Songwriter John Schrantz Speaks with Nashville Bypass

(L to R) John and Brynne Schrantz

“Songwriter John Schrantz Speaks with Nashville Bypass”

J. Zimmerman | Nashville Bypass
September 19th, 2023


I recently had the opportunity to speak with John Schrantz about his songwriting, his life, and his unique project: Nashville Bypass. John is a craftsman, artist, and songwriter with an intriguing past. His life has led him in many directions, but through it all, he’s noticed something about the recording industry.

John Schrantz: It’s been described as a closed shop. That’s what made me come up with the idea for Nashville Bypass. The idea is to get past… There are people that are having success and if they could just get by the mechanics of the thing. It’s a matter of getting it out to the people as opposed to just the corporations in Nashville.

J Zimmerman: So, underground production?

John Schrantz: Oh yeah. There’s a billion people a day listening to songs on the internet… you figure there’s gotta be a million people out of that who would be interested in different things.

J Zimmerman: The problem’s changing too. Computers have changed a lot and now the algorithm is feeding people their content. People don’t go searching. If you can’t get enough hits, if you don’t start off fully loaded like folks from California or Nashville you just don’t get the hits. Some of my favorite artists just have a few thousand listens on Spotify.

John Schrantz: The idea is to get past that. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s all worth it. But then again, I figure to heck with it. Just do what I can do.

John has a long-time relationship with multi-instrumentalist recording artist Kurt Johnston who has performed and recorded a number of John’s songs, including an album entitled “Blue Denim Guy”.

John Schrantz: Why do I do it? Songs just come to me. I just, uh, sometimes the whole thing comes, sometimes the chorus starts and it fills in. It sounds bizarre, but it’s sort of like a gift. If you can appreciate what I do at all, it’s given to me. I’ve been doing it for years. I don’t play an instrument. I don’t… I sing songs for Kurt Johnston who does most of the arranging for me, and he plays like 8 or 10 different instruments. He’s played with Bon Jovi, so he’s not an amateur. He’s very good.

J Zimmerman: I could hear that on his album. There was a lot of good instrumentalism in there.

John Schrantz: Some of the songs you heard, he plays everything but the drums. There’s a couple things he plays the drums on. He usually starts out, I’ll sing him the song and in five or ten minutes he’ll play it three different ways on the piano. He’s very talented that way.

J Zimmerman: I did want to ask you how you felt about particular instruments. I noticed there was a lot of steel guitar.

John Schrantz: That’s how I met Kurt. I was looking for a steel guitar player and somebody recommended Kurt. Turns out… he plays 8 or 10 instruments extremely well. He’s world-class. That’s what he played for Bon Jovi, steel guitar. Kurt’s living in Georgia now. He’s playing with a band a couple hours drive away and he’s got a small studio setup, recording demos for people. He’s just amazing.

John’s inspiration is varied. In the case of some songs, such as “Shady Lady”, real-life events inspired the lyrics.

John Schrantz: As far as inspiration… That’s from my hitchhiking days. That’s quite some time ago, but what’s interesting about it is it’s 1/20th of a true story.

J Zimmerman: [Laughter]

John Schrantz: It’s about hitchhiking to Michigan to visit a friend. We were out one night, him and his girlfriend and myself, and we met this young woman. We all went back to his place and there’s where it starts:

Spent the night a-talking under the Lansing sky/ Bible salesman brought me back to Earth when we said goodbye

John Schrantz: The first person that picked me up claimed to be a bible salesman and then a half a dozen other people between there and home. One woman was from New Jersey, not too far from us. She picked me up and I had been up all night before. I had been up all day and it was night again. I was just out of it. As the song goes:

In a motel up around the bend

John Schrantz: That was it, ya know. There was nothing happening because I was too tired and I made a date. The most interesting part of the song is “Pretty Alice from Trenton Town.” I later found out that Alice’s brother died at Woodstock.

J Zimmerman: I’ve heard about that.

