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Thursday, May 26, 2005 05:04 am

The road to Nashville

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COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK WERNER

What route does an aspiring songwriter take to make it to the land of country-music hits? Everyone knows the way: You sling your guitar over your shoulder and scoot your boots to Nashville, Tenn., home of the Grand Ole Opry and all things related to the business of country music.

In the summer of 2001, Riverton native Lyman Ellerman decided to see where his songs would take him. It was time to make the trip to Music City, U.S.A.

“I didn’t know anybody there, so I figured the best way was to start making phone calls,” Ellerman says. “I read on the Internet about this new division of Universal starting up and thought I’ve give them a call.”

Call he did, starting with Tim DuBois, president of the label and one of the most powerful and influential people in the business.

As head of Arista Nashville, DuBois was instrumental in launching the careers of Alan Jackson, Restless Heart, and Brooks & Dunn. As a tunesmith, he penned No. 1 hits and award-winning songs for the likes of Vince Gill, Jerry Reed, and Alabama. Most recently, along with Tony Brown, another Nashville music business legend, he started Universal South, the first new Nashville record company in a decade. One word from DuBois, and you are signed, your song is cut, and CMT plays your video in heavy rotation — or, if you’re less fortunate, you will never play in this town again.

Unfortunately for Ellerman, DuBois did not return his calls. So it was on to plan B.

“I called back and asked for Mike Kinnamon, a name I saw on the label’s Web site. They said he wasn’t in, but that let me know he worked there.”

Now Ellerman saw his opening and went for it. “The next morning I called back and asked for Tim DuBois and got his secretary again.

“She said, ‘Lyman, I’ve given him your number. I don’t know why he hasn’t returned your calls. Do you want to me to give him another message?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, tell him that Mike Kinnamon said that he needs to talk to me.’

“That night, about 10 o’clock, my phone rings, ‘Lyman Ellerman, this is Mike Kinnamon — do I know you?’

“ ‘Not yet,’ I said.”

Ellerman then tried his hardest to convince the 30-year music-business veteran that he needed to hear what the upstart songwriter had to offer.

A few months later, Ellerman went to Nashville and immediately called Kinnamon. The music exec was in a meeting and told him to call back. When Ellerman phoned again, Kinnamon was still in a meeting — and wouldn’t take the next call, either.

But Ellerman, parked in a truck outside the recording company’s office, wouldn’t give up. “I made up my mind this was going to happen,” Ellerman says. After a couple more calls, Kinnamon finally relented and invited him in.

Ellerman walked triumphantly into the Universal South building. As he walked in, he spotted DuBois with another guy he didn’t recognize. “The other guy comes downstairs and says, ‘Are you looking for Mike Kinnamon?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘Follow me.’ We walked into a room; he closed the door and said, ‘I’m Mike Kinnamon.’”

The music executive then spent the next 45 minutes lecturing Ellerman about how annoying people isn’t the best way to break into the country-music business.

“This is a funny town, and it’s easy to make enemies,” Ellerman recalls Kinnamon telling him. “And calling the president of a major record label was not the way to make friends in Nashville.”

Ellerman managed to leave some CDs with Kinnamon, but the encounter left him deflated. “It was kinda disappointing by then.”

After a few months of worrying whether he’d botched things permanently, Ellerman screwed up his courage and gave Kinnamon a call to see whether he’d given Ellerman’s music a listen. “Mike said he hadn’t heard anything he could use,” Ellerman says.

“I asked if I could send him some other music, and he said, ‘Sure.’ ” Ellerman recorded a few new songs and sent them off, figuring that was that.

A few months later, the call came that changed his life.

“It was about 9 at night. I was kicking back, and the phone rang. It was Mike, saying he listened to the new songs and couldn’t stop playing one called ‘Too Far Gone,’ and he asked me to stop and see him next time I was in Nashville.”

Over the next several months, Ellerman and Kinnamon got to know each other quite well and often joked about the DuBois incident. Ellerman now considers Kinnamon a friend and a mentor.

Ellerman never got to meet the company president, but each time Kinnamon calls, he teases the musician: “Want to talk to Tim DuBois?”

By the fall of 2003. Ellerman knew that it would take more than monthly visits to crack the Nashville nut.

“My wife, Liz, said she wanted me to do what I love, which is playing music,” Ellerman says. “I told her, ‘This business is wicked: It’ll eat you up and spit you out,’ but she wanted us to make the move. She’s the reason I can do this.”

When the Ellermans finally made the big decision to relocate to Nashville, it came with a price. Liz gave up a successful practice in alternative medicine, and he sold his lucrative flooring business. He turned to Kinnamon for advice.

