Hit Country Songwriter Tammy Hyler
From Country Stars to TV and Film Meet Songwriter: Tammy Hyler
Written by Shelley Barski
You may not know Tammy Hyler, but you’ve definitely heard her songs. With a discography that includes soundtracks to Runaway Bride, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, New in Town and Desperate Housewives, her songs have universal acclaim. Today, Hyler is one of Nashville’s most sought after songwriters. With a collaboration list that includes Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Billy Ray Cyrus and Taylor Swift, Hyler has her finger on the pulse of the country music industry. Amidst the success of her many hit songs; Hyler is still just a fun-loving, down-to-earth country girl who has a passion for creating a good song. We had a chance to sit down with Hyler and chat about her days touring with Collin Raye, balancing family and work life and her first movie endeavor, Like a Country Song.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Let’s start off and talk a little bit about your family and upbringing. Was your household as creative as you’ve turned out to be?
Tammy Hyler: I grew up in Mesa, Arizona, with my sister, dad and mom. My mom was an ER nurse and then a stay-at-home mom. My dad was a cowboy dentist from Iowa. He’s the sweetest man in the world. The reason I say cowboy is he raised my sister and I to hunt and fish and camp and all the things that tomboy girls could do. I had an idyllic upbringing. My dad was the good ‘ole farm stock kind of guy. My mom was the one who introduced me to the arts and Broadway and showed me musicals. My mom wasn’t creative, but she had an appreciation for the arts. She brought the creative fire into my soul.
Risen Magazine: How did your love for the entertainment and music industries develop?
Tammy Hyler: Definitely through my mom. She brought my sister and me up into a well-rounded artistic world. She introduced the whole family to that. She always told me go for that dream burning in my heart even if it’s not considered a real job. I picked up the guitar at a young age and thought it would be romantic to learn to sing and play guitar in the 8th grade. Then I did theater and plays. My mom was front row of everything I was in, and would always stand up and make everyone give a standing ovation. It was almost embarrassing! She would yell out in the audience saying, “That’s my daughter!”
I am now doing the same thing with my daughter; getting her into musicals and the arts. She isn’t the most outgoing, but she definitely appreciates the arts. She is a big movie buff. We have a standing Friday movie night. We got involved in Community Theater too and have done shows together like Bye Bye Birdie, Beauty and the Beast and White Christmas. It was just a blast to work with her – to be a mom and daughter on stage. I think with her growing up around me in the music business, it’s pretty normal for a kid to shy away from it, but we found common ground.
Risen Magazine: Early in your career you were playing country music at night and working in the movie industry during the day and with DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg no less. Can you share a few good stories with us from that time?
Tammy Hyler: I moved to LA at 18 to go to fashion school and learned quickly that my heart wasn’t in it. I ended up at a reception desk at a creative arts agency when it first started. I feel so fortunate to have been in that era of Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer [founders of Creative Artists Agency (CAA)] and to be a part of that incredible time! When they needed help on an agent’s desk, we filled in when the agents were out. That was my first taste of the TV and movie industry from the inside. I got to see how the script got written and packaged with a director and producer and saw how that whole process started. Ron Meyer recommended me to be an assistant to Jeff Katzenberg. Then he took over Touchstone pictures, and we became the first films for adults under Disney.
I can say that through those two jobs, there isn’t a major movie star I haven’t met. I met people like Jane Fonda, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jackson and Robert Redford. And during this time, I had a thing burning in my heart and was moonlighting with my band. Country just exploded during this time! 1984-1987 was an amazing time. Garth Brooks came on the scene and country just became huge. Guys would buy horses and have “ride and tie” nights and “roping” nights. We played at some of the hottest places in town. A couple of my friends got record deals. I will say this, when I was working with Sting and Sheryl Crow, Sting told me that songwriting was the most important thing to do—and when Sting is telling you something you listen! So I wrote songs and I think I sent one to Ron Meyer and Jeffery Katzenberg. They were super nice and probably lied through their teeth saying how good it was.
