The Hodgepodge: Why I Put So Much Stock into Songwriting

Will Hoge solo at ACM @UCO Performance Lab, Oklahoma City, OK. December 4, 2015
Will Hoge solo at ACM @UCO Performance Lab, Oklahoma City, OK. December 4, 2015

After finally listening to Sturgill Simpson’s interview with Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast and listening to Guy Clark for the past day or more, I’ve been thinking a lot about song lyrics and songwriting as a whole. Clark was a masterful songwriter. It’s a shame to hear about his passing as he joins a long list of music legends lost in 2016. Do yourself a favor and explore Clark’s catalog if you haven’t yet.

As a music fan, lyrics are what draw me into a song (which is why I catch myself focusing on the song’s content more than anything when reviewing music). I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry, and love dissecting songs with abstract lyrics. I also enjoy writing stories on my own time. And while it’s been over a year since I’ve worked on a screenplay, I’m still constantly crafting stories in my head. I say all this to show how I’ve essentially conditioned myself over the years to look at the stories and words used to communicate the messages of songs.

That’s not all that goes into a song obviously, but lyrics are the first thing I notice, and the part of the song I typically hold in a higher regard. The beauty with songs, and poetry in general, is the typical sort nature of the format requires skill to convey details in a short amount of time. This is why the laundry-list type songs work in popular country. Bonfire, moonlight, beer, and trucks set the scene. It’s enough generic detail for the mindless listener to easily fill in the blanks to his or her own party. But in well-written songs, one line or one specific word can convey emotion or provide detail that a different, lesser word or line could not. The example at the front of my brain is “The Funeral” by Turnpike Troubadours. The entire song deals with a rebel son, Jimmy, returning home after a while for his father’ funeral. It’s clear he’s the black sheep of the family and there’s quite a bit of tension in the song’s subtext. In the final verse, there’s a line that says “he knew his daddy’s .38 was in that trunk buried deep, and it’d find its rightful owner once his mama was asleep.” To me, the word “rightful” hammers home the narcissism and selfishness the rest of song builds up about Jimmy.

The main problem with Music Row is how desperate these songs seem to stay relevant with the younger demographic. Building whole songs off pop-culture phrases like snapbacks and “said no one ever” or maintaining buzzwords to add a self-imposed legitimacy to a song. As evidenced by a majority of the singles from the past five years mainly, it’s become monotonous with the same kinds of songs, settings, actions being sung and written.

The CMA has a songwriters’ series where the songwriters from the major labels get their chance to sing the songs they wrote for singers like Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, and more. It’s a chance for these songwriters to share their stories as to how they come up with the songs. Yet with so many songs of the same nature, you get boring stories of how three guys in a room manufacture a hit. For instance, Luke Laird shares the same kind of story for how “American Kids” was written and how “Take a Back Road” was written. Essentially it’s a song that came out of how they all grew up. While it’s great for the songwriter to have the spotlight for a moment, it’s also a little disappointing when it’s a mediocre song with no special story.

Compare that to hearing Wendell Mobley sing “There Goes My Life.” While he doesn’t share the story of the song at the show, the story of the song makes his soulful performance that much more powerful. Mobley fathered a daughter while only in high school, and that daughter passed away at just one year old. Outside of the back story, “There Goes My Life” is still a great, well-written song. And I’m not saying every songwriter needs to sing the song they wrote about one of their worst moments in life, but I think it’s disappointing to hear something like “this is how me and some other guys grew up, so we just put random phrases together that rhymed.”

It appears that we’re on the brink of some more meat in songs produced on Music Row. Going back to the level of maturity from 10/15 years ago will take some time. The labels won’t go from 0 to 60 right away, but it seems that they’re slowly making the move toward maturity…or so they say. Even with a deeply personal, religious song on If I’m Honest, Blake Shelton has still recorded an immature revenge song in light of his divorce from Miranda. The leaked lyrics for “She’s Got a Way with Words” are mean-spirited, but what else can you expect from Blake?

At the end of the day, it’s been the constant immaturity from the songs that’s continued to turn me off from mainstream country and helped me further appreciate Americana, Red Dirt, select Texas Country, and independent singer/songwriters. For the most part, the songs are written from a place of honesty and vulnerability that I have the utmost respect for. As a music fan, there’s honestly nothing better than sitting in a listening room with a great songwriter on stage, aided only by an acoustic guitar (or piano), and pouring his/her heart out while singing their songs. I know that’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s something I think every music fan should experience. With the rate that Nashville has gone for the past decade, it’s an experience you’re more likely to find outside of the mainstream realm of country music.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • The Honeycutters’ On The Ropes will be released tomorrow.
  • Dierks Bentley’s Black will be released on May 27th.
  • Also released on the 27th is Yarn’s This Is The Year.
  • Maren Morris’ highly anticipated debut, Hero, will be released in two weeks on June 3rd.
  • First we had Hold My Beer Vol. 1, now we get Watch This! Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers will release a live acoustic album from their Hold My Beer and Watch This tour. Watch This will be released June 3rd.
  • Lori McKenna will release The Bird & the Rifle on July 29.