John Schrantz: There’s a place called New Hope. It’s a tourist place. I hitchhiked down there to meet chicks, (laughter). I was at an ice cream parlor there and I came out and these two young women came up to me and one gave me a lilac. That was Alice. So we went for a walk and became acquainted. I had recently gotten back from Cheyanne, Wyoming. I had lived out there and I had just seen “Little Big Man” and I asked if she’d ever seen the movie. She hadn’t, so I asked her to go to the movies. Anyway, I made a date with her and then I hitchhiked out to Lansing. It was on the way back that I met ‘Shady Lady.’ It was a pretty amazing story. Course you’re not gonna… hitchhike today, you’ll most likely get killed.

J Zimmerman: Or just not at all, yeah. More likely to panhandle for money for a bus ticket than to actually hitchhike these days.

John Schrantz: I was addicted to it for a couple of years I guess…

I wish I could include every story he told me about that weekend of hitchhiking, but there was enough there to fill up a book. After his story, we moved back to discussing the creative process.

J Zimmerman: What typically inspires you to write a song?

John Schrantz: I really can’t say… it’ll come to me. I’ll get a chorus and a melody. It comes to me all at one time and inspires me. I can’t really say. It’s like a gift. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and have to write something down, and sometimes I’ll be finishing up one thing and another one will come across completely and interfere with what I’m doing. It’s not a constant thing. I’ve been writing for years but it took me years to find Kurt. Even though he wasn’t terribly far away from me. I had to work for a living. I tried about three or four other people locally, and they just weren’t up to snuff.

John paused and then continued.

John Schrantz: Things just come to me. I think I have some religious things… I’m not religious in the normal sense of the word. There’s one on the disc I sent you called “My Hero”. That just came to me. And “The Eagle”. I was just working around our farm and it just came to me. It’s a very simple song but I think the way Kurt arranged it was pretty amazing.

J Zimmerman: I selected a few of my favorites and that was one of my top three; “The Eagle”. I really enjoyed that one. The synth was really good.

John Schrantz: That’s good. That shows me where you’re at (we both laugh). Kurt’s arrangement… It’s just him and the drummer. They’ll go in the studio and once in a while I’ll have a suggestion, but I’m not a musician. I don’t know one note from the other. These things just come.

John isn’t just a talented songwriter, he is also a craftsman of some note.

John Schrantz: For a living, I restore 18th-century American furniture.

J Zimmerman: I used to do something similar. I didn’t get to work with too many antique pieces, but I used to re-do furniture with my mother as a teenager.

John Schrantz: I fluctuate between the three different things I do. Writing… and also I sculpt. I’m not really interested in galleries anymore. Bucks County is known for its artists. One of my neighbors here was Ben Solowey, a well-known Bucks County artist. I used to plow his snow and I showed him my sculptures and he was impressed. But that gets off into a whole other story. It’s hard for me to talk to people about what I do unless I showed them…. I restored furniture for some of the larger antique dealers in Pennsylvania.

J Zimmerman: I’m sure they have all sorts of antiques out there.

John Schrantz: Oh yeah. In the last… since George Bush got elected, the price of antiques went down. I’m talking over the years… but sometimes I regret I didn’t just stop and do the sculpture or stop and do the writing. I really can’t explain it…. I got into furniture because I can carve. And I got into furniture and that sort of sucked me in. That’s what I ended up doing for a living: Working on furniture. Making it, restoring it.

John also talked about some of his worldview which drives his creativity.

John Schrantz: Part of me believes in predestination. Some things are just meant to be. My wife now… if I hadn’t been restoring furniture, I wouldn’t have met her. I had a drawing by Ben Solowey… and this antique dealer, I showed him and said, “I want somebody to mount it” and he said he knew just the person and he had two beautiful daughters. I happened to be single at the time, so he took me down right away and I met my wife. I sorta knew that was it. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t even be talking to you now because one thing leads to another…

J Zimmerman: It seems like you tap into that a lot in your songwriting. There’s a reason behind the words you choose and the subjects you write about.