I’ve never made an album, just a four-song demo—I made about four or five of those. During the band days, my bass player had a garage studio so we recorded there. Now that I’ve had hits, it almost feels like a missing part of my career. My friends and family are always asking me when I’m going to do it, so maybe one day!
I want to try and honor God through my music. Not necessarily write a Christian song, but honor Him in some way whether it’s getting someone through pain, or giving them a completely joyful song
Risen Magazine: What was the catalyst to leave your job in Los Angeles working with A-list actors and move to Nashville?
Tammy Hyler: It began with a cowboy breaking my heart. So a girlfriend took me out to see George Strait in Hot Country Nights. George will always make a girl feel better. I was convinced I would meet him because we had backstage passes, but he had the flu that night. Reba [McEntire] was backstage though and when she saw me, she said, “I want hair like hers!” Which meant my hair was probably bigger than hers! [Laughter]. I took that as the biggest compliment. Collin Raye took George’s place that night. I heard him sing backstage and I’ve never heard someone sing so beautifully live. We started a conversation that then lasted six-and-a-half years! He asked me to go to the ACMs [Academy of Country Music Awards Show] and we ended up dating.
Around this time, I decided to make the move to Nashville to pursue songwriting. I would meet Collin on the road and that got really tiring! That relationship was incredible though because I got to see everything that goes on in the music industry from the first broken down bus to the first radio interview. I was pretty much by his side from the very beginning to the platinum bus we got to design ourselves. I think he had 16 number one hits. It was an incredible six years. We would go through thousands of songs on the bus or with Paul Worley [record producer]. I learned what made a hit song, and what shaped his album. I learned the process of cutting a record and mixing, from start to finish. We went to the CMAs [Country Music Awards] and the ACMs [Academy of Country Music] and toured the country. I don’t think you really know America until you get on a tour bus and stop at almost every city between coasts.
Risen Magazine: Your songs have been part of so many soundtracks from Runaway Bride to Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, and even television shows like Desperate Housewives. How does it feel when you hear the songs you wrote on popular shows and movies?
Tammy Hyler: It’s crazy! I’ll watch Runaway Bride on TV and I honestly forget I wrote it! And Desperate Housewives, what a ride that was! I also have a song in the movie New in Town called Life is Good that I co-wrote. I love that movie and die laughing when Renee Zellweger meets the family in Wisconsin. I get so lost in the storyline and then I think, wait a minute, that’s my song! It’s fun when my daughter turns up the radio or we’ll walk into a store and she’ll be like, ‘That’s your song!”
Risen Magazine: I imagine the competition in the songwriting world is fierce. How do you get a big name like Shania Twain or Martina McBride to choose you to work with or pick your song?
Tammy Hyler: It’s luck—like the stars lining up at the right time—you know, all the clichés but it’s true. For I Love you, I knew we had a special little song. Paul Worley was Martina’s producer and I would call him once in a great while with something I really liked. I came down to the studio and Martina happened to be there. I handed my song to Paul and he put it in the cassette deck right there. It was her husband, John McBride that said, “That’s a hit!” And she said, “I don’t know if it’s me.” They took it home over the weekend and their girls started singing it around the house. It was a done deal by Monday. With songwriting, you never get a cut the same way twice. Sometimes your pluggers will get it to the artist at the right time, other times not. I owe one to John McBride for helping make that happen!
Risen Magazine: It doesn’t get bigger than Taylor Swift right now. So what was it like working with her in the early stages of her career?
Tammy Hyler: I keep in touch with her dad and mom and they just gush about her—she has good parents. She was 15 when she signed at Sony, which was where I was writing. She was the new kid in town. I can’t tell you enough good things about her. When I sat with her, she had a melody and half lyrics written, and would just sit with you and ask, “What do you think?” She was that good then! You’re really an editor when you’re writing with Taylor. It literally blew me away. It was no surprise to me when she wrote most of [her album] Speak Now by herself. She’s crossed over to pop so incredibly gracefully that no one has ever really done before. She said to me, “Tammy, I’m going to be a big star. I’m going to have dresses and a rhinestone Taylor guitar that they endorse for me.” And she did.