Throwback Thursday Songs

I don’t have a non-country suggestion this week, so I’ll include some extra Guy Clark songs here. Seriously, go listen to him.

Tweet of the Week

It’s starting to seem that way.

A Nightmare iTunes Review

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A review praising Cole Swindell’s new album and hoping that he attains Luke Bryan’s superstar status. Cole Swindell is already basically Luke 2.0, but I hope that doesn’t evolve any further.

Album Review – Keeley Valentino’s Self-Titled EP

Keeley Valentino takes her time with musical releases. That’s not a complaint, but a fact. Her first album was released in 2005 and her second in 2009. And now, here in the fall of 2014, we have her third release of music with a self-titled EP.  Keeley told The Boot that she was confident in her work to fund the project herself instead of reaching out to fans through crowd funding sites like Kickstarter. The result of that soaring confidence is a carefully crafted, well-produced six-song project steeped with a great performance from this skilled singer-songwriter. Comparing this EP to her first two albums, Keeley Valentino is delivering music at the next level thanks to the production quality that producer Matt Mangano brings to the table. A producer and now bassist for the Zac Brown Band, Mangano’s musical prowess is nothing but a valuable addition to team Valentino.

The EP opens with the fun, upbeat love song “Everything In Between”. Story-wise, the song is about falling in love and the development of that love. The love Keeley sings about is strong and full of hope. This song is undeniably pop and friendly to the ear, but Keeley makes the simple song structure work. She’s a gifted songwriter and sells the story of this young love. The EP’s lead single, “Little Things,” comes next and is one of the strongest tracks on this project. The instrumentation starts off with a simple acoustic guitar and builds with each stanza, coming to a roaring conclusion along side a gospel chorus harmonizing behind Keeley’s vocals. A song about dreaming big without losing sight of the present, Keeley delivers this message with strength and authentic passion. The most country song of the six is “Signs for Bakersfield.” Featuring mandolins and steel guitars, this song is about Keeley fearing a return to California. She details how this is place where dreams are nothing but dust and bad memories, and how the signs for Bakersfield are the triggers for those memories. This song features some great writing and descriptions of California (“Far away from any beach, even out of the Angels’ reach, goodbyes get swallowed up in this Valley”).

In the second half of the EP, Keeley steps away from first person story telling beginning with “Love Will Come Around Again.” The keys of the piano and organ drive this track about getting over a break up. Keeley relates her own experiences to a girl who’s just been broken-hearted, advising her to not be distraught because love will return. “Burned” is, in my opinion, the best track on this EP. Firstly, the production of the song stands out because it begins with echoing notes and a distant drum beat that move together with subtle guitars and pianos. On the surface, maybe at a first listen, the production appears simple and stripped back, but it’s complex, perfectly layered and haunting. Lyrically, the song is a look at a relationship that fell apart and how the couple attempts to move on their own. The relationship was strong enough and its end was terrible enough to leave them both forever burned and scarred. Keeley Valentino writes some powerfully heart-breaking lyrics like “Starting over is as hard as it seems, we’re always haunted by broken dreams”; and “she still checks for monsters all alone in the dark, now just to be safe she checks under her heart.” Perhaps the most impressive part of the whole song is the fact that Keeley hits such a high note in the choruses. Her high-notes combined with the echoing instrumentation create a sort of haunting emptiness that captures the emotions of the song’s characters. I applaud Keeley, Matt and the entire crew credited on this track for an excellent song in “Burned.” The EP rounds out with “Underneath;” another song where Keeley motivates others to move on from a past that didn’t work. She inspires us to face our demons and find out who we are underneath and inside. Another song that builds as it progresses, “Underneath” is a strong conclusion with a passionate performance from Keeley.

My only complaint is that this isn’t an album of 10 or 12 songs. However, delivering a completely solid EP without filler tracks is better than an LP with a filler song or two. These six songs are nothing short of great, and certainly worth the wait that Keeley Valentino fans undoubtedly had for her next project. I stated in my first post for Country Perspective that Keeley Valentino had the potential to be a female leader in country music. I still stand by that statement after this EP release, whether you call her pop, folk, Americana, or country. Great country music, in my opinion, features great songwriting and honest storytelling. In spite of the pop elements infused in some of these songs, Keeley’s ability to tie lines together with a great rhyme and describe situations with perfect visualization prove her worthiness alongside country’s best songwriters. Sonically, this EP brings a pure, fresh sound under Matt Mangano and (as if I haven’t mentioned it enough yet), Keeley Valentino is a hell of a singer.

Grade: 10/10