Nashvilles Jewish cowboy lives the good country life

nashville, tenn. | When you sit down at the Bluebird Café, you can begin to appreciate Hank Williams’ famous saying, “A song ain’t nothin’ in the world but a story just wrote with music to it.”

The crowded little café, located in a strip mall in Nashville’s Green Hills suburb, often has a line to get in, but it’s really worth the wait.

Seasoned and aspiring songwriters gather here to perform their own stories “wrote with music.” And if you’re lucky, you might even hear a hit single waiting to be born.

A songwriter who sometimes appears at the Bluebird is Billy Kirsch — but his background is anything but “country.”

Calling himself “Nashville’s Jewish cowboy,” Kirsch has written hit songs for some of America’s top country singers and groups — Kenny Rogers, Wynonna Judd, Steve Wariner and Alabama, to name a few — but he says it was the synagogue melodies he heard growing up in New York that fed the roots of his musical background.

“My son had his bar mitzvah in Nashville last August,” Kirsch recalled, “and one of the guests was a friend of mine who is a very successful country songwriter.

“At the reception, he came up to me and said, ‘Now I know where you got all those deep emotional melodies for the country songs.’

“I hadn’t thought of it consciously, but when he said that, I thought, there’s something there as far as the melodic value of … the traditional prayers.”

Kirsch’s mother was raised Orthodox, and his dad was Reform, “so I grew up in a Conservative synagogue in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said.

“There was a lot of chanting to traditional melodies,” [but] no organs or keyboard, or any of that stuff that you find in so many synagogues today. We always had traditional cantors.”

Kirsch started playing piano as a child and later studied classically for years. But when he got to high school, he needed to branch out.

“I wanted to get to where I could play by ear and loosen up,” he said, “so I started to play jazz piano and absolutely fell in love with it.”

Kirsch attended Wesleyan University, attracted by its liberal arts and music programs. But it wasn’t challenging enough for him, so he left college and moved to New York, where he studied with jazz pianists and freelanced.

“When you’re playing jazz,” he said, “you can be playing at a jazz concert one night and a wedding under a tent in Long Island another night.”

But “struggling to make a living and survive as a young jazz pianist,” Kirsch also became frustrated because he still wasn’t expressing what he felt was his “personal voice.”

So he started writing songs and making singer-songwriter demo tapes for people in the music business in New York. They said, “That’s country music.”

All of this precipitated his move to Nashville, where, like so much else in life, he just happened to arrive at the right time.

“Garth Brooks was exploding,” he said, “and took the country music industry from a small industry to a huge industry and brought in a more diverse audience.”

Soon after moving to Nashville with his family, Kirsch had his first song recorded by Kenny Rogers. The song, called “When You Are Loving Me,” was never a hit, but it did put Kirsch on the map musically with the country sound.

“Is It Over Yet” and “Come Some Rainy Day,” both recorded by Wynonna Judd, have become standards in the country music repertoire, while “Stay Gone” launched country singer Jimmy Wayne’s career as a Top 5 single.

In between songwriting, Kirsch runs a national company called Kidbilly Music that does corporate team building through the art of songwriting.

One of Kirsch’s biggest hits, which he wrote with singer Steve Wariner, was “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” which won a Country Music Association song of the year award and was nominated for a Grammy.

Kirsch’s wife, Julie, gave him the title for the song, which was inspired by his grandmother’s death.

Kirsch remembers flying to New York with his young daughter to attend his grandmother’s funeral.

“My daughter looked out the window of the airplane through the clouds and told me, ‘I think I see God,’ ” he said. “All of a sudden, I had the first version of the song.”