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Erin Enderlin, Tin Pan South and the off-screen reality of the Nashville songwriter

Will the Round Be Unbroken

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It's stating the obvious to say that the songsmiths who played the first Tin Pan South festival 22 years (and at least four generations of popular country performers) ago were plying their trade in a different world — one in which royalty-yielding record sales had yet to peak then plunge and the Telecommunications Acts had yet to enable corporations to buy up radio stations and drastically shrink their playlists. The Nashville songwriting community has long been a source of fascination to outsiders. Especially those who want in. As the name Tin Pan South suggests, it's partly been viewed as a curious throwback to the era when New York City's professional lyricists, composers and music publishers churned out American popular song.

Interest has only heightened as ABC's Nashville has used co-writing sessions and songwriter showcases as settings for characters to work out relational drama; on the show, the art of self-expression trumps the craft of shaping a hook. Plus, in 2013 the chasm between the radio dominance of tailgating dudes' reliving teenage good times and the buzz built up by an album of domestic realism from behind-the-scenes hit-writer Brandy Clark registered even with music critics who habitually ignore country music. God only knows what notions people have about how things work for working Nashville songwriters in 2014, and what those performing in festival-sanctioned rounds all over town do to keep up with their evolving industry the other 364 days of the year.

Erin Enderlin can shed some light on the subject. This is hardly the first time she's played Tin Pan South in the past decade. She's witnessed big bumps in tourist attendance at The Bluebird and the Opry, thanks of course to their recent screen time. And since she's landed a handful of high-profile cuts — while independently recording her emotionally honed, character-driven narratives — she deserves to be recognized as Clark's kindred spirit.

"She sings about stuff that I want to hear about," says Enderlin of the unapologetically adult songs that won Clark high-flown acclaim. "I didn't want to be 17 when I was 17. I personally don't feel like [being] 17 was better than where I am now."

Last year, having crossed the threshold of her 30s, Enderlin shored up her artistic identity by self-releasing nine songs, a few previously put out by major label acts ("Last Call" by Lee Ann Womack, "Monday Morning Church" by Alan Jackson and "You Don't Know Jack" by Luke Bryan).

"I went through a phase where I was trying to figure out, 'OK, how do I write for this publisher I'm writing for? What am I doing?' " Enderlin says. Making I Let Her Talk helped her "fall in love with music again," despite the fact that she and co-producer Alex Kline had to assemble the album on a shoestring budget.

Nothing about the title track sounds the least bit cut-rate. Enderlin's protagonist is a wife driven to insecurity (and the bar) by her husband's squirrelly behavior, who finds herself seated next to his sloshed, obliviously oversharing mistress. The clever, classically country turns of phrase, evocative details, aching melody, steel and fiddle accents and tearful catches in her Arkansas lilt make a visceral impact. As for their potential commercial impact, that depends on who you ask.

"When I moved here," says Enderlin, "people were like, 'No one's gonna record these songs you're writing. No one wants to hear those.' When I turned in 'Last Call,' my publisher was like, 'Erin, seriously. If you turn in one more song about whiskey and cheating ... ' "

The reality is, Enderlin's an alum of MTSU's music biz program, and she doesn't get by simply on songwriting talent and dumb luck. Finding hard-to-come-by homes for songs requires engaging intelligently with the marketplace, identifying niches, diversifying one's ventures. So while she's newly signed to Little Louder Music, a publishing company owned by Arturo Buenahora and Eric Church, she's also recently launched her own, with Kline and Will Bowen on the roster. It's called Ten Thousand Hours — as in, the amount of practice required to become master.

"A master of what, I don't know," Enderlin says. "That's also been something that keeps me falling in love with music, because I get to go out and really be a champion for something I believe in."

Enderlin's also dipping a toe into developing new artists, but she has no plans to abandon her compositional and creative pursuits. She finds the industriousness not only necessary to her career, but inspiring.

"I'm not the kind of writer who can just go and write every day, or else I kinda run out," she explains. "I get burnt out. ... And it's way better than having nothing going on."

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.

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