Let’s Write That!

Chris Neal | April 6th, 2011


The story of how Josh Turner wrote his breakout hit “Long Black Train” is a humdinger of a tale. You probably already know it, but just bear with me for a paragraph or so while I recount it one more time for the unacquainted (or skip ahead, no worries). OK, here we go: Turner was a student at Nashville’s Belmont University early in 1999, and one evening he availed himself of the multimedia offerings of the school’s library to get a dose of uncut country music. He sat down in a cubicle, put on a pair of headphones and drank long and deep from the bottomless well of inspiration that gushes from the Complete Hank Williams 10-disc box set. Young Josh immersed himself in the music so deeply, in fact, that he went into what might be described as a Hank-related fugue state.

Finally he left the library and began walking back to his apartment when … well, let’s let him tell it. “While I was walking, I had this vision of an open plain somewhere,” he recalled in 2003. “There was this luminescent glow about it, and there was a train track that went straight down the middle of that wide open space. I saw this long, black, beautiful, shiny train roaring down this track. I saw people standing beside the track, trying to decide whether or not to get on this train and ride it. Even though they know exactly where this train is headed: nowhere.” The train, he decided upon recovering his senses, was a symbol of temptation—and the devil himself was the driver. When Turner got home he picked up his guitar, sat on his bed and by the next day had written “Long Black Train.”

Now is that a story, or is that a story? A young musical artist immerses himself in the masterworks of a songwriting giant, is granted what he believes to be literally a vision from God and pours his newfound understanding into what is certainly one of the great country songs of the last 20 years (although why it came out sounding like a long-lost Johnny Cash number—I’ve fielded many a fan inquiry about who the original artist was from folks assuming it to be decades old—rather than anything remotely Hank-like a is a question for another day).

As a journalist it thrills me to hear an artist recount a tale like Turner’s—not just because it makes for good copy but because it is, in this town, so exceedingly rare. For each recounting of a depth-plumbing dark night of the soul like the one that produced “Long Black Train,” I have heard at least 50 stories that go something like this: Two or three professional songwriters arrived at an agreed-upon location, typically an office in the vicinity of Music Row, at an appointed time. They begin to banter about their day, and perhaps discuss where to have lunch or coffee when they’re done. Perhaps one of the writers tells a seemingly banal anecdote about his or her life, and at some point accidentally says a word or phrase that one of the other writers seizes upon. Or perhaps one of our imaginary writers suggests a title that he or she has thought of that could make for a good hook (all too often a line heard on a movie or TV show). Someone will then utter the magic words: “Let’s write that!” They’re off and running, working variations on the hook, filling out the story. A bit of recoloration gets you through the last verse, and within a couple of hours everybody’s having beers at the Tin Roof and telling one another who they’re going to write with tomorrow and who’s got songs on hold with whom.

Of course, some wonderful songs have come from the “Let’s write that!” mentality—that’ll happen when talented writers bounce ideas off one another. But for that to happen, there has to be honesty and emotion in the room (be that emotion joyous or sorrowful). The Keith Urban hit “Stupid Boy” was born when Sarah Buxton, fresh from an argument with her boyfriend, walked into a room where Dave Berg and Deanna Bryant were awaiting her for a writers’ appointment and she angrily uttered what became the titular phrase.

The key is in what the writers do with that initial spark of inspiration. Buxton, Berg and Bryant played against their lightheartedly petulant title, filling out their song not with imagined scenarios or recycled movie plots but the jangled-nerve angst that Buxton was feeling in her tumultuous relationship at the time (granted, Urban’s later gender switch added an extra layer of complexity). What would three other, less imaginative Nashville tunesmiths have done with a hook like “Stupid Boy”? Imagine if you will a playful uptempo number aimed at Martina McBride or Faith Hill, with a first verse about a girl being teased on the playground, a second verse about her teenage heartbreak, a bridge to get married on (of course) and a final verse watching a playground scene similar to the first—this time with a wise and weary smile in her eyes as her own daughter gets angry at a boy who’s pulling on her pigtails. And it’s lunchtime! Who’s buying?

Inspiration can strike anywhere, offices on Music Row included. But a hook alone not a classic song make—that takes heart.

  1. Ben Foster
    April 6, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Great piece. It seems like there are so many songs coming out these days in which I can just imagine the three uninspired songwriters churning out rhymes like clockwork, and then finishing with “Lunchtime! Who’s buying?” This most recently occurred when I first listened to the terrible new Gloriana song “Wanna Take You Home.”

