Twenty years ago, Craig Wiseman moved to Nashville to be a songwriter. To say that he has succeeded would be an understatement.
Wiseman (and co-writer Tim Nichols) are Grammy contenders for the Tim McGraw smash "Live Like You Were Dying," nominated for song of the year in all genres. So far, it has inspired both a novella and a gift book. More recently, the movie producer behind Field of Dreams purchased the film rights.
You might recognize some of Wiseman's other writing credits: Kenny Chesney's "The Good Stuff," "Young" and "She's Got It All"; McGraw's "Everywhere," "Where the Green Grass Grows" and "The Cowboy in Me"; Montgomery Gentry's "Hell Yeah"; Phil Vassar's "American Child" and "Just Another Day in Paradise"; and his first No. 1 as a writer, Tracy Lawrence's "If the Good Die Young." Trace Adkins, Brooks & Dunn, Confederate Railroad, Joe Diffie, Diamond Rio, Faith Hill, Lonestar, Patty Loveless, John Michael Montgomery and Lee Roy Parnell have all recorded his material, too.
After briefly talking business with his office manager on a brisk January morning, Wiseman, 41, has settled into a colorful couch in the back room of a refurbished home on Music Row. The building used to belong to Anne Murray, but it now houses Wiseman's publishing company, Big Loud Shirt Industries. His co-writer for the day, 26-year-old Kentucky native Chris Stapleton, is nestled in an overstuffed chair with his Martin guitar.
It's 11:45 a.m., and they've been hammering out riffs for a half-hour now, trying to nail down the melody. Wiseman says what they've got reminds him of a dirty blues song, but he can't make sense of the lyrics, which are apparently floating somewhere in the air. They strum for a few more minutes.
"It's something about a Cadillac," Wiseman says, finally. "OK. A little cautionary tale. How about this?"
He summons the lyrics from the atmosphere and sings a rough vocal:
"I told my daddy the first time I saw one/Shining like a black diamond in the hot August sun." He mumbles something in rhythm, then bursts out, "Big, black Cadillac!"
The title has been captured, but not the storyline.
"It almost needs death in it," Stapleton says.
Wiseman cracks that Stapleton is known for killing off his characters. Wearing camouflage pants, a black shirt, a gray hoodie and a Red Sox cap, Stapleton is proving his worth in town. He's had 30 cuts since moving to Nashville in 2001. He writes for Sea Gayle Music, which is co-owned by Brad Paisley. Gary Allan, Brooks & Dunn, Terri Clark, Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, Julie Roberts, Lee Ann Womack and Darryl Worley have all cut his songs.
A former Vanderbilt University engineering student who used to drive an ice truck, Stapleton says he doesn't necessarily want to be an artist. He, too, is focused on writing. However, he didn't come to this session with any ideas, and he doesn't seem to object to the idea of a big, black Cadillac.
Wiseman puts down his Takamine guitar and types some lyrics on his laptop. Then he picks up the guitar again, plays it for a few seconds and types some more. The room is dead silent, except for a gurgling ultrasonic atomizer (basically a purple fountain of steam -- a Christmas gift from the office manager) and the plastic fish "swimming" in a small plastic tower beside the Boss BR-1180 digital recorder.
"This needs some really great Chris writing in here," Wiseman says. He suggests that the kids in the song are poor, but that doesn't jibe. So, what kind of kids are they? What are their names?
In most songwriting sessions, these would be questions best asked over a lunch of cold beer and a cheeseburger at Brown's Diner. But not today. Except for sharing a few anecdotes about the lively characters who live near his lake house in rural Tennessee, Wiseman prefers to work right through lunch.
Over the course of several hours, it is decided that the guy in the song would do anything to get the car of his dreams. He leaves Mississippi (which happens to be Wiseman's home state) for the city, and he says the next time his friend sees him, he'll be riding in the back of a big, black Cadillac.
Next thing you know, a late-night phone call reveals that the guy has collapsed from a heart attack. At the gravesite, his friend realizes that the dead guy got his final wish after all -- even if that big, black Cadillac is headed to the cemetery.
"We're done!" Wiseman announces.
"Did we put all the words at the end?" Stapleton asks.
"Words?! Who needs words?!"
The laughter lightens the pall in the room. Over the course of a day, they've essentially killed somebody with lyrics. They rehearse the complete song one more time and turn to the studio box. Wiseman adjusts the drumbeats on the machine, then tracks his guitar part. When he's done, he adjusts the microphone to capture Stapleton's soulful guitar licks. Stapleton doesn't want to sing, though, so Wiseman lays down the vocals. It's a tedious process of singing the verses and then adding two harmony parts, all on separate tracks.
They change a few more lyrics, but Wiseman stops short of making it "preachy." They add some words and phrases, such as "guarantee" and "long and lovely." Wiseman clutches a plastic shaker (which looks just like an orange) to get some rhythm on the track. It's 4:24 p.m. when Wiseman says, "Let's change the drums."
"Why?" Stapleton asks.
"So it's cool, man!"
He fusses with it for 30 minutes or so, and ultimately says, "That's a little bit unwieldy, but so is life."
Because it's the end of the working day, his office staff gathers to hear the newest addition to Wiseman's catalog. All afternoon, everybody's been hearing strains and shouts of "Big, black Cadillac!" and they listen closely to the resolution.
"I didn't expect it to end like that," the office manager says, after the last note rings. That sentiment might work in favor of the song, or against it, but nobody seems too concerned about whether or not it's a "hit."
As any person in the music business will tell you, nobody can predict the ending.