The Creative River Series: What’s Stopping You?



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 is a multi platinum Grammy nominated hit songwriter and co-founder of








40 thoughts on “The Creative River Series: What’s Stopping You?

  1. WOW! WOW! This morning I was sitting in the living room and a song idea popped in my head. I grabbed the guitar and wrote a few lines and thought i would get back to it later in the day.. Now, its 4pm and I am clearing out some unread emails when i stopped on one from Songtown. As i started reading from your page I scrolled to the article “The Creative River Series: What’s Stopping You?” by Clay Mills.. I was freaking floored by your title. I have written a few songs over the years and one of my songs has been downloaded and played all over the world, the song is called “I Wanna Go Fishing”. There is a Youtube video if you care to listen. The thing is, the last few years i have gotten lazy with my writing and music mostly because I suck at the guitar and it seams there is nothing to do with the songs. As if some sort of sign the very damn title I started writing was the same one you describe in the article. The titled I selected for my newest idea was “Whats Stopping you”? I know people come up with the same titles all the time but to do it and then go to your page with hopes of motivation only to read an article detailing the same title, well now that is some serious synchronicity. Maybe I better get the dust off the pen… For whats its worth, I just wanted to share that..

  2. Thanks Clay! I appreciate the openness of this message and your song. I was in the process of being singed to RCA, but then the A&R guy got fired. Then I had Miles Davis’ manager (Tony Meilandt) but then he died. Then a massive booking agent, but they left too shortly after my Manager died. So I toured Colleges for 10 years, but recently kinda gave up on my dream after some health issues. But I’m trying to build the fire again and get back to that ‘fearless’ mindset that attracted those ‘lucky breaks’ I had years ago. After reading your article about you and Tim, I feel even more encouraged by the ‘What’s Stopping You’ question. For me, I think it was ‘fear of failure’ or maybe being too old (I’m not 18 anymore) but I’m taking a F_-_-_ it attitude now, and just gonna have fun and try everything again and see what happens. Thanks for the encouraging message Clay! I needed it! PS..congrats for performing in the venue you always dreamed of playing in.

  3. Thanks for sharing Clay. And thanks, too, to singer/songwriter/drummer Sheylyn Jaymes for her comments back in January, when she wrote this great hook… “It’s never too late except when you’re gone…” I wonder how many songs were written because Sheylyn shared that great line?

    Ya just never know when an idea will present itself. That’s why I sleep with a pen!

    Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Write!
    David M. Murray

  4. Great memory of a friend and story of encouragement. I remember the first time I ever went to the Ryman Auditorium. Back then you could go backstage and see the dressing rooms and actually stand on the stage behind the microphone and get a real sense of that dream. I never forgot that experience. It was a spiritual, magical moment in time. Just like you, my dream was sealed.
    Thank you for reminding me Clay.

  5. Thanks Clay, That’s the way I remember Tim too, even with the relatively small amount if time I had the privelege of spending with him. He was a wonderful mentor. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are inspiring many with it!

  6. Love how you encourage us every step of the way, Clay! Your personal stories carry a lot of weight. I would love to hear that song sometime!

  7. What’s stopping me? Good question. I think I’m obsessed with the stories behind the songs. I get sidetracked by inspiration from the songs I listen to, then I get engrossed in reading and researching about them. It’s fascinating and so inspiring. It does help me add to my lyrics little by little. I see each one as a puzzle in the making. Each day, week, or month I’m adding a little more to each one, putting it together piece by piece. Those red lights are inspiring too. The last red light out of my town is at the beginning of a road that has a nickname I want to put into a song I’m working on, and at the end of it there’s a fork in the road. The last town out of my state heading south, and past the last red light leads you to a sign along the side of the road that reads “Pursue Your Dreams”. I guess that means if you don’t continue on past that last light you won’t see the messages and inspiration beyond that.

