Ordinarily, I write these columns from home or from one of my favorite local coffee establishments in Nashville. Today, however, I’m coming to you from Key West, FL, the site of the 18th Annual Key West Songwriters Festival. Every year, some of Nashville’s top songwriters (including many Berklee alumni) descend on Ernest Hemingway’s old stomping grounds to fill the island with music. This location is particularly apropos as we kick off the new format for Nashville Notes and highlight Nashville singer/songwriter Emily Shackelton ’07.
Minnesota-born Shackelton was musical from an early age. At 10 she sang the National Anthem for the Minnesota Twins and appeared on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” But it was her time at Berklee that set her life in motion.
Soon after arriving in Boston in 2004, Shackelton met her future husband, fellow alumnus Caleb James ’07. They married in 2007 and moved straight to Nashville. Once settled, she took on four part time jobs. She soon realized that she had to decide between working random jobs to pay the rent and putting her musical aspirations on the back burner or trusting her talent and seeking that elusive staff songwriting deal. It would be a risk and a leap of faith. Shackelton leapt.
Within a year, she was signed to the small music publisher Bug Music. In 2008, American Idol winner David Cook performed her song “Dream Big” on the show. The tune peaked at 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and Shackelton was off and running—or so she thought.
But in fact, success is a relative term in the music business, and it can be fleeting. In 2010 Shackelton was informed that her contract with Bug would not be renewed. Luckily, she had made numerous contacts in the music business. Shackelton made an important contact in Key West. Each spring she comes to perform at the songwriting festival. In 2010, megahit songwriter Liz Rose (who cowrites with Taylor Swift) caught Shackelton’s performance at the festival and liked her writing style. It so happened that Rose was launching a new publishing company. Later that year, she brought Shackelton on board as a staff songwriter at Liz Rose Music.
Now, after a few years of honing her craft and writing with some of the best names in the industry, Shackelton and her songs are beginning to shine. If you watch ABC’s Nashville, you may have heard Emily’s “Love Like Mine” performed by Hayden Panettiere’s character, Juliette Barnes. Her ballad “Ordinary Angels” is a standout track on the debut album of X Factor winner, Tate Stevens. She also penned “Can’t Stop Loving You,” which was recorded by country star Sara Evans.
As Shackelton has begun to cement her place among the Nashville songwriting elite, Caleb James has found success on the other side of the desk, in music management. He recently formed his own company, Old Soul Management. James has also served as the tour manager for the Grammy-nominated bluegrass outfit the Grascals. Most recently, he was put in charge of breaking the country newcomer Jessta James.
We all know that there are no guarantees in the music business. But both Shackelton and James have demonstrated how the right amounts of talent, faith, and sheer determination can lead to a successful career and a promising future.