Opening Remarks: Leadership Music
Friday, November 13, 1998
The King James Version of the Bible is full of rich imagery and flowery language that is often difficult to interpret. For instance, a passage from the Gospel of Matthew reads: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." Simply translated it means that heaven will be full of songwriters. A rough calculation would lead to the conclusion that fewer than 10% of those people who have determined to call themselves songwriters will succeed in earning even a modest living from their work in that field. On the other hand, a chosen few will be rewarded handsomely for their pursuits. The gulf that separates these two groups is full of tens of thousands of songs that are too long, too short, too country, too pop, too complicated, too ordinary, too hard to sing, too much like another song, not quite right, too good, too sad, indistinct, unnecessary, ill-conceived and probably lost forever. And, back to the scriptures for one last tortured image: Why is it then that "many are called, but few chosen?" Well, I think there are three reasons: Timing, talent and tenacity. The talent, however, is the key.
Great songwriters, I believe, have remarkable gifts. Clearly there is a fundamental understanding of and instinct for melody and harmony, rhythm, chord progression and other musical components that fit together to create the popular song. And, although I will say little more about these musical components, I suspect that most folks are initially drawn into a song because of its melody or beat or the instrumentation in which it was set or because of a particularly stunning vocal performance. Song structure, that is the verse, the channel, the bridge, the chorus, etc. is easily studied and learned. For me it is in the story-telling that the cream rises to the top. Great songwriters look at the world through two eyes: One is the eye of a prophet, one is the eye of a child. They listen to the world with two ears: One is the ear of a poet, one is the ear of a spy. Great songwriters seem to be, at the same time, standing right in the middle of everything and yet somehow just outside. They are preoccupied with the subtle twists and turns of language. They thrive on irony, consider pathos their own, fertile field, elevate the simple to the sublime, depend a great deal on the word blue and regret that there are fewer than a half-dozen pure rhymes for love. The work itself is tedious requiring equal amounts of spontaneity and patience. I would call it something like mystical labor. Most writers will tell you that they had very little to do with the best songs that they produced other than having the wisdom to stay out of their way. Then again, they'll also tell you that you've never heard the best songs they've ever written because they haven't been recorded and likely will never be. Great writers write 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. Others write only when they are inspired. Some succeed because they are diligent craftsmen. Others have such deep resources that great songs seem to just roll out of them. They draw from their own experiences, reflect on the experiences of others and they also make shit up. They have earned money from masterpieces and they have earned money from tripe. They are not messengers, they are not ministers, they are not counselors; they are songwriters. And, great songwriters, I believe, have remarkable gifts.
Harlan Howard, Bob McDill, Dave Loggins, Hugh Prestwood, Tony Arata, Don Schlitz, Bobby Braddock, Dennis Linde, Gary Burr - these are not the best songwriters in Nashville; they are the best in the world. I use their names for several reasons. In the 22 years that I have walked the streets of Music Row these gentlemen have been the most consistent, most diligent, most commercial, most profound, most enduring, most studied, most appreciated and most successful of them all. There are more, many more but, these men have climbed the mountain, they have found their own voices and those voices are distinct. And, guess how they found their own voices? They worked alone. Somehow the collective wisdom of Music Row has determined that if we put two or three or even four songwriters together in a room the result will be a song that is two or three or four times better when, in reality, the creative process is diluted, the focus blurred and the result is an innocuous little ditty that has all the right parts and then some unrecognizable 24 year old kid from Oklahoma will record it, a promotion team will run it up the charts, someone, somewhere will hear it on their car radio and think to themselves, "That sounds just like the last song they played," and then the song will win a BMI Award, the songwriters and publishers will make money and so the publishers will encourage the writers to write more of these ditties, the promotion team will urge the A&R department to get the kid from Oklahoma to record more of these kinds of songs because they can run them up the charts, the guy in the car will start listening to the Top 40 station because, "He just can't stand this shit anymore," the head of the sales department will tell the label head, "That kid from Oklahoma may be having hits but, he's not selling records," the kid will be dropped, staffers at the label will be let go, the songwriters' option will not be picked up, stand-up comedians will make jokes about country music and, eventually, we will all die. This, in my opinion, is the unnecessary result of co-writing.
Finally, let me say this about Garth Brooks. There is much spoken and written about his remarkable accomplishments but, our opinions of him, positive or otherwise, are irrelevant. The people have voted. He has reached them. He did it with shrewd, global marketing, with an astonishingly exciting live show and with a very vital, world-wide partnership with his record label. When it is all counted up, factored out, studied and analyzed, may it be remembered that he also did this:
And now I'm glad I didn't know
the way it all would end
the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could've missed the pain
but, I'd have had to miss The Dance
Of all the wonderful opportunities that have been afforded me in this town, in this business, it fills me with the greatest joy and satisfaction to be able to say that I am a songwriter. Thank you for letting me share these first few moments of your morning with you.