How Four Decades Prepared Tom Douglas to Write Life into Songs

“I Couldn’t Have Written These Songs When I Was 21”

By Tom Douglas’ own estimation, he’s written too many songs.

“I’ve written about 2,000 songs in the last 25 years, and that’s about 1,800 too many,” Douglas told the crowd at a recent CMA Songwriters Series in Chicago, “but I can’t stop myself.”

“The common theme is almost always clinical depression and self-loathing. I’m very comfortable in that headspace,” he quipped.

The remark was half joke, half God’s honest truth. Douglas and I sat down before the show and talked about why the songs he writes are so dead serious. He thinks it has something to do with the fact that he was already past 40 when he got into the country songwriting business for good.

“I didn’t get my first country song recorded until I was 41, and I couldn’t have written these songs — which are typically a little more serious or a little more issue-oriented — if I had gotten my first song recorded when I was 21,” Douglas told me. “I have a whole different worldview. I certainly wouldn’t go back to being 35. I’m 65, and I love being this age.”

The reason for the late start? He had a day job; working first in advertising in Atlanta, then in commercial real estate in Dallas, and he had a wife and three kids to think about.

But getting a late start doesn’t mean that Douglas is going to outgrow his gift for songwriting any time soon. On the contrary, 25 years after his first cut, his songs are every bit as relevant and compelling as some of his firsts. He co-wrote Kenny Chesney’s brand new “Songs for the Saints,” Maren Morris’ “Dear Hate” and Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl.”

What those modern country songs have in common, besides Douglas’ name, is that they tackle issues, which is something that comes very naturally to him; maybe because he has been writing what he knows — which as a middle-aged man, was heavy, real-life stuff.

“When people come to me with song ideas, it’s usually something serious or religious. People never come in with hot girls and cold beer ideas,” he said, citing Martina McBride’s 2004 “God’s Will” as just one example. The story in the song is that McBride sees God in Will, a little disabled boy being raised by a single mother.

Because Douglas’ songwriting credits are many, I asked if he ever thought he’d run out of ideas or if the blank sheet of paper ever scared him.

“I have an antidote for running out of ideas,” he explained. “I just have to stay in the process. Mine is that I get up at the same time every morning, I read the Bible, I exercise, I read two newspapers, I always have a book of fiction I’m reading. I always try to stay engaged in this really structured life, and if I do that, I’m always writing things down. That’s how I process life, it helps me figure things out by writing things down.”

But he admits that he likes the writing more than he likes the outcome. “I love the process of songwriting much more than I love the end result. I’ve had to come to the mental framework that songs are really the enemy because they make you stop and think about them and even worry about them,” he said.

For a while, Douglas’ talent was so sought after that he was asked to teach a lyric writing class at Belmont University. And it was in doing so that he learned so much more about the craft. “When you get into the critical analysis of lyrics, there’s so much to learn about being a better lyricist. The college students could be obtuse and nebulous and free thinking and undisciplined. But I tried to teach them these rules about lyric writing from Stephen Sondheim: Less is more, God is in the details, let content dictate form, all in the service of clarity,” he said.

After that very first cut in 1994, Douglas says that when he was often the most grown-up guy in the songwriting session, he recalled that he felt like he was some kind of curiosity. “People wanted to know who was this middle-aged man from Dallas who wrote a one-off Collin Raye song,” he said. “That stalled me because I’d spent my whole life learning how to write by myself, and then I came to Nashville and got thrown into co-writing, and it took me a few years to learn that.

“It wasn’t an easy transition. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But it didn’t matter,” he said, “because all I knew was that I loved writing songs.”

The following is just a sampling of the 2,000 songs Douglas has penned, in chronological order, from 1994 to 2018.

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