    April 6, 2011 at 8:59 am

    I was listening to the Opry when Josh first sang that song as a then unknown. The response was unbelievable, so much so that he stopped the performance the re-started it again. I beleive Bill Anderson was hosting this segment.

    The “Let’s Write That” mentality is, in my humble opinion, why we have so many standard every-song-sounds-alike fare today. In other words, we must write a song that sounds like the last #1 hit, which so happens to be pop with a cowboy hat. Sure there are exceptions, but they are not the rule.

    Inspiration comes from another world and is often unpredictable.

    As a journalist, I would assume you would agree with my assertion that your writings that you are most proud of came as provoked rather than planned. Would to God that the music world abided by the same criteria.

    As an aside, sometimes these writing sessions are planned so the artist can show up, contribute two words to the song, then be listed as a co-writer. Seems like the trend nowadays in the fake world of country music artistry (at least to some degree).

  3. Jon
    April 6, 2011 at 9:12 am

    And then, on the other side, there’s a whole lot of songs written with plenty of heart, but little or no skill. The public doesn’t get to hear many of those, but as far as I’m concerned, they don’t really have any advantage over those with more skill than heart.

  4. Jon
    April 6, 2011 at 9:22 am

    As a journalist, I would assume you would agree with my assertion that your writings that you are most proud of came as provoked rather than planned.

    Now that’s funny!

  5. Barry Mazor
    April 6, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Inspiration may come to anybody; professionals are focused, paid people who go about their business whether that inspiration has magically shown up or not. And it often works just fine. There are no laws about these things. Whatever works. The show goes on–just the same as it is for pro performers.

  6. Thomas
    April 6, 2011 at 10:05 am

    …i’d love to know what goes through dwight yoakam’s mind, when he sits down to write those songs. lunch it ain’t, i guess.

    April 6, 2011 at 10:55 am

    @Barry – Although I do not expect you or Jonny to agree with anything I say, if you would re-read my comment, I stated the works that one would be MOST proud of. Quit defending the corporate writers.

    By the way, I write as well and work with those that do; however not in this field. Sure there is focus and preparation, but the best ideas, at least in my world, come from some type of inspiration or provocation. We THEN prepare and focus to articulate what the idea is about.

    Hey everyone, can you imagine Mr. Kris sitting down in a boardroom with other writers and saying, “It’s time to come up with a song idea. Oh yes, how about ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

  8. Barry Mazor
    April 6, 2011 at 11:10 am

    I’ve agreed with a number of things you’ve said, Mr. R, or W, or whatever. But this is not a discuission about you, come to think of it.

    I was not, in any case, “defending corproate writers.” My main point was, and is, that there are no set laws about these things. You never know. I’ve been privileged to have enough time with some classic songwriters to realize that THEY never know what will set off a song idea–and that many of them came in precisely the publishing house/collaborative setting people often don’t quite get or believeeeee could be useful, especially if they’ve only heard praise for the more romantic “inspired” model. (Which sometiems works too, of course-but that’s not guaranteed either)

    One of the most common sorts of stories was “a kernel of a song came ito me” (inspired style) and then we sat down and finished the thing, crafted it into a song..”

  9. Jon
    April 6, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I read your comment right the first time. It was about journalism and being more proud of provoked (sic) work than planned, which serves only to demonstrate again what’s been clear for a long time – to wit, that you know nothing about the practice of journalism. As for “the corporate writers,” it’s kind of ironic that Chris’s piece starts with a story involving Hank Williams’ body of work, much of which – and, specifically, much of the best of which – was co-written with a pop-leaning songwriting professional.

    April 6, 2011 at 11:28 am

    @Barry – Understand and concur with the general premise of your reply. Thanks for being considerate. I think I can moslty stand by my original post and still agree in principal to what you state here.

    @Jon – You kind of show yourself on your posts here. I couldn’t have done a better job exposing your antagonistic egotistical aura than you do yourself with your posts. Hence, no further reply to you is required.

  11. the pistolero
    April 6, 2011 at 11:31 am

    three uninspired songwriters churning out rhymes like clockwork, and then finishing with “Lunchtime! Who’s buying?”


  12. Jon
    April 6, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Barry’s making a pretty useful comment about the connection – or lack thereof – between process and result. I have said many times that one doesn’t need to be a songwriter to critique a song, but on the other hand, when I read posts tying process and result together written by people who haven’t ever undertaken the process, it does inspire me to suggest that their insights might be deepened by actually trying to do it themselves.

