Boo Ray: The Modern Songwriting Dilemma

Essays Musicians' Posts

By Boo Ray (photo by Price Harrison)

I’m usually hesitant to write about songwriting because I feel that writing about the process might be a conflict of interest; whatever I have to say about songwriting should, and damn well better be expressed by my catalog. But I just agreed to be one of the judges at the Vic Chesnutt Songwriting Competition in Athens, Georgia this May and I figure if I am going to participate in that, I probably ought to have something interesting or worthwhile to say about songwriting.

I’m skeptical as hell of platitudes and leary of a live show that doesn’t send me home from the club with a lyric and melody paired to remember. I’m into weird off the beaten path songwriters who say outrageous things, rootsy R&B cats, rootsy twang and country cats, and every once in a while a great big undeniable smash hit totally does it for me too. I don’t think there are any songwriting rules whatsoever, I don’t think the title pop music is blasphemy (Jimi Hendrix was/is pop music). I don’t think a song is good because it’s a hit and I don’t think music has more integrity just because it’s played on acoustic instruments. Some of the music that’s been a part of my regular ongoing playlist is Dire Straits, Willie Nelson, JJ Cale, Dwight Yoakam, Ray Charles, Tom Petty, Bill Withers, Lowell George, ZZ Top, John Hiatt, and Tony Joe White. That and a few more are my peanut butter and jelly soundtrack, you know, the music I live too. But I dig some pop stuff like “Pumped Up Kicks” and Rihanna’s “Work.” Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away” made me jealous and I wish I wrote it.

I guess there are some songs that I consider to be landmarks or guideposts, and a type of songwriting that I’m interested in. Songs like Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” John Hiatt’s “Memphis In The Mean Time,” James Taylor’s “Nothing Like A Hundred Miles,” Lowell George’s “Willin,” that Stapleton song I mentioned, Erin Rae’s “Wild Blue Wind,” and Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love A Rainy Night,” each have elements of inspiration and craft that speak to me. Those songs have a style and voice in the pairing of lyric and melody on a beat, phonetic wordsmithin’, and clever defiant humility. They’re composed scenes designed to elicit an emotional response. Everyone’s different and there are no rules. That’s just one kind of thing that happens do it for me personally.

I also like songs that are amazing anomalies and come from unexpected artists, or might not resemble anything else in their catalog. That’s the way I covered the Hot Chocolate song “Emmaline” on the Sea Of Lights album. I think most people have at least one hit song in ’em. But I still spin through the ever decreasing FM dial once in a while looking for music, and I listen to SiriusXM Outlaw Country, Tom Petty Radio, and some other SiriusXM channels. I usually skip the modern country channels.

The Great American Songbook is made up of important and influential popular songs and jazz standards and considered by some to be an era that ended in 1950 with the birth of rock & roll. I like to think that there’s a Classic American Songbook that extends from that point forward including songs like “Hey Good Lookin,'” “Hound Dog,” and “You Send Me,” and then on toward 1962 with songs like “Crazy,” “Only The Lonely,” and “Hello Walls.” After the Beatles hit in ’62, the art and craft of songwriting exploded exponentially, not unlike the effect impressionist painters had on visual arts.

I like to record a song written by someone else on each record I record because Caroline Aiken, who recorded my song “Broken Wings Heal” as the title track to her great album in 2015, told me that Bonnie Raitt told her that she records songs written by other people because she didn’t write all the good songs. (Caroline sang with Bonnie in the heyday). I take Bob Dylan at his word when he said his songs are unequivocally not “protest songs.” I guess I kind of aim at falling in line with Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, and Bonnie Raitt in that regard. My job as a songwriter is to be vulnerable and to report on the human condition, compassionately, emotionally, rhythmically and melodically.

One idea I’ve pondered the last few years is that if songwriting was truly and totally subjective, then Dylan, Hank Sr, and The Stones wouldn’t be what they are. That idea has to then be balanced with an understanding that popularity alone is not the indicator, and that at some point the intersection of pop culture, the business of music, and the heyday of radio, created a mere exposure effect, i.e the familiarity principle. The familiarity principle is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them, which fairly well explains the hegemonic stranglehold of corporate major label music.

Through the ’60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, a whole damned bunch, if not the lion’s share of the possible word combinations, chord progressions, melodies and variations of the seven basic plots were written, recorded and are well known as the hits of those eras. Because of that, I think writing a real worthwhile song now, is maybe more difficult than it’s ever been. One response to this high degree of difficulty seems to be ironic kitsch, where the writer/singer attempts to dodge the dilemma. Often I feel like those songs are evasive goofs preventing the writer/singer from actually having to put any skin in the game.

