The River's Badge

Friday, August 12, 2011

Nashville Co-Writing

The best way to NOT gain friends and influence people is to criticize the fad of Nashville co-writing, but here I go.

To me, it's the bane of music's existence.

Inevitably, like any fad, at some point, co-writing is going to be considered passe, naive, and uncool.

Every woman is wearing those fancy flip-flops, with the jewels and flowers, too. In five years, they'll be cleaning out their closets, unceremoniously dumping those "stupid-a$$" shoes in the trash.

Lennon and McCartney didn't actually co-write songs, you know. Merle didn't need a co-writer.

To me, if you are incapable of writing a whole song by yourself, maybe you should reconsider your hobby or your vocation or whatever you consider it to be.

Here's the deal: I thought songs were supposed to be meaningful. An expression of emotion. How does that work with co-writing?

Writer: Here's how I've been feeling lately, and I think it would make a
good song.

Co-writer: Oh, I know exactly how you feel. And it goes like this: ("strum
strum strum.....crying")

Writer: That's not exactly how I feel.

Co-writer:
Sure it is.


Here's how it REALLY works:

Writer: I want to write something commercial.

Co-writer: Oh, I know exactly how you feel, and it goes like this: ("strum strum strum....tractor")

Writer: That's it!


Bob Dylan to his (imaginary) co-writer:
You know what I mean, right?

Imaginary co-writer: No.


Harlan Howard used to hang out at his favorite watering hole and listen to people's stories. He didn't "invent" emotions. I'm not claiming that Harlan never co-wrote a song. I'm saying he didn't need to.

If co-writing is such a wonderful revelation, why are the songs on the radio so crappy? Why do they all say the same thing?

Here's why they all say the same thing: The Nashville writer goes from appointment to appointment, carefully monitoring his day planner, so he doesn't miss his next "session".

Since when do great songs get written on a schedule? I've had songs come to me in the middle of the night. Do I get up, get dressed, and go padding down the street in my bunny slippers, to ring another writer's doorbell, demanding to be admitted into his "writing room", so we can scribble out a hit? And is a writing room really necessary? Does one need a formal "room" in which to write songs? My my, what in the world did writers do in the olden days?


Merle Haggard to his (imaginary) co-writer:
I want to write a song about the working man.

Imaginary co-writer:
I know exactly what you mean, and it goes like this: ("strum strum strum.....boots and wranglers")

Merle Haggard: No.


I've been reading ad nauseam about "the only way to make it in the biz is to co-write" for far too long. Face it, there is no way to make it in the music biz anyway. So, why go to all this trouble?

The thing that kicked this topic into gear for me was reading an article in WSJ this week about singer Ashton Shepherd.

I'd never heard the gal before, so when I read the word, "traditionalist", my interest was piqued.

To clarify, she is not a traditionalist at all....unless you consider traditional country's peak to be approximately the year 2009.


Ashton Shepherd


It's pleasing to picture Ms. Shepherd at home on the porch with a guitar, writing her songs, solo, and many of her slow, personal ballads were born right there. But she's recently found Music Row style co-writing, working with such proven hit-making veterans as Dean Dillon and Bobby Pinson—an energizing alternative, especially for the faster songs on her record.

"I was a little leery of it, but it really ended up being pretty cool, and I've learned some things off of it....I knew this was going to work out. And we sat there and wrote '(blah blah blah)' in about 45 minutes. I like things spontaneous, and first-time kinds of things, and that was the first song we ever wrote together, which makes it a little more sparkly."


Perhaps she should move back to the front porch. Don't get me wrong, I like Dean Dillon. And he's an apparent legendary co-writer, it seems. I'm just saying, I listened to snippets of Ashton's songs online, and I didn't like even one of them. Unfortunately. Not one of them was "sparkly". No offense.

If you can write a good song, just write it. Don't set up an appointment.

If you can't write a good song, a co-write isn't going to help. It will, in fact, make things worse.


How many songwriters does it take to write a hit song?

Four (apparently).

I have no punchline for this; sorry. I'm open to a co-write on the joke, though.


Here's a little secret I have never shared: When I was a kid (or tweenager, as they call them nowadays), way back in the 1800's, my parents owned a motel on the outskirts of the wild and woolly town of Bismarck, North Dakota.

One day, my best friend, Alice, and I came home from school on the bus, excitedly anticipating the Merle Haggard concert that evening.

Turns out, that wasn't the pinnacle of our excitement. You see, my mom was anxiously awaiting our arrival on the bus....to let us know that, YIPPEE!! Guess who'd checked into the motel?? Merle and Bonnie!

I won't share the embarrassing details regarding Alice's and my actions that day. Okay, well, let's just say we walked and walked and walked and walked in circles around that motel, surreptitiously (we wished) conducting surveillance on that room, Number Twenty-Seven. We were there, hiding in the bushes (okay, there weren't any actual bushes) when Merle stepped out to walk his dog. I think (okay, I know) we hauled out my little portable battery-operated record player, and played the "Mama Tried" single over and over, approximately 200 yards from good old number 27. What must Merle have thought? Get me away from these lunatics?

Naturally, then, I like to think that Merle wrote this song while whiling away the hours until he had to board the bus for his concert, strumming his acoustic, to drown out the noise of two giggly girls encamped outside his room.

Yes, Bonnie Owens is credited as a co-writer. But I read the words straight from Bonnie's mouth: What she told Merle to do was to lose the third verse. So, don't jump on me, saying that Bonnie co-wrote the song, because she didn't.



Look! Merle wrote a song....all by himself! Isn't that precious? Little Merle. I suppose he thinks he'll get a hit with it, too. Oh, if only he'd had someone help him.

Let's set him up with some appointments.

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