Friday, September 12, 2008

Finding The Reverence

A friend of mine recently went to hear Jimmy Webb speak about songwriting. Jimmy talked about how the American songwriter is in decline because younger writers no longer study their creative ancestors.

We can debate whether this is a temporary trend or a sea change, but it's the premise of Webb's argument that interests me. There's a difference between pushing the art forward, and abandoning the past altogether. Sometimes what appears to be a clean break is actually a brilliant and rather large leap, but we must still be able to determine that it is a forward leap and not merely the abandonment of disciplines and principals that have governed the art of songwriting since the days of the Childe Ballad authors.

A song cannot be whatever we say it is any more than a novel can be four words and a cover. You might ramble from melody to melody with no sense of theme, weak symmetry, no fixed choruses, and I will admit that you've written something. But I would no sooner call it a "song" than I'd call a grocery list a "poem". Yet some have even attempted to get away with that hoax, and as a result poetry has also been in decline.

It isn't enough that a songwriter can claim an influence, he must also demonstrate what he has made of that influence. Dylan wasn't copying Woody Guthrie, nor was he just singing like him and abandoning everything Woody stood for in his writing. He was taking the leap forward, and in retrospect we can see it clearly today. When we look back from some future vantage point, will we clearly see the reverence for the past in any of the current songwriters on the scene? I can't name many I'd include on the list of reverential writers, maybe Josh Ritter, Brett Dennen, and a couple of others.

The field appears to be dominated by writers who lack the discipline or the reverence. They have the talent to sing and play instruments, they have the recording skills and the software to get it down, they have the drive and the incentive to be famous, and they have street teams on social networks to promote them. But having all these things seems to make them rather impatient with study. The one thing they apparently do not have is any abiding interest in what happened before they got here. Sure, they've listened to Sgt. Pepper and they've already stolen a few production ideas from that classic. They own a beat up copy of Blond On Blond from their parents' record collection. They listened to that LP long enough to discover that Dylan sometimes makes obscure allusions and that he writes a lot of songs with four or five verses.

But this is merely the "trappings" of influence, no different than donning a Nehru jacket and saying you're influenced by the Beatles. Influence in the reverential sense means being involved with more than the superficial aspects of the past, it means tracing the roots and analyzing the elements.

It's safe to say that never in the history of our culture have so many superficial similarities existed between the musical artists of today and the musical artists of a previous generation. Look at the clothes, hair styles, images and artwork and you'll see 1969. Listen to the CDs and you'll hear production that reminds you of the Byrds, the Beatles, "Positively Fourth Street" and Joni. But check out the songs. The lyrics are unfocused, the choruses unmemorable, the ideas lack the motive to really communicate. It reeks of self-indulgence. Simply put, no one has told these folks that they haven't worked hard enough, that they haven't written their best song, that they need to develop their instincts and hone their craft. No one has said, "No".

Could it be that the break down of the old model music industry is to blame for the deterioration of the American songwriter too? It certainly looks that way. In the past when a songwriter was told, "It ain't a hit, sonny" he went away and wrote a better song. Now that same songwriter just goes home and cuts a record. The resulting morass of mediocrity has lowed the standards of artist and listener alike.

Try as you might, you cannot become truly accomplished at anything without study. You may think songwriting frees you from that awful obligation-- the one you hated every night as you did your high school homework-- but it doesn't. I have studied songwriting as long and as hard as any doctor ever studied his profession. I've also studied poetry just as long and hard, because I believe it has a lot to teach me. My advice to all the young songwriters out there is this : take the time to really study and find some reverence for what got us here. Just because you feel an impulse to write a song doesn't mean you're ready to take on that responsibility (yes, you are responsible and accountable for what you put into this world). You must allow the well to fill before you draw water.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt


Anonymous said...

Study and diligence seem to be inversely related to a person's age in our connected culture of instant gratification. Why work hard when you can easily distribute anything and there will always be some takers as undisciplined and indiscriminate as some makers. Let's hope the cream floats to the surface on both sides. Take your work, for example.

Tim McMullen said...