    There are good reasons – good creative reasons – why co-writing is so widely practiced. Chris’s column doesn’t discount that, but a rejection of the idea seems to underpin some of the comments.

  13. Chris N.
    April 6, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    FWIW, I have no argument with anything Jon or Barry has said above. And I very much agree with Edison’s maxim that “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” A great idea is only of value to someone skilled enough to do something with it.

    Also, because it seems to be an important criterion to some people who frequent the site, I will note that I have written songs alone, co-written and been present when others were writing. However, most of what I know still comes from interviewing people who do it professionally. Turner’s quote in the piece is from his bio, but I have heard both stories above firsthand (to be precise, from Turner in the former case and Buxton in the latter).

  14. Fizz
    April 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I had a creative-writing instructor in college who told us, “If you’re waiting for inspiration to strike, you might just be waiting a hell of a long time.”

  15. Mike Parker
    April 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Write stories, write poems, write lyrics, and write essays. Write for yourself, write for others, write alone, and write with others. Write everyday. Oh and also read stories, poems, lyrics, essays, articles, etc.

    Then, when and idea comes along that can a) change the world, b) make you rich, c) make you famous, or d) make someone other than your mother smile- you’ll have the talent, network, and experience to do it justice.

    …or you could know somebody who knows somebody.

    April 6, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Of course some would agree that the skill of writing far outweighs the art of the subject matter. Of course one must be a professional writer before a piece could be written. Of course the “creative writing” instructor would have to make the statement Fizz posted. I mean, if I received agreement from “professional journalists & writers” on my original assertions, then that would be self-incrimination to them wouldn’t it?

    I don’t know how I missed this at the beginning. Sorry about that. Here I am contending with professional writers about my belief that inspiration or some other provocation is as important in writing a song, or other written piece, as the skill of professional writing. How could I have been so blind. I mean, I am trying to have a respectful conversation with those that believe the main qualification for being a critic is the ability to write more so than the practice and knowledge of the subject matter. I am NOT saying this to antagonize. I just completely missed this in my original assertions.

    Sorry for taking up space on this thread.

    And to think that a song that I had recorded was written when I had an near-death sickness and from that life-altering episode I penned a piece that a group thought worthy to record. That was BEFORE I completed my post-graduate work so therefore it was pure luck that one thought it even worthy since I was not a professional journalist or hired writer.

  17. Fizz
    April 6, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Calm down, dude. I’m not excusing bland, humdrum songwriting. I’m just saying if you wait for lightning to strike before you feel you can start writing, then you likely won’t be writing very much.

    April 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    No problem Fizz. Understand your assertions. I was actually agreeing with Chris’ article, at least my interpretation of it. By Chris’ later post on this thread, I am not so sure I understood it now.

    Nonetheless, I was listening to the Opry when Turner sang LBT for the first time in his first apearance. It was a true Opry moment as Mr. Stubbs would say.

  19. Matt B
    April 6, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    If I remember correctly, “The House That Built Me” was a “Let’s write that” moment. That seemed to work out fine. It seems to also support what Barry and Jon and Chris have stated in the comments here.

    Also, what’s wrong with signed writers writing songs? Is this to say that the only good songs come from un-signed writers who write ONLY when inspired? I dare say not.

  20. Barry Mazor
    April 6, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Our subject here, generally speaking, is professional, commercial country music. It is not now and never has been primartily in the hands of inspired amateurs who can wait for lightning to strike. There’s genuine inspirtaion happening, I have no doubt, on porches all over America and private spaces all oiver the globe. That’s just not where many commercial country songs (or othger pop songs) come from.

    Ask any artist who had, oh, 15 years to come up with the very posisbly inspired songs on their first album, slowly pieced together–and needed a second album’s worth six months later.

    April 6, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Nothing wrong with it. Not a thing. Just an original comment about the “production-line-all-songs-sounding-the-same” camp that, it appears, I am in by myself though I have read many similar complaints from others here. At least I thought I had. Maybe I can’t read or write.

    Also I do not know that my original post suggested doing away with signed writers or that they were not needed. I actually think my original generalized statement is still valid. Of course, that is in my unprofessional eyes.

  22. Matt B
    April 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    The reason that collectives like The Peach Pickers score hit after hit is that once a songwriter scores a hit and gets in, everybody seemingly wants what they have to offer. They’re basically in the ‘groove’ that was held at various times by the likes of Fred Rose, Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson, Bobby Braddock, Matraca Berg, Jeffrey Steele, Tom Douglas, Allen Shamblin and Gary Burr. It’s a ‘striking while the iron’s hot mentality on behalf of both the songwriters AND the mainstream industry itself.

