By Clair Devers
(LSM June/July 2010/vol. 3 – issue 4)
“Of course George Strait wrote ‘Desperately!'”
This is what happens when you talk music outside of the bubble, as I did recently while visiting family who don’t really look beyond Top 40 country radio for their daily musical fix.
I think of it as more of a blister than a bubble actually, because after spending the last decade working within this genre, I notice there is thick skin that separates us from the outside world. The community within the Texas/Americana music scene understands the importance of the songwriter to the whole equation in a way that makes us feel connected. And maybe it makes me feel a little superior; I know a “secret,” and even if I share my knowledge with the less enlightened, they still won’t get it.
“No. Bruce Robison wrote that song,” I corrected them. “And his version is better, too.” I knew I was more advanced, so at this point I was just showing off.
Later, when we were alone, my husband gently and delicately popped my blister. “You do know Bruce Robison didn’t write ‘Desperately’ alone, right? He co-wrote the song with Monte Warden.” Oh, snap! Time to get some moleskin.
My immediate reaction was to right this wrong and tutor myself on what songs I didn’t realize were co-writes. Having a physical copy of the CD for the artwork and inserts is a must for me and I started there. I used to love mining through my dad’s record collection, checking out the artwork and reading through all the liner notes. Even today I do the same thing, but now I have an idea of what I’m looking for. Usually I look for any musician or songwriter I recognize; that information isn’t always listed on a digital download. During the expedition to educate myself on the true writers of some of my favorite songs, I was continually surprised by the amount of co-writes. Some songs just seem too personal to come from more than one source. It made me wonder, what exactly is a co-write? For the answer, I called up the “Texas/Nashville chick,” Alicia Pruitt, who is the Senior Director of A&R at Warner/Chappell. Pruitt coordinates co-write sessions and pitches songs for several LoneStarMusic artists on a daily basis.
“Anytime people put together ideas for a song, it’s a co-write,” Pruitt explained. “If a melody is brought in or a lyric is brought in, that still constitutes a co-write. Just because they aren’t writing the lyrics, they are still writing the music for it. We usually think of it as two people sitting down and writing — both of them having a guitar or piano and really getting down and writing the lyrics and melody all together, but that’s truly not in every case. There are so many different ways that people come up with music and lyrics and all of it is considered co-writing.”
In some cases, like with Mike McClure, co-writing has served as a lesson in the craft. “When I first started writing, I hung out with a lot of writers,” he says. “I’d go out to the Farm with my acoustic and sit in the yard playing. Some days Scott Evans would be there and we’d start working on something. Or it’d be [Bob] Childers or whoever happened to be in the mood to pick.” Early in his career, co-writing even brought McClure some national attention when Garth Brooks recorded one of his songs. “Garth changed some of the lyrics in the chorus, but didn’t credit himself so I would ‘make more money.’ It was pretty cool of him. At the time though, I thought it would have been cool to have a co-write listed with him.”
Co-write sessions also mend the lack of structure that many musicians are missing in their lives. “The most valuable thing about co-writing for me is the discipline to sit down and finish the song,” says Guy Forsyth, whose latest release, Live at Gruene Hall, features multiple co-writes with the likes of Darden Smith, Brian Keane and Mark Addison. “When I’m writing with someone it’s clear that the reason we’re there is to write a song. Some of it is out of respect for the person that I’m working with. They came here for this and gave me their time, so I’m gonna sit down and we’re gonna focus and get to a place where we can see it.”
Walt Wilkins agrees. “As you get older you have less time to write,” he explains. “Co-writing kind of insures that you get some songs done. Guy Clark even co-wrote his last few albums. You move faster and you have the energy of someone else in the room.”
Wilkins says he’s also learned more about his craft through his co-writing experiences — though early on, his lessons were more about what not to do. Having already written 30 or so songs by the time he moved to Nashville in 1992, Wilkins wasn’t anticipating the obligation of co-writing. The forced writing sessions that came with his publishing deal are something he considers a mistake in his career that existed only to satisfy what he refers to as “publisher’s math.” When an artist is paid to co-write and turn in songs regularly, the odds of writing a hit go way up. The first three years in Nashville taught Wilkins a lesson about standing up for himself and keeping his songs “pure.”
“You dilute it,” he observes. “I got numb to the fact that I was supposed to be getting hits, but it’s an art. I did want hits and I wanted to be successful, so I made that trade. But, you dilute your songs with co-writing. There are a lot of songs where I came in with what I thought was a cool idea and watched it fly in another direction. You can lose something of your own idea if you write with someone and they get excited and run in the other direction. It took a couple years to learn that and learn how to stand up for myself.” After 10 years and the end of his publishing deal, Wilkins moved back to Texas and enjoys the co-writing that he now does on his own terms with the people he chooses.
For Randy Rogers, having a publishing deal helps motivate him to fit writing into his busy schedule. “For me it’s easier to schedule when I have to write,” Rogers says. “We tour so much that I have to set aside days for writing. I’m way more disciplined now about writing. Of course I have a publishing deal now and there is a financial incentive to write a whole bunch of songs, but if money wasn’t involved I think I’m still a little bit more responsible about writing. I’ve realized that without good, new material your career ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Co-writing keeps Rogers on task, but his publishing deal does not require the sessions. When he does co-write, though, he seeks out people he respects. “I was writing mostly by myself in the beginning, because I didn’t really have the opportunities to write with some of the people I respected and looked up to. As our band has gotten down the road a little, opportunities to write with more people have arisen.”
