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Liz Rose

Taking the “Backward” Approach with LIZ ROSE

I just kinda fell into it. I went into it backwards,” says Liz Rose of her songwriting career. It’s hard to argue that her path has been slow and unorthodox but, judging by her recent success, maybe the “backward” approach is one worth recommending.

Liz grew up in Irving, Texas. She loved music, but never dreamed of any professional involvement. “I got married at 19, had my son at 20. I was just being a mom.” Today son Scott is almost 30. Daughter Caitlin (“who’s an incredible singer-songwriter herself and has a record coming out on Theory 8”) is 20 and Hayley’s 18—and their mom is a hit songwriter.

“My ex-husband Johnny Rose worked in Amarillo as a music buyer,” she explains. “And he’s a singer-songwriter himself. So we just kinda thought, we’ll move to Nashville. So we did and he got a job at MCA. He’s been with several record labels.”

So even though she married young and was otherwise occupied, she did have her hand in the business peripherally?

“No, no. I was raising babies. Then we split up and I worked for Brooks & Dunn for a little bit and then worked for a management company. Thought I wanted to do management.”

Until she met Ken Biddy at a party. He somehow divined a songplugger in the raw and offered to hire and train her. Biddy was right: Liz had a knack for songs and an affinity with the people who write them. One thing led to another and her own name began appearing in co-writer credits, much to Liz’s surprise: “I was always a huge music fan but I never thought about writing songs. I never even wrote poems. So it’s really been fun to find out I can do it.”

Her method? “I usually just write whatever mood I’m in, or whatever’s going on with whoever I’m in the room with. I pick their brain and make them spill their guts! I think you have to have an open mind. I’m just lucky that, because I’m not an artist and I don’t play, I can kinda go in a room with anybody and write. I’m the conduit; I’m there to help artists say what they want to say.”

Perhaps Liz’s most successful collaborations to date have occurred with a partner who could almost be her polar opposite, precocious teenage star Taylor Swift. Liz has seven co-writer credits on Swift’s debut CD, and is a big fan. “She’s amazing,” she says of the gifted singer-songwriter-guitarist. “I just stay out of the way.”

Liz started King Lizard Music in 1996 and sold it to Jody Williams Music/Sony Tree in 2001. There have been many cuts along the way but none holds a place in her heart as precious as the poignant “Elisabeth,” recorded by Billy Gilman in 2002.

Elisabeth was Liz’s niece, diagnosed with neurofibromatosis at age two. “One day when she was about 19 or so my family called and said the doctors had found a tumor in her brain and it was malignant. I was sitting in the car and started this ‘namesake to Elisabeth.’ I was writing with Kim Patton-Johnston that day and I told her about it, and we just wrote this amazing song for her.

“She did live to be 21. They said she wouldn’t live past 12. Billy Gilman did a video and met her. So during the worst year of her life I probably gave her one of the best things of her life. While she was having her chemo treatments her mom starting crying and Elisabeth said, ‘What’s wrong?’ She said, ‘Elisabeth you should be in college. You should be hanging out with your friends.’ And she said, ‘Mom, my friends don’t have a song and a video about them.’ That’s the kind of kid she was. She was an amazing little human who’s still around in a way.”

Birthplace: Dallas, TX
Years In Nashville: 14 years
Publisher: Jody Williams Music/Sony
Hits/Cuts/Chart Action: “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops On My Guitar,” Taylor Swift; “Songs About Rain,” Gary Allan; “Elisabeth,” Billy Gilman; “I Don’t Want Anything To Change,” Bonnie Raitt
Favorite Song You Wrote: “Harmless Heart,” recorded by Trisha Yearwood; and “If That Chair Could Talk” recorded by Rachel Proctor
Favorite Song You Didn’t Write: “Your Next Lover,” written by Lori McKenna
On What Instrument Do You Write: “my brain!”—mainly a lyricist
Influences: Karla Bonoff, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Walt Wilkins, Sam Baker, Lori McKenna
Advice To Writers: Write the truth, write something you know and write every day.
Little Known Biographical Fact: How about the fact that I didn’t start doing this till I was 37!
Issues Facing Songwriters Today: So many talented artists that write for themselves, and fewer labels and projects. But you keep doing it—networking and making great friends. We have the best job in the world. You just have to figure out how to make a living at it.

This interview originally appeared in Music Row magazine as part of the "Writers Notes" series 2006, all rights reserved