Jon Ims is glad to give back to songwriters who are at various levels in their craft of writing a good song. Jon wrote and performed his songs close to 40 years. He is the writer of Reba McEntire’s #1 hit "Fallin’ Out Of Love" and Trisha Yearwood’s #1 breakout hit single "She’s In Love With The Boy" which was named BMI’s Song Of The Year in 1992. He is a past recipient of BMI’s Robert J. Burton Award, Music Row Magazine’s Breakthrough Writer Award, and the Kerrville Music Festival’s 1978 New Folk Award. His songs have also been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Confederate Railroad, Gary P. Nunn, Emilio, Chuck Pyle, The Seldom Scene, Hillman, Peterson & Rice, Bill and Bonnie Hearne, and Steve & Cindy Gillette, among others.
As a teacher, Jon conducts songwriting seminars across the country. He has been a faculty member of the Kerrville Music Festival’s Songwriting School, The Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s Songwriting School, the Nash Camp School, and the Nashville Songwriters Association International Song Camps.
Janet: What are some tips you can give to a songwriter today trying to be successful?
J: Three words that every songwriter should keep in mind is “angle is everything”. Try a unique approach to the subject you are writing about. A unique title, story angle, use of language, melodic development. Avoid cliches.
Another important factor is to realize that re-writing is a large part of the process. Not many people write a great work at one sitting.
Janet: How many times did you re-write BMI’s Song Of The Year “She’s In Love With The Boy” ?
J: Thirty-two times. And I remember it was in longhand on legal pad size paper. I had sheets lined up all over the house trying to create a solid song. The finished version was a blend of inspiration and many hours of hard work.
Janet: Where did the idea for the Hall Of Fame acclaimed song come from?
J: The first phrase “Katie’s sittin’ on the old front porch watchin’ the chickens peck the ground” just popped in out of the blue as I was fishing around on the guitar one morning. After that I used a word association technique called “clustering” to gather like minded words and phrases together. This kind of approach stimulates the creative side [right side ]of the brain. And soon I found myself in the writing zone.
Janet: Were there any ideas that surfaced from your own experiences?
J: Yes. I was born on a farm in Pennsylvania and it wasn’t very difficult to access a lot of memories like “beat up Chevy truck” and colloquial phrases I grew up with like “he ain’t worth a lick” and “short end of the stick”. Lots of people talked like that.
Janet: How did you blend your own slice of life concepts into the song?
J: I blended in my own memories with what I imagined was Katie’s world. I entered “The Katie Zone” ,a young females’ environment that was filled with boredom “watchin’ the chicken’s peck the ground”. I then asked myself, what would perk her up? That’s when Tommy showed up in my mind. Then I created, mapped out, and wove together a plot, the tension of conflict, and a plot twist at the end to resolve the story. The twist being that Katie’s dad’s dislike for Tommy mirrored his wife’s father’s dislike for him when he was a younger man. It was a lesson of life for him and subsequently spoke to many peoples lives.
Janet: Wow, you could easily be a fiction book writer or a screenwriter with your specific details, your ability to show vs. telling and how you move a story through time.
J: Well, my mother was an English teacher, so I grew up with the realization that all good and effective art has underlying structure and makes a point of some kind. And who knows, I may try my hand at some fiction writing in the future.
Janet: What’s your take on co-writing?
J: I’m usually better at writing on my own. I think my unique personal point of view is my strength. And I prefer writing about what I’m actually thinking about. Co-writing in Nashville for the commercial mainstream country market can often wash out what’s unique and personally quirky in an individual writer in order to create a more generic all encompassing approach to a topic and topic treatment that might appeal to the greatest amount of people. The approach the writing often takes is more :“What type of song can we write today that would appeal to everybody who listens to country music”? “What about their lives can we write about today”?
Janet: Are there any unspoken rules in writing country songs?
J: Yes. Certain approaches are preferred. For example, the singer must be put in a good light. We must be able to identify with him or her. They can’t be a jerk. Another might be that women can be shown positively as aggressive, upset or angry at men, insisting on taking control of their lives, seeking freedom, making their own way, etc. , while men have a much more difficult time being portrayed as angry or upset with women. There are more boundaries on how a man is represented. For example: He has to be portrayed as a good upstanding guy or a guy who isn’t but regrets that he isn’t and wants to be a better man. There are a few exceptions but only a few. So, women get to be more multi-dimensionally represented.
Also, country fans are by and large conservative so politics is only accepted if it’s the flag waving kind. That sentiment goes for religion too. It’s best to assume that everybody is a conservative Christian who goes to church on Sunday.
Janet: What current country music songwriter/ performing artists do you respect?
J: I think Brad Paisley is a brilliant writer and performer. Vince Gill is invincible. Alan Jackson writes honestly and simply about what he knows about. For writers: Harley Allen is incredible, Matraca Berg, Craig Wiseman, and Casey Beathard come to mind.
Janet: Do you usually focus on writing one song at a time or have a few songs going at one time?
J: I usually have three or four going at once and I just go back and forth between them until they eventually get finished.
Janet: Was there any time when your melody writing was too close to another song?
J: Once, years ago I woke up with what I thought was an incredible original melody floating through my brain. I quickly got up , found a tape recorder and put it all down before I forgot it. A few days later I was playing it for a friend who smiled and told me that it was the song “Stars” by Dan Fogelberg. Ever since then I’ve learned to pay more attention.
Janet: Do you do anything special to keep your creative juices flowing?
J: I’m a voracious reader of books, magazine articles, and newspapers. I love movies. And my life is filled with weird and interesting disfunctional people who are always doing weird and disfunctional things I can write about.
Janet: What do you consider your biggest obstacle in the songwriting world?
J: My being shy and not aggressive enough in networking and plugging my songs. I’m very confident when I’m performing, teaching, or speaking at seminars ,but sitting in a room pitching songs to an A&R man or circulating around a room at an industry event makes me uncomfortable. I’d rather be home in my studio .
Janet: Has your literary power and mode of expression changed over the years?
J: I think my focus has become more inclusive of the plight of the world than it used to be. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become much more aware of how we are all interconnected and co-responsible for the health of ourselves and our planet. My songs have grown in scope and subject matter as a result of that.
Janet: Thank you so much for sharing your time with all of us. We really appreciate it.
J: It was my pleasure.