“I asked Mike if he thought I should come to Nashville to try songwriting. He told me, ‘You can’t play baseball on a soccer field’ — and he was right.”

Once he’d settled in, Ellerman spent almost every day meeting people, knocking on doors, and trying to find a way into the business. Then, through an acquaintance of Kinnamon’s he met Mark Huhta, the president of Northwood Music, a fairly new publishing company on 16th Avenue, Nashville’s famed Music Row.

“I hooked up with Mark as a co-writer, and the first time we got together we wrote a song — and that doesn’t always happen, believe me,” Ellerman says. “The next time, we wrote another song. About a week later he called me in, we talked, and he asked me to come on board as a writer.”

Just in his early thirties, Huhta left a career as an Air Force captain to make his mark in the country-music business. “I don’t want to be good — I want to be great,” Huhta says.

Northwood Music has yet to sell a song, but Huhta just received continued financial backing for at least two more years.

“When you come here, the biggest mistake people make is saying, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to come here and try it out,’” says Huhta. “But the rule of thumb here says it takes seven years to get anywhere. If you’re not willing to make a big hefty commitment, don’t waste your time coming here.”

Two weeks ago Ellerman signed on for another year with Northwood Music, making him a paid songwriter until April 1, 2007, and he couldn’t be happier.

“They’re basically a new company, but they’re doing things the right way. They’ve got their budget aligned and they use great writers,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to take this deal they offered, so I can ‘write up’ with the upper echelon of Nashville writers.”

Being a country-music songwriter under contract in the capital city of country music is a considerable step up for a guitar-playing singer from Riverton who grew up listening to Bad Company, Tom Petty, and the Eagles.

“Yeah, when I was younger I wanted to be a rock star, but things change,” Ellerman says.

He attended school in Riverton, raised by his mother after his father, a lumberjack, was killed in a work-related accident in Canton, Ill.

“My family is from the Ozarks, and aunts, uncles, and cousins followed my dad up here to work when we moved,” Ellerman says. “I still got a lot of good family here.”

He picked up a guitar around age 15 and was playing out with bands by the time he was 18. After stints in area bands Crossfire and Savannah Rose and playing such local joints as the Sky Rocket, Long Branch, and Billy’s Tumbleweed, Ellerman gave up the unpredictable music scene in 1983, only to start back, writing songs again, six years later. In 1995, he moved to Baton Rouge, La., and started a flooring business that flourished. Ellerman was still writing songs on the side, but he wasn’t performing. That’s when he met Liz, who encouraged him to get back into his music.

“She heard my songs and just asked, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ It really boosted me.”

By 2000 he was ready to record some of the several hundred songs that he had stockpiled during his nearly 17 years of self-imposed musical exile. That’s when he gave a call back to Riverton and his music buddies Chuck Werner and Jerry Turley.

“We found an investor and started recording. That was the start of Redd Skyy.” The group played Illinois, Louisiana, and many points in between and recorded two CDs of original music in the three years of its existence. Those are the discs that made it into Kinnamon’s hands in the room at Universal South headquarters in Nashville.

“Mike helped me realize that I was really too old to make it as an artist, but as a writer I had a real good chance,” Ellerman says. “He also said if I could write and sell a hit song, getting a record deal would be a whole lot easier.”

Now he is a bona fide Nashville songwriter with a steady paycheck, living with his family just east of the city in nearby Mount Juliet. He commutes daily to his office on Music Row, where he and other writers are working hard for the one hit song that will change their lives forever.

“I’m fortunate, you know. There are so many good songwriters here, and they’re struggling,” Ellerman says. “You go listen to some of these guys, and you think, ‘Why aren’t they making money and got huge cuts?’ ”

He pauses to ponder his own question:

“I guess there is just so many of them — you come to Nashville and everybody is in the music business.”

Ellerman is sitting behind his desk in the office of Ellerman-Werner Music, a company he formed with Chuck Werner, his friend of 20 years, bandmate in Redd Skyy, and main co-writer. The room is right down the hall from Northwood Music, across the way from Mike Kinnamon’s Music Central Management headquarters, and near the offices of several other songwriters. He surveys his domain and looks quite content.

“This is great,” he says. “This is where I belong.

“I just wished I’d figured this out 20 years ago.”

JooSoop Roll, featuring Lyman Ellerman, Chuck Werner, Spooky Olhovsky, and Alex Armanastev, performs 9 p.m.-midnight Friday, May 27, at the Riverton Eagles Club (1146 E. Lincoln, 217-629-7065) and 10 p.m.-midnight Sunday, May 29, at the Underground City Tavern, Hilton Springfield (700 E. Adams, 217-789-1530).

Lyman Ellerman is scheduled to appear on WFMB (104.5 FM) at 4:15 p.m. Friday, May 27.

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