My Kind of Country

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

The bottle that pours the wine: Songs about songwriting

Stephanie DavisIt’s always about the song in country music. Whether the writer sings the song or not, a topic Razor X raised last week, the song itself is what everything else ultimately depends on. One of the things I love about country music is the range of subjects it tackles, but the thing most songwriters know the most about is, of course, writing songs.  So it should come as no surprise that some writers have chosen to reflect on that process within their work: the nature of inspiration; the way lives and pain are transmuted into art; and complaining about or celebrating the state of the music industry. Self-referential, perhaps – but also a fascinating insight into songwriters’ thoughts about the songs they write. So here are some of my favorite songs on the theme.

‘Sixteenth Avenue’, the ultimate tribute to the professional songwriters of Music Row, written by one of their own, Thom Schuyler, and made famous by Lacy J Dalton, speaks briefly of the magical moment of inspiration when some struggling writer finds the perfect words:
One night in some empty room where no curtains ever hung
Like a miracle some golden words rolled off someone’s tongue

Another nod to the idea that the music comes from some place beyond is expressed in David Ball’s lovely ‘The Bottle That Pours The Wine’, which he wrote with Allen Shamblin for his 1996 album Starlite Lounge, as he answers a young fan asking where the songs come from:
“I’m just a bottle that pours the wine
A fragile vessel for melody and rhyme

Some of the best songs, and certainly the most personal, come from the writer’s own lives and experiences. True honesty makes you vulnerable, a dilemma neatly expressed in ‘Heart On The Line’, written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus and recorded by Dillon on his 1993 album Hot, Country And Single. Part of the writing process of this song was shown in a TV documentary about Nashville songwriters which was shown on British television in the early 90s, also called Heart On The Line, and I think it may have been commissioned for that:
There was a day he thought he could be somebody they’d say
Really gets to me the way that he writes right from the heart’
Those were the times that the words he wrote in rhythm and rhyme
Would just naturally flow ’cause he lay his heart on the line

But when you lay your heart on the line
You bare your soul till they can read your mind
They don’t always love what they find, oh no,
When you lay your heart on the line”

The great Hank Cochran and Glenn Martin took a witty sideways look at the young songwriter incorporating his life experiences into his art in one of my favorite more obscure George Jones recordings, ‘Billy Ray Wrote A Song’, on the 1976 album The Battle, told from the viewpoint of the young singer-songwriter’s irresponsible tagalong friend:
We was broke before we started and it got worse later on
I wrote home for money, but Billy Ray wrote a song…

We did more hike than hitching as we hitch hiked along
I got sore feet and blisters and Billy Ray wrote a song
Billy Ray wrote a song about everything we did
I was finding fault, he was finding rhymes that fit
We did a lot of thinking, most of my thoughts were wrong
I wanted to write a bad check but Billy Ray wrote a song.”

When they get to Nashville, Billy Ray
“was an overnight sensation, I heard the radio say
Somehow they failed to mention all the miles along the way.”
And success doesn’t change him – he’s still writing about his experiences, while the narrator is still writing home for money.

On his 2006 self-titled album, Rockie Lynne had a song about spinning negative life experiences into music, ‘That’s Where Songs Come From‘:
“Don’t pity me, I’m the lucky one
Oh can’t you see, that’s where songs come from
?”

Writing a painful experience into a song may be a form of therapy, or even revenge. The concept has been used in a number of songs which are really not about the songwriting process so much as they are about lost love, but they use the concept of songwriting as a hook for the emotional force of the song.

A recent example is Carl Jackson and Rebecca Lynn Howard’s ‘Crying All the Way To The Bank’, recently recorded by Alecia Nugent, as the narrator anticipates making a fortune from the songs inspired by heartbreak, which make her feel a whole lot better. A similar approach is taken by Tommy Brasfield and Mac McAnally in a song originally entitled ‘I’m Gonna Hurt Her On The Radio’, and recorded under that name by Keith Whitley, David Allan Coe and the Bellamy Brothers. (Keith’s version is by far the best.) It was, rather bizarrely, given a minor rewrite, and as ‘I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio’, recorded by Charley Pride. In either case, the singer declares, “I’m gonna take these pieces of this broken heart and watch them climb the country music chart”.
Willie Nelson’s ‘Sad Songs And Waltzes’ (also covered by Keith Whitley) has the same idea, but the protaonist here isn’t going to get his public revenge:
“I’d like to get even with you ’cause you’re leaving
But sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year

A more obscure song along these lines is one by Nashville writers Jimmy Melton and Michael White, ‘You Can’t Say That On the Radio’, which Melton recorded on his self-released CD Greatest Holds, consisting of songs which had been considered for recording by a variety of major label artists, but never actually got picked up. In this song the narrator has written a song about his wife running off with his best friend,
And I thought to myself,
Oh what the hell,
It’ll never be heard
You can’t say that on the radio
They won’t play ’em if they’re sad and slow
They want it positive and uptempo
So that leaves me out

(The liner notes to the CD provide a wry explanation of the ‘holds’ process for writers.)

