My Kind of Country

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

When is a singer-songwriter not really a singer-songwriter?

These days we often see singers signed to a major label getting credit on a high proportion of songs they record, usually credited alongside one or more full-time songwriters. While some of these are no doubt genuine contributions, it appears that in some cases the artist’s contribution is minimal.

In a fascinating recent article (linked to on Wednesday by the 9513) on the decline of solo-written songs in Nashville, the songwriter Craig Wiseman is quoted saying:

“There are a lot of artists co-writing now with professional writers, and in some ways I applaud that. Sometimes, though, the motivations aren’t quite so pristine. As the business has been decimated, money and how to get money has permeated every aspect of it. Most of the time — not all of the time — when you have three people or more in a room, one of them is an artist who is there to ensure the cut.”

Peter Cooper, author of the article in question, goes on to say,

There are times in Nashville when an artist sits in such a room, says, “I had a bad date last week” or “I get sad when it rains,” and then watches as the two professionals do the bulk of the work on a song that will, when released, be credited to all three.

I am sure this pernicious practice does not apply to all artists who write, and I am cautious about casting suspicion publicly on named individuals for the reasons stated above. It is certainly not new for songs’ true authorship to be concealed. In the 50s it was not uncommon for songs to be bought and sold outright. The unscrupulous publisher and label boss Bill McCall got his name (or, rather, that of a pseudonym) on a number of the songs he published – and then made his artists record them. As we saw during our coverage of Patsy Cline in January, that could be damaging to an artist’s career.

Frank Liddell, Miranda Lambert’s producer and Lee Ann Womack’s husband, is quoted in a follow-up piece saying,

I think perhaps the real problem we face today is the quality of the writing abilities of some of the people out there in these co-writes. There have always been politics in this business and there has always been bad music and marginal songwriting. This is nothing really new. But it does seem that there are a lot of great writers out there whose work is being overlooked because they really don’t know how to play the game. I also think a lot of artists are encouraged to write for financial reasons that would be better off recording outside songs.

Meanwhile another recent comment on the same lines came from veteran songwriter Bobby Braddock, noting,

“A lot of times when people co-write, one will often write more than the other”

It would be unfair to name names suspected of coasting on their “co-writers”’ coat tails (and depriving them of their full compensation) simply because if you aren’t there in the room, you don’t know what’s actually gone on. It would be wrong simply to tar all artists with the brush of suspicion, as many do actually turn out to be good songwriters. All those singer who turned to a songwriting career after putting their own dreams of stardom aside, who we looked at last week, obviously had the skills required, and the same must be the case for some of those still successfully performing.

But a few questions sometimes come to mind.

Has the artist written any songs on his or her own, or do they always require one or more co-writers? Solo compositions, particularly if high-quality ones, may dispel doubt, but their lack is not necessarily a red flag; someone might perfectly legitimately bring a gift in lyric writing or melody composition, but need help with the other side, and still have contributed something worthwhile to the song. This is the case with many professional songwriters too. For instance, in this interview, Brent Baxter, co-writer of the stunning ‘Monday Morning Church’ with Erin Enderlin, a hit for Alan Jackson and our Classic Rewind on Monday this week, admitted to being more of a lyricist needing a co-writer to provide a melody, at least at the start of his career, although he also speaks of writing alone at times. Some writers develop long-running collaborative partnerships, while others seem happy to write with a variety of others, and sometimes on their own. Sometimes there may be a genuine collaborative process with all aspects of a song. However, the more co-writers involved on a given song, the less any individual is likely to have contributed, and the more doubt is cast in cynical minds.

Did the artist write successfully before getting a record deal? Have any of their songs been cut by others? Again, the answer to these questions may dispel doubt, but not confirm it.

Do the artist’s songs written with co-writers X and Y respectively bear any stylistic similarity to one another, or are they more similar to the co-writers’ songs with other people? Again, detecting a strong authorial signature may confirm an artist really does write their songs, but its lack may just mean they’re not a distinctive writer, or that their co-writer’s signature is stronger.

Finally, this one can only be tested after the artist’s major-label career has ended: have they gone on to write for other artists, or are they releasing new recordings with no “co-writes” included?

