Singer/Songwriter: Separated by More Than a Slash

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The Curmudgeon: Questioning Assumptions in Popular Music

Rodney Crowell once described his career to me like this: “I developed quickly as a songwriter, slowly but surely as a producer, but the last thing that came into focus was the performing.” What struck me was the distinction he made between singing and songwriting, as if the two activities were so different that they needed to be considered separately. He made me realize that the slash in the middle of the phrase, “singer/songwriter,” is the most tenuous, unexamined, over-hyped piece of punctuation in American music.

The folk-music and Americana scenes operate on the assumption that vocalists are always better off singing their own material and that songwriters are the best vehicle for their own creations. These claims are often accompanied by disparaging comments about Music Row’s and Tin Pan Alley’s “artificial” separation of singers and songwriters.

But is that assumption really valid? Are we really better off now that Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt are singing their own compositions? Are we better off that John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Earl Keen sing their own songs rather than turning them over to someone like George Strait or Jimmie Dale Gilmore? Would we really want Bob McDill to sing his own songs and Don Williams to write his?

Crowell’s comment reminded me of what Phil Alvin told me back in 1986: “It wasn’t until the ’60s that people got hip to this publishing thing, and what happened then? That’s when you saw the singer/songwriter take over, because that’s how they could make money. But if the singer/songwriter thing had always been around, you would never have heard of Elvis Presley or Bing Crosby or Jackie Wilson.

“There was all this pressure for people to sing their own songs, but it’s very rare that someone can be good at both singing and writing songs. So we ended up with a lot of good singers singing bad songs and a lot of bad singers singing good songs—or more often, a lot of mediocre singers singing mediocre songs.”

In Alvin’s own group, the Blasters, he did the singing and his brother Dave did the songwriting, a division of labor also found in The Band. There Robbie Robertson did most of the writing but left the singing to Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel—and wisely so, as later history revealed. Something similar happened in the Grateful Dead and Los Lobos, where Robert Hunter and Louis Perez wrote most of the lyrics but never took a lead vocal. These four bands recognized that performing involves an entirely different set of skills than creating, and the ability to do one tells us nothing about the ability to do the other.

Performance requires certain physical assets—vocal cords that can hit notes precisely with sufficient power, fingers that can manipulate instruments with agility—but it also requires a certain psychological approach. A performer has to live in the moment, pouring out one’s technical skills and emotional interpretation in real time without any hesitation or second-guessing. The more one can throw oneself into the immediate present, the more impact a performer will have on an audience.

Songwriting, by contrast, is all about hesitation and second-guessing. Like any kind of writing, it’s all about searching for the right word, the right note—and then looking for an even better one. It’s all about tinkering with the pattern till it fits just right, till all the hard work is hidden and the illusion of spontaneity is created. It’s all about detachment from the moment, the ability to stand back from a situation—a broken heart, a fast car or unpaid bills—and analyze it for the elements that might be translated into a song. It’s all about standing back from one’s own work and examining it for strengths and weaknesses.

In other words, songwriting and singing are not only different; they’re polar opposites in many respects. Why should anyone assume that the person who’s good at detached analysis and pattern tinkering would also be good at spontaneous catharsis? Or vice versa?

Look around and you’ll find very few singer/songwriters who are equally good at both sides of the slash, especially early in their careers. Some—such as Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, George Clinton and June Carter—are much better writers than singers. Others—such as Chris Isaak, Gwen Stefani, Ronnie Dunn, Cee Lo and Tim McGraw—are much better singers than writers. Wouldn’t this be a better world if Isaak sang Newman’s songs and Dunn sang Costello’s rather than each of these four men singing their own?

You may see good songwriters, such as Crowell or Dave Alvin, who transform themselves through years of work from underwhelming singers into impressive ones, but you rarely see good singers who transform themselves from bad songwriters into good songwriters.

You have to salute those gifted singers—such as Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Aaron Neville, George Jones and Whitney Houston—who, for most of their careers, resisted the pressure and temptation to become songwriters and instead enhanced other people’s songs with their gorgeous voices and in-the-moment intuition. Whenever these artists make a late-career move into songwriting, it’s almost always a mistake.

Just because you can turn a double play doesn’t mean you can hit a curve ball. Or vice versa. As the Boston Red Sox discovered to their dismay this season. Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you should write your own songs. As Bloodshot Records has learned. Which is not to say you can’t do both, for there are plenty of examples of those who can.

But singing and songwriting are two entirely different skills and require two separate efforts to acquire them. The failure to recognize this inevitably weakens the music. When artists assume that just because they can do one, they can do the other, something always suffers. When audiences accept that assumption, they gloss over weaknesses that could be shored up with a better division of labor.

The situation becomes even messier when you realize that writing music and writing lyrics are also two very different activities that require distinct skills with little overlap. Or that having a good voice is not at all the same as being a good singer.

So what can we do? It has to begin with the critics—who are, for better or worse, pop music’s theoreticians. We have to puncture the myth of the singer/songwriter. We have to challenge the assumption that the best person to sing a song is the person who wrote it. We have to demand a better division of labor. We have to insist that we deserve the best possible song performed by the best possible singer with the best possible musicians. We can’t settle for the mediocrity of compromise anymore.