I’ve never seen a kid more focused and more streamlined on what she wants. She has the formula for a hook and she keeps growing as an artist. I got to be momma hen and tell her to remember every moment. I told her, “You are going to travel the world and you’re going to wish you had remembered and savored every moment.” She really cares about her fans. She stays behind and signs every autograph and she’ll remember everything about you even five years later. She reminds me a lot of Garth Brooks in that way. I would advise new country stars to always follow what Garth and Taylor do. They did it right.
Taylor and I wrote a song together—it was a personal song about a friend in her high school that got killed by a drunk driver on prom night. It was one of her favorites, but it didn’t make it to the record because it was so personal and sad. Maybe it will come out at some point. The next record she wrote by herself and now she is writing with the guys who wrote for NSYNC. She’s really the writer and it’s the perfect collaboration.
You used to be able to get a sit down meeting with the producer and catch up and they would listen to your song and be honest.
Risen Magazine: Describe the process of collaborating on a song. What is one of your favorite collaborations?
Tammy Hyler: One of my favorite collaborations was with Sara Evans. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I wrote the title in my notebook—a simple title called, Loveless. I was sitting with Shaye Smith [writing partner], and Sara and [her brother] Matt Evans and I brought it up in that writing session. Right away Shaye had said, “Wow I don’t want to be loveless.” And I said, “That’s the direction!” It almost felt like Hey Jude [by the Beatles]. It was a really cool vibe. The lyrics started flowing…We can be penniless, glamor less, but we don’t want to be loveless.” You know, in that three-hour writing session, it is such a privilege that I’m being a vessel and the words are just coming down from Heaven. It’s where I feel most like I’m living my true purpose in this world—to make music and create songs that might mean something to someone and not only to me. Maybe someone else will get through a bad day with that song and just relate to it.
Risen Magazine: What is a common misconception about working in the music industry that you learned on the job?
Tammy Hyler: That once you’re a hit songwriter, you’re driving a Mercedes and have a house and money to burn! We all have huge ups and downs. You have one really great year and you don’t for another five years. If you averaged the salary, it’s probably like being a personal assistant somewhere! People think, oh they must be rich! There are definite peaks and valleys. I do joke about my cabin by the lake and tell people I have my Martina McBride log house, my Collin Raye porch, and my George Strait barn!
I work hard and save up, especially now. Our music economy crashed years before the recession hit. I still love buying actual CDs and reading the liner notes. They are so poetic. I’ve gotten some great song ideas from liner notes! Nashville has been a real collaborative community for songwriters, but the only thing I hate about this age with Mp3s and computers is that the old fashioned pitch meeting is a thing of the past. Now it’s all just emailed. You used to be able to get a sit down meeting with the producer and catch up and they would listen to your song and be honest. Either they’ll say, “No I’m not hearing it,” or, “Oh my gosh! Let me put this song on hold and call Tim McGraw right now!”
Risen Magazine: How has your faith impacted your career?
Tammy Hyler: Faith has been huge. Especially in a business like this, you have to have a lot of tough perseverance. I know God put this burning in my heart to make music, play, sing and write since I was born. I had to first realize that dream in my soul. When I was in LA and stepped in a studio to sing background parts, I broke down crying because I knew I was home—I knew I was supposed to be there. If that’s not a God moment, I don’t know what is. I told God, “Okay I get it!” I was acutely aware that’s what I was supposed to be doing.
You end up in Nashville and you’re writing, and your songs go to #1 or they don’t. You literally have to have faith. It’s a daily, or hourly, conversation about how you’re going to get through. We start our songwriting group sessions with prayer. We pray, “Give us the words and give us the music.” I want to try and honor God through my music. Not necessarily write a Christian song, but honor Him in some way whether it’s getting someone through pain, or giving them a completely joyful song like I Love You. I want to please God with what I’m doing and do it for a purpose.
Risen Magazine: Speaking of faith you recently were a producer and wrote several of the songs, for the faith-based movie Like A Country Song starring Billy Ray Cyrus. You’ve been friends with Billy Ray for a while so what was it like working together in this capacity?
