a capacity crowd of more than 2,000 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Summer appeared as part of the Legendary Songwriters Acoustic Concert, the marquee event of the Nashville Songwriters Association International’s ninth annual Tin Pan South, a weeklong celebration of songwriters and songwriting. The four-hour show also featured Gordon Lightfoot, Ray Parker Jr., Andrew Gold, Sharon Vaughn and host Merle Kilgore.
Summer explained that she co-wrote “Starting Over Again” — a hit forDolly Parton in 1980 and for Reba McEntire in 1996 — with her husband, Bruce Sudano, when he was inspired to write about his parent’s divorce. Admitting that she still finds the song tough to sing, emotionally, Summer performed it Wednesday accompanied by Sudano on piano. She rounded out her set with a new song and with disco staples “On the Radio,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Dim All the Lights” (a song she chickened out on pitching to Rod Stewart before she was a star).
Other performers offered poignant stories and intimate sets, usually backed only by a piano or acoustic guitar. Headliner Lightfoot let his songs speak for themselves, barely saying a word between tunes. The Ontario native’s eight-song outing included “Early Morning Rain,” “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Ribbon of Darkness,” a hit for late Country Music Hall of Fame member Marty Robbins.
Former NSAI president Kilgore brandished his songwriting credentials by performing “Let Somebody Else Drive” (a hit for John Anderson), “Wolverton Mountain” (Claude King) and “Ring of Fire,” which he penned with June Carter Cash. He explained that Johnny Cash got the idea in a dream to add horns to his classic recording of the song. Guitarist Thom Bresh,Merle Travis’ son, accompanied Kilgore during his set.
Vaughn, writer of “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” revealed that Bobby Bare passed on the song, recorded first by Waylon Jennings and later a No. 1 hit for Willie Nelson. With ex-Lonestar member John Rich backing her on guitar, Vaughn also performed “‘Til a Tear Becomes a Rose,” a hit for Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan after Whitley’s death; “Lonely Too Long,” a No. 1 country song for Patty Loveless; and “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” the Oak Ridge Boys’ 1977 breakthrough.
Detroit native Parker presented his hits in chronological order, beginning with “You Got the Love,” a song he wrote in his teens for then new R&B act Rufus (featuring Chaka Khan). He performed his renditions of New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” and his own hits “You Can’t Change That,” “Jack and Jill,” “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” and “The Other Woman.” Parker recalled being offered $50,000 to come up with the title song for a movie and the accompanying challenge of writing a song centered around the word “Ghostbusters.” The tune provided the night’s biggest singalong.
Gold opened the show with “I Saw the Light,” a chart-topper he wrote for Wynonna Judd’s first solo album. With Mark T. Jordan on piano, his set also included “Thank You for Being a Friend,” the theme to the TV series The Golden Girls, and “Lonely Boys,” a Top 10 pop hit for the singer in 1977.
“I heard cash registers ringing all over this building as Andrew Gold was singing those songs,” Vaughn joked to the room full of songwriters and publishers.
Longtime songwriter advocate Dene Anton, who founded Tin Pan South, was honored with NSAI’s “White Hat” award for her outstanding contributions to the songwriting profession.
The Ryman concert and smaller shows during the week give listeners the chance to hear hit songs performed by their creators. Performers typically offer intimate glimpses into the craft of writing songs through their stories and music.