Working on a Full House

Nashville Songwriters hope to build a local community for country creatives

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She doesn’t fit the stereotype of a country music singer, really—she’s Asian, for starters, and is not rocking cowboy boots. But Gina Saylor sits on a folding chair flanked by walls covered in acoustic guitars, talking about the finer attributes of country music. “It’s really the last genre in which you can still tell a story,” she says. Around her, 20 or so people nod and agree. They’re a support group of sorts—the Las Vegas chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International.

This is their inaugural meeting. They’re gathering in a back room at the Guitar Center in Town Square, led by a 30-year-old cocktail waitress named Anika Ray, who spends the first hour talking about everything from melody (critical) to co-writing (a popular trend) to Nashville (full of competition). With subsequent meetings, Ray will teach members the ins and outs of the industry, such as how to get a song heard by the right producers.

For Saylor, the group is another stepping-stone toward her most recent goal: publishing country music songs. It’s a bit of an odd landing for a classically trained pianist. She started playing piano at 3 years old, and by 6 she was entering competitions, and in high school, she was flying around the nation to perform. Then it was off to the Juilliard School, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music, majoring in piano.

From there, she was accepted to law school, and then, in 2004, switched to dealing poker in Las Vegas. Busy with her new job, she quit giving piano lessons, but continued to play the piano. But it wasn’t until she met her future husband—another poker dealer—that she began listening to country music.

“He’s from rural Michigan, and he’s a big country music fan,” she says. “I was forced to listen to it at first, but it started to grow on me. All of the pop music had gotten too techno and full of dance beats, so I listened to his music and found that I liked the storytelling and melodies and especially harmonies. I was picking apart the instruments and formats and the substance behind the lyrics.

“But what I really liked about country is that it speaks to everybody. I could relate to their songs. And they had old-fashioned instruments: piano, guitars, drums.” 

That’s what this group of aspiring country songwriters has in common—a desire to speak to a wide range of people through their musical storytelling.

Ray tells the crowd at the Guitar Center that she’s been writing songs since she was 16. Although she has yet to publish a song, she’s written plenty and become familiar with the pitch process—contacting publishers or artists with a demo and trying to get a song heard. After spending some time in recent years networking in Nashville, where some people in the music industry refer to their own city as “NashVegas,” she determined that Vegas was overdue for a chapter—especially because there are ample recording facilities here.

“You don’t have to send your stuff to Nashville to get a demo,” she said, noting that Vegas also has plenty of musicians who can help make a demo of a new song. (Members who are interested in the Nashville experience can access national conferences and online tutorials.)

Along with new songwriters such as Saylor, several more established local artists show up at the meeting. For example, there’s Chris Heers, a regular performer at Cadillac Ranch. His debut album, Western Stars, was recorded in a Nashville studio . And he’s posted the stories behind the 12 songs he wrote for the album on his website

Before the members start playing their songs for feedback—each taking a turn with the guitar in front of the crowd—others in the group chime in that the city is primed for this kind of networking. And that’s what will be at the heart of the songwriter’s group; it will be a place where lyricists will meet musicians to help construct songs. With all this collaboration, perhaps the city that hosts the Academy of Country Music Awards will be able to produce some winners of its own.