Taking it a step further, Jeff Bates confesses in ‘I Can’t Write That‘,
I make my living with paper and pencil and an old guitar
I use melody and words that rhyme to tug at others’ hearts
But mine is still too tender to put her on a page…
Memories last forever whenever you put them in a song

Writers’ frustration with aspects of the industry is also a source of inspiration, if not one likely to lead to commercial success. Alan Jackson, as a big star in his own right, got away with his sardonic look at the demand for a ‘Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up Tempo Love Song’. Stephanie Davis, writer of ‘Wolves’ for Garth Brooks, writes in ‘Some Things Cost Too Much’, on her self-released Crocus In The Snow, with candid honesty of her time as a publishing company staff songwriter:
I’m a writer, right or wrong,
A carpenter of word and song
Some days I just bang along
Some days I’ve got the touch…
Spent some time in Tennessee
Writing for a company
‘Need uptempos under three
For so-and-so at such-and-such’
So I’d wrestle night and day
With sentiments I thought would pay
Until I’d nothing left to say
‘Cause some things cost too much”

What are your favorite songs about songwriting?

13 responses to “The bottle that pours the wine: Songs about songwriting

  1. DimSkip July 15, 2009 at 8:45 am

    With your examples as the lead, I then came up with George Strait and Alan Jackson’s “Murder On Music Row” and Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now?” Not sure now if they’re about songwriting or more about the music industry, but still… I think they apply at least a little bit. (Also not sure of the songwriting credits, so I just listed them by performer.)

  2. Razor X July 15, 2009 at 10:38 am

    “That’s My Job” written by Gary Burr and recorded by Conway Twitty is about the relationship between a father and son. In the final verse, we learn that the narrator (the son), has become a songwriter. He’s finding it difficult to come up with the right words to express his feelings in the aftermath of his father’s death:

    I woke up early one bright fall day to spread the tragic news.
    After all my travels I settled down within a mile or two.
    I make my living with words and rhyme and all this tragedy
    Should go into my head and out instead as bits of poetry
    But I say Daddy I’m so afraid how will I go on with you gone this way
    How can I come up with a song to say I love you

    That’s my job,
    That’s what I do,
    Everything I do is because of you to keep you safe with me
    That’s my job you see

    everything I do is because of you to keep you safe with me

  3. Brady July 15, 2009 at 11:01 am

    Everybody knows great songs come from having a “Sure Hit Songwriter’s Pen.” Or listenin’ to “Ramblin’ Jack & Mahan” all cowboyed to hell.

  4. Andrew July 15, 2009 at 11:19 am

    “Whoever Wrote This Song” by Rodney Hayden

  5. Jim July 15, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Not that it mkes much difference, but Rockie Lynne’s self titled CD was released in 2006, not 2004.

    • Occasional Hope July 15, 2009 at 1:39 pm

      Accuracy is always important 😉 I’ve changed it (I did have the date correct in my notes, so chalk that one down to mistyping).

  6. Pingback: Radney Foster Celebrates 50th; Songs On Songwriting; Free Mark Wills | The 9513

  7. Nicolas July 15, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    I think Trisha Yearwood’s “Sing You Back to Me” is about songwriting… there’s a line in it thats like: “I want to write a song, a sad and simple song” or something like that

  8. Matt B. July 15, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    It’s not a country song but “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen and more famously by Jeff Buckley starts out with great lyrics about songwriting and then continues on to what has become one of my all-time favorite songs.

  9. Nicolas July 16, 2009 at 12:22 am

    Another one I think would be “Steve Earle” by Sugarland… since the chorus is “Steve Earle won’t you write a song for me” (or somethin’ like that) … so I guess that counts?

    As for non-country songs; “These Words” by Natasha Bedingfield comes to my mind – I quite like that song =)

  10. Pingback: Radney Foster Celebrates 50th; Songs On Songwriting; Free Mark Wills - Engine 145

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