John Wesley Satterfield is in a precarious position for a musician. The South Carolina native has a deep history within the Charleston music community, and knows most everyone who trudges an amp from one bar to the next on weekends in the Holy City. So it goes that, not unlike a high school reunion where all of your former classmates gather to compare jobs and waistlines, many musicians this weekend will be asking the singer how his recent move to Nashville is working out.
Satterfield is quick to point out that, despite its reputation as the place to be if you are serious about a music career, Nashville isn’t that much different from Charleston. You still have a town full of acts fighting over the same spots on the weekend, but you can easily find that the guy you are trying to steal a gig away from will be a writing partner down the road.
“Nashville is a city where, as far as an artist goes and especially as a writer, it pushes you to be at the top of your game,” Satterfield says. “There’s just so much talent out here … It’s just a matter of wanting to keep up. It’s amazing just to see how many really impressive artists there are here. The whole town is just surrounded by and immersed in the culture.”
Still, it was a move that Satterfield was destined to make. Since first picking up a guitar as a kid and learning a few Dylan and Croce tunes from his dad, a love of music soon began guiding him toward songwriting and a more serious approach to the craft. Growing up in the ’90s and studying Harry Chapin songs while the kids around him praised the likes of Everclear, Satterfield began to notice that the music he loved wasn’t widely embraced by his generation. Still, the songwriting styles of the great singer-songwriters set him on a path he’s still on today.
“It’s not the most commercially accessible music, you know, what I do,” Satterfield admits. “There is a channel for it, especially with the recent success of guys like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. There is an option, or an opportunity, for songwriters writing honest music like me to gain a little traction now. The great thing about the change in the music industry now is that it is getting a little bit away from that typical Chevy tailgatin’ song, and it seems to me that it’s headed in a much more honest direction.”
For Satterfield, the realization that people are beginning to miss thoughtful content inspires him even more. “I’ve never been one to write something with an agenda behind it. I have friends who do work like that, and they are generally more successful than I am — definitely more financially successful than I am,” he says with a laugh. “I think everyone does what they know to do and [they] don’t really stray too far from that.”
Still, there has to be a voice that nags at Satterfield in the back of his mind, saying, “C’mon, just write one song that would be great for a truck commercial, and we’ll be set” — right? Instead, he has traveled throughout the country touring for the last few years under the strength of his 2012 release, Goodbye Whiskey, which was produced by his friend Mike Gossip of the country group Gloriana. While Gloriana isn’t burning up the charts, they are a big enough name to book those venues that overlook Satterfield and promise a bigger check at the end of the night. Then there’s Satterfield’s long-awaited, yet-to-be-titled fifth album featuring the production of longtime friend Ryan Monroe behind the boards. Monroe is a member of rock group Band of Horses and another Charleston connection.
But Satterfield swears his friends’ successes have never tempted him to write a few beer-and-Daisy-Dukes songs. “I think if I were struggling to find things to write about, or if I was really struggling as an artist, then I would start considering other options,” he says. “I write as well as I can, and I don’t think there is anything better or worse about songs that are more commercially successful. I think there is another level of success that may not be reflected in money, but there is a certain currency reflected in knowing that someone connected with one of your songs on a personal level. It’s not just another Saturday night song that they won’t think about later.”
So Satterfield will continue to work Nashville’s small venues, playing writers rounds and showcase shows, attempting to make the right contacts that will take him higher into the Music City stratosphere. Isbell’s recent success, with a No. 1 album on the country charts without significant radio airplay, has served as a beacon of hope amongst the singer’s friends, and has provided him with evidence that the town may be ready for a change.
“He’s just inspiring folks to make better music,” Satterfield plainly states. “It’s letting people know that there is an option for the songs that you may be hesitant to put out there, because they hit a little too close to home. I think there are probably some suits over there on Music Row that are having their heads turned around a couple of times and are trying to figure out how to handle the news that there is this new guy coming in with a new style of music and changing the mold. It’s really opening a lot of doors for a lot of people here in Nashville.”