If you can compose a written sentence in a grammatically accepted manner that conveys a coherent thought to a reader who finds that thought interesting, you are a writer—NO! To be a writer, one must modify those words with others so that the whole word grouping provokes emotional feelings in the reader’s mind. When done properly, a story emerges. Story writing is difficult but it is doubly difficult to make stories into poetry. Yet, the most difficult task of all is to make the poem into a song. A songwriter once suggested a formula for songwriting: verse, chorus, verse, repeat chorus, instrumental bridge, then repeat chorus again; establish a rhyme pattern, syllable count; and an appropriate melody that fits the lyrics and there is a song. I maintain that before the story, the poem, the formula application, or anything else, there must be inspiration. Inspiration is what this essay is about. More specifically where does the songwriter find the motivational, emotional, and heartfelt reasons leading up to a written song.
Over the years, I have interviewed some respected and successful songwriters as well a songwriter or two who plugs along in the shadows. I recently reviewed those interviews to determine from what well these folks drink to find their songwriting inspiration.
What She Said
Donna Ulisse is the 2016 winner of the IBMA Songwriter of the Year award and a successful Nashville songwriter. She has released seven bluegrass albums, and her songs have been recorded by well known artists in the bluegrass genre. Donna Ulisse is the author of The Songwriter In Me: Snapshots of My Creative Process, and has produced songwriting columns for this magazine. From those sources, we captured an overview of her philosophy on songwriting.
Donna maintains that if songwriters arm themselves with pen and paper, they can travel the world live on the moon; fight wars long past; create heartache and find the love of their lives all for the price of a little time. For an added bonus, they can put those thoughts to a melody and sing their story. Ulisse says songwriting begins with inspiration because a song has its origin in someone’s imagination; and songs are born from something a writer experienced, an experience borrowed, or a tale dreamed. She maintains that a songwriter can write a song for the ages by listening and seeing what their imagination unveils and then acting upon that vision. Donna maintains a songwriter must nurture his or her imagination often by use. The writer should set aside a few minutes each day to challenge and watch his or her imagination grow. Donna believes songwriters should note what they feel at the moment of some life experience and then write what they know about that experience. Folks need not live through an experience to write about it. Rather, they can draw upon stored feelings from other events that have occurred in their lives—feelings from the hurts and joys they have experienced. She told us that she holds on to happy memories but that she also holds sad memories just as tightly because she has to write tear-jerkers too. She concluded with this thought, “We all have this treasure-chest within us. Finding new ways to use old memories is part of what all songwriters strive to achieve.”
Jimmy Fortune has magic in his pen as anyone who was a fan of the country quartet The Statler Brothers can attest. This guy, with the big heart, generated chart topping songs by the handful while singing tenor for that famous group. Since that epic adventure, he has reinvented himself as a soloist and as a sought-after Nashville based member of songwriting teams.
Fortune first realized his talent for writing songs after The Statler Brothers hired him. It was then that he thought to write some songs. The Statler Brothers told him if his songs were acceptable, they would record them. His first song that met their criteria was the song titled Elizabeth (interestingly this is the first song Fortune ever wrote). The song appeared on the next album release; became that album’s third single release; and achieved The number one place on the country charts. Fortune won the Songwriter of the Year award for that song, and the song won the Song of the Year award. He followed that success with hit after hit.
Fortune described the inspiration for Elizabeth, “Sometimes something strikes you in the heart or tugs on your emotions. With Elizabeth, I kept hearing that name everywhere I went. I had a melody in my head for sometime and I realized that the name just fit the melody. I’d seen Elizabeth Taylor in a movie prior to writing the song and her name was on my mind. Also, there was this little girl who came up to me at a concert and tried to get my attention by grabbing my hand and would not let go. She kept saying, ‘I’m Elizabeth, I’m Elizabeth’. At that point, I decided that God was trying to tell me something—I need to write this song.”
The last chart topper that Jimmy Fortune wrote for The Statler Brothers was the song More Than a Name on a Wall. In speaking of that song, Fortune said the song spoke to his heart as he viewed the Vietnam Memorial. He said, “As I stood at the wall, the spirit of the place was so overwhelming to me. I felt I could feel the spirits of the people whose names were on that wall. The words just came to me line after line. I let myself go to deal with the spirit of the place. That is usually the way the best ones come. It seems to me that God just gives it to me, and my job is to put it down on paper. “God gave me emotion and the ability to express that emotion in my songs. That’s the talent God gave to me.”