  23. Barry Mazor
    April 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    I don’t much go for music that all sounds the same either, Mr R, but much of the music that people often suggest as alternatives from country’s past was created under very simlar WRITING conditions. There just may be some other elements at work there…

    April 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    @Barry – I definitely agree with that.

  25. Fizz
    April 6, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I get it: country lives and dies on professional songwriters. To be an artist, you don’t have to (gasp!) write your own songs. Personally, I think it’s beyond lame, but, as Jon’s explanation for everything goes, “that’s how country music works.” So then I guess the fault would lie with poor songwriting, being lazy, copying last week’s #1, thinking inside the box, etc. Which happens to an extent in all genres. But sometimes you just wonder, where are the innovators?!

  26. Matt B
    April 6, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Fizz, ‘copying last week’s #1′ (a.k.a what’s popular or ‘hot’) is something that’s been around for as long as entertainment has been around. Innovators come but sometimes they still manage to slip between the cracks.

  27. Jon
    April 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Look, Chris gave two different examples in his piece – “Long Black Train” *and* “Stupid Boy.” One written solo, one by co-writers, both, in his eyes, creative and praiseworthy. So his point was obvi about something other than writing by committee.

  28. Chris N.
    April 6, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Co-writing has its pluses and minuses. When people inspire one another it’s great; when people shut one another down it’s not. Had Josh Turner taken his idea to another writer instead of finishing it himself, that person might well have convinced him that it was too old-fashioned and too explicitly religious to get played on the radio. On the other hand, Little Big Town writes as a group and their songs are as honest and unique as any single writer’s stuff.

  29. Chris N.
    April 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    BTW, I considered delving into the relative merits of co-writing, but I think Peter Cooper pretty definitively addressed the issue in this piece from last year:


  30. Rick
    April 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    I do seem to recall that Sarah Buxton had been speaking on the phone to her ex-husband before the “Stupid Boy” comment was made, not a boyfriend. If Sarah’s new hubby Tom Bukovac inspires any comments in current songwriting sessions I’d expect them to be much more lovey-dovey! (lol)

    If I hear a great song I really don’t care how it came into being, although a good back story can add a bit more magic. I remember reading that Nora Jane Struthers was trying to re-create the feel of a Jimmie Rodgers song when she wrote “Cowgirl Yodel #3″ and instead came up with one of the best modern cowboy music songs I’ve heard in ages. Back in the 1930′s Nora’s “Yodel” would likely have been a million seller close on the heels of Patsy Montana.

    Great songs have always been a rare thing of beauty to behold and it just makes sense that deeply felt artistic inspiration would be the natural source. When you have songwriter committees that meet to crank out songs like a mere “product” laden with radio friendly hooks and the current style of sound, its not surprising so much of the resulting fodder borders on being mediocre. If Top 40 country radio only wants to play similar sounding commercial fluff, why would songwriters want to create superior songs that radio won’t spin? Hmm…

  31. Chris N.
    April 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    I had meant her boyfriend at the time, although Rick may well be right that it was actually her ex-husband. I spent a very long time trying to find either my original story or a similar one to find out for certain, but finally gave up and relied on my sadly imperfect memory.

  32. M.C.
    April 6, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Fizz: How do you feel about George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”? Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”? Paisley and Krauss’s “Whiskey Lullaby”? Are those all “beyond lame,” because the people singing didn’t write the songs?

    Jones and Cline hardly ever wrote, and they’re in good company, for the list of good singers who rarely or never write is a long one. I never quite get this mentality that if you don’t write songs, you’re somehow not quite as worthy of an artist as those who do. They are two different skills. Some are good at both, some are good at only one.

  33. Jon
    April 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    My offhand sense is that Jones was actually a fairly productive writer (or at least co-writer) early in his career, but that for one reason or another he lost interest in – again, sadly imperfect memory – the early 60s or so.

    @Chris N. Had Josh Turner taken his idea to another writer instead of finishing it himself, that person might well have convinced him that it was too old-fashioned and too explicitly religious to get played on the radio.

    I dunno about that; in my (admittedly mostly non-Music Row) experience, co-writers – at least, good ones – tend to want to go where the song wants to go. That sounds more like a publisher’s line to me ;-).

