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Mike Hilliard, a Decatur business owner, is hoping to make it big in the songwriting business. Though he has had setbacks, Hilliard's country song "Don't Talk About My Truck," penned with his writing partner, recently caught the attention of a Nashville producer.
In the music industry, nothing is a sure thing, and an aspiring Decatur songwriter knows this all too well
By Danielle Komis Palmer
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Once his young children are asleep and his wife is engrossed in ABC's "The Bachelor," Mike Hilliard holes up in the music studio in his house.
After a long day of wiring homes and offices for Hilliard Electric, the Decatur business owner can finally relax in his refuge, pluck his guitar and write down the melodies bouncing around in his mind.
"If I'm stressed and come home and pick up the guitar, it takes away my stress," he said. "I can unwind."
Guitars line the walls of the studio, and a wood table decorated with old country records sits in the corner. One of the albums was his mother's, who wrote songs as a hobby. Music was just a way of life growing up — his dad, grandfather and uncle were always picking and grinning together, he said.
The brown hat Hilliard's grandfather always wore even serves as Hilliard's "thinking cap" when he struggles to come up with a catchy hook or the right lyrics.
"When I get stuck, I hold that hat," he said.
A signed "Heartland" poster hangs on the wall near the hat — a reminder of Hilliard's friend Keith West of Huntsville, who has already made it in the industry that Hilliard is still struggling to break into as a songwriter.
But Hilliard is persistent. The 39-year-old has been writing rock, country and Christian songs in his spare time since he was 18. He hopes to become a full-time songwriter and has considered moving to Nashville like his co-writer Eddie Keith Wilson.
While their big break is yet to come, Hilliard and Wilson have recently come close to a possible breakthrough. Neither really wants to say it, but the thought pulses through both of their minds: "Could this finally be it?"
On the upward swing
The duo recently won first place at the Mountain Valley Arts Council competition in Guntersville for their country song "Don't Talk About My Truck." The tongue-in-cheek, catchy tune about a man more worried about someone insulting his truck than his wife caught the attention of a Nashville producer. He expressed interest in another song of theirs called "Wings" — a touching ballad about redemption.
But the two know that after years of disappointments, they can't get their hopes up yet.
"You just write it, get attention for it, and take it as far as you can take it," Wilson said. "Then you can turn it over to God and you start working on the next one. If not, you'll drive yourself crazy."
Wilson works as a database administrator, and meets with Hilliard every other weekend to write.
Once, five years ago, Hilliard and Wilson thought they had finally done it. Their song "Ashley McGee (Will You Marry Me)," about a real-life marriage proposal from a soldier returning from the war, received national media attention when they performed it at the couple's wedding. After the wedding, Hilliard, Wilson and co-writer Butch Suggs refined the song in the studio and hoped that record companies would distribute it. But it never happened.
"We thought that might be the one that would take us all the way, but with the music industry, nothing is a sure thing," Hilliard said.
But the initial popularity of the song still offered Wilson hope.
"That told me that we had something," he said. "In the last 10 years we've just really been digging into songwriting and learning as much as we can and writing as much as we can. It's like anything else. There's a learning curve. You set your head to it and learn a little every day."
Spark and gasoline
Despite their setbacks, the two have been toiling away since they met 10 years ago when they ran into each other at a songwriting showcase and then at a small church the next day. They bonded over songwriting and now, "we're like brothers," Wilson said. The two feed off each other when they write.
"It's like I'm the spark and he's the gasoline," Wilson said. "It doesn't take much to get us going. We just really work well together."
The two have both had their share of struggles in their lives, which helps them compose heartfelt music, Wilson said. It's just a matter of getting the right people to hear it, and then getting the right person to sing it.
It can be frustrating trying to break into the scene, said Mike's wife, Tracey Hilliard. "Tim McGraw could write a song about the dead grass and it'd be a hit," she said, shaking her head.
But her husband's willingness to fight that upward battle is one of the reasons she's so proud of him, she said.
If it weren't for the support of his family and friends, Hilliard says, he's not sure he would still be trying.
"There were many times where I thought it just wasn't worth it, but people told us it could happen," he said. "But now it seems like everything is all happening at once. We might have struck the gold mine."
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