An outpost of Nashville's Music Row, country hitmaking heaven, wends an unlikely path up the North Shore, down a driveway and into the posh digs of '80s popster Richard Marx. Forget about pickup trucks, cowboy hats and chewing tobacco. Today's country hitmaker can be a regular guy who answers his own front door, carries a BlackBerry and takes his sons to parent-teacher conferences.
Country music songwriting, now that the genre is more pop-oriented and less traditional, calls for a different set of skills. And who better, it could be argued, than a guy such as Marx, who was the first solo artist to have his first seven singles reach the top 5 on the Billboard pop music charts? And though his country pursuit doesn't quite have that same fast-starting pedigree, a past that includes Kenny Rogers' "Crazy" and Keith Urban's "Better Life" isn't a bad start.
Marx, 43, a Winnetka native who asked that his current town of residence not be revealed, was already a huge country fan by the time he was 9. "There was a period when I was a snob. I wouldn't listen to anything but country," he says. "My uncle was all about CCR [Credence Clearwater Revival], Elvis, [Merle] Haggard and [Waylon] Jennings. I grew up with an affinity and a respect for the song writing."
But before he wrote his first country song, he moved to Los Angeles to sing back-up for Lionel Richie. "My songwriting was so embryonic at that point, but Lionel encouraged me to come to the studio whenever he was working," he said. One day in the studio, Marx overheard Kenny Rogers saying he needed a simple love song. "I went home to my little apartment in Encino and wrote him a song. The next day I very nervously asked him to come with me to the piano," he said. After Marx played it, Rogers bought it. "Crazy" went on to No. 1 on the country charts.
And Marx, of course, went on to be one of the most successful pop balladeers of the late '80s and early '90s.
But recently, instead of trying to stay at the top of the charts in an industry that covets youth and barely tolerates middle age, and knowing he'd had success with country once before, Marx decided to give it another shot. Then came Keith Urban.
"About six years ago, someone gave me Keith's album," Marx recalled. "I didn't love it but thought the guitar playing was cool. Then I got a call about writing with him, and we hit it off." They spent more time getting to know each other than actually finishing any songs.
As Urban's stardom came to a head, Marx told him he'd always have a safe haven at his house. So Urban came up for the Super Bowl one year.
"We had no intention of ever writing a song," Marx said. "We ended up here in the studio, and there are guitars all over the place. And there are. Taylors, Gibsons, James Tylers and Gretsch guitars line the walls. "With Keith, you have to have guitars everywhere. It's like being with an addict."
As for the hit "Better Life," Urban says Marx started it.
"Richard had this cool groove on a drum machine, I grabbed a banjo and we were off to the races," Urban said. "It was a tremendously fluid process and quite frankly, a hell of a lot of fun." Urban added that the two of them sang gibberish lyrics into a cheap cassette recorder and drove around the North Shore listening to it. "We cranked it up as loud as it would go, like a couple of kids."
"We were on Deerpath in Lake Forest when we nailed the chorus," Marx said.
Even though they had only recorded nonsense lyrics, Urban believed the lyrics were hidden in there. "I was mumbling, and he said `No, listen Richard, you're saying good luck's gonna shine.'"
The lyrics that eventually poured out of Marx and Urban weren't soulful, gritty or in any way thought provoking. But that's often what country fans want: simple, happy thoughts and a catchy melodic backdrop. The formula worked, and Marx and Urban watched "Better Life" climb to No. 1 on the BillBoard country charts and stay there for six weeks.
Hits and misses
Not everything Marx touches turns to gold, though. Like any good songwriter, for every hit there are probably a hundred songs that never make it to radio. Or even to an album. Marx and Urban collaborated again for Urban's upcoming album, but there's no word on whether any of those songs will make it past the sea of naysayers in Nashville, even though Marx said one of the songs "is the best we've ever written -- head and shoulders above `Better Life.'"
But being a writer and producer outside the Nashville loop isn't always easy.
"Giving away good songs is hard, especially when I'm not producing them," Marx said with the slightest sound of a chip on his shoulder. "When I write a song and don't produce it, it's about 30 percent pleasurable and 70 percent questioning everything." The guitar sound they chose, the drum loop they didn't. Making music is subjective. And being an independent agent like Marx often means handing over the reins to the one who's footing the bill.
Marx is quick to point out that the artists are not the ones who make his base in Chicago an issue. "The label executives in Nashville, with a handful of exceptions, are so ragingly insecure," said Marx, adding that he doesn't follow Music Row rules and isn't part of that clique.
But Nashville-based songwriters know that a good idea can come from anywhere. Rivers Rutherford, the award-winning songwriter behind huge hits for Brooks & Dunn and Tim McGraw, says talent is what matters.
Triumph of talent
"Richard Marx works because his past gives him credibility," said Rutherford. "The key to succeeding is to have a champion down here, and he does." He added that there's a long line of people who want to be in the country music business, but only a few who get to be heard. Even with Marx's success, though, he's hardly a threat to the established writing community. Every artist has his go-to writers, and Marx hasn't made it to the top of any A-lister's speed-dial list yet.
Still, he's getting close. In addition to Urban, Kristyn Osborn of SheDaisy visitied Marx's studio to write "Brand New Year." Shannon Brown came to the Marx house to collaborate too. Vince Gill brought Marx down to his place when they wrote "Someday." Add to that list LeAnn Rimes, Jamie O'Neal, Jessica Andrews, Emerson Drive and Keith Anderson and you have a posse of country stars who have been influenced by Marx's Chicago style.
Marx also got together with Brady Seals from country band Hot Apple Pie. "We hooked up and just clicked like long lost brothers. Richard already had this sweet groove going," said Seals in a call from his home south of Nashville. These writing gigs usually happen via word-of-mouth. Marx's credibility is stronger since the Urban success. But many of the artists may just be curious. They may just want to know what it's like to hang with the guy behind their senior prom themes. And while these get-togethers result in songs, none has had the staying power of "Better Life." So while Marx could be destined for one-hit wonder notoriety, fans of his writing think he's one single away from Nashville royalty.
Marx's pop-star brethren from years ago may be struggling with the what-next question. But Marx has proven that he can switch gears, something he knew he'd do. And to do that, you can't be looking back at stardom wistfully. You can't rest on your laurels, even if they're still paying royalties. You need to have the right attitude. Marx does. "I don't ever want to get complacent," he said.