Tammy Hyler: Oh my goodness, what an amazing artist. I can’t say enough good things about Billy Ray. I’ve worked with him four or five times over the last 15 years. I remember Collin Raye had the #2 song Every Second and Billy’s Achy Breaky Heart was #1 and he wouldn’t move off. I’ve seen Billy Ray at all kinds of different shows. When I was thinking about this movie, I thought Billy would be the perfect person to play one of the main characters, Bo Reeson. We reconnected, had a meeting and he said it was that meeting that made him want to do the movie. He was really moved by the whole story of the family and story of forgiveness of the characters Jake and Mia. It was a small indie movie, and he wasn’t sure, and didn’t know the director, but when he met with me, he felt comfortable and signed. He is such a great actor. He is beautifully subtle and has so much emotion in his performance. It’s an amazing side we’ve never seen from Billy Ray. There are so many levels of wisdom from that guy that you wouldn’t guess.
We sang the title track, Like a Country Song, together at the CMA Music Festival this past summer. I wasn’t expecting a duet. Billy asked me to do it the night before and then we sang in front of 16,000 people. It was crazy, but I loved it.
The message of the movie, of family and forgiveness, that’s just the icing on the cake.
Risen Magazine: You are very close with your teenage daughter Hallie. How do you balance family and career?
Tammy Hyler: She is my priority. She is number one. It’s tough and my soul burns to do the best job at everything I do – I’m kinda weird that way. That’s the age-old question, how do you do both? You’ve got to work as much as you can between 8:30AM and 2:30PM. Then I’m completely hers afterwards. I would bring her to volleyball practice and work on the movie. I am the poster child for producing a movie and going to volleyball practice. It’s doable, but you’re on all the time. We started filming when she was out of school so she came on set and was the greatest assistant and “extra” extraordinaire. She wants to act and I want to help her any way I can. I would drag her to CMT’s Gone Country and she’s gotten to meet some cool country stars. Sara Evans is a volleyball mom too and her son is the same age as Hallie. Back when they were little, we used to put the kids in the car seat while we wrote songs. It’s tough, but you can do both.
Risen Magazine: If you could do your career all over again, would you do it differently?
Tammy Hyler: I don’t think so. I love what I’ve done. I’ve been so blessed to do what I do to write country and pop, and produce music, and movies. There’s one crossroad in my career. When I was working for Jeffery Katzenberg, he said, “Whatever you want to do here, you can grow here.” But then I branched out and moved to Nashville. I wonder what it would be like if I had stayed and worked on movies. But now it’s come full circle this year with working on Like a Country Song and I’m looking forward to the future. I feel like a prayer was answered. It’s cool when you know you can do both. Making a movie is a lot like songwriting. You take a script and want to write a great hook and have people think, “Wow that speaks to me.” You want to take that script into the studio and start filming. It was like another whole part of my purpose. I felt so good knowing I was putting a film together—there are a million fires to put out, but it was gratifying. Then the message of the movie, of family and forgiveness, that’s just icing on the cake. I hope more people will get something out of it. I’m really proud of it. It’s just very moving.
Risen Magazine: What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the industry as a songwriter?
Tammy Hyler: Read a lot of books, a lot of poetry, watch a lot of movies, and listen to what’s on the radio. The radio is your biggest map. Let’s face it, your craft is writing a song. You’re going to bring your own style and flare, but at the end of the day it’s a business, and if you want to make money at this craft, you’re going to have to listen to the radio and try to target that sound. But be just one step, one hair, ahead of that. If you’re going to write exactly what’s on the radio, it’s going to be old by the time it’s ready. Don’t make it too different, or you’ll write yourself out of a cut, just a little fresher.
I love what’s going on right now on the radio. Country guys are out there living the country lifestyle, tailgating, fishing, and such and then they’ll listen to hip-hop and hear those beats and it’ll become a country song. They are bringing a new sound to this industry – this hip-hop infused country. You have to have an appreciation for it. I’m sure people 15 years before us thought we were doing pop. Music is always going to evolve and change, and that’s a good thing. We’re still going to have the old sound, but I’m a fan of what’s coming out now. It’s like what Taylor has done—you have to grow. If you don’t grow, you’re not living.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2015
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