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Erin Enderlin: On Songwriting, Nashville, and How Music Heals

Erin Enderlin’s new concept album, Whiskeytown Crier, is a total sensory experience. The collection of story songs interwoven with atmospheric outros transports listeners from their living rooms and cars into a small town with a lot of history, colorful characters, and a fair share of skeletons in their closets. This album from Enderlin showcases her brilliance both as a musician and as a songwriter in her own right, but I guarantee that if you didn’t know her name prior to today, you knew her songs anyway. If “Monday Morning Church” by Alan Jackson, “Last Call” by Lee Ann Womack, and “You Don’t Know Jack” sound familiar, you’ve already been witness to Enderlin’s brilliant storytelling.

Erin Enderlin has been a lover of country music from the start; back in Arkansas, where she’s from, her grandparents instilled a love for the genre in her from a young age. Thanks to her family, she grew up loving and looking up to some of the greatest legends in the industry. “My grandfather and grandmother got me into country music. My grandmother would watch TNN like it was her job during the day, so by the time I was three or four, when we’d go to the video store, I only wanted to rent two videos: the biography of Patsy Cline or the video collection of K.T. Oslin. My grandfather had a record collection, and it was my everything when I was a kid. I’d have to wait until he came home from work and we had a ritual of choosing the album, taking it out, and then cleaning it while making sure not to scratch it. That was something I really loved doing with him. I love my grandpa and he wasn’t a big talker, so music was a way that we got to hang out and bond. When I was four years old, he gave me four of his albums: Kenny Rogers, Waylon and Willie, Conway Twitty, and The Statler Brothers. Those were my first real influences, and then one day I saw Reba McEntire on the Ralph Emery show. That was the first time I realized girls could do it too, and I was completely obsessed. I spent all my money on Reba’s tapes and got hooked.”

Photo courtesy of Jon Karr and Erin Enderlin

Enderlin turned her love of listening to music into making her own art pretty quickly; by fourth grade, she was writing her own songs and singing them to anyone she could get into a room for three minutes. Her creativity and determination from a young age, as well as the heroes she looked to emulate on stage, prepared Enderlin well for a successful career in Nashville. “Deciding to write songs was kind of random for me. I was already really into country music and singing it when I read an interview with Reba McEntire. She was talking about playing a show and what her mother had said afterword. Her mother said ‘You did a great job, you sounded like Loretta Lynn,’ and Reba thought that was really cool. Her Mom said ‘Actually, no it’s not. There’s already one Loretta Lynn. You need to find your own voice- who are you?’ For some reason my young brain translated that into well…if I wrote my own songs, I’d have to find my own voice because no one else had sung those words yet. I started writing songs and taking them into my music class and forcing my fellow students to listen to them. I played my first real show when I was sixteen, and from the start I played a mix of covers I liked and the songs I had written myself. Right out of high school, I moved to Tennessee. I went to college at Middle Tennessee State so that my parents wouldn’t murder me for moving to Nashville and I started trying to soak in everything that I could about music.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Enderlin is the grounded, down to earth, sweet attitude with which she approaches everything. As she was telling her story, she continually referred to those older and wiser than her whom she has always looked up to, crediting them for the things she knows about the industry today. Enderlin’s career is tethered to the qualities country music itself has encompassed and showcased as a genre for so long; a reverent nod to traditions and history mixed with a healthy dose of innovation and a strong shot of discipline. “I remember the first night I went out to a show in Nashville and at the time I remember thinking I’m just not going to play any of my songs for anyone here. I’m going to watch other people. I learned so much from listening to other writers. Emmylou Harris said ‘the best way to study music is to put it on the record player and turn it up real loud’. I agree one hundred percent. Just going out and seeing that level of skill with songwriters and artists every night was such a great learning experience. Harlan Howard recommended long ago that you should write one hundred songs and throw them away. You need to get at least that many under your belt. I didn’t necessarily throw them away, but I did take that to heart. So my first year in Nashville I wrote one hundred songs and some of them were really awful. I started meeting other students who wrote and writing with them and practicing as much as I could.”

It was during that period of learning and writing that Erin would pen a song and change the entire trajectory of her career. “I went home during Christmas break when I was nineteen and met Brent Baxter at one of my shows in Arkansas, so we got together to write while I was home. He brought in an idea he had been working on, which ended up being ‘Monday Morning Church’. I took it back to Nashville and started playing it around. I knew I had something special when I was playing it one night at The Broken Spoke and a fight broke out. One night these guys were pounding on each other- I played the song and they stopped fighting. I ended up playing the song for Reese Faw when she was giving a talk at Middle Tennessee State and she invited me to meet her boss, who was Jeff Carlton, a music publisher. I met with him and played him some songs and he liked them enough for me to go into the studio and cut five demos. He started pitching ‘Monday Morning Church’ around and after that it was on hold with two artists for about a year and a half. Keith Seagal, who produces Alan Jackson, put it on hold for another artist after that. But Keith was out to lunch with Alan one day and played it for him. Alan loved it I guess, because he wanted to cut it that day. That was during spring break of my senior year of college in 2004. Because of ‘Monday Morning Church’ and Alan Jackson, I ended up being able to graduate and go into writing full-time. I got a Randy Travis cut a couple of months after that and then that June signed an artist development deal with RCA Records. It’s been an insane journey.”

