The Garth Brooks collaborator and Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee picks up his 12-string and discusses Byrdsian new album
Kent Blazy is a songwriter best known for his work with country megastar Garth Brooks. Together they wrote some of Brooks’ most enduring songs, including his first No. 1 on the US Country chart If Tomorrow Never Comes. With six further No. 1 hits to his name, and having written songs for the likes of Gary Morris, Diamond Rio, Patty Loveless and Chris Young, Blazy’s contribution to Music City’s vast catalogue was recognised on 1 November 2021 when he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame.
Blazy’s love of music was ignited when he heard Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds as a child, leading the Lexington, Kentucky native to swap his baseball glove for a guitar and start along his newly chosen path. That defining moment is reflected in the title and sound of his current album, For The Byrds. Written with Steve Allen, formerly of the band 20/20, though the record is sonically rooted in the sounds of the 60s, it also finds the pair reflecting on their lives in the here and now…
We’re going to quote your own line back to you, ‘It might have never happened if it wasn’t for The Byrds,’ is that truly the case?
“That’s the case. Most of my friends, and millions of other people. were inspired to pick up a guitar because of The Beatles and The Ed Sullivan Show. I thought The Beatles were kind of cute and different, from a kid’s point of view, but once I heard the sound of that Rickenbacker 12-string of [Roger] McGuinn’s on Mr. Tambourine Man, I thought, ‘I might like this stuff.’
“I begged for a guitar and back then a starter guitar was just a terrible guitar. They’ve gotten a lot better now, but the strings were high off the neck. I kept playing and ended up getting a 12-string. It wasn’t a Rickenbacker, but at least it was a 12-string and I kept working on it.”
At what point did you realise it might be more than something you did for fun?
“I’d already been writing poetry and had some stuff published in high school books. The minute that I got a guitar, I thought, ‘Well, I can learn other people’s songs, but why don’t I start putting my words to my guitar playing.’ I started trying to write my own songs and kept working on it and then formed a couple of bands. We would play our songs and other people would hear them and want to play some of them. So it kind of took off from there.
“It was like, ‘I might have something here.’ Being close to Nashville, four-hours away, I could come down and play my songs. Back then the town was very open and I got some good responses from people and kept at it; kept playing with bands and refining my craft. Finally, two or three people told me I really needed to be in Nashville. So I moved down and they can’t get rid of me now.”
Was it always the dual purpose of being a performer and a songwriter?
“I fell into being a performer because, as a songwriter, you have to have an outlet for your songs. In Lexington, Kentucky, where I’m from, if you told people you wanted to be a songwriter, they were going to put you in the mental institution. By having a band, I could work my songs into the cover songs we were doing and refine my craft that way.
“I went out on the road and played with a bunch of people and came close to some record deals. After being on the road about 10 years, I decided I’d rather be a songwriter than a performer. Also, I would take my songs down to Nashville and play them for people and they would say, ‘I liked the song but who the hell is singing?’ I’d always made my living playing and singing and I was kind of shocked that they didn’t like how I sang. It was one of those things, the quality of the singers in Nashville was so fantastic that some kid from Kentucky sounded like a hick by comparison.”
Were you quite thick-skinned about that or did you take it badly?
“I took it badly at first. It got where I wouldn’t even play in Nashville because I was so self-conscious about my voice. Finally, I got over it and started playing in a couple bands in Nashville and that helped. But yeah, for a while I took it pretty hard. You look at the quality of singers that are in Nashville and you realise that’s why they’re the big stars and you’re not. That’s fine with me, I like the songwriter life.”
Did that criticism make you double down on the songwriting side of things?
“It really did. It made me know that that’s exactly what I wanted to do. The funny thing is, being successful as a songwriter, I’m now back on the road playing and singing and people want to hear me. I think they want to hear my stories more than my singing, but that’s okay. So it’s kind of come full circle.”
Did you write the new album with performing it in mind, or more as a way of expressing yourself?
“I’m pretty fortunate that the guys who played on the record play with John Pardi. He’s a big country artist, but due to COVID they weren’t out on the road. So I enlisted them to cut two records with me and we’ve been out performing and it’s really fun to be playing with these guys that are so professional, doing my songs. It’s just a joy, the way it’s developed.”
