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Another Season in Hell
By Brett Leigh Dicks / Santa Barbara Independent
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Spanning two seasons that incorporate 12 concerts each year, Sings Like Hell throws forth the very best in both emerging and established singer/songwriters. For years, these artists existed mostly in the liner notes on your favorite albums, but through series like Sings Like Hell — and a recent wider embrace of music in its purest form — these troubadours have surged to the forefront. And perhaps there is no better reflection of an artist who embodies the singer/songwriter aesthetic than Nashville heavyweight Chuck Cannon.
Cannon has penned numerous hits for artists like Toby Keith and John Michael Montgomery and is a songwriter of the purest persuasion. And no matter whose hands his work falls into, his songs all seem to stem from the same place — his heart. For Cannon, it’s the song and its message that is important, not the destination. And while that might sound rather obvious, in a city like Nashville, where songs are commonly authored by committees, Cannon’s refreshingly realistic approach seems to truly resonate with his listeners.
After bouncing around the East Coast beach circuit for a number of years in the mid ’80s, Cannon moved to Nashville. A couple years later, he became a staff songwriter, and then started his own publishing company. Cannon has long been active in the songwriting community. He served as president of the Nashville Songwriters Association International and is now on its board and legislative committees. Inspired by musicians like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan, one can only wonder how Cannon feels the craft has changed since the days when music truly defined a decade.
“I personally think that’s the function of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed a few large conglomerates to own all the radio stations,” offered Cannon. “From that, we ended up with a homogenized view of music and we lost all the local flavor. You hear the same stuff no matter where you are. And it’s my hunch they want us thinking that everything is just fine, so we don’t get much in the way of songs that deal with social issues. There isn’t much music in the commercial realm that’s taking issue with what’s going on in the world.”
While serving songwriting on the administrative stage is something that is important to Cannon, so too is serving his art at a grassroots level. He frequently gives seminars to various chapters of the National Songwriters Association International around the country and participates in events such as BMI’s upcoming Atlantis Songwriters Festival. It was one such event — the annual Durango Songwriters Expo in Santa Ynez — that previously brought Cannon to Santa Barbara. And such experiences seemingly serve him as much as they do the aspiring writers to whom he speaks.
“The songwriting community is pretty much filled with an eclectic bunch of people,” offered Cannon. “In general, I find songwriters to be some of the most articulate and interesting people there are to know. And I really enjoy seeing a bunch of people who are interested in learning the art and craft of songwriting. I really enjoy seeing them work really hard at being better at what they do. But above everything else, I just love hanging out with songwriters!”
Cannon’s next visit to town will be on October 20, when he joins The Avett Brothers to kick off a new season of Sings Like Hell. And it is a season that also offers an esteemed selection of his fellow songwriters. On November 17, Eliza Gilkyson and Cydney Robinson take to the Lobero stage, while December 8 sees local Tom Russell joined by Eilen Jewell. The New Year will be welcomed in on January 19 with JT and the Clouds and Anais Mitchell, and Kelly Willis and Chuck Prophet drop by on February 16. The season will be closed in no uncertain terms on March 22 by Jake Armerding and The Stringdusters. And, like all of this season’s visitors, Cannon is relishing the opportunity of unleashing his music on the Sings Like Hell audience.
“Quite honestly, I can’t imagine a better situation in which to play,” enthused Cannon. “I really love turning people on to what I do musically. I tell people all the time that I’m a world-famous songwriter, which actually means pretty much nobody knows who the hell I am. One of my favorite things is to walk onto a stage where no one has ever heard of me or knows my music. I have been fortunate to write some songs that a lot of people like, but what is far more important to me is my own music and sharing that with a new audience.”
Watching Chuck Cannon for the first time, I decided he was as gifted a scribe as many of the folks on our list of the 100 Best Living Songwriters and funnier than most. “Every sinner’s got a future / And every saint’s got a past,” he sings in “Whiskey Drinkin’ Preacher” before breaking into Shawn Mullins’ hit “Light You Up,” which he co-wrote.