No, you’re not seeing things: That was, indeed, Mary Steenburgen buying groceries in Green Hills last weekend.
Even though she’s best known as an actress, Mary’s not in town to film a movie or work on a TV show (though she was in Nashville last summer, shooting the pilot for the FX show Outlaw Country). Since early 2010, the Arkansas native has been dropping into town every few weeks for the sole purpose of writing songs for her bosses at Universal Music Publishing Group, which has employed her for the past few years.
“The first year or so, I wrote in Los Angeles,” Mary said during a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she was making a quick visit home for a few days before heading to New York to start filming the HBO series Bored to Death, which co-stars her husband, Ted Danson. “When people listened to my songs, they kept saying to me, ‘Your heart is so Southern: you should go to Nashville.’”
So she did, and has since collaborated with some of the most respected names on Music Row: Barry Dean, Luke Laird, Shawn Camp, Lori McKenna, Jeff Hannah, Matraca Berg, and Trent Dabbs, to name a few. “The biggest thing I feel when I’m in Nashville is humbled by whom I get to be in the room with,” she said. “I’m in awe of every single one of the people I write with. They’re extraordinary.”
Until now, Mary hasn’t spoken a lot about her second career. “I’ve been nervous to talk about it for years, because I wanted to prove myself and not be disrespectful of the extraordinarily talented people in this town – I didn’t want to come off as this newbie who thought she could just come in and work,” she said. “I don’t want to it sound like I know exactly what I’m doing. All I know is I can’t not do this; I have to write songs. So I keep coming back to Nashville.”
It’s not just the talent that keeps her coming back: she’s got a bit of a crush on our fair city. “I’m so in love with it here; my husband loves it, too. People must wonder what the hell we’re doing here all the time, because they see us at Whole Foods and out running errands. They must be like, “Is there some acting project going on?’”
She said that she’s found herself defending her choice to spend time here to some people. “In LA and New York, there are false assumptions about what it’s like here – they think of big hair and trucks and shotguns,” she said. “I get my back up a little about this, because I find Nashville to be one of the most truly creative, generous, hip, alive, vibrant cities in America and the world.
“It has all the things I love about the South and cherish about Arkansas: thunderstorms with thunder and lightning – in Los Angeles you just get rain. And okra… And chicken & dumplins’… And people who care to know the names of your family members. The city moves me so much; it’s the place I can be most creative. I think Nashville is a city of poets.”
We’re very happy to report that our friend Mary is now numbered among their ranks.
I’ve always loved music – not quite with the fervor that I do now, but I always appreciated it. When I was growing up north of Little Rock, my biggest connection to music was tap dancing. I took lessons as a little girl and absolutely loved it. Tap is percussion; it’s almost like playing drums with your feet. It’s like the music is in you.
I had a few seminal experiences pertaining to music. The first was when my mom took me to see Liberace when he came to town. I was probably about nine years old. Because I had tapped at the theater where he was playing, I knew how to get around backstage and where to find the dressing rooms where the stars were set up. (Ironically, I just appeared at that very same theater, and they put me in that same dressing room – fifty years later! That’s just amazing.) So I went backstage and found him, and he was just so sweet to me – Liberace was just the nicest guy. I’ve been thinking that I need to call Matt Damon and the guys who are doing the film about him and tell them this story, because Liberace was a magical human being. It made a huge impression on me that someone who was bigger than life could take time to be nice to a little kid.
A few years later, my mom took me to see The Music Man and South Pacific. I could barely breathe: I was just transported by what I was watching on the stage. It was hard for me to come back into the real world when the shows were over; I felt such an extraordinary connection to what I was seeing. I wanted to stay there, in the show. There were some sorrows in my life around that time that probably intensified this feeling, and helped make the theater into a world that I could count on to escape to in my mind and my dreams. I think seeing them probably helped me become an actor, but those shows were also where I made a connection to music.
Then, the summer after I was in fifth grade, I had another huge musical experience: my best friend’s mother took us to Houston to see the Beatles. Coming from a family with paycheck-to-paycheck money, having musical experiences like these early on was a really big deal and very influential on what I chose to do with my life. Memories of them are among the reasons why I fight constantly for continued arts funding. I was with President Clinton recently in Arkansas for the opening of a community theater, talking about the importance of arts – and not just for children: for people of all ages.
Look at me: I only started songwriting a few years ago. I’m living proof that you’re not cooked at a certain age!
The Play List
Some classics, some newbies, all goodies – here are sixteen of Mary’s favorite tunes:
Neil Young, “Helpless”
Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927”
Sting, “Fields of Gold”
Johnny Cash, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”
Ray LaMontagne, “All the Wild Horses”
Matraca Berg, “Fall Again”
Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine”
Nina Simone, “I Put a Spell on You”
Lori McKenna, “The Luxury of Knowing”
Dusty Springfield, “The Look of Love”
Wanda Jackson, “Busted”
Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes”
Willie Nelson, “Some Enchanted Evening”
Michael McDonald, “You Don’t Know Me”
George Jones, “Where The Tall Grass Grows”
The Beatles, “Norwegian Wood”
In addition to writing music, Mary enjoys blogging for her daughter’s website, Nell’s Compass, which is also the name of the candle company they started together in 2008. Read some of Mary’s posts – including one about her favorite spots in Nashville – here: www.nellscompassblog.com.
-I + W
About our photographer: Heidi Ross is a commercial photographer and designer. She is based in Nashville, where she is currently working on a plan to kidnap Mary Steenburgen. Check out her work at www.heidiross.com