  8. There are so many emotional highs and lows in this story, I feel like I’m going through “manipause”.
    If it were me, I don’t think I would have been able to sing without crying on the Ryman stage

  9. Thanks Clay for sharing this story. Life is short. I’m learning to “get out of my own way” in life and even though my singing and songwriting career hasn’t completely taken off after 30 years of working at it, I had always wanted to play the drums (growing up my parents didn’t support a girl being a drummer). I took up learning to become a drummer 2 years ago at the age of 64. I’m still working at the singing and songwriting part of my life too and hoping that one day soon that ship will arrive with a crew that quits thinking that anyone over the age of 30 isn’t talented enough to make it in the business. It’s never too late except when you’re gone from this life.

  10. Wish I’d been there, Clay. I get as much joy from witnessing m other people’s dreams come true as my own! Glad you got to have that moment and bet Tim was cheering you on from somewhere!

  11. Thank you for sharing your moving story Clay, giving us insight to a section of your life. So, what’s stopping me? After watching the free lessons from Marty and you, which were informative, encouraging and motivating, I somehow feel less prepared to move onto a membership status. Reasons? I write ballads for several reasons: I don’t play guitar well, have difficulty with quick tempos, stumble over the chords I can play (more than three, but not many), and my songs tend to have descriptions similar to “Marmalade skies”, the negativity which was discussed by Marty and the exec. from Ole Music in the last video. I don’t care for drinking songs, bar songs, etc. I’m not a prude, like Mr. Bojangles, I drinks a bit, but today’s subjects seem trite for the most part. I’m not a techie, don’t have Garage Band, I purchased Band in a Box, but don’t know enough music theory to use it, so my ability to share my songs is limited. I’m going to ponder all my habits that were pointed out in the videos as “not good”, I think I would enjoy being a member, but doubt that I am “good enough”. I just bet that my feelings and hesitations are shared by at least a few novice writers.

    1. Danna, someone sent me a 15 second video I want to share with you. Please find me on Facebook or my website, Whether you become a member or not is beside the point. Write what you love and keep practicing your guitar. Write something you are proud of. Forget everybody else. Write for you. I can tell you have a lot to say. We want to hear it. If I never find you or never get that video to you, just know that – YOU ARE AWESOME!!!!!

    2. Hey Danna, SongTown is about becoming the best writer you can be. Not someone else’s idea of who you should be, but rather the best you! We have lots of members of SongTown that don’t write commercial radio music and lots that do. You can’t watch a video for commercial writers and apply it to other writers. Two different goals. And Songtown coaches both types of writers. Great songs are about communicating and touching people’s hearts and minds. We have members of all levels. And they support each other’s journey.

      Cheers, Clay

  12. I always told myself I would release an EP of my original songs when it was good enough….so I waited and waited, and researched and read about ways to write better….but never actually doing much writing.
    A few months ago I decided that it was time for my personal music to become a personal focus.My day job is a high school music/band teacher, so I am always around music but its never my personal stuff-I love teaching kids about music, but I wanted to spend some time on music that was mine and a bit more personal.
    The only way I was going to ever feel like my music was “good enough” was to actually name the EP “Good Enough” and just release it as a snap shot of where I am right now as a writer. Release it, grow from the experience and just “write on”.
    I joined Song Town in December and since then I have made the 5 songs on the EP much stronger, got a ton of inspiration, somer encouraging words from the locals and a little butt kicking from the pro feedback. I started to ‘rewrite’ some of those tunes over my Christmas break and I am proud to say last night the songs reached the end of my self imposed pre-production deadline, the charts were finished and sent out and the tracking process begins on Feb 1 for a Spring release.
    I just wanted to say a huge shout out to Clay and Marty and all of the song town folks for inspiring me to make this happen. I look forward to finishing this project, accepting that its good enough and moving on to write more and better songs each day.

  13. If your songs continue to flow as well as your articles do, you’ll do just fine.

    To be honest with you, I didn’t want the article to end. I wanted to keep reading. (leave your audience wanting a little more) . 😀

  14. What a beautiful story–and ending! And, love that line about the red light! Thank you for sharing such an inspirational story, and one beautiful tribute to your friend!

  15. Right on. I always thought that my songs weren’t good enough even though every time I got on stage people complimented me. Now I am ready to become a singer/songwriter because I know I really have something to say and do my little part to make the world a better place.

  16. Wow, so touching, and very inspirational.
    Sometimes you come across something just at the right moment.
    Thank you Mr. Mills for sharing this story.

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