Part-time county resident headed for Songwriters Hall of Fame |

Part-time county resident headed for Songwriters Hall of Fame

Mike Lawrence

In 1989, 10 years after moving to Nashville, Tenn., Mark D. Sanders hired a guy to sing a couple of the country songs he had written.

The songs would be demos for Capitol Records. The guy worked in a boot store.

“That guy became Garth Brooks,” Sanders said Wednesday, sitting on the back porch at his house on the Yampa River below Saddleback Mountain, west of Steamboat Springs. “I mean, he was already Garth Brooks, but he wasn’t : Garth : Brooks.”

A year later, Brooks released one of Sanders’ songs, “Victim of the Game,” on a record that would sell 17 million copies. In 1991, Trisha Yearwood put the song on a record that sold 2 million copies.

Sanders was on his way as a songwriter.

A week from today, on Oct. 18, Sanders will be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, along with songwriter Kye Fleming and country music legend Tammy Wynette. He and his wife, Cindy Sanders, live at the Routt County home part time, when they’re not in Nashville or Florida. The tall, soft-spoken Sanders has written songs for just about every big name on the country charts, including George Strait, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Kenny Chesney, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris and many more.

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Sanders, 59, said he has written more than 2,000 songs in his life. Fourteen of those songs became No. 1 country hits. The biggest, in terms of sales and fame, was “I Hope You Dance,” performed by Lee Ann Womack and released in 2000. Sanders co-wrote the song with a songwriter and friend named Tia Sillers. “I Hope You Dance” won a Grammy in 2000 for Best Country Song. It lost to U2’s “Beautiful Day” for the Grammy’s Song of the Year but received that honor from organizations including the Country Music Association and Nashville Songwriters Association International.

“It did all the things I wanted it to do,” Sanders said. “It was a career song. : The kind of song everyone in Nashville hopes to have.”

But it’s a safe bet that no one would hope for the life circumstances that led to that song.

Sillers went through a heart-wrenching divorce in 1999, Sanders said, and went to the beach for two weeks to figure things out. Her mother called her there and gave her advice like “never lose your sense of wonder,” and “feel small when you stand by the ocean.”

Sillers wrote down the advice and took it to a songwriting session. The way Sanders tells it, he was “just the lucky guy who was sitting in the room” and able to pitch in with the writing process.

But there are lines in “I Hope You Dance” about Sanders’ life, too. Lines like “but always keep that hunger.”

His father is an alcoholic, Sanders said, and when Sanders was growing up in Southern California, attending high school as a basketball player and vice president of student government, Sanders would go through the day often hungry because his absent father hadn’t put food on the table.

His relationship with his father led to one of Sanders’ favorite lyrics. Although he prefers to write in an office, sober, and is not the stereotypical country songwriter fueled by whiskey and late nights – “that part has died off (in Nashville) at this point,” he said – Sanders said he did write a lyric at midnight once, scribbled on a coffee filter.

“Dying is just a way of killing time, when living is just a matter of wine,” the lyric went.

The line made it into “A Matter of Wine,” sung by Mel Tillis.

Sanders said it’s probably been five years since he’s seen his father.

“I’ll probably see him at this induction,” he said, referring to the upcoming Nashville event. “But I don’t know.”

So many songs

Sanders drove to Nashville at age 29. While writing songs and learning the ropes of the country music industry, he waited tables, cooked at restaurants and worked as a substitute teacher – Cindy taught at a school where he worked.

“I’d write 100 songs and hope to get 10 recorded,” he said. “It’s the hardest thing in the world – I didn’t have one connection. : You just try to claw your way up.”

Sanders said artists and songwriters come to Nashville in generations, as people who arrive at about the same time become friends and either pull each other up or disappear along the way. His generation had some future stars.

“We all say we were lucky to be around in the ’90s because Garth made such a difference,” Sanders said. “All of a sudden, there was money on Music Row.”

For a few years in the ’90s, Sanders said, his career was “on fire,” as he rattled off a string of No. 1 hits. He received four of the Country Music Association’s Triple Play Awards, for writing three No. 1 hits in a 12-month period.

The awards hang in a wood-walled room that is the office, recording area and miniature library at his home near the Yampa River, where these days he spends as much time fishing as he can.

Thirty years after driving to Nashville, Sanders is a country music star in his own right.

“Kye, Mark and Tammy have made many poignant and enduring contributions to the music world and certainly deserve to take their places among their gifted peers,” Roger Murrah, chairman of the Nashville Songwriters Foundation and Hall of Fame, said in a news release about this year’s inductees.

Sanders said “it hasn’t really sunk in” that his name will soon be listed with names such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Dolly Parton and Hank Williams.

“Fame is a weird thing,” he said. “I think what I’ve discovered in the end is that nothing is larger than life.”

The No. 1s

Mark D. Sanders has written or co-written 14 No. 1 country hits, including, with the artist:


“Runnin’ Behind,” Tracy Lawrence

“Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy,” Chris LeDoux & Garth Brooks


“Money in the Bank,” John Anderson


“If You’ve Got Love,” John Michael Montgomery


“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” Reba McEntire

“They’re Playin’ Our Song,” Neal McCoy


“Blue Clear Sky,” George Strait

“Daddy’s Money,” Ricochet

“Don’t Get Me Started,” Rhett Atkins

“It Matters to Me,” Faith Hill

“No News,” Lonestar


“(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing,” Trace Adkins

“Come Cryin’ to Me,” Lonestar


“I Hope You Dance,” Lee Ann Womack