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Americana Music Songwriting

Nanci Griffith RIP

Toward the end of every week, I start to get frustrated thinking about what topic to post on my blog. When something comes along prior to tthe time to write, I feel relieved and happy. However, today I am not so happy with the news that came to me earlier in the day.

While driving home, my buddy texted me to say that singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith passed away. Although she left us on August 6, it was her wish that her death not be made public until a week afterward. Nanci was an Americana treasure. She wrote fantastic story songs. “Love at the Five and Dime” is an absolute classic. She rode the fence between folk and country music. She liked to call her music “Folkabilly.” Anyone that appreciated fine songwriting knew how great she was with a pen and guitar.

I was fortunate to see her perform twice. Each time, it was not a concert. She had an aura that made each audience member feel like she was singing and talking to that person alone. I know that sounds cliche, but with Nanci, it was true. Her banter between songs was so down to Earth, like you were sitting with her at a coffee house or bar. If she ever felt nervous on stage, you could not tell. She looked at you when she spoke.

She always looked like that girl you knew in high school, the one who was into poetry, but wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty changing the oil on a car if need be. She had an innocence on stage, yet was known for her cussing off stage. That is human, that is personable, that is what you want in a friend.

She was equally at home with a band or solo. Each song was a chapter in an American novel, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Every story, she was there, either as a reporter or protagonist. You could see the location in her words. After seeing one of her performances, it was guaranteed that you walked away emotionally satisfied.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, her record company was trying to pigeon hole her into the wave of neo-traditionalist country music performers. Nanci was much more, and she could not be put into such a category. Yes, her songs were like the country songs of old, but she and her songs were were beyond barriers. Folkies latched onto her. Other country artists looked to her for compositions and inspiration. She was so much better as long-standing singer-songwriter than she could ever be as a short-lived pop star. And the music world is so much better for it.

Like many songwriters, she went through a blockage for a few years, hers during the mid-2000s. She came back strong in 2009 with The Loving Kind. If I were to choose my favorite of her albums, it would be Flyer from 1994. Other great discs include 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind and 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, which won her a Grammy. She collaborated with so many other songwriters, the list is almost endless. I implore you to visit her catalog and listen to a few songs. You will surely be motivated to buy a few of her albums.

Goodbye, beautiful lady, dearest Nanci. You were a crush of mine, if only for your amazing writing. You are taking a piece of my heart with you. I pray that your songs will continue on for generations to come. I imagine some young girl who is just learning guitar and wants to sing, and she gets a hold of one of your albums, and learns from it.

Chew on it and comment.

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Americana Music Songwriting

Perfect Song #3: “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa

I probably should have written this blog last week during the Fourth of July holiday, but better late than never.

There is a reason that John Philip Sousa is called “The March King.” Look at all of the great marches he composed: “Semper Fidelis,” “El Capitan,” “The Washington Post,” “The Liberty Bell,” and his most famous, “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I consider this last one to be a perfect song, especially for its intent.

Sousa spent most of his life conducting military bands. He enlisted into the US Marine Band as an apprentice at the age of 14, and would eventually serve as its conductor for 12 years starting in 1880. Afterward, he led his own marching band until his death in 1932. However, during World War I, he was commissioned a lieutenant commander to direct the US Naval Reserve Band in Illinois. Most of his composing was done after his time in the Marine Band, which included 130 marches along with 15 operettas and 11 suites.

Sousa wrote “Stars and Stripes Forever” returning to the US after a trip to Europe in 1896, and it was first performed in Philadelphia a year later. The structure of the march is typical Sousa fare. A four-bar introduction. Followed by the first strain two times, the second strain two times, a break strain, the third strain (recognizable by the piccolos), break strain, and the final third strain, this time with the second strain in the background.

What makes this song so powerful is that it totally describes the land that was the United States so perfectly without any words, although lyrics do exist for this composition. The introduction comes in bluntly, like a battleship cutting through the ocean waves. Next comes a strong first strain, a musical interpretation of the industrial strength found in the northeast part of the nation. The second strain gives off a feeling that one is in the agricultural and laid-back South. The break strain reminds the listener of the conflicts that the country has faced and triumphed over to keep the nation as one (the first break strain could represent the Revolutionary War, the second could represent the Civil War). The third strain represents, as Sousa once stated in an interview, the expansion toward the West, discovering new adventures across the land.

My only differing opinion is that third strain. To me, those piccolos represent the voice of the common man, the voice that has kept the US a wonderful democratic republic that is still the envy of the world, despite all of the internal conflicts going on. Sousa had a musical mind that was comparable to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. He knew exactly what he wanted from all of the instruments in the band throughout the entire composition, This song, as well as most of his other marches, have amazing counter melodies working against the main melodies is a subtle but fulfilling way.

