Fresh-faced and wearing her signature embroidered cowboy shirt and jeans, Erin Enderlin surveyed the four chairs arranged in the round at the famed Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, choosing the chair facing the largest part of the audience. Legend “Whispering Bill” Anderson took a seat to her left and singer-songwriter Matraca Berg to her right; across from her was Nitty Gritty Dirt Band co-founder Jeff Hanna. It was her party, and the mutual admiration was palpable among the four players, spilling out into a full house of devotees.
Enderlin’s had a record year so far in 2019. Enderlin’s calm, confident demeanor shines through on her June EP, “I Can Be Your Whiskey,” teasing out songs slated to be part of a full-length album. Round-robin they went, as is the classic tradition at the Bluebird, and each time Enderlin passed the torch, even to Anderson, she raised the bar another notch, through the purity and steady strength of her singing. Her clearly crafted characters are embodied in her lyrics, then given life by her voice. The audience was magnetized; in full-on listening mode.
I first met Enderlin at the Arkansas Country Music Awards where, the last two years, she’s taken awards for Female Vocalist, Best Songwriter, Song of the Year and Best Album of the Year. In 2018 she was named a member of the CMT Next Women of Country in addition to nabbing a runner-up placement next to Jason Isbell for Best New Songwriter in Nashville Scene’s Best-Of issue. As a new songwriter, fresh out of Middle Tennessee State University, she attended a lecture about artist development, met the speaker’s boss, and landed her first cut, “Monday Morning Church” co-written with Brent Baxter, with Alan Jackson, peaking at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles’ Charts back in 2004.
Since then, she’s written numerous songs for Nashville royalty, the kind that appreciate the clever crafting of a good number: Reba McEntire, Terri Clark, Randy Travis, Lee Ann Womack and Bill Anderson, among others. Along with Bobby Tomberlin, she’s christened the WSM Media Studio stage with their inaugural “In the Round” Songwriters night, and logged a No. 1 hit on the Bluegrass Today charts (sung by bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent), released another EP and completed a tour of England.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into music in the first place? Are you self taught?
I started taking piano when I was 5 and I began guitar lessons when I was 13. My guitar teacher had a huge influence on me. I was only able to take about 6 months ‘cause he ended up getting cancer. We wrote to each other the last two years after that — before he passed away. I brought songs and I was like, “I want to be able to put the music I hear to this.” And he was like, “You know you can do this — for a job.” And I was like, “Really? People do this for a job?” People were going down the hallway, he’d say, “You have to come in here and listen to this girl’s song.” He was the first person who said you can make a living doing this. His name was Terry Holmes, in Conway.
So you were 16, and then what happened?
I went to boarding school the last two years of high school at the [Arkansas School for Math & Science] in Hot Springs. When I graduated, I ended up getting a scholarship to Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro on the south side of Nashville.
Were you working toward a degree in music?
I was studying the recording industry. They have a southern common marketing program there and since they don’t have that major offered in Arkansas, I was able to go to MTS could go for in-state tuition here [Tennessee]. That made my parents happy, and going to school by Nashville made me happy.
Yes. Two birds with one stone. And were you gigging when you were in college?
When I first got here I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I am not playing anywhere for like, a year.” Once you start seeing the songwriters here, you are like “I gotta up my game.” So I went to shows and learned and watched and started playing my second year here, and, through an interesting turn of events, ended up meeting my first publisher, Jeff Carlton, my junior year.
How did you meet him?
Funny enough, Reese Faw, who became my neighbor, was speaking at ASCAP [headquarters] about artist development. I asked her if I could get together with her and play her some songs. I did, and they were super dark special songs. Then she came to talk to one of my classes and asked if I would be willing to stand and play another song and pretend I was doing a meeting with her in front of the class. So I played “Monday Morning Church,” and she said, “Well, I want you to meet my boss [Carlton] and he ended up doing five demos, including that one which ended up getting cut by Alan Jackson.
Did you work as a staff writer?
I did — for Jeff and Universal and EMI — but now I write for myself.
When you met Jeff, did he sign you as a writer right away?
I worked with him for about a year without officially signing, but then he had paid money out of his own pocket to do some demos and stuff and was pitching me and setting me up on rights and all that good stuff and then I ended up getting an Alan cut, a Randy Travis cut and signed to RCA writers for an artist development deal. Then he was able to fully start his own company and sign me. Jeff ended up selling half of his publishing to Universal, I went with them and worked with both for them for like, gosh, 8 years. Then I was with EMI. Then I went with Eric Church and Little Louder Music. But it was Jeff that helped to get me a bunch of meetings around town. Then I was with RCA for five years, but they never actually released any music.
So no music with RCA. Sometimes the big companies sign you and then you get put on the shelf. Was that your experience?
Well, sort of. But I learned a lot. I got to go into the studio and cut some songs and then it ended up in 2009 I went on tour with Willie Nelson on the Country Music Throwdown Tour and put out an EP.
That tour was amazing. I mean I got to get on a bus and not think about anything and just go play music. Jamey Johnson was on that tour, too, and he pretty much he co-produced my last album and this album with [Jim] Moose Brown. There were tons of awesome artists on that tour. I was just starting to figure out social media … barely. If I was doing that same tour today, it would be way different. I’ve been through several incarnations of fits and starts as an artist, but I think in the last 2 or 3 years I’ve really figured out — well, let’s say I’ve had some “aha!” moments. And I didn’t start touring heavily or start putting out some “regular” music.
You had a lot of success with “Whiskeytown Crier,” your first album. Talk to me about your current artistic endeavors, and how you are going about getting your work out there.
