My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Singers & songwriters

KrisKristofferson (Small)Country music has a long, rich heritage of artists who were both accomplished singers and songwriters — Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton are just a few examples of those who excelled not only as vocalists, but at writing their own material. Others, like George Strait and Reba McEntire, have occasionally dabbled into songwriting, but their true strength lies in interpreting the words of others.

In recent years, it’s become more expected for artists to write their own songs. Press releases for new artists boast about how many songs they co-wrote for their albums — emphasis on co-wrote; rarely do they seem to write songs without outside help. This has given rise to the oft-repeated “songwriting by committee” complaint. In addition, fans often argue that an artist who writes his or own material is superior to one who relies on outside writers.

Then there are those singer/songwriters whose true talent is with the pen and not the microphone. Kris Kristofferson, Bill Anderson, Nanci Griffith, and Matraca Berg have all been recording artists, but they are primarily thought of as songwriters.

While I appreciate the talent of those who can both sing and write, I’ve never considered it a prerequisite for someone to be able to do both in order to be considered a “true artist.” If someone is a great vocalist and knows how to pick good material and interpret the lyrics, I don’t care who wrote them. My enjoyment of a performance is not diminished by the knowledge that someone else wrote the song. I’d rather listen to a great vocalist who doesn’t write, than a mediocre singer who is an excellent composer. Still, there are those who insist that performers be able to do both, and do both well.

What are your thoughts? Is it important to you that your favorite performers write their own material? Can someone be considered a true artist if they are reliant on others to supply them with lyrics and melodies?

26 responses to “Singers & songwriters

  1. highwayman3 July 10, 2009 at 10:34 am

    My opinion is it doesnt matter. As long as the artist has good taste is songs regardless of if they wrote them or found them. I wouldn’t say Trisha Yearwood is less of an artist because she doesn’t write, I trust her instinct in choosing quality songs the same way I trust Alan Jacksons instinct in writting quality songs.

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  3. Paul W Dennis July 10, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    It’s of no importance at all. So many of these so-called co-writes are either mediocre songs, or likely the artist had little to do with the writing of the songs

    Yes, artists like Willie & the Hag wrote much of their own material, but as performers they were no better than (and maybe not as good as) Ray Price (who wrote little of his own material) or Charley Pride (who, to the best of my knowledge) wrote none of his own material. There can be no question as to the artistry of either Price or Pride

    I’d rather hear good songs, regardless of the source, than to hear mediocre stuff recorded so that the artist can share in the songwriting royalties

    • Razor X July 10, 2009 at 1:14 pm

      That’s how I feel as well. I also think that artists who insist on writing all of their own material are sometime doing themselves and fans a big disservice. I’d prefer that they just record the best songs they can find, regardless of who wrote them, than insist on recording something that might not be as good, just because they wrote it themselves.

    • Occasional Hope July 10, 2009 at 2:26 pm

      Or take George Jones – he did actually write some of his early material, including some genuine classics – but he didn’t write ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ which may be his high point artistically.

  4. Occasional Hope July 10, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    On the whole I agree; I want to hear a good singer singing a good song and I don’t care that they didn’t write it. Interpretation is a form of artistry. But I do also like to hear good songwriters do their own material sometimes, even if they aren’t that great singers.

  5. Lanibug July 10, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    This is an ongoing argument with my husband, who listens mainly to heavy metal, etc. and he thinks that true artists should only sing music that they wrote themselves – and I believe that it does not matter — because I agree that I love an artist no matter what.

  6. Chris July 10, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I prefer the best music possible- whether they wrote it or not. If that music happens to be written by them, then go for it, but I just want quality.

  7. idlewildsouth July 10, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    As an aspiring songwriter, I vehemently demand all artists, especially those with pretty consistent chart topping success, do not write their own songs! Now, as a consumer, I would differ. I’ll echo what most have already said. A good song is a good song, and Id rather hear a good song written by whomever it was, regardless. I am always a little more impressed when I see that an artists has written their own songs, and even more so when they have written them alone, but at the end of the day, it doesnt take anything away from the singer.

  8. Meg July 10, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I’m with Occasional Hope on this one. Doesn’t matter, but it is sometimes good to hear someone sing their own songs. Sometimes they’ll have an insight into the interpretation that’s personal and unique.

    The version of Reba and Skip Ewing singing the duet “Every Other Weekend” for example — Kenny Chesney does it on the album, but Reba went with Skip’s voice on the radio release (due to contracts or something). Skip wrote it. It made for a great version.

  9. Matt B. July 10, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Garth Brooks always took the route about recording the best songs possible, regardless of whether he recorded them or not.

  10. Leeann Ward July 10, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I’m always mixed on this topic. Most of my favorites happen to be good songwriters (even proving that they can write great songs independently of cowriters), but I don’t think, in principle, that artists must write their own songs in order to be excellent artists. I suppose I’m just more impressed when they’ve got the whole package in the end.

  11. Steve Harvey July 10, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Frank Sinatra never wrote line of any of the thousands of songs he cut – he’s still Frank Sinatra, no one cares. So what if someone like George Strait doesn’t write his own tunes? He’s got great taste in the ones he picks from other writers (Jim Lauderdale, etc.). What I admire about Strait, and Gary Allan for that matter, is that they choose the best songs for the album, no matter who wrote them – in fact, Allan bumped one of his own compositions from It Would Be You to make space for No Judgment Day, because he thought it was a better song. Some artists are “singer-songwriters” and rarely, if ever, record songs they haven’t written – see Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale, John Hiatt. Some artists are singers first and songwriters second, capable writers but happy to cut other people’s songs – see Keith Urban, Alan Jackson, Gary Allan. Others are singers, who might write occasionally or not at all, whose role as an artist is vocal interpreter – Elvis Presley, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait. Neither of those classes of artist are inherently superior.

