First Published May 2016
If one of your passions in life is country music, then whether you even know it or not, Max T. Barnes has probably been a part of your life. If your passions in life include country music AND songwriting, then Max T. Barnes will definitely have been part of your life. His songs have appeared on albums which have clocked up sales in excess of 20 million, and have been recorded by artists such as Gene Watson, George Jones, Alabama, Jo Dee Messina, Randy Travis, and of course, Collin Raye. Perhaps the most famous song in the Max T. catalogue, in fact, is Raye’s version of Love, Me, which became the singer’s first ever Number 1 single on the Billboard Country singles chart in 1991.
An interesting side-note on Love, Me is that the song was nominated for Song of the Year at the 1992 CMA Awards, only to lose out to a track called Look At Us, co-written by Vince Gill and…, none other than Max’s dad, the legendary Max D. Barnes. This remains the only time in country music history that a father and son have both been nominated for the Song of the Year award in the same year.
Max T. will be in Ireland again in June, where he’ll be running one of his famed songwriting workshops in the Tuar Ard Arts Centre in Moate on the 11th, before hosting a star-studded concert at the same venue that evening. I had the pleasure of spending some time chatting to Max recently, and to begin, I asked him when did the idea of a songwriting workshop first start to hang around in his imagination? And also, what does he most hope will come out of each one, and how does he go about putting together the content to try and achieve that outcome?
“I have always tried to be helpful to up and coming writers, as I was one once. I have been there and I know how just a crumb of advice can fuel one’s imagination. I began 3 years ago right there in Ireland, down in Cork. I was giving a speech the night I played the Cork Opera House and it dawned on me that I should do this. My main goal is to lift up new writers and let them know they are not alone. I am there to help and I have built a network of co-writers who want to write with them all over the world. Most songwriters are doing just a couple things wrong and when I show them the right way and see it with their own eyes, those smiles are priceless!! Content wise, I am always adding to the seminar. There are slides and videos and charts. and it’s very interactive. Mostly, we laugh a lot and make new friends but everyone will surely come away with a very fulfilling experience.”
Without asking Max to give away any of the secrets of the workshop, I wondered if there such a thing as a most common fault or mistake that he always seems to find in songwriters? Perhaps more so in how they think about songwriting? And also, I asked if, as he gives his workshops right around the world, has he noticed that songs tend to get written differently here in Ireland, say, compared to the US? Or in the US, compared to Australia?
“There are a couple of key things and all together they work in harmony, so no one thing is key. It’s like cooking a meal. A great dish will have a dozen or more spices and flavors that all compliment each other. I will tell you one. Content. Every time I do a seminar, someone brings me a song they think will be great for Johnny Cash. I have to break it to them that Johnny Cash isn’t gonna cut any new records! [laughs]. It sounds so simple. But I can tell you that by applying my own principles, I have learned more about songwriting myself! This is chess, not checkers. My friends from Ireland or Australia, or wherever, are all making the same mistakes, just like I did as a young writer. I love showing them the tricks and advice I got from the greats on music row because I grew up around them.”
Going back to the June 11th concert for a moment, Max will be joined by some amazing guests; Charlie McGettigan, Olivia Douglas, Roslyn, and Liam O’ Connor. I asked Max how much he enjoys the performing side of things. Is that something that he has a ‘need’ to do, in the same way as I imagine he has a ‘need’ to express himself through songwriting?
“I am honored to have the guests we have on the line-up. I love the experience of spending an evening with friends. That’s what all my shows are about. That includes the audience. If I haven’t made a ton of new friends by the end of the night, I have wasted your time. It’s not about singing to you. It’s about including you in my songs. It is as dear to me as songwriting.”
And the reason Max will be here, of course, is because he’s such a fantastically accomplished and successful songwriter. And songwriting was very literally in his family, with his dad being the late, great Max D. Barnes. So I wondered if Max, always wanted to become a songwriter? Or is it more that he felt he was born a songwriter, to some extent?
