Last November we introduced you to the music of Clayton Smalley. Now we’d like you to meet his writer. He’s penned for many artists and has a really interesting story. There’s also a good chance you’ve had one of his ringtones on your phone at some point. Here in conversation with Paul Sammon, say “Hello” to John Griffin…
SSC – Thanks for taking the time to chat.
JG – Hey, that’s ok. Glad to be here.
SSC – I know you’re busy. What are you doing when you’re not writing?
JG – Well, I do streaming consulting for a radio promotion company called Grass Roots. They manage Aaron Goodvin, also. And basically, I talk to people about what I do with artists I work with on my label. I tell ‘em, I’ve made every mistake along the way and tested stuff, so this is what I know. It works out.
I mean, my heart is with independent artists. I moved to Nashville wanting to be an artist and quickly figured out that there’s a lot better singers and moved into more of the writing. Felt I was kinda better at that.
SSC – So, what’s your story? Starting in, say, Madison County?
JG – Ok, well I went to college first and I have a degree in social work. But I’ve always sang. I grew up singing all the time. I was in a band in High School. We may have played three or four gigs, but it was enough to make me realise I enjoyed playing out in front of people. I took my guitar with me to College and I was in a Student Union Religious group and we’d sing at the start of our meetings n’ stuff.
But I can tell you the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a songwriter. I started taking English classes and the teacher was a writer. We were reading a short story called ‘Cathedral’ and, for an assignment, we had to re-write it from the perspective of another character. We could write a story, a poem or even write a song about it. So, when it was my time to present to the class, I brought my guitar out and played them my song. I got like an A++ on the project. And after that I got the bug; right about the time I was getting back into the 70’s country music my Dad used to listen to. My Mom listened to 80’s pop.
SSC – When did you make the move to Nashville?
JG – Halfway through college I was like, “Yeah, I wanna move to Nashville.” I started writing songs and annoying the hell out of my friends. A cousin of mine had a studio so I recorded some tracks and I put out a four-song tape. Luckily, my parents helped me out. But you know by the time I got here I’d written less than ten songs, which is ridiculous for somebody to think he’d make a living from it.
Billy [Montana] and David Flint, my now production partner, were about the first people that I met. I went to a Church they go to and Billy was singing in the choir. At the time he had long hair and I was like, “I bet he’s in the music business.” So, I got to know them, and Billy’s family became like my second family.
SSC – So how did YN Records come about?
JG – Ok, so I had an internship at Moraine Music, where Billy and Dave were writing. One of the owners, Brent Maher, produced all the Judds; Wynonna and the like. I was thrown right into the mix at the age of 24 but it was a cool place to be. Then I interned with Mark Bright who had produced Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts and even Blackhawk. When all these internships ended, I just felt a bit lost and worked regular jobs for a while including working at the YMCA for about ten years. I tried quitting and even wrote and recorded an album of my material. Not country but kind of singer songwriter stuff. I quit the ‘Y’ and went around singing at bars and coffee shops, doing like two hours of my own material but it never took off, but what I was now writing felt more authentic than when I first arrived [in Nashville]. Then another ten years after that I got a call asking me to help out at the ‘Y’ and I needed the money. But when I got there, I remember thinking, “If this isn’t a rut, I don’t know what is.” So, I decided I needed to figure this out and I went searching for artists that might want to record my songs.
The first person I reached out to was Jason Marks from North Carolina, where I went to college. He took on some of my songs and it was great knowing he was out there playing my stuff to people. One night he was opening for Jason Michael Carroll and I dropped some messages on his MySpace page asking folks to tell me what Jason [Marks] was performing like. Jennifer Smith, that now runs a site called “Lovinlyrics.com”, told me she’d check him out and she became super supportive of me and Jason [Marks] after that. She went looking for folks to cover my songs and she sent Tyler Barham my way. Back then the ten thousand YouTube followers he had was a big deal. I mean he was only 18 or 19 years old. We started writing together online and then he was on a TV show over here on GAC, [Great American Country] so he was getting his name out there. We recorded a project together here in Nashville and his fans really liked it, including Garth Brooks’ daughter, Allie Colleen. We recently started working with her at Grass Roots and she told us she literally wore out “17 and Young” all those years ago.
SSC – That’s pretty awesome. On Twitter, your handle is @JohnnyRingtone. Where do ringtones feature in your story?
JG – Ah, now, Jennifer played a part here, too. I was using a website called Mixer.com that was basically “the Napster of Ringtones”. This was about 2007/2008. I would put the songs that I’d written up on MySpace. I found this website to put out ringtones of my songs. Now, Jennifer and a lady called Denise really liked my music, so I thought it’d be cool, as a thank you, to write them a personalised ringtone with their name and I put them up on Mixer. The crazy thing was other people were downloading them, too. So, I thought I could maybe make some more, and people would buy them. I had a link inviting people to send me a dollar and their name and I’d record them a ringtone and it just took off. David Flint produced them, and we just put them all up online for free and then Mixer paid us a penny a download. In just ten months we had over two million downloads of ringtones.
