There’s a certain amount of chaos that comes with being a performing songwriter — planes to catch, interviews to grant, rental cars to navigate and so on. That’s to say nothing of finding the time to write the music that keeps such musicians employed.
So it might be a surprise that two of today’s busiest troubadours — Ron Sexsmith and David Mead — wouldn’t mind finding the time to make a name for themselves in country music. In the meantime, they’re hitting the road together for a national club tour that started Sunday (May 16) in Detroit.
Already, Sexsmith and Mead both draw solid audiences when they perform in Nashville, although they don’t sing what would be considered country music. Still, with their simple but inventive lyrics and memorable melodies, the leap would not hard for an adventurous listener — or country star in search of unique material — to make.
“I think what I might need to do is come to Nashville kind of on a songwriting mission,” Sexsmith says, thinking out loud. “Or possibly what I need to do is maybe re-record just guitar and voice some of these songs that I think might be up people’s alley and then pass those around. I’ve been so busy trying to get a foothold with my own records that I haven’t really focused on that side of things.”
“I’ve had some interest, but it’s in a roundabout way,” Mead says. “I write with a couple guys named Troy Verges and Blair Daly, and I’ve been traveling so much that it’s difficult for me to keep tabs on it. I don’t even know if I could tell you specifically who was interested and who has put things on hold. But it has happened, and it’s something I’d like to happen more often, if I can get enough time to sit down and do it more and be more consistent with it.”
Sexsmith, who is based in Toronto, has been making critically applauded albums for nearly a decade. He recorded 2001’s Blue Boy in Nashville, taking up temporary residence in the Dolly Parton suite in Spence Manor, an old-school tower on Music Row. One of Blue Boy’s songs, “Fallen,” is slated for K.D. Lang’s upcoming album, and he wrote another of its tracks, “Thirsty Love,” with Johnny Cash in mind. Charlie Rich and Buddy Holly have also served as muses, he says. He even dedicated his newest album, Retriever, to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
Following his divorce and subsequently falling in love again, Retriever contains numerous romantic songs that seem in step with contemporary country music playlists.
“I think it just takes one person to say, ’Hey, you know, this is a good song,'” Sexsmith says. “I’m not sure what people hear when they hear music, but when they hear my recordings, they can’t quite see how it might be good for them. I remember hearing stories about Patsy Cline when they were playing her ’Crazy’ by Willie Nelson and not really liking it, or liking his voice, and not seeing the forest for the trees. I think sometimes it’s like that with my music. They may like it but not care for my voice, but if they could look at the song, they might find a lot of coverable things for them.”
Sexsmith’s singing voice is as distinct for his phrasing — not unlike Nelson’s — as for its vulnerability. Meanwhile, Mead can hit just about any high note you’d ever need a guy to sing, while his songs often pair dense lyrics with buoyant melodies.
Mead moved to Nashville with his family at age 13, paid his dues in a popular local rock band, then trotted off to New York City following his 1999 solo debut album, The Luxury of Time. Released on RCA, neither Luxury nor its follow-up, Mine and Yours, was a significant commercial success. When he parted ways with RCA, the label gave him back an album he had already finished, although he hasn’t figured out what to do with it. However, he did move back to Nashville, get married and has just released a fresh album, Indiana.
Happy to return to Nashville, Mead says that soaking up the city’s sounds (“I have a soft spot for country music”) has definitely informed his songwriting. He also thinks he might have it in him to write a big Tim and Faith tearjerker and name-checks Dierks Bentley as one of his current favorites in country music.
Talking about the quality of songwriting in Nashville, Mead says, “I always took it for granted because this is where I came up, but it’s amazing how many people out in the world didn’t have that advantage or a standard that had to be met. A standard of knowing how to construct a good song.”
Sexsmith, 40, and Mead, 30, are sharing a bus for this tour, and they’re looking forward to just hanging out between gigs. They’re also outspoken fans of each other.
“He’s scary,” Sexsmith says about Mead. “That guy is so scary. He’s got such a beautiful voice. He can play guitar. He’s going on first, and it’s so intimidating to have to follow him. We’ve toured in the past before, but it kicks me in the pants in a way, and it makes me want to do a better job because he’s so solid.”
Mead says of Sexsmith, “I think he’s one of the last guys around who really understands the craft of songwriting in a way that not many people do anymore. All of his songs are like little Norman Rockwell paintings. They’re all so well put together. The melodies are so great and the characters just come alive. He’s really great at getting the beauty in simple things. I love that about his songs. I love his whole persona, too. He’s definitely one of the few people that I’ve ever toured with where I watch his entire set every night, just because of the wealth of material he’s drawing on now is amazing.”