How can any American not be moved once those piccolos come into the mix? I can’t think of a time when I have heard the song performed in public and the audience doesn’t applaud for that moment. While most people think of brass horns when it comes to marches, Sousa had equal respect for woodwinds and percussion in his bands. All contribute to making this and his other marches ones that any army would be proud to march to. Just listen to that final strain! The song represents the US so well that, in 1987, Congress passed an act that declared it the official National March of the United States.

I give you some great examples of this work. First is the song performed by “The President’s Own” US Marine Band. This is followed by the Dallas Winds, which included 94 piccolos in the final strain. We follow that up with a touching rendition performed by The Band of the Grenadier Guards in Great Britain (when another nation is so moved by one of your country’s songs, you have to be proud). Finally, the day after the tragedy of the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, Queen Elizabeth requested her regimental band to perform the song during the changing of the guard. As an added tribute, the band performed “The Star Spangled Banner.” I cannot lie, I was totally moved to tears the first time I saw that video.

Chew on it and comment.

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Americana Music Songwriting

Billy Joe Shaver RIP / YouTube Channel

Last week it was Jerry Jeff Walker. This week it was Billy Joe Shaver.

My buddy texted me Wednesday with the sad new that Billy Joe Shaver had passed away after complications from a stroke. He was one of the true outlaws of country music. His songs were never hokey. They had grit. He wasn’t in the spotlight like Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson, but everyone close to the outlaw movement loved him and his songs.

His memorable songs are endless. “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and the classic “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train.” How can one not laugh and nod his/her head to the religious yet sarcastic “If You Don’t Love Jesus”? The greats covered his songs. Johnny Cash, Waylon, Willie, and yes, Elvis. Dylan held him in high esteem. So did so many Americana music fans.

Shaver lived the “outlaw” lifestyle. Not in the way of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, but in his own way. He served in the Navy, married and divorced the same woman several times, lost two fingers in a sawmill accident (yet still earned to play guitar), lost his wife and mother to cancer, and lost his son/bandmate to a heroin overdose. Yet he still carried on, writing amazing songs that will stand the test of time.

My big Billy Joe moment was in 2002. The Americana Music Association was still in its infancy, and they decided to hand out Lifetime Achievement Awards beginning that year. The award for Songwriting went to Shaver. Well deserved, and it was presented to him by The Flatlanders. I ran into Shaver a few minutes afterwards. I had seen his shows many times, but it was the first time that I ever met him face-to-face. I told him, “Billy Joe, a handshake just won’t do” and proceeded to hug him. Well, he hugged me back so hard I had to catch my breath. You could tell that he was humbled to receive the award, but more moved by the fact that people really knew and admired him.

He will be truly missed, not just by me, but by thousands of songwriters, performers, and fans. I could put “Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys” on Repeat and not be disappointed.

Just a quick note: I put up a few beginner bass guitar videos on my YouTube page, and will be doing some more in the near future. I also have some videos of me performing my own songs. I would appreciate any feedback that you can give.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0ID9z7AR8-0WWGDM-TrsIA

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Songwriting

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.

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Songwriting

Woe the Songwriter: Part 2

As a songwriter, a dream is one or more of my songs being recorded by a big name in the genre for which I am writing. If Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, or Doyle Lawson were to release an album with one of my songs, I could die with a smile on my face. It wouldn’t even have to be the single (although that would be way too cool!), but just the fact that an artist that I admire considers one of my songs good enough to record, that is a great reward.

I have been fortunate that a bluegrass artist did record one of my songs. Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike recorded my co-write “Something About A Train” a few years ago for her album Small Town Heroes. To see your name on someone’s CD cover as a writer is a great feeling. I don’t care about the royalties at this time (I will if this becomes more common, of course), but to get recognized is a great thing.

So now what? Yes, I want more, so I send out more demos and queries. Lots of them. No replies. Send follow-ups, no replies. I realize that there are a lot more bluegrass artists writing their own material these days, and even a lot more songwriters clawing for recognition in the genre as well. There are a lot of factors playing against me right now (no longer an IBMA member, Coronavirus pandemic means less live shows to network at, less recording going on in studios), but I still keep trying. I post songs new and old to my music websites ReverbNation (http://www.reverbnation.com/mitchmatthews) and Songwriting Pro (http://www.songwritingpro.com/members/profile/692), hoping for at least some feedback.

Yes, the bigger-name artists can pick and choose a lot more, and are most likely going to work with established songwriters in Nashville. Many are even stepping outside of the bluegrass fold and recording bluegrassy versions of pop/rock songs. But what about the other bluegrass artists? I am talking about bands that do not have great exposure but are striving for it. They will put out a CD with a dozen songs, but all of them are old standards that Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs originally made famous. Other than aunts and uncles, who is really going to buy that CD when the original version has been available for years?

Maybe these C- and D-list bluegrass bands don’t want success – they just want to play live once in a while and put out a CD to show that they accomplished something. CDs cost money, even if you record the songs for next to nothing with your brother-in-law’s recording equipment. My advice? Save the money for strings, maybe a better PA system, or a case of beer. You won’t get anywhere in the business selling CDs for $15.00 that contain the umteenth version of “Doin’ My Time” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Play them for jams, occasional live gigs, and for tryouts of new band members.

