October 6, 2011 marked a confirmation for Travis Lamb. One minute he was just another writer in a town full of songwriters, and the next he was crowned the best in the city.
The award goes out every year to a singer-songwriter nominated by readers of Nashville Scene, with winners listed in the magazine's "Best of Nashville" issue. Lamb never expected to receive the award. Country music phenom Taylor Swift only made runner up in 2010.
But Lamb's no stranger to unexpected confirmations. In fact, they have been a theme throughout his musical career, bolstering his faith when he starts to doubt he's following God's lead. Last year's award affirmed Lamb is moving forward in an industry that constantly asks "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?"
A banjo player born
Lamb's first sign of confirmation came when he was just 7 years old and led him to pick up his first instrument, the banjo.
Growing up in the small town of Paris, Tenn., Lamb listened to bluegrass and country music. As a child, he toted a brown, plastic, Fischer Price cassette player, and through those tiny speakers, he first heard the steely twang of the bluegrass staple. When he was seven, Lamb saw a banjo played live during an opening act at a community playhouse and was immediately enamored with the idea of playing an instrument.
"There was a guy playing a guitar and a guy playing a banjo, and I thought that was just the coolest thing I'd ever seen," said Lamb, now 29.
Confirmation came when the man who played the banjo showed up at Lamb's front door. Dan Knowles turned out to be a three-time National Old Time Banjo Champion and a tenant of Lamb's father, who leased homes in the area. When Lamb showed an interest in learning how to play, Knowles gave him his first lesson on the spot. Lamb continued to take lessons from Knowles and about a year later joined his band, The Almost Brothers.
Until he went to college, Lamb played with the band and went on the road with them whenever he got the chance. He also took up the guitar and learned to play the mandolin, Dobro, base and piano. Along with many side projects, he developed a love for singing in choir, moving to be a member of the Texas Boys Choir in 7th and 8th grades. Later he choose to go to school at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, Miss., for its choral program, which at the time had just earned a gold medal at the first ever Choral Olympics.
At Ole Miss, Lamb fell in love with music theory, majored in it, and learned about the vast array of career paths he could take in the field. He was attracted to the idea of having a career in music other than "just having a band or being an artist."
"I had been in bands and spending all my time on the road since I was a little kid," he said. "I travelled quite a bit, enough to decide that I didn't really want to do that anymore."
Move toward songwriting
Confirmation made an appearance in his life again in 2006 when it gave him direction for a career in professional songwriting.
At 20 years old, Lamb was out of college and living next door to Black Wings Studio in Watervalley, Miss. where he worked as an on-call "fix it" guy. He met musician and songwriter Ken Hart, who was cutting an album at the studio, and during some downtime on the back porch, they collaborated on Lamb's first co-written song.
He remembers the moment pretty clearly: sitting in the 95-degree Mississippi sun, an old banjo in hand, writing down lyrics on the back of a guitar string paper sleeve as hard and fast as they could think of them.
Lamb loved the co-writing process, confirmation for his next step.
"I loved the whole process of writing with someone else, bouncing ideas off someone else," Lamb said. "To have somebody who is receptive to honesty and who is honest with you, to confirm your ideas when you write a line and you know it's no good. You know it can be better and having somebody writing with you that can confirm that is what to me make that song better than it would have otherwise been."
They finished the song, "Up and Going," in about an hour and recorded it - just banjo, vocals and kick drum. Hart suggested they "pitch the song," introducing Lamb to the idea of making a career of songwriting.
"I had written some songs for myself, but up until that point, I just had never realized one could write songs and have other people sing them," said Lamb. "When I figured out that I could have a career in music and stay at home, without being an engineer or producer or someone behind the glass, that's when I pursued songwriting."
After writing that song, he wrote with Hardt every chance he got and began paying more attention to the way writers craft a song - thinking about meter and form, and "getting it tight" instead of just writing down a good story.
Opportunity and the music-making machine
But before he could take his next step, Lamb faced a dilemma. To have a successful, full-time career as a songwriter for country music, he would have to move to Nashville. And he didn't have the money or connections to do it.
Confirmation came knocking again.
Lamb began writing and performing on the side with a friend, Micah Ginn, in a group they called the Lexington Brothers. Singing solely about Ole Miss football, the duo became a local hit and their YouTube videos caught the attention of CMT's "Can You Duet?," a reality show based in Nashville. The show moved them to Nashville and provided hotel accommodations for a little more than a month, giving Lamb enough time to make the move permanent.
During his first weeks in Nashville, Lamb landed several gigs at a famous little bar downtown, Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. Soon, he found a group of friends from his hometown to live with. He made contacts and started networking. He collaborated on songs, played shows, showcased his music during "writer's nights," and started learning the rules of the music-making game in Nashville. But mostly, he just beat the streets.
"The thing about Nashville is, you just have to keep bothering people or they'll forget you, and rightly so," he said. "A lot of people complain about the industry - that you have to jump through all these hoops to get your foot in the door - but I don't know who anybody thinks they are that people would just automatically remember them when there are thousands of others doing exactly the same thing."
Unlike a lot of frustrated musicians, Lamb appreciates the music-making machine that is Nashville. In other places, a musician would start locally, playing shows at local joints, being picked up by local radio and having it all snowball from there. But Nashville is a factory," Lamb said: "Henry Ford would be very proud of Nashville and the way we do things."
Songwriters write songs and artists perform them, Lamb said. A songwriter wanting to be an artist would be like a playwright wanting to be an actor. An artist's job is to be the kind of person that can entertain thousands of people at a time. Writers, producers, studio musicians, demo singers, road guys, song pluggers, and all the other people who run the music business work behind the scenes.
"I love that machine that in the end spits out hit songs," said Lamb. "And I hope that any artist that cuts one of my songs is just bigger than Elvis. That's always the goal."
The songwriting process
To write a "number one," to write a good song, Lamb says two things are particularly important - writing from a Christian perspective and being able to draw inspiration from everyday life.
Lamb doesn't write with Christian vocabulary or within a specifically theological context, but he says that because many country music writers are Christians, he and those he writes with usually end up writing from a Christian worldview.
"Writing from that perspective, it's going to make a better song and not just a better song for Christians, but a better song for everybody," said Lamb. "Maybe a lot of them don't know why, but they're sort of drawn to it."
Within that Christian perspective, inspiration comes from everyday life. The trade of a good songwriter is the ability to pull from a well of experiences - conversations, a friend that came to you with a problem, something that happened to you. Some writers go by memory. Others keep a journal of ideas.
The overarching goal, Lamb says, is to "keep the inspiration up and the songs good" because the work of a songwriter has an overarching impact: "You want to get cuts, but you also want to do your part to keep the industry healthy with good songs, paying attention to your craft and never letting that level of commitment to excellence drop. All that boils down to - don't get lazy."
Faith, Goals and Confirmation
Today, with some time and experience under his belt, Lamb continues to work in Nashville as a full-time songwriter - working in the studios, singing demos, writing songs, performing and managing his website. His goal is simply to gain a lot of traction with songwriting, and as a Christian, confirmation has a lot to do with taking him in that direction.
Lamb says the entertainment industry is a constant up and down and, songwriters sometimes feel haunted by the question: "should I really be doing this?" Lamb's faith helps him trust that God will give the insight to know which opportunities to pursue and which to pass up.
"For me, nothing will really be happening, nothing will be gaining traction and then I'll get a call that Brad Paisley's got one of my songs on hold, or a TV show is going to use one of my tracks, or someone's cutting my song, or someone's going to play my song on the road. There's almost more of a faith during the gaps that you need to have, but there's always, if that's your calling, the confirmation."