Joe Doyle started off swinging the sticks but ended up writing the hits.
The former East Providence resident, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Reba McEntire, Alabama and Rhett Atkins, didn’t start off as a professional tunesmith. After graduating from Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket nearly 30 years ago, the son of former East Providence Mayor Ed Doyle attended Berklee College of Music in Boston with the hopes of becoming a session drummer.
But he took one look around and changed his tune.
Berklee, he said, was already loaded with great drumming students such as Terri Lyne Carrington, who later worked with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, Stan Getz and others.
“I just realized I didn’t have what it takes to do that,” Mr. Doyle said last week from his home in Nashville, Tenn., which he shares with his wife Lisa and several dogs, cats, chickens and rabbits. “I figured that I’d better get a different game plan.”
Still dreaming of a career in music, he picked up his guitar and started writing songs, quickly gaining some notoriety and even winning a few contests. He gained enough confidence that shortly after graduating in 1988, he took a gamble and moved to Nashville. He didn’t know a soul in Music City.
“I was working at the Harvard Club and saved up $500. I packed up my Pinto station wagon and went down. I didn’t have any connections,” said Mr. Doyle, 47.
He picked Nashville because it “seemed like more of a songwriters’ community than New York or L.A.” and not because he had a natural affinity for country music.
“When I grew up in Riverside, we didn’t even have a country music station that I know of,” said Mr. Doyle, who as a child listened to The Who, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but also appreciated singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
Unlike many struggling songwriters, it didn’t take him long to get a publishing deal in Nashville. “I grabbed some demos from Berklee and I started knocking on doors. I moved here in January (of 1989) and I signed with BMG in April. I got lucky I guess,” said Mr. Doyle, adding that the city was “booming” at the time, which made things easier for him. “I’d hate to start in the business these days.”
He didn’t hit gold right away, as he made only about $150 a week at first. “But it meant I didn’t have to get a job waiting tables,” said Mr. Doyle.
His patience paid off with his first big success in 1991, when country star Reba McEntire recorded his song, “Buying Her Roses,” on her celebrated album, “For My Broken Heart.”
According to Mr. Doyle, dumb luck figured into the song’s success. “The chord progression is a C to an F-minor, which is fairly unusual. I found it by accident; I meant to play an F chord and my finger didn’t get there so it became a minor chord. But it sounded great,” he said, adding that might have been the reason McEntire picked it.
The song’s inclusion almost didn’t happen, however, as a plane crash in March 1991 killed eight members of McEntire’s road band before the album’s release. There was talk that the album would be re-tooled to reflect a more somber tone. “I was sweating it out. I thought that might kill the song,” he said.
But “Buying Her Roses” stayed on the album, which has sold “four million copies and counting,” said Mr. Doyle.
Royal hits pay off
Like all contracted songwriters, Mr. Doyle receives royalty payments based on the success of a particular song.
“There’s three different basic functions,” he said. “You have performance royalties; that’s any radio play, in an elevator or jukebox. Then there’s mechanical royalties, which is set by the government. It’s like 9.1 cents per song. So if the albums sells a million copies, it’s about $91,000.” Synchronized licensing fees, he said, is when a song is used in a TV show or movie and a fee is negotiated.
The bigger the hit, of course, the more frequently the checks roll in. One of Mr. Doyle’s most successful songs was 1995’s “In Pictures,” a No. 1 hit for Alabama that he co-wrote with Bobby Boyd.
“The beautiful thing about that song is that beside being No. 1 and I got royalties, they were such a big band and they’ve re-packaged it on five or six different (compilation) albums,” said Mr. Doyle, who gets a cut of those sales, too.
Other performers who have recorded his songs include Jason Aldean (“Back in this Cigarette”), Tim McGraw (“Forever Seventeen”), Luke Bryan (“Tackle Box”), Rhett Akins (“She Said Yes”), Mallary Hope (“Blossom in the Dust”) as well as Kenny Rogers, Blaine Larsen, Joe Diffie, Dan Seals, Daryle Singletary, Martina McBride and many others.
Although he’s met Reba McEntire, the late Dan Seals and Joe Diffie, Mr. Doyle doesn’t rub shoulders with most of Nashville’s stars. “I’m very much behind the scenes. I’m not one of those people who chase it,” he said.
Internet’s changed everything
Despite his success, Mr. Doyle said the industry has been diminished by the Internet, which cuts into the profits of not only recording artists but songwriters like himself. “If I go on YouTube, I can find songs by me with hundreds of thousands of views and I don’t see any of that,” he said.
It’s also become harder to get a song of substance out to the world, he said. “My approach to writing has always been: I want to say something, bring someone into the story. I want it to move someone, but it’s getting harder and harder to get those recorded,” said Mr. Doyle. “Radio is looking for uptempo songs and stuff people don’t have to think about.”
Part of the problem, he said, are companies like Clear Channel, which owns 850 radio stations and institutes formulaic playlists throughout the country. “The playlists are programmed. You’re taking away the deejay’s ability to play something that moved him,” he said.
One wonders whether “In Pictures” would even get played on the radio today. The song’s about a divorced father who’s forced to watch his little girl “grow up in pictures.”
“I’m very proud of that. That was all in summation because I didn’t have any children,” said Mr. Doyle, who visits his sister and her kids in Little Compton whenever he can. “I thought, ‘Man if those were my kids and I only got to see them one or twice a year, that would be hard.’”
The song is special to him because many people have told him that it helped to forge a relationship with their father, he said.
“Also, my dad was living in the Tampa area and he sent me an article about a judge who would sit men down before a divorce and play them ‘In Pictures.’”
Saturday at Sandywoods
Joe Doyle and Johnstone & Walcoff perform Saturday night, Nov. 10, at Sandywoods Center for the Arts, 43 Muse Way, Tiverton. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., with Johnstone & Walcoff going on at 7 p.m. before Mr. Doyle. Tickets are $8 advance, $10 at the door (advance tickets can be purchased at Coastal Roasters, 1791 Main Road, Tiverton, or at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/268984). BYOB and food is allowed.