Listening to For The Byrds, it sounds like it was a fun record to make…
“My target, when I go in with the musicians, every single time is, ‘Let’s make this fun.’ Garth has been so generous and let me use his studio. We only had a limited time so we went in and cut eleven songs in one day. We worked all day and they’re so professional that we knocked them all out and had fun doing it.
“I think that shows on the record: everybody having a good time playing in the same room, nobody phoning in their parts or overdubbing or anything like that. That’s the way my favourite records were made back in the 60s and 70s, people playing live in a room together.”
Were the songs already written and everyone knew their parts beforehand?
“I met Steve Allen, who had been in a big pop band called 20/20. He and I met because he said I stole his dog in a park near where I live. We got to know each other and I found out he was a guitar player and he joined my band.
“Nobody could write together during COVID, but he lives five-minutes away from me and he would come and sit outside and I would sit inside and we would write songs. Then it got where we would both wear masks and be six-feet apart. And finally it got where we could be in the same room together. So all this time, we were writing songs. Both of us had lost our wives to brain tumours and had both fallen in love again. A lot of this album is about falling in love again when you didn’t think that was possible.”
It sounds like you and Steve were destined to do this together…
“I know, it was unbelievable. The whole story of meeting him and how far we’ve come, it’s magical to me. I call him my, ‘Brother from another mother,’ because his musical tastes and mine are so close.”
Do you think writing while socially distanced changed anything about the way the songs came out?
“We were looking at the deeper meaning behind some of the songs, more than we might have before, ‘Here we are, we’re alive in the middle of a pandemic, we might as well celebrate being alive because you never know what’s going to happen.’ We were having fun and writing what we wanted to write, not trying to please anybody else. That takes away a whole lot of pressure, if you’re not trying to write for the radio or Music Row. We were expressing what we were feeling at the time.
“When we went in and cut the first record with the Jon Pardi guys, the record called Authentic, we all had to wear masks and had to stay six-feet apart and clean our hands after everything. I should have called that album Six Masked Men, because that’s what it felt like. It was really weird to be in the studio like that, but it gave us an outlet – being able to write and record. When we started recording, we all started crying because we hadn’t been able to do this in a year. It was a very emotional thing. This new record was totally different. We didn’t have to wear masks; we didn’t have to do any of that stuff.”
Are you someone who likes to really edit the songs and change them around in the studio?
“What I always do if I’m going in and recording, I like to have a bass player and drummer that have played together before. That way, they click really well. These guys have been playing together for five years with Jon and I’d have them come over and practice one day before we go in. We’ll run the songs down and get arrangements, because they have really good ideas on how things can go. Then, even when you get in the studio, they evolve. Maybe we’d change the dynamics or make something longer or put in a drum intro, like we did on the first song [Crossing The Rubicon].
“We let it evolve that way and that’s always fun because everybody’s putting in their input on what they think the song could be. The coolest thing is, when I started working with this drummer on the first album Authentic, when I started to play the songs he said, ‘Now tell me what every song means. Because I can play different once I know what the songs are about?’ He said most time of the time he goes into the studio in Nashville he’ll run through songs with no idea what they’re about. That really touched me. He put so much emotion into it because he knew the story behind the song. I hadn’t really experienced that before.”
You said that the album starts with a drum solo, where did that idea come from?
“We were laughing that nobody has a drum solo in a song anymore. I was doing an interview with a guy in LA who does an early morning show where he has to be up at four in the morning. He said, ‘I got your CD and I slipped it in my car and I’m getting ready to drive. I didn’t realise I had the sound way up and those drums came on.’ He said, ‘It scared me because nobody starts a record with drums anymore.’ We wanted to have a little nod that drummers can play, they can go by themselves and have a little solo.”
Does the instrument you’re writing with influence the sound of the song?
“It really does. My favourite thing to do is play electric guitar. Being in a band and being able to do these records is such a good outlet for me. A lot of times, I’ll write on electric guitar. Steve Allen is such a great electric player that sometimes both of us will write on electric guitar. That way the licks almost fall into the songs too.