Robin and Linda Williams
They are maybe best known from their many appearances on Garrison Keller’s PBS radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. They are Americana music’s first-tier songwriters. Their folksy, roots-based messages in song about life in the small-towns and countryside of America tug at the emotions of anyone who listens to them. Plus, the earthy way that they deliver their songs reaches deep into one’s soul. Robin and Linda Williams have been songwriting and performing partners for as long as they’ve been life partners as man and wife. They are writers and recorders of 30-plus years worth of self-penned gems some of which are charting tunes and have been recorded by major artists.
Robin Williams told us, that song writing is the central point of their professional lives and the focus of their work. He thinks that song writing is one of the things that justify Linda and him as artists. They work as a team on every song. One will get an idea and start on the song. The other will become involved both with the lyrics and the music. Robin said he thought getting the idea for a song was the easiest part. He says a songwriter must be a good listener. She or he must keep their ears open and listen. His take, “We listen to what people say. The real secret is to always have a pen and paper available to write what you hear; otherwise, you’ll never remember what you heard. So, we listen. It might be the TV or a movie; or maybe a song we hear. We also try to read a lot. The more one reads the more one understands writing and recognizes good writing. Plus, it is also another good source of ideas. There is no shortage of ideas—they just come to you every day.”
Robin concluded by saying, “Experience has taught us to write seriously and then edit. We find that we constantly have to get rid of the fluff that doesn’t seem right or honest and good for some reason.”
Joy In The Process
Not all successful songwriters are famous. Some just slog along plying the trade in a yeoman’s manner. Yet, they achieve the same satisfaction and experience and the same feelings as their more famous brothers and sisters whose names sometime appear in the marquee lights.
Doak Turner is a professional songwriter and is a long standing friend of AR’s publisher. He has been a contributing writer for this magazine over the years. At the age of 43, Doak left his condo in Charlotte, NC and moved to Nashville to pursue a dream of writing songs. He planned to write songs with the hopes of having artists like and record them. Some time ago he shared his thoughts on his craft. We include his insight here as a different perspective. Turner’s songwriting effort is more directed toward writing marketable songs for commercial success.
Doak tells us that living in Nashville and writing songs is a unique experience; however, if you want to be in the music industry, you have to go where it is happening; and Nashville is the place to be. He tells us that the song writing community is crazy, loving, fun, depressing, and challenging all at the same time; and there is no set pattern on how to make things happen on any given day. Turner believes songwriters in Nashville understand that they are not normal folks and have crazy goals and desires in life
These folks would find it difficult to come home from a professional job and be content to just sit and watch TV until bed-time then get up the next day and do it all over again. Turner is convinced that songwriters are wired differently than average folks. He says they are creative and are always listening to conversations to hear possible song ideas. When they go to movies, they listen for that magic line that someone says that they can use for a song idea. Songwriters read newspapers differently as they are always looking for an idea to spark a song.
Doak finished by saying, “A songwriter’s day is always about writing songs. I keep a book with me I call my hook-book. In this book, I have written 1000’s of ideas—maybe just one or two lines, or maybe expressions that I read or thought about, or heard someone say.”
Where does that leave us in our quest to discover why songwriters write songs? It seems that if an aspiring songwriter is a dreamer wishing to express a passion, she or he will look inward for emotional nudges. This songwriter is more likely seeking to sway opinion; place healing salve on society’s hurts; or even heal his or her aching heart. Commercial success for these folks often is secondary; however, not always.
If the aspiring songwriter is more commercial minded he or she will turn to broad-based outside influences that convey ideas more suited to general music listeners. These songwriters pay attention to popular culture and write songs that reflect that culture. They write to catch the eye of artists who will record their songs.
It does appear that no matter the reason songwriters write, they will all be astute listeners; seekers of meaning; and philosophers. They will document for later reference disjointed words, phrases, and conversations that they hear in their travels. They seek inspiration from their imagination and from their life experiences. They derive pleasure and satisfaction when they or other artists preserve their songs by recording them.
Written By Edward Tutwiler