Songwriter Liz Hengber shares her hit-making skills with a new generation
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
By Barbara Harmon, Studio M staff //
If you don’t know Liz Hengber by name, you may know her lyrics. More than 65 of Hengber’s songs — six of them reaching No. 1 — have been recorded by country, pop and bluegrass artists, including Reba McEntire, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Dunn and Sara Evans.
“I know I’m a talented woman, but I’m also a blessed woman to have had 10 songs (including ‘Just Like Them Horses,’ ‘Forever Love’ and ‘And Still’) recorded by an icon like Reba McEntire,” said Hengber during an interview at her home in Franklin.
Liz Hengber stands in her living room beside a movie poster of “Forever Love” with a note from Reba McEntire. (Photo by Barbara Harmon)
Hengber, 58, wrote the 2017 Ronnie Dunn single “Damn Drunk,” co-written with Ben Stennis and Alex Kline; her song “Long Way Down” appears on Sara Evans’ latest album, “Words.”
This semester, Hengber is teaching her first lyric-writing class at Belmont University, which gives her the chance to inspire and be inspired by the next generation of singer-songwriters.
“They are turning me on to their music. I love this new fresh music, and I want to be a part of it,” Hengber said.
A native New Yorker, Hengber graduated from Long Island University with a theater degree. In 1986, Hengber was working in New York City at a recording studio in Broadway’s famed Brill Building when she got her first single-song contract. She’d listen to a country music station as she worked her night shift.
“I just thought, ‘Well, if lyrics are happening in country music, then that is what I’m going to listen to,’” said Hengber, an ardent fan of everyone from Springsteen and the Eagles to Reba.
She soon moved to Nashville and began working as a waitress at the Bluebird Café.
“When I think about my songwriting education, that was the best education that anyone could have gotten,” she says. “I realized how high the bar was, and I thought, ‘I ain’t where these writers are yet, but I hope to be.’ So I just studied them, and that’s how I came here.”
In 1991, Hengber was signed by Clay Myers at music publishing company Starstruck, then owned by McEntire and Narvel Blackstock.
“I stayed on them like white on rice, and I kept giving them songs, and sometimes they would give me a little contract on a song,” she says.“Finally, Clay Myers said, ‘I’m going to sign you to Starstruck because you work harder than any of my signed writers, and you want it and you are so hungry.’”
Six months after getting signed, McEntire cut one of Hengber’s songs, “For My Broken Heart.” Four months after that, the song went to No. 1. Hengber was with Starstruck for 11 years.
“That’s the advice I give to young writers today: Show them that you want it. Show them that the money they are spending to have you on staff is going to go to a good cause.”
Today, Hengber said she loves working with the “new school of songwriters,” millennials she says have a fresh approach to songwriting.
“They have their finger on the pulse of the new melodies. It’s funny, because the subject matters are the same. It is still love, breakup, mom and dad, party, loving life, regret … but the approach is different,” Hengber said.
During her career, Hengber has received seven American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Awards, a Grammy Certificate for two songs and song of the year (2011) in the Canadian Gospel Awards.
Kalie Shorr, a 23-year-old staff writer at Writerslist and an artist, has worked with Hengber. Shorr’s first single, “Fight Like a Girl,” was added to SiriusXM in 2016.
“Liz is definitely like a free spirit, and I feel like in a co-writing room she is very open, and no idea is off the table. I think you get something really interesting and creative when you do it that way,” said Shorr.
She adds, “Some people in Nashville think everything in the ‘80s and ‘90s is so much better than what is happening now … they refuse to grow out of it. But (Hengber) has expanded and managed to stay relevant for so long.”
Hengber said she has a daily routine that keeps her lyrics flowing. Every morning she does what she calls “woodshedding”: When she wakes, she puts on a Beatles or Springsteen album for inspiration while she puts on her makeup and types up the lines as they come. Usually, those lyrics are what her co-writers will decide to use when they get together.
Jimmy Metts, the former creative director at Starstruck and now president of Torque Entertainment, said he has always been a fan of Hengber.
“She knows what it takes to write a great song. She is a great, great lyricist. She has been able to adapt to the market and how she needs to write and who she needs to write with,” Metts said.
It is possible, on occasion, to see Hengber perform her songs at the Bluebird. She said she isn’t a singer and not the greatest guitarist, but the audience is patient with her.
“The best thing about songwriting is that you can write in a key you can’t sing in. But, you know if you pitch it to Reba McEntire, she is going to be able to hit those notes,” Hengber said.
Barbara Harmon is a senior in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.