Recently, the Landmark Music Academy’s Masterclass spent a morning with award-winning singer-songwriter Rhett Akins. Mr. Steve Harriton, Music Academy lead faculty, facilitated a question-and-answer style, student-engaged discussion over Zoom. Mr. Akins provided practical and inspiring advice for our young musicians. "It's hard to believe that we had a songwriter with over 30 #1 hits here on Zoom to help encourage and train our students,' shared Mr. Harriton. ‘What a blessing! I'm so grateful to partner with Landmark parent, Brent Moye, for helping orchestrate this wonderful opportunity!" Following is a transcript of the interview.
It’s 1990 and you don’t have your record deal yet. What are you doing, on a daily basis, to prepare yourself?
AKINS: In 1990 I was still living in Valdosta, working for my dad. I drove a gas truck around farms in South Georgia. I didn’t have an air conditioner, but I did have a radio. I listened to country music and delivered gasoline. I’d write lyrics on the back of delivery receipts.
I’d play frat parties at Valdosta State, Holiday Inn Lounge. I would play sitting on the tailgate of my truck - acoustic stuff. I never expected to move to Nashville to pursue this. I loved playing music and I loved writing lyrics.
Do you know when you've written a hit?
AKINS: I used to think so until I started getting disappointed a lot. It is hard to know what other people will like. Sometimes, people will flip out over the simple, easy songs, sometimes - the songs that hit deep. There's just no way to know.
One thing you have to remember, the music business is not based on facts. It's based on opinions. Sometimes the opinions of others match up with our own, and sometimes they don't. The hardest part is when you write something you really believe in, and nobody else seems to care about it the way you did. So, you've just got to love what you do and keep trudging. I am rejected all the time. There is a 99% rejection rate in Nashville - so you have to love it to keep on pursuing it.
There is a lot of collaboration in our Masterclass. Can you describe your process when you get together with Peach Pickers or Blake Shelton?
AKINS: It is; however, you can get it done. When we co-write, there are usually three or four people. You're just hoping somebody has something. Students today have an advantage because they are learning production and how to use things like Pro Tools - which helps facilitate and grow; there's no limit to the potential of the creative, musical process. If you get a beat in your head when lying in bed at night - you can pull out your phone and get it down. That helps when we come together in the studio - the biggest thing is the spark. The spark gets the creative juices flowing.
The hardest part is coming up with a unique idea. I have written 2,000 songs over the past 20 years. The original idea is the hardest part.
How long is the collaboration process?
AKINS: the working hours in Nashville are pretty much 10:30 am - 4:00 pm, but there is no time limit. When you are coming together with your buddies - you know each other so well, there's a shared connection, so it's easier to build on each other's ideas. Lately, I have been working on writing some songs by myself, and it's been taking me about a month. Because I don't have anybody to bounce the idea around with, it never shuts off in your brain - until it's right. I might wake up at 2:00 a.m. and go and grab my guitar.
A song can always be improved. Sometimes, when we are writing, we're in the wheel - songs are just stacking up, but those songs aren't personal. Some songs take more time - they're worth continuing to come back to. There are no rules; that's the great thing about music. You do it the way you do it.
At any point, how many tunes are you working on?
AKINS: Well, I'm meeting with Luke Bryan today at 11:00 a.m. We know each other well and have written together for so many years. Sometimes, we might write a song quickly. We might even start another one. Other days, Luke just wants to go fishing. Sometimes, he wants to fish more than he wants to write. You can tell with Luke when he's starting to drift...he'll start looking out the window at the pond.
Technically, in collaboration, we average mostly one, but it could be two+ songs a day. Last year, when I was on the road touring with my son, Thomas Rhett, we wrote about four songs a day. That summer, we cranked out 100 songs. We were on the road, having a great time, and the songs were just coming.
What advice regarding the business side of the music industry do you have for our students?
AKINS: I never had any formal music education except love and desire. My whole music education was the radio, sitting in my bedroom with a guitar for years, listening to music, writing songs in my notebook. Music has changed a lot - the music industry is complicated. There is a significant side to music that is the business side - most people don't understand: like publishing deals, negotiating, management, fees, how to work with people you don't like, booking agents, time management.
There are kids in Nashville now that are 20 - that know how to use pro tools, drop beats, lay down tracks, put together melodies.
(Opening for students to ask questions)
Have you ever gotten into a major argument with someone while producing?
AKINS: In my head, yes. I'm non-confrontational. I'm never the guy that turns the studio into a chaotic situation. If I think something doesn't sound right - I'll say, 'Hey man, what if we did this with the chorus?' No big deal, really, just keep it simple. People are going to disagree - that's part of the creative process. Egos get offended. In Nashville, there are old school southern manners; we usually work it out. People are very civil - to each other's faces.
Back in high school, did you have a practice schedule?
AKINS: No, I was terrible. Do not follow anything I did - I had no formal training. I tried piano at age six and quit. I took a few guitar lessons when I was 12 and quit after I learned to play. I never had any formal sort of training. Everything I learned about music was mostly gleaned from the radio. I guess I was practicing - but it didn’t feel like work, I loved it - I loved making music, playing, listening, I loved it all. Except being told how to do it. I liked learning on my own.
My schedule was, and still is just this: I love music - I listen to music all day long. There’s never a day I don’t walk by my guitar and pick it up, or walk by a piano and don’t sit down. I can’t play the piano. But I want to learn it. I sat down and listened to a Carole King song the other night, ‘I feel the earth move…’ I learn by imitating what I hear. I love music, 24 hours a day. hat’s the only routine that I have, other than songwriting at 11:00 a.m.