Most writers have a wish-list of songwriters they would like to collaborate with. “When you work with another songwriter there is a reason you chose to work with them.” Forsyth explains. “The best reason would be that they wrote something you really liked and you thought ‘Damn, I wish I wrote that.’” One person whose name kept popping up every time I asked someone who was on their co-write wish-list was Ray Wylie Hubbard. Hubbard has a reputation for writing great songs, but he is also known for being a mentor within the Texas music community. Occasionally, like with Hayes Carll, he even takes a favorite under his wing,
“‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ ‘Dead Flowers,’ ‘Memphis,’ ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ have already been written, so when I co-write, I don’ t have to write those,” Hubbard says. “I just have to take what’s presented by the other writer and try to write that. All of the co-writes I have done are when other writers ask to write with me, since I wouldn’t ask any one to stoop down to my level.”
Hubbard is joking, of course, but the advise he offers is still invaluable. “I enjoy spouting off about craft and inspiration and purpose and effort and removing doubt, but the best advice I can give any young writer is to read The Grapes of Wrath don’t just listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
Along with Hubbard, other writers that seem to come up over and over on co-write wish-lists were Wilkins and Kevin Welch. “The first time I wrote with Kevin, I was a little nervous as to how that was gonna go,” says Micky Braun, of Micky and the Motorcars. “It ended up being a lot of fun and gave me a good perspective on what it’s like to write with someone who’s written so many great songs.”
Braun co-wrote the LoneStarMusic Awards song of the year, Cross Canadian Ragweed’s “51 Pieces,” with Cody Canada and Mike McClure. When two or more artists get together to write there are no real rules as to who can record it. “Sometimes it’s based on who is going in the studio next or if it’s your baby and you brought it to the table,” Braun says. “At the end of the day, if you brought it to the table then you have the final say on who records it, since it was yours in the beginning. But it doesn’t really matter (to me). If both artists want to go back to their band and put it on a record then that’s fine. There was kind of a surge of that about five years ago with Cody Canada and Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen. If you’re putting a different vibe on it then it can be pretty cool.”
Some of Rogers’ earliest co-writes were with long time friend Wade Bowen. “The first song we wrote together was ‘Lay It All on You,’” Bowen recalls. “We wrote that song across the street from Cheatham Street Warehouse. It was truly my first experience co-writing that I can remember.” Both Bowen and Rogers recorded the song and they still team up to write when they can work out the scheduling. They also reconnect for an acoustic tour together, dubbed “Hold My Beer and Watch This,” that runs in May and June of each year. Bowen adds, “It has always been great writing with Randy. I think the biggest difference between then and now is that we have both found our sound and know when to say no to a direction. We are not afraid to tell the other that something isn’t good. But mainly we are just comfortable around each other and I think that is half the battle in a co-write.”
Finding the right fit seems to be the most challenging and rewarding part of co-writing. “If you look closely, it seems that most artists have their songwriting friend they turn to when they need good songs,” Bowen says. “They almost define a moment in the artist’s career, such as Pat Green’s when he fell in love with co-writing with Walt Wilkins. It was just magic and all who bought those albums during that time could feel the love. This is just one case. There are a million more.”
Wilkins did recall a few good things that came from his Nashville experience. “I’ve found a handful of writers that I always look forward to writing with and you get kind of a short hand between you, an unspoken mysterious set of sensibilities that you share,” he says. “Liz Rose is one of my favorites. We have fun and we laugh and we kind of know instinctively what the other is talking about. I also met Davis Raines in Nashville. We played some shows together there and I immediately knew he was one of the best songwriters alive. We write together whenever we can.”
Rogers seems to have found his perfect fit with Sean McConnell, who co-wrote two songs on Rogers’ last album and will have three co-writes on the upcoming album, Burning the Day (set for an August 2010 release). “I thought it would be such a cool combo to see how Randy and Sean work together,” says Pruitt, who set up the first writing session between the two. “They are very different in their musical tastes. It worked right off the bat. They love each other and they are five for five on writing and recording. If I put two guys in a room together and both are texting me without the other knowing saying ‘this is amazing,’ then I feel like I’ve won.”
McConnell recalls the day he and Rogers co-wrote “In My Arms Instead.” “It was a really rainy and depressing day if I remember correctly,” McConnell says. “I think we were both just in that kind of mood. We were hanging out in Randy’s hotel room, staying out of the rain. That song just kind of fell out. We started playing those chord changes and the melody followed. The lyrics just echoed the vibe of that day and we went with it. It was a very easy write. I love the song we came up with.”
The songwriter isn’t usually the first thought for most listeners. “I think that the songwriter is overlooked a lot at that level when a song is an enormous hit for George Strait or Willie Nelson or those guys.” Braun says, “Of course, Willie does write a lot of his own stuff, but when it’s a big hit usually nobody knows who wrote the song and if it’s a really good song then it’s kind of a bummer that people don’t realize who actually wrote it. Like Keith Whitley. Everybody loves Keith Whitley, but nobody realizes that he didn’t write anything. But it’s still good for the writer. Their songs are out there and they’re making mailbox money.”
The general population is unaware of the songwriter and they don’t seem to mind. “It has never bothered me,” Wilkins insists. “I grew up in a songwriter culture. I knew who the songwriters were and I knew I was going to write. If someone thinks that Pat wrote ‘Poetry’ [written by Wilkins and Raines], that doesn’t bother me at all. I’m just happy that they know the song. The people who care are going to find out for themselves. I’ve never been one to care about the credit part, but . . . it is nice when you get it.”
Getting the songs out there seems to be much more important to these songwriters than having everyone know they are the writer (or co-writer) of the songs. The next time I travel outside of the blister, I hope to be a little more informed, a little less sensitive and happy for the fact that Bruce Robison and Monte Warden are collecting their mailbox money because my family likes George Strait.