It is understandable that a singer wants to sing material with which they identify in general, and which they feel represents their own life experiences. This may be a further encouraging factor in desire to contribute to the writing of the songs they’re looking to record. But might they sometime be better off merely getting a professional to write something tailored to them rather than insisting on a credit? What if they do contribute something to a song that makes it weaker than their co-writer might have created alone or with alternative partners? Is it fair on professional “co”-writers who have done the majority of the work on a song to be deprived of full credit for their work because the artist wants to be seen as a singer-songwriter?

What do you think about this practice?

5 responses to “When is a singer-songwriter not really a singer-songwriter?

  1. Pingback: Courtyard Houds at SXSW; Kellie Pickler Plans to Shutter Fan Club; Free Thirty Tigers Sampler | The 9513

  2. Razor X March 26, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Elvis received a songwriting credit for “Heartbreak Hotel,” though his only contribution was to record the song once Mae Axton and Tommy Durden actually wrote it. He typically demanded songwriting credit for songs he covered. He wanted to record “I Will Always Love You”, but Dolly refused to share the songwriting credits — a moved which paid off handsomely nearly 20 years later when Whitney Houston recorded it.

    A few years ago Johnny Cash’s ex stated that Johnny had actually written “Ring of Fire” and had given the songwriting credit to June Carter who was in need of some finanacial assistance at the time. We’ll never know the truth about that one.

    Reba has a songwriting credit on “She’s Turning 50 Today”, from her latest album. The concept was hers but she turned it over to others for the actual songwriting. She’s been fully forthcoming about it.

    I do wonder about a lot today’s artists who seem to have their names on every song they record. I’m always a little suspicious when they only seem to co-write, and the co-writes are always with established songwriters instead of a regular songwriting partner. For example, most of Clint Black’s songs are co-written with Hayden Nicholas, with whom he was friends before they ever went to Nashville. That suggests to me that Black is actually making a significant contribution to those songs; if he’d been teamed up with an already-famous songwriter when he arrived in Nashville, I’d be a little suspicious about whether he was carrying his weight.

  3. Bob March 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    I don’t believe it’s right for singers to take credit for minimal participation in the songwriting process. I doubt that there are many who wouldn’t find the practice objectionable.

    Some singers who appear beyond reproach that immediately come to mind include:
    Mary Chapin Carpenter (who has a new cd coming out on April 27th – just bought tix to her Nashville show in July) has many solo efforts.
    Hal Ketchum and Alan Jackson each have significant solo efforts
    Phil Vassar has written quite a few songs for other artists
    Nettles & Bush have written a few good songs w/o other co-writers & Nettles soloed on “Stay”.

  4. Paul W Dennis March 26, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    I don’t know whether or not to believe the accusations of Johnny’s first wife – she amy be right or simply grinding an ax . “Ring of Fire was not credited to June alone – her co-writer on it was Merle Kilgore, quite an accomplished songwriter in his own right. I seriously doubt that Johnny wrote the song alone – he might have co-written it with Merle Kilgore although I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so credited. June did co-write several songs with Merle Kilgore and several Christmas songs with Jan Howard but she doesn’t seem to have been a very prolific songwriter whatever the truth may be

    The questions posed by Occasional Hope are very good questions indeed, BUT they mean that the jury is out on most of today’s co-writes. Quite frankly, there isn’t a writer today outside of Billy Yates and Dean Dillon that I would mention in the same breath as Harlan Howard ,Merle Haggard,Dallas Frazier or the Bryants

  5. Vicki March 27, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I don’t think you can judge this as I don’t believe there are written guidelines that says what is the most important part of a song…the idea?..the words to make the idea come to life? or the dramatic or uplifting music behind it all? I know we all wonder about Carrie and how much participation she has on her songs. She has stated how the total idea of Temporary Home was her’s with the 3 individual stories. But then I don’t wonder too much..for her “participated” songs are not always the best. Did the other professional writers “dumb” it down for her? Or do they know what works with her and they know she can’t pick a good written song if it hit her in face. Like she was given songs by top writers that she turned down as not relevant for the album she was making.
    When Hillary, Dave and Charles (Lady A) write…what percentage from each is in each song? or does it matter as long as the final product is good.

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