    But yes, Peter Cooper’s look at co-writing was a good one; folks who haven’t read it yet should do so forthwith. It’s a little more negative about it than what I would have done, but it’s thoughtful, not superficial.

    @Rick Great songs have always been a rare thing of beauty to behold and it just makes sense that deeply felt artistic inspiration would be the natural source.

    And yet it’s often not.

  34. luckyoldsun
    April 6, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Sure, if you’re Patsy Cline or George Jones or Randy Travis and can create a compelling identity though your unique or innovative singing, then you don’t need to write.

    But Nashville has thrown up dozens of artists in recent years who sing “like Jones” or “like Haggard” or “like Travis” and if a given one doesn’t write at all, there’s probably not much reason to listen to him.

  35. M.C.
    April 7, 2011 at 11:43 am

    @Jon–Jones co-wrote some songs in the ’50s and into the early ’60s, as did Ray Price and a few others who later rarely wrote. As you’d know, there were few full-time professional writers in Nashville until the 1960s, and both Jones and Price have said that they wrote early on because they needed songs. Both also have said they stopped working at it once they were able to find enough songs written by others, most of whom could do it better.

  36. Paul W Dennis
    April 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    A great song plus a great vocalist = a great record. That has always been true and always will be

    In the past that formula worked very well for Charley Pride who, to the best of my knowledge, never wrote any of his songs and works well today for George Strait who has written very little of his material

  37. Jeremy Dylan
    April 7, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    It also worked alright for Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Elvis Prelsley – to take some non-country artists who are quite well regarded as examples.

  38. Dan
    April 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    I’m definitely with M.C. on this one. It drives me insane when people try to criticize artists and the best they can come up with is “they don’t write their own songs.” Give me a break! Is that in the job description somewhere? If you want to be a singer, then you have to be able to sing AND write? No way! I don’t have a problem with judging an artist based on the quality of their music. If you think a song sounds uninspired, then that’s your opinion. What I do have a problem with is people thinking less of that artist just because someone else writes for them. Expecting someone to contribute to every single song they record is just unrealistic. Most artists reach out to different writing teams, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  39. luckyoldsun
    April 7, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    An artist has to do something to establish a persona on record that sets him/her apart from other artists. Sinatra, Crosby and Elvis–as well as Jones and Travis certainly did that. But for most artists, writing songs is a good way to do that.

    Garth, Alan Jackson and Toby Keith are great examples. They established their identities so well through songs that they wrote/co-wrote for themselves that when they do use outside material, you think they wrote it (unless you check the CD booklet).

  40. Jeremy Dylan
    April 8, 2011 at 1:43 am

    They established their identities so well through songs that they wrote/co-wrote for themselves that when they do use outside material, you think they wrote it (unless you check the CD booklet).

    Doesn’t the prove that they didn’t need to write the songs themselves to establish a distinctive identity? Alan Jackson writes many of his songs because he’s an excellent songwriter, and he could probably make a living as a EMI staff songwriter if he didn’t also sing professionally.

    Gary Allan managed to establish a distinctive identity for himself while only recording a couple of self-penned songs until his last couple of records. Gary’s a great example of an artist who will always choose the best song for an album, regardless of who wrote it. He has taken songs he wrote himself off albums to find space for an outside song he believed in more.

  41. Fizz
    April 8, 2011 at 9:37 am

    “Expecting someone to contribute to every single song they record is just unrealistic.”
    <——Is it really? Plenty of artists somehow make time in their busy lives for it. And while it's true that a good song plus a good singer make a good recording, it does tend to color my opinion of an arist, the total package versus the singing puppet. It doesn't necessarily detract from a good singer that he or she doesn't write songs, as much as it adds to someone who does.

  42. will
    April 8, 2011 at 11:43 am

    I love Rosanne Cash writing and always imagine her living those songs. I learned in her autobiography that even her own writes sometime contain fiction. However when she sings it I always assume she wrote it, even if she didn’t it.

  43. Jon
    April 8, 2011 at 11:49 am

    It doesn’t necessarily detract from a good singer that he or she doesn’t write songs…

    I can tell it doesn’t by the way you refer to such singers with the value-free, objective term “puppet.”

  44. Stormy
    April 8, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Expecting someone to contribute to every single song they record is just unrealistic.”
    <——Is it really? Plenty of artists somehow make time in their busy lives for it.

    Not to mention that a lot of artists write, sing, play intstruuemts on and help produce every song on their albums.

  45. luckyoldsun
    April 8, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    “Not to mention that a lot of artists write, sing, play intstruuemts on and help produce every song on their albums.”