As a teacher of creative writing, video production, and American studies, I couldn’t agree more about the value of studying the craft of the masters. I do, however, see a significant split between the non-performing songwriter and the singer-songwriter. I know that this is a gross generalization, but the non-performer seems much more likely to emulate and imitate their forebears (Jim Webb being a glaring exception) while the singer-songwriter is more likely to strike a new or more independent course.

The songwriters of today are stuck; they don’t have the diversity available to them that earlier writers did. Tin Pan alley allowed George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, and a “Billboard Top One Hundred” list of others, to write blues and ballads, torch songs and topical songs , novelty songs and patriotic songs, smart songs and schmaltz. Because the music scene of today relies exclusively on the homogenized niche, you can write country, or rock, or hip hop, or pop as long as you pick one and stay within the very narrow confines of the current trend of that style; in other words, you might have a chance if it sounds just like someone else’s hit. As far as the “bizness” is concerned, history is basically last week’s blockbuster. The problem with this trend is, as Bruce Cockburn so aptly put it, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” Emerson’s “Envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide” also applies.

You mentioned in an earlier blog that albums deserve to be a thing of the past and that purchasing individual songs is a much more viable approach for the market. Once they figure it out, this is likely to fit the interests of the “music business” (as defined above). It occurs to me, however, that such a model might be more desirable for the non-performing song writer. Since most writers are lucky to get one song placed on an album, let alone two or three, they have a better chance of reaping reward and renown if listeners can pick their songs and not be burdened by buying a whole album. Part of your earlier premise was that both pop performers and most singer-songwriters don’t make albums worthy of the name. If it is true, it is because the young writer/perfomer, in trying to write/record a hit song, writes/performs ten versions of the same song. But the true singer-songwriters can and usually do achieve a much greater diversity. I consider albums by superior songwriters to be like a live set. They have pacing and song placement—diversity and dynamics. I don’t go to a performance expecting to like one or two songs; I expect to like every song, and I usually do.

Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Mickey Newbury, John Fogerty, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Jesse Winchester, Danny O’Keefe, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell (his just-released album is another great one), Nanci Griffith, Sting, Shawn Colvin, Cheryl Wheeler, Neil Finn (with and without Crowded House), are all masters of their craft; clearly, they know their history and have studied their predecessors, but they each have developed their own unique style of writing. Even if the writer was not performing the song, one would not be likely to mistake a song by any one of these writers for one by another (Guy and Rodney, having often collaborated, might be the exception, yet on their solo work, my contention would generally hold). I would add that, for me, albums by writers of this caliber still work as albums, not just as ten bids for hits. Patty Griffin and Maia Sharp (daughter of the great California/Nashville writer, Randy Sharp) are new members of this eclectic elite upon which I have stumbled, and I’m sure that there are thousands of others.

The problem, as you (and I) and lots of others have noted, due to technological proliferation, there are millions of unschooled, would-be writers whanging away without direction and thus drowning out the gifted thousands. So, I add my voice: look to the great ones, learn from the best, strive for excellence, and oh, yeah, don’t run with scissors….” As a teacher, I know Peanut’s ‘Wha…Wha…Wha” when I speak it, but sometimes you just have to try anyway.

Seek Truth! Speak Truth!
Tim McMullen

chromehead said...

Thanks for your insights, Tim.

We could also debate whether the songwriter (as opposed to the singer-songwriter) has unwittingly participated in his own decline. I remember arguing as much in Nashville when the "Bubba trend" first began. It wasn't the singer-songwriters that dumbed down Nashville, it was the tunesmiths. For a while it was possible for "Bubba Hyde" and "The Highwayman" to exist on the same radio station playlist. But now the cynical parody of "country folks" has edged out almost all of the art of songwriting. No doubt the Music Row denizens must imitate somewhat to survive. But it's possible to edge the trend upward or downward. When I got to Nashville in 1982 the trend was to edge it upward. Commercial songs were getting better and better, allowing writers like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Rodney Crowell to actually have top ten hits (sung by other artists). I remember looking at the Hot 100 charts and seeing clusters of songs like "On The Other Hand", "Long Line Of Love", "The Carpenter", "Love At The Five And Dime" all at once!

Gradually, however, the hack masses arrived smelling money, and they figured out that if they could lower the standards, they would fit in better. Their strength was in numbers and it was only a matter of time before they got the break they needed. Sooner or later they had to win.

