Almost Famous

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I’m already two-thirds of the way through my 30 new pieces of writing in 30 days self-challenge and I’m looking forward to crossing the finish line.

I have to be careful, though. For far too long,  I’ve had the tendency to slow down – or completely peter out – when I’m close to the end of something that’s important to me. Over the years, many a writing project or other great idea has found itself abandoned on the side of the road wondering what the hell happened when things seemed to be going so well.

Like that time some 30 years ago when I found myself in Nashville as the halfway point back to Atlanta from Buffalo after my younger sister’s wedding.

My first night there, I went to the iconic Bluebird Café, a touchstone for up-and-coming or already-established songwriters. After the show, I went up to speak with one of the performers to tell her how much I had loved her material.

We got to talking more and I mentioned that I had written a bunch of songs that I thought were pretty good.

“Oh,” she smiled. “Go see Harry Warner at BMI. Tell him I sent you.”

For the record, BMI is one of the two major music publishing companies in the world; the other is ASCAP.

I don’t remember that gal’s name but I do know that whoever she was, she carried a lot of clout with Harry Warner at BMI. I know that because when I called the BMI office the very next morning and told the secretary that I was leaving Nashville later that afternoon, she invited me to come in to see Harry Warner at 2:00 p.m.

Harry Warner was a warm and personable, handsome man, with a capacious office filled with natural light. He invited me to sit down across from him at his desk. On that desk were stacks upon stacks of open, small-size, cardboard boxes filled with cassette tapes. Unboxed stacks of tapes filled in whatever space was left on the desk.

Harry waved his hand in the direction of Mount Hopeful. “As you can see, I receive a lot of demo tapes from songwriters. Do you have a demo tape?”

“Yes, I have a demo tape,” I said. “And there’s another couple songs I’d like you to hear but I haven’t recorded them yet, so I’ll just sing them live.”

The reason why I had my guitar with me was because I had sung a couple songs at my sister’s wedding: Evergreen, by Barbra Streisand; and Here, There, and Everywhere by the Beatles.

My boyfriend at the time played the accompaniment while I sang. I wasn’t a good enough guitar player to play those songs. The extent of my guitar-playing ability ran to some basic chords, a decent strum, and a one-trick pony fingerpicking pattern. However, this was sufficient for writing songs.

Within the first year of my moving to Atlanta – out of nowhere – I started writing country songs and ballads. I didn’t even much like modern country music, and I was more of a blueser and a rocker than a balladeer; but, hey, that’s what was coming across the wire.

The lyrics and the melody would come to me at the same time. I’d call up my friend, Doug – a  music aficionado – and sing my songs a cappella. One day, he said to me, “Sandi, you should learn how to play those songs on the guitar. They’re only three-chord songs.”

In case you weren’t aware, nearly all country, blues, and rock songs are based on three chords. Yes, that’s right. And they’re written in what’s called a I,IV,V chord progression.

I handed my demo tape over to Harry and he popped it into the cassette player. As my songs played, I sat watching his face, which remained neutral. I figured that Harry figured that whoever was sitting across the desk from him would be scouring his face like a hawk for information so he had learned to master the art of the neutral expression long ago.

When the tape was finished, he looked up at me and said, “You said that you have a couple more songs you’d like to play?”

I opened up my Epiphone guitar case. This was my first – and to this day – the only guitar I’ve ever owned. I never even learned to tune it correctly.

When I finished singing those two songs for Harry Warner, he said to me, “You have some good material here. I really think you could have a shot at being a songwriter. Send me a bunch of copies of your demo tape and I’ll send them around.”

And that, my friends, is all I had to do to have my crack at being a professional songwriter.

And guess what?

I never did it.

There I had been, sitting in Harry Warner’s huge corner office, where sat mountains of unsolicited cassette tapes from countless songwriting hopefuls – most of which, I had the feeling – Mr. Warner might never get around to listening to.

I, on the other hand, had just walked in as a result of a 5-minute conversation with a singer-songwriter the night before.

How could this have been so easy for me – a person who wasn’t really a songwriter, when all those other people whose demo tapes were gathering dust on Harry Warner’s desk woud’ve killed for that opportunity – an opportunity that would likely never come for nearly all of them.

Such is the ignorance of youth, I suppose. If you ever wondered about the meaning of the saying, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” this is a perfect example.

But that’s how I was back then. I didn’t follow through. I didn’t even understand the depth of my gifts, let alone know how to value them. I never regretted not sending Harry Warner a bunch of my demo tapes, as he’d requested.

That is, until two minutes ago, when, just for kicks, I googled HARRY WARNER, BMI.

Turns out that Harry Warner was the assistant vice-president of writer/publisher relations, a fact of which I must have been well aware at that time because Harry had given me his card before I left his office that day.

When I got back to Atlanta, I thought many times about sending those tapes. I kept Harry’s card around for awhile – looking at it, moving it, picking it up, moving it, finally misplacing it – until both the card and the opportunity evaporated.

I’m much wiser and smarter now and I absolutely know the value of my gifts, which, as it turns out, end up being a lot of hard work.

Harry Warner died May 16, 2018, at the age of 83.


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