    Not a lot of commercially successful ones.
    Even Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson use outside material and producers.

    The one major artist I can think of who tried to do everything was Clint Black. That could be why his picture shows up on milk cartons instead of on CD’s now.

  46. Fizz
    April 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    It doesn’t detract from their talent AS A SINGER, in that one thing that they do.

  47. Fizz
    April 8, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Yeah, because if somebody did achieve success doing everything, why, that might get songwriters worried about their jobs. Might gum up the works of the entire machine.

  48. Chris N.
    April 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    In pop music it’s not uncommon for artists to play all the instruments on their records: Prince, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, etc. Certainly didn’t hurt their chances of commercial success. Commercial country music just has a unique recording tradition and power structure that in effect prohibits the practice.

  49. Fizz
    April 8, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    You said it: “power structure.”

  50. luckyoldsun
    April 8, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I got a CD in the ’90s from an artist named Ray Kennedy. It had a great hit single called “What A Way to Go” and a few other good cuts. Then he put out a follow-up CD, but it was really awful. I think the booklet said that he played all the instruments.
    I think Kennedy then started producing other country artists–unless it was someone else with the same name.

  51. Chris N.
    April 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Same dude.

  52. Jon
    April 8, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    You said it: “power structure.”

    Nice misquote.

  53. Chris N.
    April 8, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    No, I said that.

  54. Jon
    April 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Still a misquote.

    April 8, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Some people split so many hairs they have very few left.

  56. Nicolas
    April 9, 2011 at 12:53 am

    Only story of a song being written that I can think of is Jo Dee Messina writing “That’s God” after she was vacationing in Canada with her newborn son and she saw beauty in the snow-covered mountains and told her son, “that’s God.” <3

  57. Jon
    April 9, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Waiter: “What’ll you have, Mr. Fizz?”
    Fizz: “Bring me steak and potatoes.”

    Fizz: “Hey, where’s my steak?!”
    Waiter: “You said it: ‘potatoes.’”
    Fizz: “but I said steak, too!”
    Waynoe: “Now you’re just splitting hairs.”

    I’m not sure how we got from artists writing their own songs to artists playing instruments on their own recordings to artists playing all the instruments on their recordings, which I would say are three pretty distinct things. But regardless of exactly what Chris N. meant by the power structure, it’s worth noting that country artists have relied heavily on outside writers – including that old favorite, trad. – since the music’s emergence as a distinct genre, and have relied heavily on hired instrumental specialists (whether in the studio or on the road) for most of its history. Most country fans give no sign of caring whether artists play instruments or write their own songs, and never have. And really, there’s no reason why they should.

  58. luckyoldsun
    April 9, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    “Most country fans give no sign of caring whether artists play instruments or write their own songs”

    Actually, country artists seem to THINK that fans care whether they play instruments because a lot of them like to carry a guitar when they perform, whether or not they actually play it. Is George Strait’s guitar anything other than a prop?

    And country artists also seem to THINK that fans care whether they write their own songs. Witness, the number of artists who have demanded credit for songs they didn’t actually write. I suppose it could just be for a cut of the royalties, but I think it’s more than that. To this day, Johnny Cash is generally identified as the WRITER, not just the performer of “Folsom Prison Blues” even though at best he adopted it from an older song. And Hank Jr. wrote and performed a non-fictional song on one of his albums about superstar country artists who steal songs, so apparently it’s a well-known phenomenon in the industry.

  59. Fizz
    April 9, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    So, is there any other reason why country artists have relied so heavily on outside writers and musicians, besides that being tradition? Because, as artists in other genres have shown, it ain’t that hard to sing, write and play your own music. Are country singers then by definition lazier or less talented than others simply because of this steadfast reliance on songwriters and session players? Are they too busy shooting Velveeta or Crisco commercials to take a more active role in the creative process? Speak to us, O Toothless Wonder.

  60. Chris N.
    April 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    To be precise, what I meant by “power structure” is that mainstream country artists have much less control over their own work than artists in other genres. Record labels and producers have much more latitude in choosing which songs get recorded and how they get released. When a record label rejects a pop or rock artist’s work — think Wilco and ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ — said artist typically raises hell and calls the press. When a record label rejects a country artist’s work, said artist typically goes back to the studio and keeps his or her mouth shut for fear of getting dropped. (Exception that proves the rule: Curb.)