Photo courtesy of Jon Karr and Erin Enderlin

Enderlin hasn’t slowed down since that first summer after graduation; she quickly established herself as a sought after songwriter and is no doubt becoming a well-respected veteran in the field, having just won two Arkansas Country Music Awards for Songwriter of the Year and Album of the Year and playing onstage next to the one and only Terri Clark at CMA Fest, on top of releasing Whiskeytown Crier last year. The recording process itself for the album was unique for Enderlin and produced enough songs for two albums. “It was Jamey Johnson’s idea at first to make that a concept album, and that it should be a kind of auditory newspaper for this small town that had a lot of questionable characters in it. My other producer, Jim Brown, is a phenomenal musician and some of the moments with the instrumental outros were just band members warming up in studio. Jim took those portions of our sessions and attached them to songs. I love instrumentation. I love the steel [guitar] and fiddle and all that good stuff, so I think it’s really cool to give the instrumentation a place to shine like that. When we started the album, Jamie was like ‘just bring in all the songs you love and we’ll do what we feel like doing’. We ended up needing three different sessions and we cut enough for two albums, which is awesome at this point because now I get to work on finishing out some of those other tracks. I sang one a little while ago that my friend Rory Feek wrote and we got two amazing harmony singers on it, so I’m really excited to move forward with it. It was an interesting process, though, because I really am more of a writer that gets an idea or a co-writer says something that sparks my interests rather than deciding okay well this is the kind of song I want to write. Whatever comes out is whatever ignites my passions for that day, or whatever song is in the room. That’s why we wound up with so much stuff for one album.”

The album, equal parts humor and sadness, is not one to be missed. Enderlin has mastered the art of writing real life peppered with just enough fantasy that listeners can feel the music in their hearts, identify the darkness of their own lives in the stories being told, and still hold tight to the glimmering threads of hope, nostalgia, safety, and love that Enderlin and her co-writers have woven throughout each song. The emotion of Enderlin’s songs no doubt ties in with the fact that music, for her, has been therapy as much as it has been a career. “I’m not shy about talking about this. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety issues forever. I’ve found that music is very therapeutic for that. Writing is a great way to express yourself and to deal with those emotions. And every culture has music; it’s the international language. You can hear a song that’s sung in German or French or Chinese and you can feel the emotions from it, even if you don’t know exactly what they’re saying. I’ve also seen music be there for a lot of people, whether they’re dealing with a tough life situation or an illness or even with a greater social situation. I want to be someone that makes music to inspire people, and that doesn’t always mean in a light way. Maybe someone listens to my music and says ‘oh, Erin, that’s pretty dark, I don’t know what you mean by that,’ but someone else identifies with it and it helps them.

I like writing songs that don’t always have a happy ending for that reason. In ‘Monday Morning Church’ it was really incredible for me; I remember one woman tracked me down just as the writer of the song to thank me for not having to wrap it up in a bow. She said thanks for be willing to be more complicated and to have a song that cuts to the bone. She had lost her husband, and she heard her feelings in that song. She wanted people to know that someone else felt that way and that it was ok to feel that way. I think that’s a huge part of music, so I hope that I can put music out that either helps people get away from their lives and whatever they’re dealing with, or helps them to realize they have a community with other people who feel a certain way and that it’s alright, it’s natural, to feel real, complicated, adult emotions.”

Enderlin uses both her emotional connection to and talents with music beyond writing and singing. As a fan of the history of music and a woman who is passionate about helping others through her art, Enderlin has been involved with community outreach and hopes to continue to keep a boots-on-the-ground approach to making music accessible to everyone. “I found out that they had volunteer tour guide positions at The Country Music Hall of Fame and I had finally found a use for all the ridiculous trivia that I know! You’re talking to someone who brought a Conway Twitty record to show and tell in Kindergarten… so you know, I’m long obsessed. So I started going to The Hall of Fame. I became a tour guide for school kids in the morning, and it was just really cool-it was a good reminder for me. Sometimes in this business you can get really frustrated and focus on the wrong things. It’s always a balance between art and commerce, but when it’s nine o’clock in the morning and there’s a five year old kid street dancing, spinning on his head to Dwight Yoakam or a little girl comes up and tugs on your shirt and professes her love for Dolly Parton, it gives you the opportunity to reconnect with a pure love for music. I’ve also done writing with school kids, and it just amazed me what some of those kids were writing about. Some of it was really big, really hard. It was wonderful to see how, given the tools to write and embrace music, that helped them deal with some really big, scary emotions. Last year I went into the state Hospital in Arkansas and got to do a workshop with their patients. I got to work with them on music and writing and using it as a form of therapy and expression. I can see myself taking that idea to a lot of different places and continuing this kind of work.”

Before we ended our conversation, I asked Enderlin my favorite question for the artists we work with here at Lula 1892. In response to the top three artists she’d want in a room together, she chose “Minnie Pearl, Maya Angelou, and Reba McEntire. It would be a really weird thing that would come out of that I’m sure.” Weird, perhaps – but I think her choice is a perfect combination of the most complex, gracious, wise parts of Enderlin herself. There is a unique beauty behind Enderlin’s writing that stems from the unique beauty behind the woman holding the pen. With unassuming strength, humility, a ton of humor, and a lot of grace, Enderlin is proving she has the staying power to become a legend in our field. Listeners can hear love, heartbreak, memories, and so much more in her music; a trait that is increasingly rare in modern country music. As Enderlin continues down this path she will no doubt join the ranks of her heroes. She will be the next Reba McEntire, the next Loretta Lynn, the next Patsy Cline, all rolled into one phenomenal package.  Catch her latest album on iTunes and Spotify and be sure to check her website for her upcoming shows and her summer-long house tour with fellow country singer, Kimberly Kelly.

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