If anyone doubts this, let me tell you that within a week of "Ticks" hitting the top end of the charts I began getting songs for evaluation that had insect lines as crude as "I'm down so low I'm looking up a chigger's butt". The clear trend was to outdo the "shock value" (pre-pubescent at best) or the "I can gross you out better'n at!" element. All the while I'm hearing writers moan about bad it is. I want to scream, "JUST STOP IT!"

Here is what I believe : the audience doesn't determine the course or the trend. We do. The radio doesn't set the standard. We do. If you don't like what's on the radio, change it. It can be done. My compatriots did it in the 1980s. We opened Nashville's eyes and ears to the point where we were damn proud of the hits we were writing. The labels were signing Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter and others because the trend was upward.

Tell me why this can't happen again? Don't imitate crap, people. Let your personal dignity shine through your work. Edge it upward again.

Tim McMullen said...

What follows is my modest history of (country) songwriting and what has gone wrong.

I agree completely with your blaming the downward trend on the “Bubba Brigade.” Country always had its “hick” side and its sophisticated side, and they coexisted nicely. From Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams, we saw sophisticated songwriters with a little side of cornpone: Charlie Weaver and Andy Griffith meet Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg—sometimes corny, but always clever, and, in its own way, literate. In the fifties and early sixties, Don Gibson, with his “Oh, Lonesome Me,” “Sea of Heartbreak,” “Sweet Dreams,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Blue, Blue Day,” and Willie Nelson singing “Crazy,” “Hello, Walls,” “The Part Where I Cry,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” could appear on the Grand Old Opry with Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, or Stringbean. Giants like Harlan Howard, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant could crank out classic tunes while Sheb Wooley could record “Purple People Eater” and Ray Stevens and Roger Miller could write great humorous send-ups.

Unfortunately, by the sixties, country was seized by the anti-rock backlash; instead of embracing the trends of Dylan and the Beatles, “country” fans were encouraged to burn and ban their Beatles records and save the purity of country for “wholesome American songs” about sexual infidelity and jingoistic patriotism to counter the counter-culture. They couldn't hold out for long, though. Soon the folk and rollers had given country a new direction, and “country” would become truly schizophrenic.

In the mid-60’s folk singers turned into poetic rock and rollers, starting with Dylan plugging in; Mama Cass and John Phillips became the Mamas and the Papas; Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby became the Byrds, John Sebastian formed the Lovin’ Spoonful; Steve Stills, Richie Furay and Neil Young became Buffalo Springfield—all of these people had their roots in folk music. They were followed in quick succession by The Flying Burritos Brothers and Poco, the Eagles and Firefall, the Amazing Rhythm Aces and The Lost Gonzos, all country rockers with “folk” sensibilities.

As folk plugged in and became “folk-rock,” another branch of folk moved from Boston to Austin, and The Cosmic Cowboys and the Outlaws emerged: Michael Martin Murphey, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Fromholz, Willis Alan Ramsey, and Ed Bruce moved “new country” to Texas. Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton transitioned from old country to new country; Waylon Jennings metamorphosed from a Cricket to a Highwayman; Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury , Townes Van Zandt, and Gram Parsons created music that focused on the art of the song; they were soon followed by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter (all acoustic-oriented singer-songwriters, by the way, who gravitated to country as the only available venue for the thoughtful writer, since “folk” was passé). As you say, they raised the bar significantly.

Enter“The Hats.” George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, and Randy Travis (sans hat) channeled Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and George Jones and tapped some great song writers to reinvigorate classic country. Garth Brooks and Clint Black followed with some great blockbuster tunes, penned by the likes of Pat Alger and Tony Arata. Writers like Don Schlitz, Dave Loggins, Randy Sharp, Skip Ewing, Thom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch, and Craig Bickhardt could sell song after song, and the bar continued to be raised.

Unfortunately, as you imply, instead of recognizing the song as the heart of the blockbuster, the labels and the wannabees saw only the hats and the over-the-top production. Soon, any pretty boy in a hat, the bigger the better, mouthing clichés and redneck drivel, and any pin-up, breathy beauty had the media spotlight. This trend happened the same time that Britney and a hundred other Madonna wanna’s seized the pop focus; hence, the unlistenable present.

