Pat Pattison Treasures 30 Years of Berklee Nashville Trip

For three decades, Berklee professor and acclaimed author Pat Pattison has helped demystify the music business for the students who travel with him on the annual Berklee trip to Nashville.

March 10, 2015

For 30 years, Berklee professor Pat Pattison, acclaimed author of several definitive books on writing song lyrics, has been leading Berklee students on an annual pilgrimage to Nashville to learn about performing, writing, recording, and working in the music business. Pattison teaches both on campus in Berklee’s Liberal Arts Department and via Berklee Online, where one of his popular course offerings is Writing from the Title.

I asked Pattison to take on an assignment similar to one he might give students in that course: to write a title to describe his three decades of taking students to Music City. Without hesitation, Pattison says the resulting song would be called “Who Would’a Thunk?” and he instantly begins riffing on ideas for the hypothetical song:

“Who would’a thunk / That for all this time / We’d be on the same road with different folks? / Now I need a rhyme.”

Pattison laughs at this last line, but the impromptu lyrics begin to tell the tale of the Berklee Nashville trip, which, three decades in, is now viewed as an annual institution at Berklee—despite having come into existence by accident.

Changing Lives, Changing Perceptions

The trip was born when student (and now alumnus) Gary Culley ’89 reached out to Pattison, who was working as a songwriter in Nashville while teaching at Berklee, for some advice. Pattison offered to show Culley around town and the student showed up with five friends. The next year, 39 Berklee students carpooled to Nashville. In year three, the trip swelled to 76 students and it has included more than 100 participants annually ever since.

“Every year, the students send in comments on what impressed them about the trip or what suggestions they might have, and I don’t know that we’ve ever gotten a negative report,” Pattison says. “And for 80 or 90 percent of them, we hear something to the effect of, ‘This changed my life.’”

Read about last year's Berklee Nashville trip here.

The life-changing nature of the trip is due in large measure to the astounding caliber and array of speakers that students meet.

This year, those speakers include hit songwriter Gary Burr; Grammy-winning artist Kathy Mattea, who once told Pattison that if he ever leaves her out of the trip, she’ll contact “people in the North End who can hurt you;” former Warner Bros. Nashville president Jim Ed Norman, who for 12 years put his weight and funding behind the bus that took Berklee students to Nashville, thereby cementing the trip as an annual event; and alumni singer-songwriters such as Charlie Worsham '06, Gillian Welch '92, and David Rawlings '92—the latter two, Pattison notes, first connected on what has become a lifelong partnership on a previous Berklee Nashville trip.

Pattison says that alumni in Nashville have raised the bar in the city and students have typically impressed guest speakers with their thoughtful questions, both of which have had a major impact on Berklee’s reputation in the city.

“Thirty years ago, if you came to Nashville and you had a Berklee degree, you didn’t tell anybody about it, because that was that book-learning stuff and you write songs because you live your life, and I'm not saying that that's false,” Pattison says. “But you just had to shut your mouth about being a schooled, educated musician. Now, there are something like 800 Berklee alumni living in Nashville and people love taking on Berklee people because they have information, passion, commitment, and drive.”

Kindred Spirit: Nashville and Berklee

In organizing the Berklee Nashville trip for 30 years, Pattison is quick to point out that he has had a lot of help along the way from people such as Stephen Webber, program director for the Music Production, Technology, and Innovation Program at Berklee's campus in Valencia, Spain, who has been involved for the past 21 years and has facilitated many tours of Nashville’s top recording studios; associate professor of music production and engineering Mark Wessel; and assistant professor of voice Clare McLeod, who doesn’t miss a detail in coordinating this week in which students barely have time to catch their breath between events.

Because of that full slate, Pattison says that, while he has always treated students on the trip like adults and found that they have behaved accordingly, he advises those considering attending that “if you want a spring break trip to party, get drunk, and all that stuff, this ain’t that trip.”

But for those passionate about pursing a career in music, the Nashville trip offers much more than a spring break getaway. For many, the trip demystifies the music industry and shines a light on the level of work required to achieve one’s goals. These breakthrough moments are only possible when Nashville pros open their doors, and the trip is rooted in this spirit—arguably more common to Nashville than some other music hubs—of giving back and mentoring the next generation.

That spirit is well represented by Eddie Bayers, the legendary Nashville session drummer who has been arranging for Berklee students to sit in on Nashville studio sessions for the past decade or so.

“About two years in, I said to Eddie, ‘I really love that you’re so passionate about this trip, but I’m just kind of wondering, ‘What’s in it for you?’” Pattison recalls. “He said, ‘My son was a drummer and he was really good. At age 17, he was killed in a car crash. So these kids are my kids, and I want to do as much as I can for them, because when I cross over, I want him to be proud of me.’”

Pattison says that’s still “the kind of stuff that makes the Nashville trip.”

The music industry is often maligned, and yet here is that industry, for 30 years, freely sharing its time and knowledge with Berklee students with nothing beyond gratitude expected in return. Who would’a thunk?

Berklee will present its first American Masters Awards at Opry Studio on March 17, in conjunction with the 30th anniversary of the college's Nashville trip. Read more about the awards.