THE ART OF THE SONG: Area musicians to share intimate works at Weekend’s second birthday bash
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Master songwriter Guy Clark said it best on his 2009 album title: Some days the song writes you.
If you put pen to paper and set the words that manifest themselves through such effort to music, then you know the agony and ecstasy that musicians like Scott McMahan, Chris West, Roscoe Morgan, Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle live with every day.
All five will perform on Friday night at Smoky Mountain Brewery in Maryville as part of The Daily Times Weekend section’s 15th birthday celebration, and each will get an opportunity to showcase the fruits of their labor. Playing and singing as part of a loose, informal and intimate “songwriters in the round” concert, they’ll take turns singing lead on the songs they’ve each written while the rest of the gang backs them up.
Through music, they’ll tell stories of different places and times. They’ll reveal parts of themselves that can’t be adequately expressed through conversation. They’ll channel pain and love and heartache and joy. They will take audience members on a journey into the heart and the soul, and in so doing unite both artist and listener with shared experiences and emotions.
Their songs, in short, are works of art, no different in their ability to elicit wonder and awe as a painting or a ballet or a piece of classical music. But ask them each if they plan to play the best song they’ve ever written, and the answer is universal:
“I’ve not written a song I want to write yet,” said West, the bandleader for bluegrass outfit Blue Moon Rising and no stranger to acclaim for some of the songs he has written: Formed in 2000, Blue Moon Rising broke nationally with the album “On the Rise,” which debuted at No. 14 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart and stayed there for almost two years, winning plenty of year-end best-of accolades along the way.
“I’ve written some songs I’m proud of and that I believe have merit and say something and are strong, but I haven’t written the song I want to write yet,” he added. “I haven’t written what I feel like I have the potential to write.”
He’s come close — “What a Helluva Way to Go,” off the band’s 2010 “Strange New World” album, tells the stories of a factory worker laid off after 30 years, a young man who overdoses on a subway train and a cancer victim who ends his life by leaping off of a bridge with no regrets. It’s a powerful song, interwoven with some very personal topics to West, and no doubt many of the band’s fans consider it one of the strongest songs he’s ever written. But does it cause the listener to stop short when it’s played, to hang on every lyric in rapt attention? Perhaps. But West is hardest on himself, and he’s still waiting to pen a song that strikes him in the way one of his favorite did.
“When I heard Guy Clark sing ‘The Randall Knife,’ I had to pull over to the side of the road,” West said. “I could listen to the song right now and cry and tear up. A song like that, it speaks to me, and I would never in a million years attempt to cover it, because you just don’t mess with perfection.”
Music is subjective, however, and one fan’s idea of perfection is another’s idea of plain bad music. Local picker Roscoe Morgan, a long-time member of the Blount County music community who teaches lessons and has played with a number of bluegrass outfits (including his current gig with Shadow Ridge), is a devoted fan of Asheville, N.C.-based singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe; his wife, Missy, finds Holcombe’s raspy growls and tortured howls unpalatable. Barbra cites songwriter James Taylor and country legend Merle Haggard as some of the earliest influences on his own songwriting; Morgan hearkens back to a more electric songwriting background.
“The first song that hit me really, really hard was ‘Just Remember I Love You,’ from Firefall, back in the ’70s,” Morgan said. “For me, a good song has to make me feel the same thing without the lyrics as it does with the lyrics. I have to be conscious of melody, chord structure and lyrics all saying the same thing. Take a song like ‘The Living Years,’ by Mike and the Mechanics — that music, without the vocal, says plenty. It’s a marriage of all great things together.
“I like to communicate, and I can say things to people in a bit more of a benign way and get a lot of heartache out in three minutes. The art of songwriting is getting what you need to say, said in three or four minutes. I can’t do that in a conversation, but I can do that in a song. And writing a song forces me to sit down and really think about more than what I want to say, but how to say it, too.”
As a younger girl, fiddler Sarah Pirkle — Barbra’s wife and songwriting partner who released her solo album “Walking Tall Through High Weeds” in 2010 — was struck hard by the song “King of Pain,” by The Police. The entire album changed the way she thought about music, but that song, she said, would define her requirements of what makes a song good to this day.
“I like for every word to count,” she said. “Every word should weigh 100 pounds and make you feel something or put you in an experience where you can completely understand it. I’m not real big on weighty, ambiguous lyrics.”
“I try to make everything real simple and without any doubt,” added Barbra, whose own solo album, “Country Music for Country People,” was released in 2007. (The two put out a gospel record together in 2011.)
“If I have to explain my song for 10 minutes before I play it, then I’ve failed as a songwriter,” he added. “I shouldn’t have to say anything about the song. If I haven’t said it in my 3 1/2 minutes, then I’ve not written a good song.”
For McMahan, a good song hurts. Much of what he writes is melancholy, and while sad isn’t a requirement for the music he likes and writes, the art of songwriting itself helps him deal with hard times and darkness.
“When I went through a divorce and was for the first time living on my own, it gave me a lot of time to write,” said McMahan, who remembers clearly being so infatuated with Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” that he taped it off of the radio and played it until the cassette wore out. “I was going through all of that — a divorce and thinking about failed relationships — and writing was the only thing that kept me from laying in the bathtub all day, trying not to cut myself. I did that for a long time, because it was the only way I felt like I was accomplishing anything, by taking whatever I was dealing with and turning it into something other than feeling what it was.”
A good song, McMahan added, bypasses the brain and targets the soul. It reaches the listener on a spiritual level and becomes so much more than pleasant background noise or a mindless ditty to which an individual can hum along. All of the songwriters on Friday night’s bill agree with such an assessment: A good song opens a window into the writer’s soul, allowing the listener a glimpse of all of the mementos and trash that reside there ... and in that glimpse, the listener recognizes the contours and scars of his own heart.
For Morgan, a classic example from his own repertoire is “Streets of Cincinnati,” a song off of his first album that he plans to re-record this year. It’s about a city in which he grew up, but it’s about time and people that played an important role in his life at the time.
“When you listen to the storyline and the lyrics, it speaks of a kid named Janet Lucy, who was my little girlfriend when I was 10, and everybody’s had one of those,” he said. “Everybody’s been there, and sometimes I wish to be back there. Well, I can’t climb back 38 years, but when I sing that song, for that moment, I’m there. It puts me back there where I wish I could be.
“In that sense, songwriting is kind of about me in the sense that I get healing first. I would wish to heal others first, but if I’m not healed, I can’t heal, and so it’s a way for me to hurt or rejoice publicly in a benign, three- or four-minute season without wearing out my welcome. And in our busy world, people are so busy that it’s been a while since they’ve taken time to stop and think about things as they happened 30 or 40 years ago. But an evening spent with a good songwriter, you can interject your version of the story into their story.
“You can take busy people, who might be hurting if for no other reason than because they’re too busy, and cause them to get over in the shade or the sunshine of those distant memories,” he added.