The optimistic thing about this little history is that the writers always emerge from the trash heap, brush themselves off, and move us forward. Thanks, Craig, for attempting to hasten the evolution.


chromehead said...

Tim, thanks for your concise synopsis-- it's probably worthy of a post all by itself. I don't really even consider myself one of the Vanguard who made the 80s an especially good decade for country music, but I was working among the writers who did. I can honestly say to all who read this that the whole attitude of the country songwriter was different in those heady days. We felt as if WE were in charge of the radio, not vice versa as today. The songwriter in Nashville at that time was an artist every bit as serious as the singer-songwriter, and that simply isn't true today.

It's embarrassing to have to defend a career on Music Row, but many proud writers are forced to do so when fans see The Hit Men Of Music Row or Gone Country and hear some of the unadulterated trash that's being recorded today. I don't think it's fair to blame the consumer ENTIRELY for the decline in sales. Country has sold out it's base in favor of the fickle tabloid fan who only follows the genre to find out what Idol star has been scandalized this week.

I would add a paragraph or two to your history, Tim, and I probably risk pissing off some old acquaintances. The "Bubba Brigade" were a small but cynical group of writers who took the "Charlie Weaver meets Robert Frost" persona over the edge with a few songs that were severely disdained by most Music Row writers at first. It originated with a writer whose intention was nothing of the sort. He was a gifted writer who wrote about the "redneck" character with class and a "cool factor" entirely lacking in the genre today. His name was Dennis Linde, and he wrote great songs such as "Under The Kudzu", "Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer", and "Jenny Baker's Love Slave" as well as old classics like "Viva Las Vegas". Linde was highly respected by all, including myself. He made his characters people you'd want to have a beer with because they were undoubtedly interesting and witty people who just happened to be hard-bitten working class southern boys. Linde was to southern songwriting what Larry Brown was to the southern short story (Google Brown, folks). Sadly, both have passed away.

Linde himself was NOT to blame for the decline, but his huge success unwittingly unleashed a different kind of character. In the hands of other writers who didn't see the subtle beauty, stripped of his wit and his "cool charm" and turned into a cynical parody, a bumbling cartoon who couldn't spell or dance or do much of anything except "be country", the new "Bubba" reduced Linde's redneck to a composite of his worst traits. If you liked the character at all it was in spite of his crudity, ignorance, and "backwoods ways". He wasn't poetic enough to sing lines like, "She's the queen of my double wide trailer with the polyester curtains and the red wood deck. Sometimes she runs and I've got to tail her. Dang her black heart and her pretty red neck" (classic Linde, and using PERFECT Rhyme I might add).

Today most of the artists who sing this new breed of "Bubba country" songs aren't country at all, they're urban folks in hats making fun of country people. Nothing wrong with making fun. In doses this has always been part of the genre. But the nearly utter lack of legitimate and endearing country artists singing honorably about good decent working folks in the south is really appalling today. I say this as a born and bred Yankee who adopted the south as his home for 24 years and loved it and it's people with all his heart.

Anonymous said...

Though I've been playing music all my life, I often feel like there is so much ground to cover as I've been working on my songwriting chops the last 5-6 years (MANY thx to Craig for all his help and guidance!).

While googling something about a song or title one day, I found that Wikipedia is chock full of information on writers and classic material. This is a real good way to make good use of 15-20 minutes at work during lunch or need a quick blow from the corporate politics.

This is such an important thread, great comments, too... sure speaks to me!


RE IN AZ said...

This was a really great blog and thread.

The only thing I can say for sure is that I'm ready for things to change and songs to become better and more relevant to my real life. I just ordered Jenny Yates "Out of The Blue" after I read the lyrics on her website over the weekend. I can't wait to hear it. As for the new Rascal Flatts CD... It's sitting safely in the shiny chrome bin at Walmart where I left it.


courtney said...

First, I loved your mention of Josh Ritter-- I have his "Historical Conquests of..." and I definitely hear the influence of artists like the Beatles, Dylan, and others I honestly don't know enough about to name. I just know they're there.