For new and wannabe successful bluegrass bands, I would like to make a few suggestions. Write some original material. If you have people in the band that just want to play the same 20 or so bluegrass standards and do not want to learn new material, then try to find someone who does want to improve. I stopped working in bluegrass bands locally because of this. I am a songwriter, and I do not want to waste my valuable practice and playing time with musicians who want to stay in the cover-band box. Try writing a good song, you will see how difficult but rewarding it can be.

If you can’t write a song to save your life, then spend some time looking for original material. Check with songwriters in your area at open mics (when they become available again after the pandemic) or surf the internet. Go to pages like ReverbNation or Songwriting Pro and scout out songwriters. Talk to them about performing and recording bluegrass versions of their songs. Most songwriters will be more than flattered that someone is interested in performing their music. I remember one of my first experiences of someone wanting to perform one of my songs. “Built To Crash” was on a compilation CD released by NPR’s show Car Talk. It was an alt-country diddy performed by my old band Gravel Train. A band on the east coast loved it and asked if they could perform and record it. I gave them my blessing. Now that band’s version was a heavy metal-meets-rockabilly, but I was loving it! Totally different, but the fact that someone respected my songwriting enough to want to record it was an absolute honor.

I work with a lot of other songwriters, either through co-writes or just networking, and the consensus we have is that we want to get out work heard. Yes, we would love to have an A-list band record a song, but there are factors such as bands putting songs “on hold” so that they have sole recording rights to the song for months, sometimes years. In the end, the song may never get released, and you are back to Start. It takes a lot of work to get top artists or their management/publishers to lend a songwriter an ear. If a start-up band wants to record your song and you know that they are definitely going to release it, it may be more beneficial in the long run. That CD may get heard by a promoter/manager/artist and think that your song would be a good choice.

In short, as a start-up or struggling bluegrass band, take a step back and see what makes the successful bluegrass bands successful. It is originality, particularly in the choice of songs. Learn, perform, record, and release songs that will make you an original band. Songwriters like me will appreciate it if you use a song of ours. It is totally beneficial for both parties. My songs are available for the picking!

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Songwriting

Woe, the Songwriter: Part 1

“It all starts with a song.”

This statement is all too overused in the music industry, particularly in Nashville. It seems that every association that is related to songwriting in Music City waves those six words like a patriotic flag. It is a good statement, but in my years of working as a songwriter, it seems that an extra word needs to be put in – “polished song.”

By “polished” I mean that it seems that no publisher, song shopper, artist, producer, or manager will listen to a song demo unless it is presented as a pro-studio demo recording. A quick but complete recording of vocals backed by guitar or piano is unheard of these days. No, it must include a basic backing band (guitar/piano, bass, drums, lead instrument), backing vocals, professional arrangement, and all done at a reputable studio.

That cost money. We are talking hundreds of dollars. Hundreds of dollars on one song. Hundreds of dollars that a starving songwriter doesn’t have. In the music industry food chain, when it comes to payment, the songwriters are the last to get their share, and most times, the share comes way late and is way less than promised (if anything at all).

As far as publishers and those people in search of songs for artists, they have become less of song listeners and more of production listeners. They aren’t listening to the actual song what story is coming across, where are the lyrical hooks, or how the words work with the rhythm and tempo of the song. No, they have to have something polished. They are looking for production creativity, perhaps to give the actual artist and/or producer so that they can take credit for the “sound.”

This is happening even in the field of bluegrass. While established songwriters can get away with basic demos, those starting out in bluegrass songwriting are orphaned unless they have some expensive recording to present. This is not just for presenting to artists and publishers, this is also true for simple songwriting contests and auditions. I stopped entering my solo writing compositions into such contests a while back (if I do a co-write, and my partners want to enter, I won’t hold them back) due to this situation. I do not want to spend money on a demo that may not go anywhere instead of paying my utility bill.

It comes down to “how much are you willing to invest in this song financially” rather than “how much you are willing to invest in this song mentally/emotionally/spiritually.” Song hunters and publishers become lazy, expecting the songwriters to do much of their work. These hunters and publishers are doing less listening to songs. Why? Because it’s easier, with less investment from their end.

I have had a few songs that have become notable. I’m more successful than many, but not that successful. I still have to keep my day job. However, I have reached a point that I cannot keep investing in recording professional demos in order to get my foot in the door. I will continue to write and co-write, put rough demos on my ReverbNation page (www.reverbnation.com/mitchmatthews), and hand over one of my demos to someone who I think may appreciate it and perhaps move it forward.

I hope to blog more on how songwriters get screwed over in the music industry, especially now with streaming and the fall of the CD. That is in the future. In the meantime, chew on this and comment.