Jake Brown automatically makes a contribution to music literature. He interviews 20 country hit-crafters—writers behind indelible tracks from the last five decades—and he also connects with a number of important trends in the worlds of music and music criticism.
Literature on country music appears more rarely than it should. The taste-making music press ignored country for years … with the exceptions of safe artists like Willie Nelson or the occasional Nashville-inspired album by a non-country singer. This has finally started to change, and the genre at last begins to get the attention it deserves.
Commercial interests, of course, drive some of this recalculation: Tons of people listen to country. In the never-ending battle for clicks, the country audience holds a lot of purse power. But along with the bottom line, country’s increasing acceptability also reflects a long-overdue reappraisal of a critic-ally neglected genre.
Nashville Songwriter also fits in with another strand of revisionism that has been picking up steam in the last decade: works that shed light on the musicians and producers who play such an important behind-the-scenes role in so many genres of music. Think of Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Muscle Shoals —both documentaries about studio session musicians. More and more, listeners appreciate performing as one valuable skill and putting together a song that’s worth performing as equally noteworthy.
Nashville Songwriter benefits … and plays a part in the process as a focused book about making songs.
It’s hard to describe the artistic process. For this reason, many books about music give it short shrift. Not this one. Nashville Songwriter offers revealing and often entertaining tales behind a large number of specific tracks.
Casual country fans may get tired here. Twenty songwriters’ worth of stories feels like a lot of material, especially in the prolific world of Nashville. Some chapters read almost as listicles, though not especially technical ones (good news for those of us with minimal musical knowledge). In fact, at times the book could stand to be more technical. We may not have understood Keith Richards’s discussion of guitar tunings in his memoir, but those attempts at demystification were much appreciated.
Still, interesting tidbits surface throughout the book. We learn that a hit sometimes stems from a random spark of inspiration. The songwriter Craig Wiseman tells how a friend’s health scare led randomly to the title phrase in Tim McGraw’s smash “Live Like You Were Dying.”
Other times, songwriters must range widely to find the magic. Tom Shapiro, who co-wrote Rhett Atkins “That Ain’t My Truck,” describes the way he cherry-picked the good parts from a number of different songs in progress and put them all into one tune. “The titles I’d come in with that day were ‘This Ain’t My Day Tonight’ and ‘Looks Like She’s In Love (And I’m Out Of Luck)’ … and then Rhett said, ‘I had this incident that happened that might make a cool song’ … So we combined the three songs.”
Songs often benefit from the work of multiple people—co-writing, as a glance at writing credits will confirm, happens to be a common practice.
Rivers Rutherford got his first break from Chips Moman (co-writer of Aretha Franklin’s hit “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and Waylon Jenning’s “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”), a legend in southern soul and country. Rutherford suggests that it’s crucial to know what kind of co-writers to look for. “In a co-writing situation,” he says, “usually there are two hats that are being worn: one person’s wearing the generator or artist hat and the other guy’s wearing kind of the editor or producer hat … The people I tend to do well with are more editor-type people.”
Another part of knowing your own strengths? Creating your own lane.
Dallas Davidson, who has contributed to 16 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country chart, talks about what sets him apart. “Yes, we have ‘story songs,’ and, yes, country music as a genre is known for story songs,” he tells the author. “But almost 90 percent of my hits are not story songs at all … I write songs about what we’re doing right now.”
Some of these writers veer close to the mystical in their descriptions of their craft. Tom T. Hall, who wrote the Hot 100-topping “Harper Valley PTA” back in 1968, declares, “I never messed with the melodies—the song comes with the melody … I came up with a theory that somewhere between a daisy blowing in the wind and a train wreck, there’s every melody in the world … I quit creating and starting relating, and melodies, I never touched them.”
Merle Haggard speaks in less colorful terms, but he gets his point across. “Sometimes we’d eat, sometimes we’d have a drink, but mostly, we played all the time,” he says of his collaborations with the songwriter Freddy Powers. “We didn’t have no reason beforehand, we just wrote songs and a lot of the sons of bitches we never heard again. Everything we wrote didn’t go to No. 1; a lot of them we threw in the goddamn lake.”
Songwriting, we learn here, requires creativity, mysticism, and help from co-writers. Above all else, it requires persistence. No matter how many tracks ended up in the lake, these 20 writers kept going.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Billboard and Salon. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.