Songwriting

The Creative River Series: What’s Stopping You?

by Clay Mills
Dec 5, 2018

I remember sitting in a Mexican restaurant a couple years ago with the late songwriter Tim Johnson.

We were preparing to play a benefit that evening for a local high school. “What’s stopping you?” Tim asked. You see, I’d just told him that I’d always dreamed of playing the stage at the legendary Ryman Auditorium. So many of my musical heroes had stood on that hardwood stage singing their songs for the gathered.

“What’s stopping you?” he repeated, with that wild-eyed dreamers twinkle in his eye.

“Well, for one I’m not an artist with a record deal,” I said. I’d decided years earlier to focus on my songwriting career, so I could stay near home and raise my son, rather than spending a life on the road. We started laughing. I was doing that thing—the thing Tim and I always talked about: not believing in my dreams and making excuses. “Hey,” I said, “let’s write that idea! Let’s write ‘What’s Stopping You?’”

So, we paid our lunch tab and called our buddy James Dean Hicks to meet up with us to write. Tim and James gave up a chance to play golf on a beautiful course that afternoon, knowing we had a great idea, and we spent the rest of the day hammering it out. We filled the song with words that meant something to each of us. Things that had held us back in our lives at some point…

“Is it that rut you’re in that’s keeping you stuck?
Did someone say you weren’t good enough?
Or just your own dang voice that says you suck?
What’s stopping you?”

Not long after we wrote those words, Tim Johnson lost his long battle with cancer.

That spring, his friends and family got together and planned a night of musical tribute to honor Tim’s life and music. It would be the world’s largest song pitch party. We invited record companies, A&R folks, producers, managers, publishers, and friends to the free concert. They would be there to hear Tim’s songs and consider recording them on future projects. I was honored that Tim’s wife Megan asked me to perform “What’s Stopping You?”

I stood nervously on the side of the stage. 1,800 people were there who knew and loved Tim Johnson as much as I did. Tim never met a dream he didn’t encourage, or a dreamer that he didn’t believe in. As the curtain went up I stepped into the lights and up to the microphone and sang the first lines:

“Is it that one red light at the end of your town?
Or the fear of change that’s holding you down?”

My boots were keeping time as I strummed my guitar. Keeping perfect time tap, tap, tap, on that hardwood floor of the Ryman Auditorium.

Write On! ~CM

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.

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