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.

Review – Ronnie Dunn’s “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas”

Ronnie Dunn Ain't No Trucks In Texas

When it comes to Ronnie Dunn’s career, it’s been a tale of two halves. In the first half, it was quite a wild and successful ride for Dunn. He was one half of one of the most iconic duos in country music history in Brooks & Dunn. Dunn and Kix Brooks racked up multiple #1 hits, platinum albums and numerous awards. Their mark on country music is no doubt impactful and will be remembered for years to come. In 2010, the group broke up and thus began Dunn’s second half of his career as a solo artist. He released a self-titled album in 2011, his first as a solo artist. It reached #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and in my view was a pretty solid album. The standout from it was “Cost of Livin’,” a song about a military veteran trying to find employment. In June 2012, Arista Nashville dropped him from his label and released an album last year under this own label, titled Peace, Love And Country Music. I did not get a chance to review this album, but I did listen to it and I offered some commentary on it last year when I wrote a response to Dunn’s Facebook post on older country artists. I thought the albums was a rocky listen and tried too hard to appeal to mainstream and quality at the same time. It didn’t have a clear direction at all.

Despite not really being a fan of that album (save a couple of songs), I have admired Ronnie Dunn’s tenacity and determination in recent years of making country music the right way and fighting for older artists. If you follow him on Facebook, he always has something on his mind and interacts with his fans all of the time. He truly cares about the business, his fans and the state of country music. Dunn has also endorsed several up and coming artists, including Sturgill Simpson. The great news for Dunn is his persistence paid off, as Scott Borchetta officially announced he signed him to his new label NASH Icon in January 2015, a label for older country artists still active in making music. For Dunn this was the opportunity he appeared to be seeking and his chance to continue to make an impact on the genre with his music. A few weeks back he released his first music through NASH Icon, the first single from a new upcoming album, titled “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas.”

It’s very much a Ronnie Dunn song, yet it’s also something that could appeal to radio. It has balance. I think one of the problems with Dunn releasing music through his own label was that there weren’t enough people to tell him no or suggest something different with his music. In other words, making music with a major label means there are more gatekeepers to help filter and cultivate the sound of the music. Dunn is a talented artist without a doubt, but even great talents need people around them to help hone in their sound and find the best fit. They’ve done it with “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas.” The song itself is about a bitter man who’s in a state of denial after a breakup. The denial runs so deep for him that he’s denying obvious things such as football in the south and bourbon in Kentucky. While these clichés that will annoy some people, to me it drives home the emotion of the song perfectly. It frames the mindset of the bitter, heartbroken man very well. Kudos to the writers of the song, Wendell Mobley, Tony Martin and Neil Thrasher. The production and instrumentation undoubtedly has some mainstream country tinges to it, but the core is without a doubt country. Like I said, this song does a great job balancing between quality and radio, the biggest problem Dunn had with his last album.

This isn’t the best song we’ve ever gotten from Ronnie Dunn, but it’s pretty solid nonetheless. This is the kind of song Dunn needed to kick off his start with Nash Icon. I think Dunn’s relationship with the label is an ideal situation for both sides and they could do a lot of good together. I’m looking forward to giving Dunn’s new album a listen if this single is an indicator of the direction it takes. “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas” is one of the better singles I’ve heard from mainstream country in 2015.

Grade: 8/10