Monday, February 18, 2008

10 Indispensable Songwriters To Study

There are so many obvious choices for a list like this that I decided to focus on some of the less obvious candidates. Hopefully you won't be familiar with all of them, and you'll discover someone who becomes a favorite as you dig deeper into their work.

Dave Carter

The late great mystic and embedded systems programmer's poetic and visionary lyrics won him acclaim from folk music's best. Carter's upbringing and diverse education gave him the kind of broad experience few get in life, and he drew from it richly. He had a remarkable command of language and his often humorous and somewhat wacky take on things made him a songwriter's songwriter. As far as I know, Carter is the only writer who successfully rhymes the word "orange" in a lyric. I won't give it away, but you'll find it in the song "The River Where She Sleeps". He died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 49.

Bob McDill

If Music Row had a guru, it would be McDill. Never one to shy away from a literary lyric or a classy radio ditty, Bob did it all with the same degree of mastery and originality. His songs were recorded by everyone who is anyone in country music. His classic, "Good Old Boys Like Me" is one of country music's great anthems. McDill is essential if you want to understand what made country music great in the 70s and 80s leading up to it's contemporary heyday in the early to mid-90s. McDill is often credited with inspiring some of Music Row's best writers to move to Nashville by virtue of the appeal of his hit songs which include "Song Of The South", "Gone Country", and "Amanda".

Tommy Thompson

Founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers, Thompson was another poet-lyricist who has received far too little acclaim for his songwriting. His work includes one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever written titled "Hot Buttered Rum". His gift for rural imagery mixed with a knack for finding the profound in common places make him essential:

"Just across the blue ridge, where the high meadows lay
And the galax spreads through the new mown hay,

There’s a rusty iron bridge cross a shady ravine

Where the hard road ends and turns to clay."
Thompson died in 2003.

Jimmy Webb

We all know this Oklahoma native wrote "Galveston", "Wichita Lineman" and "If These Walls Could Speak", but you have to hear Jimmy's artist CDs to fully appreciate his esoteric approach to commercial songwriting. Some of his lesser known masterpieces include, "Paul Gauguin In The South Seas", "Skywriter", "The Highwayman", "Campo de Encino" and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress".

Kate Wolf

We lost this California native far too young. She died from complications after a bone marrow transplant in 1986. Wolf was the first musician inducted into the NAIRD Independent Music Hall of Fame. Her voice was a pure instrument, perfect for delivering the plaintive, sweet songs she wrote. Here's what Nanci Griffith had to say after recording Kate's "Across The Great Divide" : "On New Year's evening of 1992, Emmylou Harris and I spoke of the beauty and clarity of the late Kate Wolf's music. We spoke of both the sadness in her passing and the lack of new voices singing Kate's songs. Emmy said songs need new voices to sing them in places they've never been sung in order to stay alive." No doubt Wolf's songs will stay alive as more and more listeners discover her.

Paul Siebel

One of the great enigmas of the singer-songwriter genre, Siebel (often misspelled as "Seibel" in case you search) wrote the classic "Louise". He made only two studio records (both critically acclaimed and still in print after more than 35 years) before hanging it up to become a baker. He was a storyteller unparalleled, and while his output may have been small, it was influential and important.

Laura Nyro

Why must the good ones die young? Laura almost single-handedly spawned the era of the "Brill Building singer-songwriter"-- you know, the ones who can write hits and sing 'em too. Best known for songs such as "Wedding Bell Blues", "Stoned Soul Picnic", "Sweet Blindness", "Save The Country", "And When I Die"; "Eli's Coming", and "Stoney End", Nyro's remarkable output over just a few short years is hard to surpass. She died in 1997.

Eric Anderson

In the late 1960s Anderson had a promising beginning when his whimsical psychodelic-folk masterpiece "Violets Of Dawn" started appearing on LPs by everyone from Rick Nelson to the Chad Mitchell Trio. Anderson followed with more classics "Thirsty Boots", "Close The Door Lightly", and "Dusty Box Car Wall". His repertoire is deep (check out "The Plains Of Nebrasky-O" and tell me it doesn't sound every bit as great as anything Woody Guthrie wrote). In the 70s he scored a minor hit himself with "Is It Really Love At All" from the now highly regarded LP "Blue River". His follow-up record was lost in the vaults of Columbia Records, which temporarily derailed his career. He resurfaced again in the 90s with a brilliant record called "Ghosts Upon The Road". Anderson continues to write and release CDs sporadically. Don't pass up an opportunity to take a closer look at his remarkable body of work.

Richard Thompson

Widely respected and covered in the UK, Thompson is sadly somewhat neglected here in the US. His classics such "1952 Vincent Black Lightning", "Dimming Of The Day", and "Galway To Graceland" put him in a league all his own. His wit and uncanny knack for knowing a good story when he finds one make his songs remarkably consistent over a long career. If we lived in a fair world, Thompson would have several hits to his credit. As it is, we have to find imports and scour CD racks for obscure covers such as Del McCoury's version of "Black Lightning". All the same, the search is rewarding.

Shane McGowan

Not generally thought of when songwriters are discussed, this founding member and songwriter for Irish icons The Pogues has written masterpieces such as "Fairytale Of New York" and "The Broad Majestic Shannon". Raised on a steady diet of Irish Ale and William Butler Yeats, McGowan blazed his own trail in Rock by forging traditional Irish songs with Punk, and delivering them in a gravel-voiced half-drunken brogue while his high energy backup band (picture The Clash doing "Shady Grove" or "Loch Lomond") produced a wall of sound behind him. But listening to the classic Pogues records "Rum, Sodomy and The Lash" and "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" won't help you unless you read the lyrics. What initially sounds like unintelligible gibberish turns out to be poetry of the first order. There are few lyricists in Rock who write this magnificently.

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt


Mike Clark said...

A very strong list - especially love the inclusion of Eric Andersen - Blue River & Is It Really Love At All; enough said there. And Jimmy Webb - Met Her On A Plane is one of my favorites; also Where the Universes Are.

If you want to go to 11, you might consider Randy Newman or Bobby Braddock, and - from left field - the late David Ackles, especially for American Gothic's Love Enough.

chromehead said...

Thanks Mike. I plan to do another 10 "Indispensable Writers" in a future post. Randy is so well known I didn't see any need to include him although he's a personal favorite. Braddock is a friend of mine and one of the greats in Nashville, I agree. Thanks for reminding me of Ackles.

Anonymous said...

Well, I feel challanged to discover a few new writers. I know about half by name alone and a couple more by song. But several I have no idea. I have Jimmy Webb's "Tunesmith" and he offers some great insight. I need to go back and reread it with some matured perspective.

I was a huge Pogues fan and was bummed when Shane left the group. Although, "Waiting for Herb" actually still sounds pretty good. But no lyrical depth.

Of those little known writers who carved a style rather than mastering an existsing one, I would offer up Justin Sullivan of New Model Army. Folk punk with timeless melody and incredible lyrical content.

SY said...

Man am I enjoying this blog!!!! Great information shared and lots of names and songs I don't know at all and I am excited to expand my music depth. To simply share one more name as a great writer may I just mention one. He is not very well known, but if you love listening to a strong singer/songwriter with guitar/vocals, I find that John Gorka is just phenomenal to listen to. I'll listen to some of these names you mentioned and enjoy expanding my horizons.....
Thanks again for all of your efforts Craig and thanks to all who are continually posting comments.

Anonymous said...

Great list. When you consider how incredibly difficult it is to write just one decent song the fact that the list could have been longer is amazing.

Huge bonus points for my hero Shane "where'd I leave my teeth?" McGowan!