story by Drew Ruble and photography by Andy Heidt
MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry has consistently been recognized by Billboard magazine (and other nationally renowned professional publications) as one of the best music business schools in the world.
A big part of that reputation has been earned by the Commercial Songwriting program within the department. Successful alums include writers with credits on RIAA Platinum-certified works by global artists ranging from South Korean boy band BTS (Sebastian Garcia, aka Rufio Hooks, on “Butter”) and Lady Gaga (Aaron Raitiere on A Star is Born, including single “I’ll Never Love Again”) to Jake Owen (Eric Paslay on title cut “Barefoot Blue Jean Night”) and Evanescence (Amy Lee on Fallen including single “Bring Me to Life”), among many more.
To claim such a roll call of former students offers solid proof that MTSU is the place to learn the craft of song. It’s one big reason that the University was dubbed a “Grammy-winner factory” as part of an NBC Nightly News report in 2019.
The department’s goal is for students to become grounded in music business knowledge and then professionally launched by innovative programs. The newest of those innovations is the University’s new Songwriting Center, located in the Miller Education Building, that puts students’ knowledge to the test of practice and performance to better prepare them to take a place in the music industry.
Led by Grammy-nominated Associate Professor Odie Blackmon (a professional songwriter who wrote such hit songs as “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” by Lee Ann Womack, “She’ll Leave You with a Smile” by George Strait, and “Nothing On but the Radio” by Gary Allan), the songwriting program at MTSU moved to its new home in 2022.
In the new Songwriting Center, students and faculty work, study, and create in well-equipped, newly renovated and furnished spaces dedicated to the craft. The center features state-of-the-art songwriting classrooms and, with additional funding, hopes to soon feature private writing studios where students can hone their skills and their compositions. At the core of the Songwriting Center is a welcoming area/lounge/gathering space encouraging collaborative conversation and productive downtime. An atrium can handle live performances for up to 300 people.
Gold and Platinum record plaques from different alumni line the walls of parts of the center so that when students walk down the hallways, they see people who have come before them who have actually done it.
“They’ll know they’re at the right place and that they can do this if they work hard,” Blackmon said.
The Commercial Songwriting curriculum being taught at the center is rich in music industry history, technical skill-building, and real-world learning opportunities brought to MTSU’s students by experienced faculty, including seasoned guest lecturers and internship experiences.
Through Blackmon’s innovative “Music Row in Murfreesboro” program, students get to work with and learn from scores of professional songwriters and musicians. During the Songwriting Practicum, student songwriters join professionals in recording studios to fine-tune their creations and record them.
THE UNIVERSITY’S NEW SONGWRITING CENTER . . . PUTS STUDENTS’ KNOWLEDGE TO THE TEST OF PRACTICE AND PERFORMANCE.
Importantly, given the program’s proximity to Nashville, the program serves all types of songwriters—not just country music songwriters. All genres and backgrounds are covered. The classes are intimate—there’s only around 12 students in any songwriting class.
Like the aspiring student songwriters, the program’s faculty is also diverse. Among the faculty members who bring real-world experience and insights as well as diversityto MTSU classrooms are Grammy Award winners F. Reid Shippen and Torrance “Street Symphony” Esmond, both MTSU alumni. Other more recent artistic additions to the program’s adjunct faculty include veteran artist Dez Dickerson, guitarist with Prince and the Revolution, who teaches Performance Skills; Grammy-nominated No. 1 hit songwriter Shelly Peiken (“What a Girl Wants” by Christina Aguilera, “I’m a Mess” by Bebe Rexha), who teaches a Pop-Rock Songwriting Workshop; and multiplatinum songwriter and producer Doug DeAngelis, who teaches Songwriting for Film, TV, and Gaming.
The Songwriting Center also was fortunate to recently hire Bess Rogers, a second full-time/tenure-track songwriting professor. Rogers has song placements in Cheerios, Mott’s, and Hershey’s commercials, as well as many films and television shows. She was lead guitarist for hit pop artist Ingrid Michaelson and played lead guitar in the Broadway musical about the Go-Go’s, Head Over Heels. Rogers additionally served as lead guitarist and singer in the Interscope Records band Secret Someones.
Of all the things Blackmon has to be proud about—including the new Songwriting Center—he specifically mentions the diverse faculty as his program’s capstone.
“It mirrors the diversity of our student body,” Blackmon said. “Collaboration of people from different worlds and backgrounds is what makes great music.
“When you come to MTSU, you’re not in a bubble. We have a diverse faculty and student body, and we’re inclusive in nature. We’re open arms, and we welcome all of the different people that come through our doors.”
Now there are even more doors swinging open, thanks to the Songwriter Center.
On Spotify: Check out our playlist of songs written, performed, and/or produced by MTSU alumni.
A Lyrical Legacy
A generous donation by Grammy-nominated songwriter and performer Sandy Knox created a space in the new MTSU Songwriting Center where students can gather and collaborate on their music. In November, faculty and students celebrated Knox and her gift that made the Sandy Knox Lyric Lounge a reality. “There couldn’t be a more fitting name for this creative and communal space because we have so much to learn from her,” Dean Beverly Keel said.