We’ve released two EPs so far in 2019. The first, in April, “Chapter One: Tonight I Don’t Give a Damn,” “Chapter Two: I Can Be Your Whiskey,” which dropped June 28. Music videos explore the characters in the songs. The EPs are through my company, Black Crow Productions, and label partner Blaster Records. Each little three-song project tells the story of a different character, a little collection of stories. On Aug. 23, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” was released. Once all four come out, the full album will be released.
Who are some of your strongest musical influences?
Reba is probably my biggest artist influence. I remember watching the “Ralph Emery Show” when I was 4. I saw her perform, and I actually said, “Girls do that, too!” because I was listening to my grandpa’s record collection and it so happened that he mainly had guys that I would listen to. But when I saw her on that show I was like, “That is what I want to be like.” When I was in kindergarten, I sent her a letter every week. I was a really big fan. I would write, “I know you are busy, so don’t think about answering me, but you are doing really great!”
Did she ever answer you?
Her office sent me a signed live VHS tape.
I bet you loved that.
Oh, yeah. And I mean, I am sure someone was like, “This kid is too much,” but I have been able to actually meet her and I told her, and actually co-published as a writer with her for a couple of years.
Wow. I love her interview on YouTube about your song, “The Bar’s Getting Lower,” that she cut. I’ll bet you are so proud of that! It’s a dream — to have your idol cut your song and then talk about it in such a positive light.
It’s absolutely amazing! She even signed albums for us, thanking us for the song. She’s amazing. I’ve probably seen her over 100 times. When I was on RCA, and she was on tour with another RCA act we could get free tickets to her shows.
You’ve never opened for her?
I haven’t yet, but I bet it’s in the works. There have been some rumors. We’ll see.
So outside of Reba and Alan who are some of your idols or mentors?
Dolly Parton, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty. I love a lot of singer- songwriters, too, like Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters. Terri Clark. There’s just so many. Mary Chapin Carpenter.
“Whiskeytown Crier,” the EP “I Can Be Your Whiskey,” Reba’s cover of “The Bar Is Getting Lower.” What’s with all the alcohol references? Are you from an alcoholic family?
Not really. I mean I’m a Catholic, [laughs] but I’ve gotta say, I’ve tried to branch out from my subject matter, but it just seems to be a really great metaphor for so many things. And I’m around it a lot as I play a lot in bars. I tell people if I drank as much as I sing about drinking …
You’d be on the floor. Erin, are you single or married?
Do you have kids?
Nope. Just two ornery cats.
How was it moving from Conway to here? Were you guys married in Conway or here?
Here [Nashville]. We started dating when I was 23, so I guess 14 years ago we met.
Is he a musician?
No, he’s a pharmacist, like my dad. He works at the hospital.
And the Arkansas influence. Growing up in Conway, how did that affect your music?
I think it was very influential. I brought a Conway Twitty record to show and tell when I was in kindergarten, and I am sure part of the reason I gravitated toward it because it was Conway. When you are little, you don’t know how to make different associations … plus there is a really strong music base in Arkansas: Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell. Growing up around all the other Arkansas writers, singer-songwriters, it definitely influenced the music I was making. Dan Clanton, for instance, an Arkansas singer-songwriter, he’s the one that showed me you don’t need the pick. Put the pick away and learn how to do the finger-pickin’ first. That’s been a huge influence on my playing, and my sound. I think there is a rich storytelling tradition in general in Arkansas. My grandparents were big into that, so I think that also really influenced me.
How do you think you learned how to craft a lyric, write a tune?
You know, Emmylou Harris has a quote. She says the best way to study music is to put it on and turn it up real loud. I feel like that is a big part of it, just listening to so much music. Another thing, when I was in high school, I found Ralph Murphy’s “Murphy’s Law.” At one point he had a blog, and eventually turned it into a book. I learned a lot from his insights about writing, thoughts and challenges.
One of the things I like about your music is that the female characters in your songs are not afraid to take a man home.
[laughs] Well, Tammy Wynette is a big influence on me as well. I loved her vulnerability, she and Dolly both. They have a lot of songs. They have a lot of stories. They are just real. They are not necessarily worried about their neighbor’s thing, or what they think. And I like that. I like their real vulnerability; the not-cleaned-up-‘purty’-version of life. Like, I love Donna Reed, but that’s not the kind of songs I am drawn to. I’m sure that Donna Reed had plenty of her own dark side — if they had shown that, that part of her lifestyle. You know what I mean?
I bet she drank.
Yeah, probably. Or maybe something else. [Laughs.] I’ve written less in the last 6 months than I have since I’ve been here, but I’ve been getting more cuts. For me right now, I am in a really kind of an interesting place because I feel like I get to do what I want to do right now. I can pursue my artist career and I’m really one of the only ones, other than a handful of artists friends of mine, who is writing for what I am doing, my projects, which is cool. I spent a lot of years working for other publishers and it was great and some of them were more encouraging, some were less, as to my artist endeavors. It was a very different thing. As much as they may want you to be different, they want you to write for what is on the radio and that is just not —
Not your deal?
Yeah. It doesn’t mean that some of my stuff isn’t on the radio or should be and will be again and all of that kind of stuff. But I don’t like trying to chase trends, I don’t feel like I am good at it. I love what I do, and what I am doing now, writing, playing the Opry, all of it. I love it. I love everything about it.
*A previous version of this article misspelled Terri Clark’s name, and contained errors about the titles of Enderlin’s 2019 Arkansas Country Music Awards. It also misstated that the Bluebird Cafe was a first for Enderlin. Enderlin has been playing the Bluebird since 2005.