Volume one of The Original Songwriter Demos features Tony Arata’s original version of Garth Brooks’ legendary single “The Dance” and it is immediately followed by the fantastic Matraca Berg’s take on “Strawberry Wine,” the waltz that made Deana Carter a superstar for a brief time. What’s interesting about the song is that its’ about 40 seconds shorter than the version Deana released. Berg, who wrote hits for just about every female star of the 1990s shows off her fantastic voice here. She had two separate record deals and released three albums before returning to focus on songwriting. Rick Ferrell, who had a solo and recently a duo record deal as part of Bluefield co-wrote a couple big hits from the last 15 years or so and one of them is the song Tim McGraw took to #1, “Something Like That.” Ferrell, who has a fantastic albeit not mainstream sounding voice, shows that Tim McGraw didn’t change the song all that much, except the vocal runs due to Ferrell’s rangier voice.
Gretchen Peters still makes her own albums so to hear the original demo of “Independence Day,” a song that remains Martina McBride’s signature song, is simply fantastic. Martina is blessed with one of the best and rangiest of voices so it’s fair to say that Gretchen’s version couldn’t possibly be as ‘rangier.’ One of my personal favorite songs is the song “Bless The Broken Road” and the funny thing about the song is that I first heard the song on songwriter Marcus Hummon’s 1996 All In Good Time album. Written with Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the song was recorded by Hanna’s band, Hummon, Melodie Crittenden and probably some others before Rascal Flatts took it and eventually got the song the attention it was due. This version is performed the way I have heard Marcus Hummon perform it live, with a simple vocal/keyboard and the song remains a powerful rumination on live.
It’s interesting to hear “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” as a song that feels more Jackson Browne than mainstream country music as Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett did it, still the blueprint for the song was evident. “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” has the same production value that Kenny Chesney’s version did and both songwriters have had album deals as artists before. Jim Collins sings this demo instead of Paul Overstreet and there may be some fans who like this one better than Chensey’s hit interpretation.
Songwriter Karyn Rochelle didn’t write “I Hope You Dance” but Tia Sillers and Mark D. Sanders asked her to sing the demo for them. While it helped to sell the song to Lee Ann Womack, the production on Lee Ann’s version did make this great song a brilliant one, as bigger budgets will do. Songwriter Bill Luther has a fantastic, rangy voice and his demo of “Amazed” feels as good – if not better than – Lonestar’s version while Tom Douglas’ original version of his co-write with Allen Shamblin, “The House That Built Me” is different but just as good as Miranda’s version.
The second disc kicks off with Danny Wells singing the demo for “Check Yes or No” and while it’s a great song, It’s hard to imagine anyone but George Strait singing the song. Also the demo by Wells and co-writer Dana Hunt feels dated, something that Tony Brown’s production of the Strait song hasn’t fell under, over a decade later. The interesting thing about “If Tomorrow Never Comes” is that the artist who recorded it, Garth Brooks, co-wrote it with Kent Blazy. Because of this, the demo is sparse and was probably just the ‘work tape’ for Allen Reynolds, Garth and the studio band to work from when it was recorded. Stephony Smith may not have the range of Faith Hill but she does a fantastic job singing the demo of “It’s Your Love.” Former artist Ron Wallace continues to make a living singing demos in Nashville and helped make Sam and Annie Tate and Dave Berg’s “If You’re Going Through Hell” resonate with Rodney Atkins, even if the song didn’t feel like a big hit to Sam Tate until he heard the final production that Rodney and co-producer Ted Hewitt came up with. I’ve heard Frank Myers sing his own version of his smash hit “I Swear” so it’s great to hear co-writer Gary Baker’s original demo (the songwriting team briefly had a record deal after this song became a hit as Baker/Myers). Even though I prever the other versions I’ve heard, Baker’s original blueprint isn’t bad, albeit a bit dated, like “Check Yes or No.”
Diane Warren is a fantastic songwriter, perhaps the best pop ballad hitmaker of the 1980s and 1990s, but I know she’s not the best of singers so to hear the demo for the massively successful ballad “How Do I Live” (a Pop hit for LeAnn Rimes and a country hit for Trisha Yearwood in 1996) sung by a strong demo singer named Gia Ciambotti. Her version rivals both Trisha and LeAnn’s own recordings. A big ‘secret’ around Nashville is how talented songwriter Rivers Rutherford is in his own right. He’s one of many songwriters who had record deals at one point or another and in addition to being a fantastic songwriter, Rivers is also blessed with great guitar skills and that bluesy, raspy voice. If you’re in Nashville and he’s out playing a songwriting round at the Bluebird or something, do yourself a favor and see him perform. His song on this two-disc compilation is his original demo for “Ain’t Nothin’ About You,” a song that made me actually like Brooks and Dunn’s music enough to buy an album. Rivers may be a different singer than Ronnie Dunn but his demo of “Ain’t Nothin’ About You” could be a hit today for him, if it were to get released to radio.
Alissa Moreno is one of the co-writers of “Every Day,” with Jeffrey Steele, and she’s a singer/songwriter known for helping out soundtracks for TV and Films (or being a consultant for ‘singer roles’). Her version of “Every Day” isn’t as bombastic as Rascal Flatts’ take on the song but she has a passionate vocal take and it’s easy to see why this version has ended up being used on the show “Army Wives,” (A show that uses a different Alissa Moreno song as its theme song). “How Forever Feels” sounds like it was tailor made for Marty Raybon with the demo vocal done by songwriter Wendell Mobley. The final song on this 20 song collection is the original demo for “Jesus Take The Wheel.” At her Play On Tour stop in Nashville last week, Carrie Underwood proclaimed that she found this song and it helped set up the whole album. One of the song’s co-writers, Hillary Lindsey, sings the demo here and really sounds like she could have (or maybe did have) her own artist deal as she sings the song as good as Underwood did (though Underwood has a wee bit more range).
It’s hard to ‘critically’ review a set of albums like this, particularly when I’m such a fan of songwriters and demos. Still, this pair of albums isn’t meant to be something that is nitpicked but rather a collection of great hits from the last two decades presented as the artists first heard them before recording them. Here’s hoping that Warner Brothers Records continues to release more volumes of these collections. I’d even invite some ‘older’ song demos, if available.