“My Dad, Max D, is my hero! Because of him I grew up around country music greats. Merle Haggard, George Jones, Garth Brooks, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, they were all regulars at the house. It was really a revolving door of the who’s who in the business. Maybe a little of it rubbed off on me. if it did, it’s because I grew up in it.”
As a writer myself, the whole writing process of other writers has always intrigued me! Even more so, when the other writer in question happens to be someone of the stature of Max T. Barnes! I wondered if Max finished every song he starts? And in the first place, is there a certain way that most of his songs tend to come to life?
“Great question, Anthony! I usually always start with a hook. Otherwise, it’s like Ready, Fire… Aim! The melody is born simultaneously. I finish 99% of what I start. If you begin the right way, there is no reason not to finish well.”
What’s been the most difficult song Max has ever written? Either in terms of the subject matter, or something relating to the actual crafting of the song?
“It’s funny, even after 30+ years as a staff writer, in the middle of the process, I still wonder if I can ‘land this plane’! But it just always comes in for a landing. The most difficult one? The next one! Just like for everybody else.”
Max has been writing songs since he was nineteen. Does he set himself targets for how many songs a year he want to write? And what’s the longest he’s ever gone without writing a song, and in those times, does he ever worry about not being able to write again?
“Yes, I did write my first hit at nineteen. I have never thought about how many songs to write. I tell new writers, ‘You are a songwriter, not a song-wrote.’ So you need to write, and write, and write! You have to move a lot of dirt to find that gold nugget. It has never crossed my mind that I could not write another song. They just come out. I don’t have to force them. After the death of my parents, I took at least a year just to get my head around everything. I had recently turned forty. The tide in Nashville was washing out. And I had just lost my two best friends, because my mom and dad died within seventy-five days of each other. I didn’t even pick up a guitar for a year. I think that did me a lot of good because when I finally did, it was fresh to me and the sun came out again in my life.”
Max has recorded a couple of excellent singles with very well known Irish artists in recent times. The lovely Lisa Stanley, and Johnny Brady, too. I asked Max how he managed to hook up with those guys, and how did those particular songs come to be the ones they went into the studio with?
“These are two fantastic entertainers, Anthony, and I wanted to partner with them to share music with the folks. Both Johnny and Lisa are fantastic people to begin with. Those two songs are both Jive dance songs. And this is what I teach in the seminar, too: Make music for your audience!! If I were releasing a single in Australia, I might include a didgeridoo, you know. But the Jive is big in Ireland….. so Boom!”
Max also does some interviews for Lisa’s show on Keep It Country TV. Is that something he’s been enjoying, and that he could see himself doing more of in the future?
“[Laughs] Yes, I do the ‘Nashville Update’, and I love doing it! Mainly because I am a big ham! [laughs] But seriously, I enjoy talking with my friends who just happen to be country music stars, and getting to show fans the side of them that I see as their friend. And yes, I would love to do more of that in the future.”
I could have stayed asking Max questions all day long if I thought I’d get away with it! But we’d finished up with this one. Once again, without giving away any of the secrets of his workshop, I wondered if there was any one piece of advice that he would consider worth its weight in gold for a songwriter to know? Something that his dad may have passed onto him, perhaps?
“My dad was all about keeping it simple. He shared so much with me that I cannot wait to share with the folks in Moate! One thing I tell attendees is this: If you are playing darts, it’s a good idea to be in the same room as the dart board! So many times I see writers writing about the wrong subject. For example, writing about looking back after all these years, ‘We have grown old together’, ya know. Well who’s the last grandpa that had a big hit? Okay, Willie Nelson! But Willie’s Willie, right?! Otherwise, c’mon! The biz is driven by youth! It’s twenty-five year old people singing to other young people. Speak in the language of the people who buy the records. I would love to share everything I have learned as a music-row writer for thirty years. If you write poems or songs or melodies, or even just play in a band or sing, there is something for you in this seminar!! I would love to meet ya! Come out and see me!”