  61. Barry Mazor
    April 9, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Fizz, that’s not a very accurate read of popular msuic histiory ing eneral; for most of the time in most of the genres, singers rarely wrote their own songs–rarely. Somebody like a Hank Williams caused a stir in part because “get this folks; he writes his own songs, too.”

    Roughly from the time of Bob Dylan showing up, and the Beatles, the accent became strongly on rock and “singer-songwriter” pop artists writiing most or all of their own material, as they rarely ever had before, and it’s the exaggerated standing of rock critics, as much as anything, that spread this idea that “all singers and bands should write their own stuff or they’re weak.”

    The basic situation has always been simpler: singers sing.

    What Chris is saying about the structure in country is true–but it’s more of a lag, as there’s often a lag in the structure of country compared to other genres, than some Special Situation, Brill Building and Motown pop was–an unusual Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye aside–mostly a matter of staff writingng teams providing songs, producers and labels setting artists image not so long ago.. Anybody said the Supremes or Temptations or Ronettes were just nothing lately for not being writers, let alone instrumentalists? No.

    Writers wrte; singers sing; occasionally they’re the same people, which is swell when it works.

  62. Chris N.
    April 9, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I would say there is a “special situation” in mainstream country music, in that no other genre is almost entirely based in one geographic area — in fact, one neighborhood of one city. That’ll change, of course (already Capitol, Universal and Lyric Street are no longer on Music Row), but it’ll be a while.

  63. Barry Mazor
    April 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Well, you have a point there, Chris–but it will be interestsing to see if that single locale difference matters the same way if/when there are 100 small-to-midsize labels instead of 5 big ones. Who knows?!

  64. Jon
    April 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    @Chris N. To be precise, what I meant by “power structure” is that mainstream country artists have much less control over their own work than artists in other genres.


    Chris’s point about country’s special situation aside – I think it’s partly right, but there are some additional wrinkles – I’m also going to argue with your chronology, Barry, as I think the pattern in country music was pretty well set prior to, or at least contemporaneously, not following, the rise of the Brill Building writers and Motown.

    Actually, country artists seem to THINK that fans care whether they play instruments

    No they don’t.

    And country artists also seem to THINK that fans care whether they write their own songs.

    No they don’t.

    as artists in other genres have shown, it ain’t that hard to sing, write and play your own music.

    No they haven’t.

  65. Chris N.
    April 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Actually I do think artists believe they gain gravitas by appearing to play an instrument. There are a whole lot of country shows featuring singers strumming completely inaudible guitars.

  66. Jon
    April 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    I dunno about that, Chris; it might be a factor, but it’s also the case that an awful lot of those singers were fronting bands and/or writing songs before moving to Nashville and getting their deals, so there can just as easily be a comfort level thing involved.

  67. Barry Mazor
    April 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    I didn’t mean to suggets that Brill Bldg/Motown preceeded country, Jon–only that the giving UP that sort of set-up has not happend as fast here. The lag was in changing from that–and, arguably, it was all basedd on ideas adapted from the Hollywood studio system in the first place..

  68. Chris N.
    April 9, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    The first time I went to L.A. I had that sudden recognition that it was set up just like Nashville — all the big studios are in one city, and to work in the movie business in any way you’re expected to live there.

  69. Fizz
    April 10, 2011 at 12:40 am

    “Roughly from the time of Bob Dylan showing up, and the Beatles … there has been a lag, as there’s often been a lag in the structure of country …” Yeah, a lag of about, what, close to fifty years now?

  70. luckyoldsun
    April 10, 2011 at 12:48 am

    “No they don’t”
    “No they don’t”
    “No they haven’t”
    “Am not”
    “Are too”
    “I know you are but what am I?”

    It’s nice to be back in the playground!

  71. Jon
    April 10, 2011 at 9:25 am

    So what’s your point, Fizz? That you don’t like country music? That’s not exactly news.

    @Luckyoldsun. Well, let’s see. You wrote this:

    “Witness, the number of artists who have demanded credit for songs they didn’t actually write. ”

    OK, what *is* the number of artists who have demanded credit for songs they didn’t actually write? Who are they? What are the songs? How do you know they demanded said credit, and with what threats did they back up their demands? And how do you know they didn’t actually write the songs in question?

    And how about this dandy:

    “And Hank Jr. wrote and performed a non-fictional song on one of his albums about superstar country artists who steal songs, so apparently it’s a well-known phenomenon in the industry.”

    What was the song? How do you know it was non-fictional? And why would this single example convince you that “it’s a well-known phenomenon in the industry?”