The question here is, though, how far back songwriters have to look in order to make their own art "relevant." I agree that we need to have true heroes in the business, we need to know who we are as songwriters and what kind of songs we want to write, and we need to do our research to do so. But I was born in '86-- is going back to early Reba, early Randy Travis, a little Elton John and that old cliche'd standby, the Beatles, good enough? Because I honestly can't help that, yes, (for example) I respect Dylan as an artist, have scratched the surface of his huge library of songs, and I even find some relevance for today in what he had to say yesterday, but even considering all that, I have no real connection to him or his music. Wouldn't it be worse to imitate something you felt so passionless about than it would be to claim your influences as more recent artists you truly loved?

chromehead said...

Thanks for your perspective, Courtney. I agree that a writer can only be truly influenced by what he or she loves. What speaks to your generation is very important.

Study anything that inspires you, but don't be content with what is easily discovered. The best artists always have some more obscure influences. If you absorb Josh Ritter's music you might one day write just like him, but if you expand your listening (and reading) to the sources he has drawn upon, then you have a better chance of really becoming something original-- the next leap forward in Ritter's style rather than an imitation. To take this metaphorically : you can either be a twig off the branch, or branch off the trunk of the tree.

If you like Ritter, listen to Eric Anderson (find Eric's versions of "Close The Door Lightly", "Time Run Like A Freight Train", "Thirsty Boots" and "Violets of Dawn"), some Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, some Dylan, some Townes Van Zandt (track down a copy of "If I Needed You" as recorded by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams-- you'll finding this achingly beautiful), Guy Clark, Woody Guthrie, too (find contemporary versions of "Deportee" and "Do Re Me"). If you can't relate to the music of any of these singer-songwriters then this won't be a deep vein for you. You're still young and your tastes will grow. Keep expanding your exposure starting from the music you've discovered. Study it, study the form and the content. As you become interested in certain lines or melodies (as in, "Wow, where did he come up with that?"), you'll naturally begin to explore a little deeper.

It certainly would be phony to claim influences from music you felt no passion for, but it isn't better to restrict your passion to music that happens to find its way into your life via the predictable channels. You should explore it all, you never know what gem you'll fall in love with next.

Paul T Wentworth said...

I had formerly hosted an open mic for about three years, and I'd say the jury's still out, from my perspective as to whether or not good songwriting is declining. It seems (at least at the open mic I used to do) for every 10 acts or so there was a person who made me feel like, "its gonna be okay, the future is safe ". I also observed a confluence of young songwriters who in my had studied and revered, yes, revered, the songwriters of the sixties bothe folk and rock. This really pleasantly blew my elderly mind ( or its reminants). If in my little town Phoenixville) there is a significant core of Young folks who have studied and truly appreciate the legacy of folks from the 50s, 60s and even 70s, I would say that I feel hope.

Having said all that, I hear very little from so called progressive radio stations (WXPN comes to mind) , or even those samplers I get from Paste magazine. I have to search hard to find current and future musical gems.

I end up being much more entertained an fullfilled by a musical forum that I contribute to. At that place I find rich musical gems all the time it seems.

I guess in summary I would have to say that it is the best of times and the worst of times. Will one prevail over the other?
Its anybody's guess.


chromehead said...

Thanks for your comments Paul. I think there's hope, too, or I wouldn't bother to speak out. I'm not sure I'd put the ratio at one-in-ten, but I do hear promise in some writers who seem to study more than their own reflections in the mirror.

I recently judged two rounds of the Mountain Stage Newsong Contest. In the first round I found several excellent songs, worthy of winning and worthy of buying. I wrote a Blog piece about it a few weeks ago called Songs Of Comfort and Protest.

In the other more recent round (a different pool of songs) I was surprised to find only two out of 101 songs that even piqued my interest. I'm very open minded about style, that wasn't the problem (I'll listen to The Foo Fighters acoustic CD 'In Your Honor', followed by John Prine, followed by Miles Davis' 'Portrait Of Spain'-- all over the map with my tastes).

101 songs is a lot of listening to do to find two I liked. The rest were not so much "experimental artists" or lacking in talent. Many sang and played very well. But the songs were lazy (poorly rhymed, not focused, incomplete stories, dissociative, obscure, self-important), and neither emotionally compelling nor musically persuasive. Once again most of these folks had websites, gigs, promo material, MySpace fans, even CDs, songs. They were probably too busy to write any.