And hey man, I realize I might be the damned pot callin’ the kettle here. Hell, I wear troubadour suits, and write and sing songs like “20 Questions,” “I Got The Jug,” “Redneck Rock & Roll,” and “I Seen Me Do It.”  Another response is what I’ll call “retro-recreation,” where the writer/singer copies as close to verbatim as possible the actual sound, instrumentation, chord progressions, melodies, and stories, and presents it as the actual thing. I might be more interested in a Polaroid of the thing, rather than the actual thing. Instead of the nail on the head presentation, an approach like Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam, The Stones, Johnny Cash, Allman Bros, Drive-By Truckers, Isbell, Derek Hoke, Elizabeth Cook, Margo Price, Kasey Musgraves, Lucinda Williams, Elvis, David Bowie, Lowell George, Tony Joe White, JJ Cale, Luther Dickenson, John Hiatt, and Jerry Reed. It’s not the actual thing, you know. It’s a Polaroid of the thing.

I’d compare the degree of difficulty of this modern songwriting dilemma, to threading a needle from across the room, twelve feet away with a hypothetical stiff thread. I’m pretty guitar-centric and write melodies over chord progressions a bunch. On cherished occasions, the melody comes first. I consider a good portion of the initial idea to be inspired beyond me. Once that idea exists, then the actual “songwriting” starts. The first thing I do at that point is put it on a beat, which might be a little bit quicker once the song’s written, and played up to tempo. I might beat the phrase up over and over just using phonetic “do do la la la la,” until it sits down in the groove and rides or drives just right.

Certain words and phonetics suggest themselves, and they might or might not actually serve the narrative. Contemporary metaphor, free association, slang, and phonetic wordsmithing have become completely accepted songwriting devices. It can be a challenge to resist the low hanging fruit and stay committed to telling the narrative in a lowest common denominator way. It’s hard to get an idea distilled down to only its essential elements. After developing an “A” phrase I build a response or “B” phrase. Once I have an “A” and “B” line, I’m up and running with a rolling chassis. If it’s a verse, I like to write the narrative straight down the verse to a pre-chorus, and let the chorus appear when we get there, rather than writing toward a hook, unless it’s just an amazing or mind-blowing hook or title that I can’t not write.

One thing I’ve noticed about some of the classic songwriters I’m interested in, like John Hiatt, JJ Cale, Willie Nelson, Tony Joe White, and Jim Lauderdale, is that they seemed to load their records with at least a couple of songs per album that would make great cuts for other singers. There’s something “hat in hand” and selfless about that approach which is really attractive to me, and it seems like a cool lottery ticket too, even though it might be harder than ever to “get a cut”, let alone have it released as a single. The Americana Music Association chart was originally occupied by songwriters who wrote for other singers, which caught my attention. Maybe that notion offers the writer the benefit of greater perspective and helps avoid some self-indulgence.

Another tool or outlook I’ve found interesting and may be useful in recent years is to extract the use of absolutes from my palette. So, off limits are words like: every time, all the time, always, never, forever,  etc. Unless I really damned mean it, you know. That group of words is just incredibly inaccurate, maybe even egocentric, and not nearly as interesting as words like; sometimes, once in a while, half the time, the other day, or maybe even “Six Ways From Sunday,” which is a song I just wrote with my buddy Miz.

Hell, I don’t know maybe communication’s what I’m talking about. That’s the real dilemma these days, isn’t it? Co-writing’s been a real cool exploration in communication and creativity. When it’s good, it’s egoless, the best idea wins, and the leftover, additional space available minus the egoes becomes more musical, more thoughtful, more efficient, greater than the sum of parts, with moments of hilarity, frustration, and completion. These co-writes are spent mostly talking about what it is we’re trying to do and say, rather than just throwing lines at a verse, you know. The basics first, what kind of song are we writing, what tempo, what key, what style, etc. Then when we get down to the nitty-gritty of discussing lyrics and melody, we keep asking ourselves, what it is we’re trying to say. The communication about the writing is everything. The actual writing is a by-product of the dialog. All that being said, I do think there are a few more phrases worth turning, overlooked ideas worth sweating, and melodies worth tirelessly hunting. I think there are a few more spots left in the Classic American Songbook (which logically or not, I include the Stones).

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