by Steve Hatfield
Recently I had the priviledge of studying songwriting with some of the best country and Gospel songwriters in Nashville. Jim Rushing has been writing country in Nashville for 25 years. Jerry Sally writes both country and gospel with cuts by Reba McIntire, Steven Curtis Chapman, Ricky Scaggs and others. Larry Cordle penned "Lonesome Standard Time" and "Mama Don't Forget To Pray For Me" by Diamond Rio. Carl Jackson is one of the finest musicians in Nashville and a great storytelling lyric writer. Gary McSpadden has been in gospeI music longer than I've been alive probably, as well as starting McSpadden-Smith Publishing which is one of the largest independent publishers in Nashville.
I would like to share a few of the thoughts they presented that break a few of the molds we songwriters put ourselves in. First, let me start by saying that molds, i.e. meter, syllables, chord structures, etc. are needed and provide a sound structure from which to write a great song from. I'm not saying that we need to forget these rules because they are important. But Jerry said that for every rule in songwriting there is a hit out there that broke that rule. The trick was knowing when you could break the rule and that came with time and experience.
The subject of "writers block" was raised by a student and Jim Rushing took the question. He felt that there was no such thing as "writers block". He felt that you could get stuck for a time and might need to take a break, but for the most part, you invited inspiration. Jim is known as a working man's songwriter that sometimes writes all day long. He goes by the addage most of us have heard that writing is 10% inspiration and 90% persperation. Maybe you needed to walk away for a time and change the focus of your thoughts but that it was not actually "writers block". Maybe it is just a matter of symantics? I have found in my writing that I have difficulty sitting down and writing for long periods of time. I seem to write best in short spurts when that 10% of inspiration hits me.
One other thing while we're on this subject. Larry Cordle said something very interesting. He said that every now and then a song will "get all over you and you gotta go with it until it's done." You have to understand that Larry's very country. If you were "inspired" at three in the morning then it was best to write until you weren't getting anything fresh and spontaneous anymore. All of the writers claimed jokingly that they had lost several "hits" in their sleep. The point is well taken though. You know when you can quit and when you have to keep writing.
The next item I would like to speak about is Time. Time can be the enemy in writing a song or it can be a friend. There has been a growing trend in country and gospel (I cannot speak for any other venue) to try for the three minute verse-chorus-verse-chorus marketable song. Carl Jackson said that he never thought about time when he was writing a song. He felt that that would inhibit what he was trying to do. Most of the writers felt the same way. They used the terminology "when it's right, it's right". If that meant that it was four minutes and twenty seconds long then that was ok. If you lost your audience in the first thirty seconds then it didn't matter whether your song was three minutes or twenty. Listeners don't time great songs.
The last thing I want to talk about is quality. First I want you to think back for a moment and tell me how many songs you remember vividly. Songs that when you heard them you had to pull the car over or just stop what you were doing (not stop watching the road I hope) and listen. Songs that held your attention from beginning to end. Songs that evoked your sense of smell, sight, memory etc.. Compared to the number of songs that you have listened to that you don't remember and the list of what I call "great songs" is pretty small. That's my point. Jim Rushing said that you get out of a song what you put into it. I find myself writing good songs (in my mind), good lyrics, good melodies. But how often do I find myself writing a "great song". A song that, when I start, gets all over me and I can't stop. Don't ever settle for less than the best you can write at your level. That's not an excuse to say "That's the best I can do" either. Let someone else with more experience that is trusted in the industry and that you trust review your work and take thier advice.
I am a late bloomer. I started writing songs two years ago when I was thirty eight years old. I've been singing gospel music for a long time though. The best decision I have ever made was to attend quality songwriting seminars and classes. At my age I can't afford to waste time if I'm going to succeed in this business. I like to write story songs that use a lot of word pictures.
I currently have one song published with Wills Family Publishing in Texas but have not had a "cut" as of yet. Gary McSpadden has taken me under his wing and is helping to develop me into a better writer and I hope to move to Nashville and write full time within the next six years.
If you would like to know more about the Steve Hurst Songwriting School in Nashville e-mail me at SteveHat@aol.com, or even if you want to just talk songs.
- Steve Hatfield: Rambling from South Florida.