The show is about to start — four minutes to go — as Nashville Underground Tonight host Dak Alley watches as his co-host, Ed Hill, tries to remember an organ solo from an ’80s hit, eyes on the ceiling as his fingers brush over the keyboard.
Humming a few bars of the song, Kevin Mason, the show’s music director, plays a few notes on his guitar, almost responding to Hill as the song takes shape.
They laugh, trying to piece together the song from jumbled memories, years of songwriting and musical experience, bringing it together like a memory of a childhood vacation.
“It’s kind of like striking a conversation with somebody,” Mason said. “You’re communicating, listening to each other — (it’s a) give and take. It’s a language, so you’re communicating, listening to what he’s doing. The best musicians listen to each other.”
The guest on this night, Wynn Varble, walks up the stairs to the studio in Alley’s home, and as the song and the show finally come together, the room full of songwriters is ready to broadcast.
Together, this trio of songwriters and the guests they bring on the show every Tuesday night aim to represent Nashville’s songwriters, the brains behind the lyrics of country artists from Brad Paisley to Faith Hill. Yet for these songwriters, whose names are often unfamiliar to most, Alley’s show provides a platform to tell their own stories — the real stories behind the songs.
Borne out of Hill, Alley and Mason’s informal Tuesday night songwriting sessions, Nashville Underground Tonight officially began airing episodes in February from Alley’s home. Every Tuesday night at 7 on WAKM-AM 950 and the show’s Facebook page, Alley and his team, including his wife, Angey, who produces the show, bring a new guest songwriter in to share a couple of songs and their stories.
The initial vision for the show, covering the stories of legendary Nashville songwriters from Whitey Shafer to Bobby Braddock, came from a book idea Alley had eight years ago. He began recording the interviews he conducted, but before long, the relationships he built gave him the idea of hosting a live show featuring songwriters.
“I videoed each one of them for an hour (for the book),” Alley said. “You talk to somebody about themselves for an hour, and you see how loose they get. I had some of the greatest songwriters in the world say, ‘Come on out to the house — let’s do this.’”
After his eight years of work, Alley’s book, “It Goes a Little Somethin’ Like This,” will be released Sept. 3. Incidentally, Hill will release his own book, his autobiography, on the same day.
Hill, an experienced country music writer of hits such as “Just Fishin’” by Trace Adkins, won the 2006 BMI Songwriter of the Year award. His book, “It Matters to Me,” chronicles his journey to success in the music industry.
Beginning his music career playing with artists such as Mickey Gilley while writing on the side, Hill moved back and forth between California and Texas, but he knew he needed to move to Nashville to keep rising in the industry.
“I moved back to Nashville, and I got a gig playing with Johnny Lee,” Hill said. “I painted houses, lived in my truck for two weeks when I got here. I didn’t even have a place to stay. I showered at truck stops. That’s how bad I wanted to stay.”
But the late nights and rough conditions ultimately paid off, and for Hill, those moments just pushed him further toward his destination.
To celebrate finishing their books, the two men will hold a songwriters session on Aug. 23 at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where they will sign copies of their books and sing a few of their hits.
For Angey Alley, events like that session and the show’s growing radio exposure mean that more songwriters will get the chance to share their stories with listeners.
“I’ve been really surprised at how fast it’s grown,” she said. “We thought it would be a slow build, and so many of these big songwriters are being a big part of it. We’re booked until October.”
As the evening’s show begins to draw to a close, Varble strums his guitar to one of the hits he created, Dak Alley beams around the room. Though Paisley may have turned “Waitin’ on a Woman” into a hit single, the song’s raw emotion shines forth as Varble sings the words he wrote, his face almost pressed against the microphone.
Borne out of a difficult moment in Varble’s life, the song shifts. No longer a hit single on the radio, this is Varble’s song.
That moment of epiphany for the listener has been Dak Alley’s goal since he first started writing his book, and as his show grows, he hopes those moments will continue to happen.
“A lot of us want to be Garth Brooks when we come to town,” Alley said. “But the moment I switched about nine or 10 years ago and tried to start giving, thinking, I want to do something that puts these songwriters on a pedestal, I’ve never seen so much success. It’s amazing how you draw people in when you’re trying to give.”
Nashville Underground Tonight streams at 7 p.m. every Tuesday via simulcast on WAKM-AM 950, WAKM worldwide and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NUTonight.