I Am “Just” a Songwriter

I have never considered myself a singer-songwriter. Yes, I write songs. When I was in bands, from my punk days in the 80s to my last incarnation of a bluegrass band about 10 years ago, I wrote songs for the projects. It started out as due to no one else taking the initiative to write material (or at least, write presentable material), but as I concentrated on it more and my band formats changed, I valued the art of songwriting.

The term “singer-songwriter” never fit with me. I was never comfortable going on stage by myself with a guitar and perform alone. I would do it on occasion if someone asked me to do a set for a special occasion or benefit. I have no problem doing an open mic night of one or two songs, especially if I want to see what a song that I just wrote sounds like live. However, most of the material that I write has a band feel to it, especially the more recent songs that have a bluegrass slant. For a few years, I was in a band that had a female vocalist fronting the band. It was pretty awkward writing songs from a female perspective, but I trudged through it. In fact, some of my best and more recognized work was those songs.

I never felt that I had either the voice or songwriting persona of a singer-songwriter. One thinks of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, or my personal favorite Tom Russell, when one thinks of a singer-songwriter. No, I consider myself just a songwriter.

I don’t even consider myself a performer any more. I have lost interest in performing with bands for a number of reasons. There is a lot of great music out there that I enjoy listening to, but do not have an interest in playing it live. I will still occasionally pick a Beatles or Clash song on the bass or guitar when I’m sitting around the house, but would not consider playing them on stage. My great music love currently is bluegrass. I immerse myself into it constantly. Heck, I started this blog series because of my passion for bluegrass and what I love/hate about it.

However, I have even become disinterested in performing bluegrass with a band on stage. Oh, if someone were to ask me to sit in as a substitute for a show or two, I probably would do it as a favor. There are a lot of factors though that have turned me off from playing in a bluegrass band.

First, a band has a unique personality. It exists somewhere between a job and family. You are working with three or four other people to move a project forward like one would do as an employee of a company, but you are also joining together to create an entity because of mutual passion, like a family. If all of the members of the band are not on the exact wavelength, it will fail. Girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse issues, dedication to the “real” job, other hobbies and time constraints will all affect the band’s existence. It is possible to find replacements, but then the cycle begins again, and again, and again.

As a songwriter, I found that I was always becoming frustrated that other members were not giving the same dedication that I was. When it came to bluegrass bands, it seemed that a majority of players (especially banjo players, sorry to those reading this) were only interested in performing the same 20-30 standard covers. I always felt that people come to see a band to hear its individual sound, and that includes original material. Yes, the big bluegrass acts like Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, the Gibson Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, and others will put a cover or two on their albums. However, a large majority of the songs that they record are either written by a band member or by songwriters the band has sought out.

I have mentioned this in an earlier blog, but again, it can be frustrating to see bands continually play only old standards on stage and consider themselves a viable bluegrass band. In my opinion, they are nothing more than a jam session that has perfected itself. I did not want to fall into that hole, so I chose to walk away from being in bands and stick to just songwriting, with the intent of getting my material to the ears of established artists who will then consider recording my songs on an upcoming album.

I’m in my mid-50s and have been involved with music for over 30 years. That includes playing, booking, promoting, managing, and songwriting. I have reached a point that I am tired of butting heads with others to try and keep a band going when it is obvious that it is dead in the water. So as a songwriter, I can make personal choices on how to move forward and only have myself to either reward or complain to.

Chew on it and comment.


By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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