[cb_profit_poster Guitar1]Clinton, S.C., Monday, August 26, 2013, 10:39 a.m.
A disadvantage of songwriting is that it detracts from song listening. It’s a good problem to have, all in all, I reckon, or, at least, not a terrible one.
It’s just that, back in the previous decade, I was knowledgeable. I wrote a book called True to the Roots: Americana Music Revealed (University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books, 2006). While compiling the information for that book, the experience of hobnobbing with performers such as Robert Earl Keen Jr., Slaid Cleaves and Jack Ingram led me to teach myself how to play guitar passably and then to start writing songs and performing them in front of audiences that were mostly small. That experience also led me to turn the main character in my first novel into a singer-songwriter, Riley Mansfield. In The Audacity of Dope, Riley isn’t based on any one person but rather drawn from characters I encountered on the road. That wasn’t originally the novel’s name – for the longest time, it didn’t have one – but the second draft was an extensive rewrite because I turned Riley – I can’t remember whether that was the hero’s original name or not – into a pot-smoking musician who becomes an unlikely and reluctant hero.
Audacity was always a suspense thriller. It always involved politics, but the main character’s audacity didn’t evolve into “dope” until after I finished True to the Roots. I was anxious to find a publisher, and this re-creation (and recreation) of the hero set it apart, I hoped, from other novels on the market. It worked. I found a publisher, and now Neverland Publishing (neverlandpublishing.com) is getting my second novel, The Intangibles, ready for release in late October.
The Intangibles is also, uh, not for the kiddies, but it has many more characters and is set in a small South Carolina town during public-school desegregation in the late 1960s. Fairmont is a college town, which is similar to Clinton but also Newberry, Greenwood, Anderson and many others. Some of what happens fictionally is based loosely on actual events, but just as much is created for the purposes of the story.
When my job was eliminated, I planned to put some effort into getting some of my songs published and on the market. What has happened is that I’ve become so immersed in prose – selling one book (Audacity), editing another (Intangibles) and writing a third (Crazy by Natural Causes) whose first draft is close to completion – that I’ve had little time for music. I still play songs at appearances for The Audacity of Dope – after all, I wrote the lyrics that are quoted in the text as Riley’s songs – and go to the occasional local jam session, but I’ve written only two or three songs all year.
What’s more, I haven’t listened to music as much. Most of my music listening takes place while I’m riding, either on the highway or around the yard on my lawn tractor. I started musing on this subject late Saturday night after the Bristol NASCAR race was over and Wilco was featured on PBS’s “Austin City Limits” show.
Another factor is that I don’t have much money to spend on music, but it’s mainly because I’m obsessed with writing novels. I keep hoping someone will read Audacity who is (a.) interested in making a movie out of it, which would rock, or, (b.) impressed enough by my lyrics to want to hear the songs, or, oh, maybe, record one or two or a dozen.
As far as comparing songwriting to novel writing, I love both. I’d say songs are more fun. Novels may not require more discipline, but they require it in greater length and intensity. Novels I find a bit more rewarding, mostly because they require so much more time. There’s a mite more agony in novels and a tad more ecstasy in songwriting.
Not that I’m Michelangelo or nothing.
Some songs I write are written to be catchy and commercial. Others are written because I feel I have something to say, even though it might not be suitable for prime time. I take personal pride in some songs that have little chance of drawing widespread interest from others.
I get a lot of, “Man, that’s a damn good song,” and not much, “Hey, I’d like to record that song.”
The bottom line, though, is that I write because I love it, and that applies to books – I wrote a bunch of non-fiction books before I tried fiction – and music. As a musician, well, I’m a damn fine writer. I’ve always paid more attention to words than music, and that defines my strength and my weakness. Most of my songs that begin with words are simple in terms of chord patterns. If chord patterns define a song’s origin, it’s still not complex, but the melody is more interesting.
I like irony and offbeat rhymes:
A cyclone has wrecked Bangladesh / Yet somehow I still feel quite refreshed.
It won’t be smokin’ cigarettes or drinkin’ hard liquor / Ain’t nothing killing me like living is.
If you ain’t an outlaw / You can’t play outlaw music / If you ain’t got money/ You can’t buy no car / If you can’t drive / You can’t race in NASCAR / And no matter where you go / There you are.
You’ve just got to find a way to find a balance / Between what you want and what you really need / A man can only get so far on talent / And he can’t make a living just on dreams.
What’s my favorite line in a country song? Probably Roger Miller’s:
Spent the groceries and half the rent / I lack 14 dollars having 27 cents.
My favorite verse? That’s Tom T. Hall’s:
Past some hound dogs and some dominecker chickens / Temporary looking houses with their lean and bashful kids / Every mile or so a sign proclaimed that Christ was coming soon / And I thought, well, man, He’d sure be disappointed if He did.
My favorite hook was written by Hank Cochran:
You wouldn’t know love / If it looked you in the eye.
Take a deep breath. It’s so perfect it hurts, and that was Cochran’s plan.
Thanks for reading my daily electronic scribblings. My iPhone is a modern cocktail napkin, and my laptop is a file cabinet. Let me know what you think, and consider the advertisers if you think of it.