  12. Vicki July 10, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    I doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. But I too have seen the pressure from fans, Nashville that it’s now important that the singer be able to write as well. Well, phooey. There are gifted writers and gifted singers. We don’t need gifted singers singing fluff songs. It’s a disservice to their fans and their voice. As well, we don’t need gifted writers singing out of tune either.

  13. J.R. Journey July 10, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    I am with the consensus here. Sometimes the best performance of a song comes from the writer, but often it’s when an exceptionally talented singer gets ahold of it that we hear the lyric’s true potential.

    There are countless examples of singers who never wrote the words to their best performances – Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Reba McEntire, George Jones, and Randy Travis come to mind. Most of these guys wrote some, but their greatest work came from the pens of other writers.

  14. Todd July 11, 2009 at 1:23 am

    It shouldn’t matter if an artist is singing a song they wrote themselves or from an outside source if the artist is a truly great interpreter. However all to often I find that artists connect better with songs they had a hand in writing, which leads to a better delivery of the song. So I personally tend to prefer singer songwriters but i don’t believe it’s necessary to write your own material to be a great artist .

    • Razor X July 11, 2009 at 9:22 am

      In the case of a deeply personal song, I agree that the person who wrote it can often give the best delivery, assuming that he/she has a half-decent voice.

  15. Audra July 13, 2009 at 11:48 am

    If an artist chooses a song that resonates with his/her experience/belief/ability to empathize, then it doesn’t matter who wrote it.

    The important thing is to make it meaningful…not just chucking a song-grenade at the charts.

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  17. hank October 17, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    What matters is wether or not the song is memorable. In 20 years will people be humming ,singing or whistling it? It’s just the right combination of all those factors The song the singer and the times.

  18. Bob October 18, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Loved this article and the comments. I heartily agree with Razor X’s comment that ” I’d rather listen to a great vocalist who doesn’t write, than a mediocre singer who is an excellent composer.” I love the music of great singers like Trisha Yearwood and Collin Raye and don’t hold it against them that they don’t write but I admit to having more admiration for those who do both like Hal Ketchum and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Hal has sole writing credit for great songs such as “I Miss My Mary”, “I Know Where Love Lives” and “She’s Still in Dallas” but many of his 200 + writing credits are co-writes. MCC has too many solo writing efforts to mention here.

    Despite my preference for great vocalists when it comes to buying cds and attending concerts, I have thoroughly enjoyed my evenings spent at the Bluebird Café where the performers are primarily songwriters rather than singer songwriters. Since we moved to Nashville, my wife and I try to go about once a month. My expectations are different there and the price is right. I don’t expect to hear great singers so I’m not disappointed as I would be if I paid big bucks to see a singer who sounds good on cd but turns out to be off-key most of the time.

    For those unfamiliar with the Bluebird format, it’s a small venue, only sitting about 100. There are generally 4 performers who sit in the middle of the room and are generally backed only by a guitar and maybe a keyboard of some sort. They take turns and generally sing 6 songs each. If a singer is really bad, at least you’re only hearing him part of the time. The interplay between the artists I found to be fascinating at times. You get to hear about how the idea for the song came about, how they collaborated, etc. Most of them have a very good sense of humor and some of the songs performed reflect this. A lot of these songs you’ll never hear on country radio. Admittedly, I have occasionally heard some pretty bad songs too.

    Some of the songwriters we’ve seen include Jon Vezner, James Slater, Kent Blazy, Marcus Hummon, Monty Powell, Gretchen Peters, Craig Carothers, Gary Nicholson, Karen Staley and Tony Haselden. We’ve also seen singers who do some to a lot of songwriting such as Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Michael Peterson, Michele Wright, Lisa Brokop, Hal Ketchum, Billy Dean, Tricia Walker, Rissi Palmer and Lari White.

    I highly recommend a night at the Bluebird to any country music fan visiting Nashville. Check out their website at bluebirdcafe.com.

    .

  19. highwayman3 October 18, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    I went to the Bluebird for the first time this past August and count it among the highlights of my life. Sherrie Austin, Jeff Bates, and the writer of ‘One More Day’ among others were all in the round.. It was so intimate and so many moments that give you chills. You can’t get that experience at a regular concert.
    The main highlight was this Australian singer, John Stephan, came up and sang Roy Orbinsons ‘Crying,’ and the whole crowd sat in aw by his voice.
    Leeann, you gotta get to Nashville soon, you won’t regret it.

    • Leeann Ward October 18, 2009 at 11:31 pm

      Yeah, I keep telling Bill that Nashville comes before Europe. Heck, I don’t even care about Europe, as long as I get to Nashville. It’s really just finding a good stretch of time where we can just go. I don’t want to just go there for a couple days.

  20. Charles Sorrels September 22, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Songs recorded by multiple artist prove that the song writer performing the song
    isn’t necessary to make it loved and a big hit!
    Song writers that are not class performers would be out of the business if being
    a class performer was required.
    Great artist who sing songs they didn’t write but achieved the songs greatest
    hit status show how important the artist is.
    I am a song writer, and I thank God for gifted artist that will make my best songs
    great hits.

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