It's early January and I am sitting at my desk, looking at the ever growing pile of albums that are waiting to be reviewed. It is our job to take the time to listen to each album and analyze, examine and dissect it to find the very best songs to recommend to you. On the flip side, it is also our job to assess each album and give recommendations to the entertainer on how they can improve on their music. It's a job that we take very seriously.
Behind this portion of our jobs, there are several policies we must follow. First and foremost, we must take the time to listen to the entire album. From the first note of the first cut all the way through to the final note on the last song, we must listen to it all. The second policy we must follow is that we are obligated to give constructive criticism. Another policy we must follow, and Strictly Country prides its self in this one, we review all material sent. We may not get to it right away, but we will eventually review it.
Perhaps the biggest policy we must follow is the policy of being honest with our reviews. An honest review is one that is not influenced by money, charts or another's perception of the album. Honesty is a rare thing to find in the music industry and we pride ourselves in keeping to this policy.
Following these policies can be difficult at times. There are times that we come across entertainers whom we don't care for. But we pull on our studio quality headphones and endure listening to the music with open hearts and minds. On the flip side, there are entertainers whom we absolutely adore who will release a 'bad' album and it breaks our hearts to have to tell them that.
Because we review all material sent, we have to deal with the entertainers who send it. As we are one of the very few companies who give honest opinions, we are often criticized for our honesty. Some entertainers can not take constructive criticism and they retaliate with letters and e-mails. Other entertainers come to value our honesty and often call to discuss their album with us. Sometimes it's not the entertainers who comment on our reviews, but the die hard fans who call us out.
Getting back to that pile of albums on my desk, I picked up the next album to review. It's an album by MIPSO called Old Time Reverie. This album features eleven songs that contained beautiful instrumentals. But it's the lyrics that forced us to give this album a very low score. In each of the songs on this album, the band went for the rhyme rather than staying with the subject of the song. This caused each of the songs on this album to sound atrocious, awful and down right horrendous.
Nonetheless, it was this album that prompted a very important question - When does a song have to much rhyme? This question prompted more and even more questions about songwriting.
While recording an episode of Around The Campfire radio show, Jack and I started discussing the various issues that arise about songwriting. Issues like the question above. Although the discussion never ended up on the show, we felt that it was a vast issue that we should address.
More often than we will admit, we as fans and listeners of music [as well as other forms of art] tend to think that songs are written in a matter of minutes. When in actuality, songs and other works of art [like this article] take time to create. Some may take merely minutes while others can take hours, days, months and even years!
So to help us all understand the songwriting process and to help us address such issues, like the one stated above, we thought that we would open up this discussion to the professionals. I put the call out to some of our friends who happen to be entertainers, songwriters and teachers of songwriting to come together to help us understand and address these issues. In each issue of Strictly Country, we will address another concern about songwriting and we will discuss each of these with our panel of professionals. Let me introduce you to our panel of professionals...
The first to join our panel is Mark 'Brink' Brinkman. Brink is one of the most sought after songwriters in Bluegrass, country and Gospel genres. His songs have been recorded by some of the most notable entertainers including Larry Sparks, Grasstowne, Don Rigsby, Lou Reid & Carolina, Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road and Dave Adkins. He has won various awards including six Spirit Awards. Today, he continues to write songs and is also a songwriting instructor.
Our next expert is Judy Rodman. Judy hit the country music scene with her 1986 hit song "Until I Met You." Throughout her vocal career, she has sung background vocals for some of country music's most notorious entertainers like Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette. Prior to the release of her third album, her record label folded. Instead of being in the spotlight of the music industry, Rodman focused on the behind the scenes portion. She has earned a wide variety of awards including the 2016 Spirit Award - President Choice Award for Best Country Album for her album Here We Are, recorded with her husband John Rodman. Today, she is an award winning vocal coach, recording artist, stage and television performer, public speaker, author, multi-genre hit songwriter, studio producer and vocal consultant.
Joining our panel next is Rick Stanley. Rick is the second cousin of the infamous Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph Stanley. Growing up Rick spent many hours with his father, Carter and Ralph singing and enjoying time through music. By the age of fifteen, Rick penned the very famous Bluegrass song "Home In The Mountains." The song was originally recorded by Ralph Stanley, however, it was recorded by many other great Bluegrass artists and even earned Rick a Grammy nomination. In the 1990's he held a major publishing deal with Maypop Music and enjoyed touring with Stonewall Jackson. Today, Rick tours with his wife Donna Ulisse as a member of The Poor Mountain Boys. He also continues to write songs and is an instructor for Donna's Songwriting Escape workshops.
Our final professional to join our panel is Donna Ulisse. Donna first emerged onto the music scene in the 1980's as a demo singer and background vocalist in country music. In 1991, she released her debut album Trouble At The Door. Since then she has merged over to Bluegrass and recorded nine more albums. Donna is another very highly sought after songwriter in Bluegrass. She has earned many numerous award nominations and has earned The Spirit Award's coveted President's Choice Award for Best Bluegrass Album for Hard Cry Moon in 2016. Her songs have been recorded by a variety of artists. In 2014, Donna wrote her first book, The Songwriter In Me, to earn great reviews. Today, she continues to demo, write songs and tour with her band The Poor Mountain Boys. She also is the owner and teacher of Songwriting Escape, a touring songwriting workshop.
