Georgia Middleman loves a great hook. Gary Burr looks for the North Star. And Kenny Loggins, he tries to find the truth of the emotion behind a song. Together, they are making music as Blue Sky Riders, and today they launched a CD of new songs crafted (mostly) by the three of them together, called “Finally Home.”
I have written about Kenny Loggins here before, as I am fascinated with his seemingly limitless facility for reinvention—or more aptly, evolution in to the next person along the way…it’s a life skill worth learning, and a creative process that keeps raising the bar on itself. So I was thrilled to be able to interview the band by phone while they were working on the album in December.
First we talked about the genesis of the band, which was really a Kenny Loggins concept. “Before we became an official band, Gary and I wrote together for an album of mine called “How About Now,” including the title song. And that’s when I started kicking around the idea that I wanted to write and record with Gary,” he said.
Gary Burr was a top Nashville songwriter who was inducted into the Country Songwriting Hall of Fame in 2005, had penned 10 No. 1 hits and 32 top-40s.
Kenny explained that he had been writing with Richard Marx for a few years then, and he knew he wanted to record in Nashville. “So I started calling a few friends who I worked with, Dann Huff, people like that, and Richard, who I’d worked with, and said, if you were going to Nashville, who would you have to write with? And so they turned me on to a half-dozen writers, and Gary was on the top of everybody’s list.”
The idea took hold and just kept returning while Kenny recorded that album. “He and I first started singing demos of the songs we’d written together, and I noticed that the vocal line was a really tight blend, and then I learned that he had been the lead singer of Pure Prairie League, back in the L&M days,” Kenny recalled, “and we had a natural vocal blend. He’s a lead singer. And I thought, having that much fun as a writer and being that compatible, I thought it would be really cool to start a band….But of course that’s ridiculous—no one sixty starts a band. And then we kicked around the idea and decided to go for it a couple of months later.”
But the concept wasn’t fully baked, yet. Kenny decided the duo needed another voice. A female one. “I got the feeling we really needed a third, and I called him and said “I think we really need a girl in the band who’s a strong writer and a strong singer, and I have a feeling you know who it is.”
Gary did know who to call—from across the room. “The girl” was Georgia Middleman, a Nashville songwriter and recording artist with 3 albums of her own and a catalog of songs like Keith Urban’s 2009 hit, “I’m In.” Georgia and Gary had been dating for a while at the time, just supporting each other’s separate successes, when Kenny’s idea brought them all together professionally. “I flew to Nashville and met Georgia. In Nashville you just throw a stone and she’s in your band.” (Gary and Georgia were married last summer during the BSR preview tour.)
THREE ROADS TO NASHVILLE
Few bands can claim the kind of songwriting pedigree Blue Sky Riders brings to every song they do. Nashville was where they finally all found each other, but they took different routes to get there.
Gary had already sold a few songs when he moved from Connecticut to Nashville in 1989. “I’d been going back and forth since about 1982. I got a really warm reception and it really was a very creative place to go.”
Originally from Texas, Georgia moved there in ’92 after working in New York. “I love the craft of writing and I love writing a hook. I love melodic hooks and I love lyrical hooks,” she explained. “I really treasure Nashville because I feel like it’s given me the craft of how to structure a song. A hit song. I’m not saying my songs are all hits, I’m just saying that’s what I aspire to write.”
And everyone knows a Kenny Loggins song, even if they don’t realize it. His hits go back to his very first one with “The House At Pooh Corner,” followed a string of Loggins & Messina songs like “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” then followed by the movie themes to “Caddyshack,” and “Footloose,” (contrary to belief, he didn’t write the “Top Gun” theme, but recorded the hit.) There were many albums after, including the “children’s songs” he wanted to do, and my favorite, Leap of Faith, with songs like “The Real Thing.” And for his 2008 solo CD, Kenny had set his sights on Nashville and found Gary, who had already found Georgia.
BSR Interview – the band talks about songwriting. (click to listen)
The writing process comes naturally to all of them, and from the beginning, they were able to write songs that represent them all. Kenny talked about the process in a video he posted of the group “creating” a song from pieces he had carried around in his head for years, which he called, “Windeer Woman.”
In that songwriting session, Kenny played the opening bars, Gary added the next part and the two of them almost seamlessly rolled into the song. Georgia listened to how it evolved and then began to shape the narrative of the song, to make it more real. “I need to know whose fault it is that we’re saying goodbye—“ she told them, and they immediately began to respond. The song evolved again, and this time Georgia suggested that it was turning too sad, and again, they all shaped it until the final product was quite nearly finished in a single session, almost as it appears on the new CD (listen to a snip of the finished “Windeer Woman” ).
As Gary explained it, he looks for the single point in a song they can all relate to. “When I’m writing, or co-writing, I always try to figure out what the North Star of the song is…it’s kind of like when they pitch a movie in Hollywood and you’re able to say, ‘It’s Die-Hard on a submarine’ — and you know exactly what the movie is. I need to be able to reduce a song down to a sentence. This song is blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, six words, that’s the song. And I write it at the top of the page and every line has to get me—has to be steering toward that North Star. You know, you only need 30 lines in a song. You don’t really have room to put a line in there if it doesn’t have anything to do to help you to get to the North Star.”
So when Georgia asked them questions about who the characters in the song were, and what their backgrounds were, “she was putting up a North Star for us, and I love that kind of thing. I loved knowing who these people are and knowing what the six-word synopsis of this creative idea is,” he said and Kenny agreed. “I felt the same way. I’ve always said that you have a central emotion, and everything circles around that emotion, so that everything should be in some way—even if it’s obliquely—but everything has to be poetically pointing at that central emotion.”
The process for this song is a fascinating one, but it changes with every song. The cut “Dream,” came from a piece of lyric Kenny texted to Georgia, which she then added a chorus to. “The reason we write together is so that the songs will have that personality that I call the “fourth one in the room,” that’s Blue Sky Riders,” Kenny said. “It’s not a Georgia song, it’s not a Kenny song, its’ not a Gary song. It’s all three of us, and how we meld together.”
Georgia summed it up for them. “I love the analogy of Michaelangelo carving out David in the stone. He said that David was already in there; he just had to carve a way to get to it….when I can see what the song could be, when I have enough understanding of Gary and Kenny are talking about—once I can see it, I can collaborate, and I can offer ideas.”
BSR Interview – Kenny tells how Blue Sky Riders got its name. (click to listen)
The artists and bands we have been fans of for so long are making the rounds of clubs and theatres with laundry lists of the songs audiences expect to hear from them. It’s great for the audience to be taken back in time to something familiar, but it doesn’t engage you the way new music does. Personally, I have missed that.
Blue Sky Riders is new. And different. But at its core, the band has all the elements so many of us already appreciate, because it comes from three established songwriters who have been filling our heads with beautiful melodies and great lyrics for decades. And when they come together, there’s a wisp of magic that builds, because for once, you don’t know exactly where it’s going.
As Kenny put it, “The beauty of this band is that we are not at a loss for ideas for very long—maybe 5 seconds.”
And they sing. Together, like their songs, they have a sound that isn’t Kenny, isn’t Georgia, isn’t Gary, but it is distinctively Blue Sky Riders. Check out some samples from the new CD, Finally Home.
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