"This one paid for my son's college," Nashville songsmith Benita Hill said before delivering a summery version of Two Piña Coladas, a country-pop song she wrote that became a sizeable hit for Garth Brooks.
But as part of a round-robin performance panel of four, Hill was delivering the song not as a glorified Nashville production piece but as a solo blueprint — an incarnation of a single that seldom reaches an audience's ears. In Nashville, songwriter showcases are as common as, well, songwriters. But in Lexington, such performances — which demand an active listening environment as opposed to a chatty bar backdrop — are a rare find.
In fact, until the Racquet Club decided to devote one Saturday night each month to local, regional and visiting songwriters, such a setting didn't exist in Lexington.
"We've just got so much talent here that nobody hears," said Mike Ashley, who began presenting the monthly Songwriters Night with Harlan-born Lexingtonian Bo Allen in June at the Racquet Club. "These writers don't get a chance to play original songs. They can't go out to a venue and play their own stuff because people always want to hear covers. We just want to have somebody get an opportunity."
Ashley was hardly new to such a project. He presented similar showcases beginning in the mid-'90s at the bar and eatery he operated, Friends and Co. But when Allen, who had toured extensively as a country artist, decided to give up the road, it rekindled the idea of Songwriters Night.
"I had toured with my band for about six years," Allen said. "Back in December, I decided I had had enough of the road and came home. But I wanted to get involved here with music somehow, some way. I always felt there was a lack of true listening rooms like they have other places.
"So I called Mike up and asked him how he got his shows started years ago. I picked his brain and started calling musicians and talking to them about ideas. I used MySpace and Facebook and all those social networks to get the word out."
Having worked as a songwriter himself in Nashville, Allen had developed connections that helped land several established composers as guests for Songwriters Night. Among them is Les Taylor, a mainstay writer and singer from the veteran Central Kentucky country/pop band Exile. He helped kick off the series in June. Former Lexingtonian Kent Blazy, another writer who has written hits for Brooks, will headline Songwriters Night in November. (The series is taking October off so it doesn't compete with the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.)
"I don't think anybody at the Racquet Club really had a clue as to what we were talking about when we started the series," Ashley said. "Neither did the audience when it first came. My words to the Racquet Club were, 'I'll guarantee you about 75 brand-new customers.' And it worked. That was the night Les Taylor played. The songwriters got seven standing ovations. After that, everybody after the show just wanted to know when we were going to do it again.
But the purpose behind Songwriters Night was to showcase area talent as much as Nashville notables. The night Hill performed, the lineup also featured Allen, veteran Lexington rock/blues stylist Bryan Himes and University of Kentucky student Hanna Ellis. They sat next to one another onstage, taking turns sharing their songs and stories that inspired the music
"Benita told me after the show that she was very apprehensive coming to Lexington and doing a songwriters night," Ashley said. "She didn't know the level of talent we had. But she said she would put the three songwriters that were onstage with her that night against any room in Nashville any night of the week. She said she had an absolute blast and will come back any time we ask her."
"A lot of the writers have said that it's such a break for them to come to someplace like Lexington and play to a fresh crowd of faces," Allen said. "In Nashville, it can become kind of stale and overkill with the writers. They're doing the same things over and over. Sometimes they can tend to take themselves too seriously. Here, they don't have that. They can get onstage and do what they normally do. Here, they're playing to a whole different vibe."
It seems the only immediate hurdle facing Songwriters Night is containing its growing popularity. Ashley limits the crowd to about 75 patrons per show to ensure a quiet listening environment for audiences and artists. But that can make getting a reservation a little tricky. This weekend's Songwriters Night has been sold out for weeks.
"People have said, 'This thing can get really big,'" Ashley said. "But if the room gets bigger, the noise picks up. I think people just want to hear where these songs came from. They want to hear a hit song coming from the mind and the mouth it originally came out of."