Of course I have to add Jack and I to this panel as well. Jack is my co-host of Strictly Country's Friday night radio show Around The Campfire. Jack served in the United States Army, is a fan and a great aficionado of rock, country and bluegrass music. As for myself, for over twenty-three years I have been the owner, operator and Editor in chief of Strictly Country magazine.
Now that you know our panel of experts, let's get on to the the subject of the art of songwriting. The first question we asked our panel was this - In your opinion, what goes into writing a good song?
Within the Spirit Awards, Strictly Country defines a good song as "A good song is one that the listener can relate too. As it progresses, it will take a listener on a journey as it prompts long forgotten memories or even plays a mini story within the listener's mind's eye. When listening to a song, one should not have to try to figure out the song's message. The lyrics should be carefully chosen to carry the listener through the song with ease while it promotes various emotions. The melody of the song should not be over whelmed with various instruments. The instruments playing the melody should be carefully chosen to compliment the lyrics, thus creating a masterpiece worthy of the listener's precious time."
Each member of our panel were interviewed separately, but collectively came up with an all around, same answer.
Right away Donna stated "Honesty."
"If you're gonna write a good song; honesty is good and you've got to know or have some kind of experience in what you're writing about." shares Rick. "If it's a broken heart - to make it believable to your listeners."
Perhaps that is why so many songs released today, lack the pure raw emotions. Maybe the songwriter wrote it with 'honesty' in mind, but the entertainer does not know or lacks the experience that is needed to create that honesty feeling to bring it out in their performance. For an example, Lady Antebellum consists of talent, however, they lack the passion and experience to draw from to bring any of their songs to life.
"Well the most important part is that it is worth writing." shares Judy. "It has an idea that is worth writing about. Then the second most important thing is that it has a very concise and just ice pick structure; where there is no and, or, or but that's not necessary. There's not an if, and or but that's necessary that's missing. In other words, it's like - just an incredibly, masterly woven tapestry. It looks seamless, but everything is exactly where it needs to be."
We do come across many albums that lack what Judy is saying. Case in point, Kevin Gordon's album Long Gone Time. Throughout the album, Kevin utilizes too many words to state his point. By doing so, the main subject matter of the song is lost within the lyrics. Therefore, the listener is stuck as their mind wanders away from the music. The result of this is that Gordon's album ends up in the garbage and his efforts, time and money are wasted.
"It kind of depends on what you want to get out of the song, in a lot of ways. Are you writing a tear jerker or are you writing a ditty song, just a dance song that people really love and have fun with?" shares Brink. "I think you approach them differently that way and what would go into that song. If you're trying to get an upbeat, positive song that's gonna go up the charts - write a little more commercial, but have fun with it! Those are the elements that kinda go into it."
So when you break it all down, what really goes into a great song?
"The first thing is you have to have a good connection, I have to have some sort of connection and I need to find it between me and the song. Otherwise it just doesn't turn out right." adds Brink. "Even if I don't know somebody with Alzheimer's, for example, I can do research and I can identify with it, I have to connect some how to that song. If I write about my mother, it can't be so much about my mother that other people can't relate. So they can go to their place, while I'm going to my place while singing the song. So you can pull the listener in on everything. To me that's what makes a great song. If you can pull the listener in and they want to listen because they can identify as much as you, to me that's a win win right there. That's where people will say 'play that song for me again, 'cause I really love it.' Because they can identify with it."
Perhaps the biggest example of a song that many can identify with is Billy Dean's "Billy The Kid." Although, Dean wrote the song as an honor for his father, he also wrote it in such a way that many can identify with it. The song brought us back in time to a memory of how we as children imagined, played and pretended being someone we were not.
In fact if you look back into music, it doesn't really matter what genre, the best songs are those whom you can identify, acknowledge and understand.
"Case in point, AC DC," adds Jack. "They are one of the most popular groups in Rock. Their songs are simple and straightforward. All of their songs fit together with the combination of the intense guitar, the rhythm is tight and Brian Johnson has the perfect vocal delivery in Rock."
Think of all the great songs that you have enjoyed over the years - "Mountain Music," "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool," "I Walk The Line," "A Picture Of Me Without You," "Coat of Many Colors," "Coal Miner's Daughter," etc. They were all popular because the general public could relate to them.
Now think about today's music...Can you, off the top of your head, name one, two or three songs that you can relate to? If you can, are they just as good as those listed above?
"So it's what my friend, Britton Cameron [singer and songwriter] calls the art and craft of songwriting." adds Judy. "There's an art to it, you need to have an idea worth writing. And the craft to it, you really need to expertly put it together."
In today's music, is the art and craft of songwriting being lost to the quota of the songs? Is quality lost to the quantity?
Tune in the next issue, as we address more issues in regards to the art of songwriting.
(This article was printed in the March / April 2016 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)
This is the first in a long - exclusive to print and subscription - series of articles that exposes subject of songwriting.
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