    My original thought was that, rather than ask such questions, I would simply counter your claims at the level on which they were presented. To do anything more in the absence of any indication that you were interested in a detailed discussion would have been a waste of time.

  72. Chris N.
    April 10, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    When I’m reading Jon’s comments I like to imagine them being said in a particularly plummy English accent.

  73. Jon
    April 10, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    More like William F. Buckley, please.

  74. Jon
    April 10, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    William F. Buckley JR, that is. Just in case there were any confusion.

  75. Chris N.
    April 10, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Ooh, even better!

  76. Fizz
    April 10, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    One thing you got right, Jon: NOBODY wants to get into a detailed discussion with you. Not only are you anal and pedantic, but also incredibly BORING.

  77. Dan
    April 10, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Wow, Fizz, it’s so nice to see that everyone can voice their opinions on this site without other people attacking them personally.

  78. Matt B
    April 10, 2011 at 6:56 pm


    With blustery long p’s and b’s?


  79. davecefus
    April 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Be carful who you love(arthurs song) its on the pure hank album 1991. heres the story behind the song in Hank jr’s own words. Theres this man in knoxville who wrote so many hit songs that other artists put there name on. Back in that time (the 40′s and 50′s) peeople sold songs. Just run up to knoxville and go to the bar with this guy and he could write you a country song on par with ‘I cant stop loving you’ or somthing like that. Arthur Q Smith was the mans name, and he wrote dozens of hits that he never got credit for. This happens all of the time in our bussiness. Kris Kristofferson and I have talked about it. People have taken his songs. Dolly Parton has had the same thing happen to her. I didn’t write this song Harlan Howard wrote it. I wasn’t even around at the time all that got started with Arthur Q. Smith, but the more I got into it, the sadder the story became to me. The man’s got all these hits and none of them are in his name. He just didn’t really care. We’re trying to get the guy in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. I’ve seen so many unfortunate folk’s like the guy this song is talking about. Everyone in Nashville knows the story on Arthur Q Smith.

  80. Jon
    April 11, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Oh, yeah, Arthur Q. Smith; great songwriter. But people didn’t steal his songs, which is what luckyoldsun said; Smith sold them. The late Charles K. Wolfe wrote a piece on him that appears in one of his collections, I forget which one. The thing about Smith was, he liked selling his songs for quick cash better than going the more, ah, orthodox route. Some of his friends actually got him a standard songwriting/publishing deal, but the publishing company he was writing for terminated it when he kept selling his songs on the side anyhow. (As an interesting side note, Smith at least occasionally bought songs himself; “Next Sunday, Darling, Is My Birthday” is officially credit to him but was actually written by Jim Eanes.)

    So that story doesn’t really support luckyoldsun’s claims in any respect. It’s not about ‘superstar country artists stealing songs’ – certainly not now, and really, not even then. That’s not to say that there aren’t people whose contribution to a song might not merit an equal share of the credit in someone else’s eyes, but that’s a whole other story. And none of that has beans to do with what fans think, or what artists think fans think about songwriting credits; most of the available evidence suggests that most fans automatically assume that songs are written by the people who sing them, so an artist doesn’t need to have his or her name on a song at all to get credit in the fans’ eyes.

  81. davecefus
    April 11, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    @ Jon listen to the song its a great song. Marty Stuart also recorded it in 1988 on his Let There Be Country album. i personly like the Bocephus version better but both are good.

  82. Jeremy Dylan
    April 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    I like to imagine Jon’s posts as sounding like Christopher Walken. I imagine Jim Malec’s sounding like Adam West, so those old back and forth exchanges were quite something to listen to.

  83. Lucas
    April 19, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I’d like to add there’s not only the inspired times, but some really strange times when it comes to songwriting. I can’t even begin to describe some of the weird situations that can make a song.

  84. Tracy
    May 31, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I’ve found that inspiration has come to me and those in my world at different times and in different ways, and it isn’t always some grand sweeping inspiration like what Josh Turner experienced as a young musician. However, only musicians and songwriters who have honed their craft can use only the slightest spark to create an amazing new song, much like your hypothetical songwriters on Music Row. Very good piece!

  85. Sonicjar Music
    March 20, 2013 at 4:26 am

    Agree with Lucas, But one thing is certain, for a song to come to existence, so many things have to happen in perfect order, which forces a real song to come into being. Being it a aheartbreak or falling in love or failing….when you are at a place when you are not thinking and writing, but you are making a song, because there is no better way to express it, what you are feeling in that moment.


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