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Coming up roses in country music debut

Contest win brings contract for song

Mary Haller is a budding songwriter. Mary Haller is
a budding songwriter. (Ellen Harasimowicz for The Boston Globe)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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For many years, Mary Haller wrote about the artistic endeavors of other people, as the longtime arts publicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She loved music and she loved words, and the job seemed the best way to combine those passions.

But when Haller left MIT four years ago to spend more time with her daughter, now 8, she found an unexpected way to immerse herself in both music and words: writing country music. Earlier this month, Haller, 49, of Acton, won a songwriting contest in Nashville and a contract to publish her song, “Instead of Roses.’’

As a self-described band geek from Michigan who played the flute, and later the keyboard and African drums, Haller was surprised to find herself writing country music. She had once worked for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and tended to listen to classical music. But she had discovered that the country music market is the main market for songwriters who want to write but not perform their songs.

“I’m not a singer,’’ Haller said. “I can carry a tune, but I can’t carry it too far.’’

And she was surprised by what she heard once she started paying attention to country music.

“I always thought country music was kind of twangy, predictable, old-fashioned kind of music,’’ she said. “But I started listening to commercial country, which is overlapping with pop, and I was really surprised at how sophisticated some of the rhythms were, some of the music, the harmonic and melodic things that were going on. The other thing about country music is that it’s very lyric-driven. And I love words.’’

Haller had known she liked to play around with song lyrics. When a colleague left MIT, Haller wrote a humorous goodbye song set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’’

But it wasn’t until her daughter’s babysitter, a songwriter, started talking about her work that Haller began to think seriously about writing songs. She took classes at the Berklee College of Music, and once she began composing, started posting pieces on SongU.com, for others to critique. And she began working with a songwriting coach.

When Haller heard about the Nashville contest, sponsored by the Nashville Songwriters Association International, she wrote “Instead of Roses’’ and hired a company to produce a demo that could be submitted. She flew to Nashville earlier this month for the contest.

Winning the publishing contract is a huge boost for a new songwriter, said David Petrelli, national event director for the songwriters association. The contract will not only help promote “Instead of Roses,’’ but will make it easier for Haller to make contacts in the country music world. About 160 songwriters entered the contest, he said.

“It’s an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish as an aspiring writer,’’ Petrelli said. “It’s that first major, major hurdle.’’

What made Haller’s song stand out was the theme behind it. “Instead of Roses’’ describes a man more willing to show his love by the things he does rather than by buying a dozen roses. Songwriters often say there are no new ideas, Petrelli said, only new ways to describe them.

“The cool thing about it is that it’s not your typical country song,’’ he said. “It’s got a great hook. But what helped to set it apart is the idea.’’

The publishing company that is entering into a contract with Haller is ole, a large, independent music publisher based in Nashville. The company will try to sell the song to either an artist or a movie or television program. Ole won a Best Country Song Grammy in 2009 for “White Horse,’’ sung by Taylor Swift.

Haller wrote “Instead of Roses’’ about her husband, a man, she says, more inclined to show his love by fixing her car or planting a garden than by buying flowers. After the song played at the Nashville crowd, men came up to her and thanked her for expressing their feelings.

“I was just speechless at first. You write a song, you put it out there and you think, ‘I hope they even understand what it’s about, or even understand the words,’ ’’ she said. “Then I saw these people waving their arms back and forth in time to the beat of my song, and thought, ‘You know, if I don’t get to home base, this will be pretty cool.’ It was really gratifying to have people come up afterwards [and say,] ‘I liked your song, I really got it.’ ’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.