Craig Bickhardt remembers better days in Nashville. For 24 years, he wrote songs for artists including Johnny Cash, Alison Krauss, and Willie Nelson. These were times before country stars sang about sexy tractors and sticking their boots up terrorists' asses, and Bickhardt honed his craft with like-minded songwriters during live in-the-round sessions at Nashville's storied Bluebird Café.
"We didn't give a shit if a song was a hit or not," Bickhardt says. "What mattered was how good the song was, how good the story was, how believable it was, how well-written the lyric was." Nonetheless, he did pen four No. 1 country music hits ("I Know Where I'm Going" and "Turn It Loose" performed by the Judds, "It Must Be Love" performed by Ty Herndon, and "In Between Dances" performed by Pam Tillis).
In a surprising tale of the modern music industry, Bickhardt wrote a song in 1995 for the country supergroup the Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson), but he didn't make a dime off of it until 2005, when Capitol Records decided to re-release the band's 1995 album The Road Goes On Forever as a 10th-anniversary special addition. A recording of Bickhardt's song, "If He Came Back Again," got cut from the original album, but the record label decided to include it as a bonus track in 2005.
Unfortunately, with little promotion or touring to support for the re-issue, the CD recorded modest sales, and Bickardt walked away with less than $1,000 in royalties. "People are surprised to hear that," Bickhardt says. "People think, 'You had a Johnny Cash cut, a Waylon Jennings cut. You must be rolling in money.' It doesn't work that way for songwriters."
In 2001, Bickhardt broke away with his first solo record. A few years later, he moved back home to Pennsylvania and struck out on the road performing his own songs. Bickhardt is a songwriter's songwriter, to be sure, but outsiders will also appreciate the care and storytelling in his songs. You can still hear the intimacy of those early Bluebird sessions on his latest recordings.
A standout track from Bickhardt's solo career is "Troubled Shores," off the 2001 album Easy Fires, which features the lyric, "You were gone before I knew/ Just what it was I loved in you/ And the chill of that cathedral light/ Would keep me driving south all night." Bickhardt wrote the song after his friend and songwriting collaborator Kent Robbins died in a car accident in 1997, and the verse refers to Robbins' funeral in a chapel on the Vanderbilt University campus. "His family and mine, we both used to vacation down on Perdido Key down on the Gulf Coast of Florida, so we had a lot of stories in common," Bickhardt says. You can hear echoes of quiet days on the coast in the doleful chorus: "Now I'm standing on these troubled shores/ Staring out across a troubled sea/ And the pounding of these waves/ Is the sound that my heart makes/ Breaking deep inside of me."
Bickhardt's latest album, 2009's Brother to the Wind, is full of direct and earnest songs, with guest appearances by the likes of Janis Ian, Terri Hendrix, and Darrell Scott. For decades now, Bickhardt has used music to put food on his family's table — only nowadays, he's the center of attention, not a behind-the-scenes laborer.