These Chattanooga-connected musicians are raising their profiles with latest efforts

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Barry Courter, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·6 min read
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Feb. 20—They may not be household names, but two music industry professionals and a young up-and-comer, all with ties to Chattanooga, are getting noticed for their latest musical efforts.

Tom Paden brings Olivia Newton-John 'out of retirement'

Chattanooga native Thomas Paden has written hundreds of songs during his career in Nashville, but few have taken the path "The Window in the Wall" has. Just the fact that Olivia Newton-John has said it is largely responsible for bringing her out of retirement is proof enough of that.

Newton-John has been making the talk-show rounds lately and has said of the song, "This beautiful song touched my heart from the first line, and although I had no plans to record again, the song compelled me to sing it, as the message is so important. It talks of seeing and respecting another's point of view, even if it's different from yours. It spoke to me of love and compassion and forgiveness."

Paden has written songs recorded by Kenny Rogers, George Strait, Andy Williams, Lee Greenwood, William Shatner and Alabama singer/guitarist Jeff Cook, among others. He often writes with friend and collaborator Eddie Kilgallon, and the two collaborated with Tajci Cameron, a former singing star in her native Croatia, whom Paden met through her husband at a neighborhood meeting in Nashville.

They got together for a songwriting session four years ago and penned the song about a couple trying to find a way to see the other's point of view through the wall they'd built between them. They did a recording of the song, but not a true demo, and it pretty much sat forgotten until this past spring.

"Four years later and I was watching the riots and everything," Paden said, "and I thought, 'We need to rewrite it.' I called Eddie, and he said, 'I like it the way it is.'

The original song started with the lines, "We're standing here like we don't know how to love / Both holding on to stubborn pride."

In addition to a few other lyrical changes, the new version begins: "Has this world forgotten how to love / Are we blinded by the hate we let inside."

Paden said he shopped the song around and people liked it, but nobody expressed any real interest. Then his cousin Cyndi Morris called from Bremen, Georgia, and said, "I hope you're not mad, but I gave it to my friend Olivia, and she is interested in recording it."

"I thought, 'OK, I just want it to be recorded,'" he said.

He asked his cousin for her friend's last name so he could send her a contract.

"She texted me back and said, 'I think she still goes by Newton-John.'"

Morris and Newton-John are both cancer survivors who met at a breast cancer clinic in Bremen.

"I couldn't believe it," Paden said. "She's Olivia Newton-John."

Newton-John herself reached out to people like Elton John, Dolly Parton and John Legend to sing the song with her, Paden said, and eventually decided she wanted to sing it with daughter, Chloe Lattanzi. It debuted on Jan. 22 and stayed at No. 1 on iTunes for about a week.

Newton-John has promoted the recording on shows including "Entertainment Tonight" and "Today," and it was played during the Australian Open.

Paden said that throughout his career, his goal has been to make a living at songwriting, but his deeper goal has been to "make a difference, to write something that impacts people and maybe changes a life."

"It would mean everything to me for this song to be talked about and quoted by people."

Dave Ragland arranges 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' for Biden inauguration

Some people work better under pressure, and it's hard to imagine anything more intense for a composer than getting a call from a friend, albeit a Grammy nominee, asking you to arrange a song for a chorus to sing at the presidential inauguration.

Such was the case for Chattanooga native Dave Ragland. To make things even more interesting, the song was the iconic "Lift Every Voice and Sing," widely considered the Black national anthem. Oh, and he would have about 24 hours to complete the task.

Ragland's friend Lawrence Brownlee, an award-winning opera singer, asked Ragland in early January to arrange the well-known piece in advance of his performance for "Concert for Inauguration Day" with the Washington National Opera as part of Joe Biden's inauguration.

"He reached out at a moment's notice, and I pretty much did an arrangement on the spot," Ragland said from his home in Nashville.

A two-time Emmy-nominated composer, vocalist, pianist and conductor, Ragland splits time between here and Nashville, where he is a music educator and artistic director with Inversion Vocal Ensemble, a regionally touring vocal collective that has performed with Brandi Carlile, Ruby Amanfu, Marcus Hummon and Levi Hummon.

This past fall, Ragland was commissioned by the Nashville Opera to collaborate with librettist Mary McCallum to create "One Vote Won," an opera commemorating the centennial of women's suffrage.

Ragland did not attend the inauguration but watched on television, in part because it all happened so fast.

"I had about a day, so I was under a little pressure, but I function well that way, I think," he said, adding that while the piece has been arranged by scores of people, including Chattanoogan Roland Carter, Ragland created his own interpretation of the James Weldon Johnson poem.

Written in 1900, the poem was set to music by Johnson's brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1905 for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People dubbed it "the Negro national anthem" citing its power in voicing a cry for liberation and affirmation for African-American people.

Alicia Keys performed the song on Feb. 7 as part of the Super Bowl LV pregame celebration.

Camden Smith, 15, following his dreams

Camden Smith doesn't have anywhere near the resume of Dave Ragland or Tom Paden, but then again, he is only 15. However, the Dade County High School student just might have the talent to reach similar heights one day.

His song "I Don't Wanna Miss You" debuted at No. 12 on Upstarmusiconline.com, a streaming platform for young and new country performers.

Camden has been playing drums, writing and singing for several years, so he knows that when the muse strikes, it's best to write it down, no matter the time of day or night.

"I had a dream and woke up," he recalled. "It was a school night, but I typed it on my phone and went to school the next day."

Fortunately for Camden, his uncle Johnny Smith runs Dead Bird Studios, a Chattanooga recording studio. With his uncle on drums, Josh Gramling of Radio Romance adding a guitar solo, former "Voice" contestant Amber Carrington Lewis on vocals and her husband, Dran Lewis, on guitar and bass and engineering the track, Camden got the song recorded.

Camden said though the professionals in the room sped the song up and added some studio magic, it wasn't changed much from his initial vision.

"It's a little bit faster, and they raised the key a little bit, but it's the song I heard in my head."

Despite his young age, the song is one that just about anyone can relate to as it's a song about "an individual I know," he said. "We parted ways."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.