How has COVID-19 affected the music industry?
AKINS: Musicians make their money touring, so younger musicians do not make money. Zoom just might be taking over. I can write with anybody - someone from London. So we are making a lot more songs. We used to go out on the bus with musicians. Every building in Nashville is shut down. We have not set foot in those buildings since March. Live music is being destroyed right now.
What is it like having a son, Thomas Rhett, that is following in your footsteps?
AKINS: It was exciting and scary. Scary because I don't want him to make the same mistakes I made. I’d already been down those roads, familiar territory - so I wanted to protect him from everything. But he has great managers for that. It is exciting being able to watch him grow as an artist and musician. To see him go from the little boy learning to play E chord on the guitar on the living room floor - to winning best New Entertainer of the Year - is pretty cool, it's pretty exciting.
What made you decide to go from performing to songwriting?
AKINS: I got tired - I love touring and performing on the road. I missed a lot of ball games with my kids, playing with my kids. There are seasons for everything.
I don’t have a big ego. To be a superstar, you have to be pretty egotistical. There are so many moving pieces to manage and keep a hold-off. I just got tired. It was taking the joy out of the musical-creative process for me. Being a performer is like playing quarterback…you always love the game but how you love the game changes. And I just want to be a quarterback coach now...relax some, outside the pressure of it all. Pressure is fine when you are younger. I’m doing what I love to do. I really enjoy songwriting.
Do you think it's best to concentrate on one particular genre or style of music?
AKINS: No. I think it is whatever you want to do. I think music should have NO rules. Some of the biggest superstars on earth could do it all. Look at Prince, Madonna, the Beatles. You be you.
There will be people on the business side that ask, what are you?? They're trying to put you in a box - so they can know what to do with you. But you be you. Do not become who the record industry thinks you should be - if you do that, you aren't an artist. Be who you are, to the best of your ability, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise. The best for me is when you write a song deep, down from your heart, and the whole world loves it too. For me, the title. A lot of time on the title, and the idea, leads you down the path.
What is the most challenging part of the songwriting process?
AKINS: The most challenging part of the writing process is coming up with an original idea. So many of my songs were about my life, growing up in Georgia. Coming up with an idea and what people will relate to. For me, the title, and a unique idea, that I think you would want to listen to.
Will you talk about Thomas Rhett's song, 'Learned it From the Radio'?
AKINS: My mom would pick me up from school in her brown station wagon. I would sit in the back seat, listen to it on the radio. Let's just say a song came on - and you only heard half a song, and the DJ didn't tell you the name of it - so you'd have to sit and listen to the radio for five hours and hope it comes on again. Then you had to beg your mom to take you to the record store. You'd go up to the guy working at the store and ask him, hey man, 'you know that song that says…' and he'd say, oh, yeah, you mean...that's by artist such and such over there on that wall. And you look at the wall and see a photo of Jimi Hendrix - and you ask, 'well, who's that?' Then you might find out; KISS is coming to Atlanta - But now with this, with our iPhones, we might hear about KISS and pull out our phones, and listen to. You had to pull the record out of the sleeve with a record, lay it on the player, lift and lower the needle without scratching the album. You had to work harder just to hear the music. My music education was loving music so much. I had to go and find it. I had to pursue it. I wonder if kids today appreciate music as much because they have easy access to it all day. My music education was loving music, immersing myself in it.
Do you have any advice (for our music students)?
This is the advice I’d give my kids:
- Learn as much about the business as you can
- Don't ever let the business take away from your passion, interfere with your creativity.
- Play your instrument, then, learn to play another instrument
- Listen to artists you've never heard of before:
- Monday: Paul McCartney & Winks
- Tuesday: Merle Haggard
- Wednesday: Run DMC
- Thursday: Beethoven
- Friday: Travis Scott, George Clinton, Snoop Dogg
- Saturday: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams Sr.
- Sunday: Billie Eilish
Even if you don't like the songs or the artist, listen anyway. There is always more to learn, even from people we don’t like! And who knows? You might actually love it.
Try to be good. Maybe you become famous - If you're a real musician, you'll still be playing at church. You'll still be playing for your friends. Eddie Van Halen said you aren't a real musician if you don't pick your instrument up every day. Even if I didn't get paid - I'd still be at the hunting camp, sitting on the tailgate, playing country music, because that's what I love to do. Don't let the popular TV world, Reality TV world, the junk that's out there - get in the way of your love for music. LISTEN to things you have never heard before. Diversity is the best education you could ever have.
Get out there and play. You learn so many things once you start performing - anywhere, everywhere. Go play - because it is out there that you figure out who you are.
Masterclass: Lectures and Conversations, led by leading music industry professionals.
Landmark Music Academy is a program for students interested in the music industry. The Music Academy track consists of a collection of elective periods that will include instruction in songwriting, music theory, performance, digital recording, and private instruction in the student’s area of focus (i.e. vocal, instrumental, production). Additional time will be given for individual and group creative projects. Masterclasses and leadership modules will cover different topics within the music business, promotion, contract law, and marketing. There will also be hands-on field trips to local recording studios, record labels, publishing houses, and performing rights organizations. The advanced music production class writes/records/performs/mixes and masters a small album each year. Check out Landmark Christian School Music Academy’s newest record release on Spotify here!