“That was another thing I was aiming for on this record… all the old records that we loved: The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones, their songs all had a guitar lick in them that stood out. When you heard that lick, you knew what the song was. We aimed to have those licks that people don’t put on records very much anymore.”
Most people would probably be surprised that the songs weren’t written on an acoustic and built from there…
“If you’re playing an electric guitar, you’re going to come up with a totally different sound. The good thing is, with Steve and I being electric guitar players, when we pick up an acoustic sometimes it’s almost like an electric guitar anyway. There are some songs that feel better writing them on an acoustic guitar. You come up with more licks and different sounds writing on an electric. It just gives a different flavour to the songs.”
How did you and Steve approach the lyric writing?
“We pretty much write together. He’s more the musician and I’m more the lyricist. But he’ll come in with the title or a feel that he wants to do and then I start throwing out lyrics. And he’ll go, ‘Well, I like that. I don’t like that. What if we say this?’ and before the end of the day, we have a song through this eclectic way that we work together, which is different than how I work with about anybody else.
“Part of it is we make it fun and we have no parameters: we can write a rock ‘n’ roll song, we can write a bluegrass song, we can write whatever we want to write and not have to worry about anybody else.”
When suggesting changes, is it a case of all constructive criticism comes from a good place and you can’t let your ego get in the way of the song?
“Once you become a professional songwriter and you’re in Nashville, you better leave your ego at the door. You have to be open to other people’s perspectives on how you’re writing the song or what you’re trying to say. Steve’s really good at editing. Coming from more of a pop place, he’ll say some things that maybe a country songwriter wouldn’t say. He would say, ‘Well, what about this line?’ I’m like, ‘That’s really cool. I wouldn’t have thought of saying something like that.’ So being open to where the song wants to go and what it wants to be is the most important thing.
Will there be times when you push back?
“Yeah, I can do that. But you know, if somebody wants to fight me on it, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, let’s find a common ground.’ It could be on the lyric or a chord change, and that’s part of the fun of it, being willing to change your mind.”
It comes back to you and Steve being destined to do this together and having the right chemistry…
“Well, that is true. He and I have so much fun together and we get along so good as friends. Most of the people that I write with are friends of mine. Writing with somebody for the first time is like a first date, you never know how it’s going to go. Over time, you develop people that you really click with and it makes it that much easier. You get to be friends, you know each other, you’re willing to say just about anything in front of them. Sometimes they know you better than your wife knows you.
“When you’re getting with somebody for the first time, it’s not that your ego’s involved, it’s that you don’t know how they’re going to approach songwriting or how it’s going to gel with your songwriting. That’s why the friendship thing that develops over time is so important to go to a deeper level in songwriting.”
And what are you hoping to achieve every time you write a new song?
“I’m looking to write something that will make me happy or feel like I’ve created a good song that day. It’s out beyond the commercial boundaries, you know, and I realise I can do these records. In turn, I can say whatever I want to say. So that’s what I’m aiming for every time, to write a song that has that universal thing, like If Tomorrow Never Comes, but also says how I’m feeling at the time that I’m writing it.”
Is there one song off of For The Byrds where you think you particularly achieved that?
“The one that I never thought I’d write was thanks to Steve Allen. My late wife moved to Nashville with me and we had some pretty good success right off the bat. Then we went through a period where not much was happening. I had two or three things that were supposed to be singles, and they didn’t come out. I was getting very disturbed with the music business and decided, if something else comes along, I’m going to take it.
“A guy in Lexington, Kentucky, who had been like a second father to me, owned a music store and would let me teach there and work there. He called me and said, ‘Hey, I want to retire and I want you to take over the music store. Will you come back to Lexington?’ I was looking for something like that, so I said, ‘Well, yeah, let me talk to my wife.’ She was from Frankfort, about 20-minutes away from Lexington, so I thought she’d be happy to move home. She came home from work and I said, ‘Hey, we can move back to Kentucky. I’ve got this job at this music store.’ And she said, ‘I didn’t move here for you to move home.’
“So I thought, ‘Well crap, she believes in me more than I believe in myself.’ Steve Allen said, ‘You need to write that song,’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t write that song.’ So he said, ‘We need to write that song together.’ And that’s what we did and the song is She Believed In Me and it’s all about that.”