Now, all of this was happening around the same time as our work with Tyler and we made him some tones too. We were able to get his ringtones alongside Justin Bieber in the Verizon Store and that raised our profile. Tyler’s third EP got featured on the iTunes main page as well as the country page and when one of the songs hit the charts, Billboard got in touch. They were like, “We need your logo, the name of the label…” We didn’t have any of that s**t. I just thought, “Your Name Ringtones – YN Records – there you go.” …and there it was.
SSC – Do you work with any other artists?
Yeah, so Tyler basically met a girl and left Nashville and I realised we’d kinda put all our eggs in one basket, but we started working with Chris Lane who got to number seven with his first EP and that’s ten years ago, before streaming. Someone introduced me to Justen Harden (The Voice S9) who’s a great singer and there was Parker Redmond who has a great voice also. He approached us after seeing we’d worked with these other guys and of course I’m still singing my own stuff on YouTube and Instagram.
If someone adds me, I’ll always message them back to say thanks and ask how they found me and that’s what happened with Clayton Smalley. I started checking out his stuff and realised he’s really talented so we started writing together. I definitely have an M.O. (He chuckles) Most of the folks I have written with I have met through social media.
SSC – Haven’t you both sung something with Belinda Charlene from Sweden?
JG – Belinda, yes. Oh my gosh, she is the best singer. She has a really authentic country voice. She came over, pre-Covid, once or twice a year and she happened to be here when me and Clayton were recording. I wanted to figure out a song we could make a duet and they did 24-7. I’d love to help her write a project. She’s a cool retro-artist which is just what she wants to be. Clayton & I have been writing with Steve Dean who’s had six number ones including Rodney Atkins’ Watching You. He co-wrote four of the tracks on Dirt Road Therapy, Clayton’s latest EP.
SSC – And when it comes to writing songs, what comes first? The hook, the melody?
JG – For me, they come connected. The melody and words, like a piece of something, will come together. If I’m just writing by myself, I think the songs are already out there and, as a songwriter, you have an antenna up and trying to be receptive. The quality of the song is gonna be as good as the receptor to kinda pull it in from the ether. I’ve always felt like that.
SSC – How has Covid affected you in this industry?
JG – Not so much, I think. I was already comfortable writing online and working from home. It did mean I couldn’t go back to Sweden this past summer. But I guess I was already equipped for where we are. Of course, not hanging out with my friends or going out to shows absolutely stinks but it’s affected me less than a lot of people.
SSC – I guess if it wasn’t for Covid we wouldn’t have these online concerts, like CES Virtual Shows.
JG – Yeah, absolutely. Colin reached out to Clayton through Grass Roots, and Aaron [Goodvin] did a show too. I really hope this translates to a trip to do shows in the U.K. We’ve had contact concerning the Buckle & Boots Festival already and I’ve suggested Clayton to them.
I’d love to hit the U.K. and Sweden in one trip ‘cause for me, music is a gateway to meet people. It connects people. That’s my favourite part. I mean, I’m out here with my friends here but in Sweden they’re so comfortable with sexuality. Once they found out I was gay they were like “Ah yeah” and it was so refreshing to be so well accepted. I grew up in the South, which is very conservative and religious, but Nashville is a bit more liberal. I think “creatives” are just that bit more liberal and they come here, of course.
SSC – Yeah, it was refreshing to hear TJ’s news. But it must’ve been quite difficult when you consider many country songs are about family values or God and such.
JG – I found it hard to come out or identify because, especially when I was growing up, being gay would mean you were the butt of jokes. There’s nothing wrong with being effeminate but it became a joke and assumed all gays are that way. But if you see someone that’s not like you, you don’t want to be made fun of sort of thing. Even some of my friends would refer to me as “Hey girl” But I’m not a girl, I’m me and I’m a guy.
SSC – I did want to ask about the Nashville bombing on Christmas Day. You were quite close to it, I gather?
JG – I live about twenty minutes from downtown and I was at that area maybe a month before in that exact same place. But I think the first thing was thinking it was part of a bigger terrorist thing. It was almost a relief to find out it was just a lone person. The guy lived somewhere in Antioch, where I live, so he must’ve been about ten minutes from me. I hate to say but I think we’ve become desensitised to stuff like that. It was such a weird Christmas anyway, since I wasn’t going home because of Covid and then the bombing downtown. When they started talking about how there was a countdown giving people time to get out of the area it kind of made me less fearful I guess? I haven’t been down there since.
SSC – So, what’s coming next from you?
JG – Here’s something we haven’t said anything about yet. It is just at planning stage right now. We’re gonna do a YN Records Zoom concert. We’re trying to find a way to tighten this circle. Like, I’d love Billy [Montana] to write with Clayton or with Justen. So, Dave was like, “Let’s do a YN online concert.” Billy and Steve need followers on Spotify and so, with the young guys having more followers than these writers that have already had hit songs this would be a perfect trade-off.
SSC – It’s been amazing to talk with you and hear your trip down memory lane. Thank you so much.
JG – Thanks for letting me share. We’ll catch up soon.
Check out just some of the tunes John Griffin has written on this Spotify playlist: