Updated: January 3rd, 2016
Author: Reyn Guyer
In the late 1970s, I began to hear the siren song of yet another industry – an appropriate pun – because it was the songs that I had written that lured me in a familiar direction. Music has always been a part of my life. When I was just six years old, my mother, father and I would harmonize around the family piano. As long as I can remember, I’ve been writing and performing original songs. Although I was no stranger to music in the early 1980s, I was decidedly an outsider to the professional music scene, when I decided to once again, go outside my comfort zone and pursue my dream of writing music. Living in the Twin Cities of Minnesota at the time, I started to hire session players and singers to record some of my original songs. I got to know the regulars at Sound 80, the recording studio in Minneapolis that Prince had made famous.
One day I played some of the new songs that my musician friends and I had recorded in the studio for my daughter, Ree, who always had a keen ear for music. The more songs I played for her, the more she became convinced that some of them deserved a chance to be heard. One song, entitled Little Things, was written by a good friend of ours named Billy Barber. We both thought it was a hit, but Ree especially had a vision for that song. She befriended another singer/songwriter named Michael Johnson, who had just released the hit, Bluer Than Blue a few years prior. She asked him to lunch and then asked him how to sell songs to record companies. Michael’s advice was simple. He said, “Go to Nashville.”
With 20 songs on a cassette tape, Ree headed to Tennessee to cut her teeth in the tunes trade. She and I ended up making many trips there, working out of hotel rooms for a several days at a time. Michael had given us the names of 5 publishers he knew in Nashville. “We got into see every publisher that Michael had suggested to me, but I figured out quickly that they all had their own staff of writers. They didn’t care about our songs or our writers as much as we did,“ Ree said. “So I started to find out who the key producers were in town. My dad and I would get ourselves invited to the parties where we knew industry people would be and then I’d introduce myself.” She was 23 years old and fearless.
One of our early breaks came when Ree made a big first impression on a Nashville legend named Billy Sherrill. He was the producer who discovered Tammy Wynette and George Jones. He also co-wrote Stand By Your Man, The Most Beautiful Girl, and many other hit songs. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the man had 85 BMI awards,” Ree shared. “All I knew was that he was the head of Columbia records, so I went into his office and dropped off a cassette tape of our songs. Literally 15 minutes later, I get a call from him. He didn’t even say hello, ‘Who the hell are you? Who the hell is Billy Barber? Get your ass back to my office!’ He was totally blown away by the songs!” When she returned to his office, Sherrill told Ree, “You seem like a really nice young woman from the midwest, so I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing in this business. You need to go back to Minneapolis and be a nurse or something.”
Of course Billy was just trying to intimidate her, but she was having none of it and he loved that about her. Later we heard from Sherrill that our songs sounded different from anything that was being pitched in Nashville at that time. We were outsiders, and that distinction made us different enough to stand out in a sea of sameness.
“Up to this point in my life my dad had been my mentor,” Ree said. He taught me to not be afraid of new challenges. So here I was, in need of guidance and, without realizing it at the time, Billy Sherrill became my mentor in the music business. I got to learn how to develop my first writer, Billy Barber, alongside a legend. For 6 months he helped me learn that art. Ultimately, he couldn’t get Billy Barber noticed by pop executives at Columbia Records, so we began pitching his songs to other artists. I will forever be in Billy Sherrill’s debt. I think he liked me because I stood up for myself. I remember he wanted 50% of the publishing on Little Things, I said, “Hell no! I worked 18 months on this song. It’s opened every door and I won’t compromise on it. ”And she never did.
One of the close friends Ree and I made in Nashville was Bob Doyle, who would later go on to manage Garth Brooks. Bob really liked Little Things. He called Ree one day and told her that The Oak Ridge Boys were looking for songs and that their tour bus was idling at their publishing company’s office. Ree ran over there and brought them the song. “I’ll never forget that phone call,” Ree said. “The day after I crashed onto their bus, they called and promised to release Little Things as the first single off their next record if I would give them 50% of the publishing on the song. I refused. I gambled on the belief that they already knew they were going to release it as a single. And guess what? It was the first single off The Oak Ridge Boys record, it went to #1 and spent 13 weeks on the charts!”
As outsiders, Ree and I had a #1 single before we even formed our publishing company. In November of 1985, after Little Things became a hit, we officially formed Wrensong/Reynsong and opened our office on Music Row in Nashville. “Every song we had sounded just different enough to establish us musically,” Ree said. “Little Things was more of a Pop song than a country song. It was outside the norm of Nashville. I ended up getting it cut by The Temptations as well.”
With the success of Wrensong/Reynsong, things changed. “Initially the insiders I met in Nashville were like, ‘Oh here’s this young woman from Minnesota. She’s an outsider who doesn’t know anything, let’s help her.’ Well the minute we got our first #1, that all stopped,” Ree shared. “I went from confidant to competitor overnight!” From then on, we had to stand on our own to prove that our early success wasn’t a fluke.
We started with 20 songs and today we have over 3,000 in our catalog. 30 years later and Wrensong/Reynsong’s credits include 12 #1 hit singles, 2 CMA, and ACM Country Music Songs of The Year awards and a Grammy to boot. Then, of course, there are the album cuts on records selling over 60 million copies for artists such as Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Ray Charles, Keith Urban, and many others. In 2010, I turned total control of the company over to Ree. Now as Chairman Emeritus, I have the great privilege of watching Ree run Wrensong/Reynsong. It’s a company we built, from the outside in.