John Schrantz: Right. We’ve recorded almost 40 songs and I have between 15 and 20 more. Recently, I’ve been working on a song about reincarnation.

My body has surrendered / my soul taken flight / bounding across the universe beyond than the speed of light / I am a baby crying as I’m pulled towards the light / spent a lifetime awaiting, waiting for this night / I’m home again, back in your arms once more / the angel of destiny has brought me to your door

John Schrantz: That’s the lead-in anyway.

J Zimmerman: That’s beautiful poetry.

John Schrantz: Thank you. That’s just how it happens. I can be in the middle of working on a piece of furniture and a song will come, or I can be working on a song and a piece of furniture will come. That’s the way I look at it. If it hadn’t been for the antique dealer, I wouldn’t have met my wife. It just wouldn’t have happened. I was writing songs but, something leads you here and something leads you there. You just gotta go with the flow.

We finished our conversation by delving into his hopes for Nashville Bypass.

John Schrantz: Well Nashville… like I said, I’m not a performer. I sing for Kurt and I sing for myself, ya know, to get the melody down. Kurt wondered a couple times why I don’t want to perform. One of the people on a couple of the songs is Reggie Young who played in the Highwaymen. He played lead guitar. He died four or five years ago. He played on three or four things. I was at a potluck dinner just to meet people and I met this person who previously worked for Curb Records in publicity. I said, “I bet 85% of the people here are here to rip you off.” And they said, “You’re right. Unless you know someone you don’t get in.”

J Zimmerman: Sounds frustrating.

John Schrantz: The Steel guitar player for “My Hero” and a couple other songs said when he arrived in the Nashville area he worked in a small studio near music row. What they’d do is some songwriter would come in and they’d say “You’re great. Let’s put two or three songs together and put them out there” and it would be $3 or $4,000 dollars. The guy had a few band members and they’d put this thing together and down the road they’d go. They’d just take the money. Recently, there was an ad for songwriters looking for a band and I’m thinking… Some years ago Time Magazine did a thing about Nashville that said there are about 20,000 people a year going into Nashville to become songwriters and most of them are just wasting their time and money before going back home. That’s what Nashville Bypass is trying to get around. That’s what I’d like to see, people have the opportunity to get past that.

J Zimmerman: That’s valiant. Music is so hard to break into unless you have thousands of dollars and you know four people in the industry. Is Nashville Bypass just an outlet to give people more exposure or are you going to set people up with services and musicians?

John Schrantz: Yeah. That’s the idea, to be able to send them to someone like Kurt who charges by the hour making demos for people. Everything you have, everything you’ve heard, it’s all demos. The idea is to get demos out there. I’m not 100% sure what it’s gonna look like, maybe a recording company. But I know people have made it just on the internet. I had this problem when I was living in Nashville. There’d be these events you could sign up for that you’d go to places where people perform, but you’d have to perform. I couldn’t go there and play a CD. Even having someone else do your material… you had to do your own stuff.

J Zimmerman: Not everyone’s a performer. Even people who play instruments. I play a couple and I can’t think of myself getting up by myself to go play. Maybe in an ensemble.

John Schrantz: Yeah. In a small town near us, there’s this restaurant where we saw Larry Frick. He looked like he was 16 but he was 21 at the time, not that it matters, and he had the best country voice. Usually, there are people making noise and talking and everyone was just quiet. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. He played at Nashville at the Wild Horse, but that was some time ago. He’s one person that should have been somewhere as far as vocals are concerned.

J Zimmerman: The corporate nature of recording takes away from the end product.

John Schrantz: Definitely. We were just gonna have some songs on the internet and it sort of became something else.

J Zimmerman: I’m hopeful to see Nashville Bypass succeed. There’s a whole bunch of younger artists here in Arkansas I know would love an outlet.

John Schrantz: That’s the whole thing, ya know. You don’t have to go to Nashville. You don’t have to. You can work with people over the computer. I’m not a businessman, but I have good ideas.

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