A few weeks ago I had the enormous pleasure of sharing the stage with two fantastic songwriters inside of a little bar in the downtown area of Bandera. This hill country hamlet in Texas is not much more than tiny speck on the map, as far as population goes. If map locations were demarcated by a dot the size of which was based on the amount of musical talent in the area, however, Bandera would actually look like a bustling metropolis. Rattling off a list of people hailing from this little town who are involved in music on either the writing/performing side or the business side would take me quite a while. These Banderans are based both in Texas and in Nashville, but their influences on country music reach far beyond those two hubs of the music that I so dearly love. I’m reasonably sure that this can be attributed to some mysterious chemical (or spiritual) compound that can be found in the local water supply. Then again, it could simply be a result of the fact that there is a bar for every 100 people in town. This is a real calculation based on the number of bars versus the advertised population on the sign that welcomes travelers to town. While my math isn’t fuzzy, the number of residents might be… but I can’t be held accountable for relying on supposedly accurate (and official) government tallies.
It’s not my place to quibble over census figures, you know.
The show occurred on a Sunday afternoon on the stage of the illustrious Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, and I was honored to find myself sitting between Bobby Boyd (“In Pictures,” “Bless The Broken Road”) and Bruce Robison (“Wrapped,” “Angry All The Time,” “Traveling Soldier”). If you’ve never been to Arkey’s and you’re a fan of country music you really should go. Make sure you take plenty of quarters for the jukebox, as it rivals any I’ve come across in all of my travels. You know that Robert Earl Keen song “Feelin’ Good Again?” It takes place in the hallowed subterranean haunt that is Arkey’s. In all honesty the place should be on some sort of historical register.
I’ve basically said all of that to set the stage, and to tell you how much I enjoy being in Bandera, and what an honor it was to be included on the show. It doesn’t have much to do with the topic of this article. If there even is a topic. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I seem to write songs that are 5 minutes in length at a clip of 4:1 against songs that clock in at the coveted 3 minutes and change realm (thus my illustrious catalogue of hits). Brevity isn’t one of my strengths.
During the course of the show, Bobby said something that I found both hilarious and interesting. When describing what it’s like to be a songwriter in Nashville, he told the audience how difficult it can be to toe the line between professionalism and personal fulfillment. His summation of the experience at its worst went something like this:
I’ve always found it difficult to buy into the idea that you’re relying on scheduled spontaneity at 2 and 4.
And there, in that little one-liner, were my struggles with writing in Nashville summed up in the most perfect of ways.
I know a ton of fantastic songs have been born in a writing room in two hours or so. I know a ton of remarkable ideas have been hatched, millions of dollars have been made, and careers carved out in these little spaces in Music City. I know that more often than not, that’s the way it’s done. That’s probably the way it will continue to be done.
I just can’t do it.
I write from a very personal level, and the people with whom I co-write I tend to know quite well. There’s something easy—something important to me—about writing with a friend. Knowing your co-creator is the first step towards making something meaningful… towards making the personal nature of a song become personal to the listener, I think. Every trip I take to Nashville leaves me scratching my head. What did I do? What did I accomplish? I can never seem to figure it out. I love Nashville—the town is alive with the energy and pulse of creativity… I just never seem to be able to tie into any of it.
I understand, of course, that if I lived in Nashville I would develop a natural kinship with my fellow writers—that I could establish that base of intimacy that my writing needs in order for it to be a fruitful use of my time. So, for reasons that are both financial and personal (but mostly financial) my regular trips to Tennessee have become less and less regular. Then, of course, there’s the idea of moving to Nashville, but that’s an idea that’s becoming increasingly more fleeting, I’m afraid. I have a nice little house and a good career in Texas, and my wife and I have a wonderful group of friends in our lives. These things are of paramount importance to us. Sometimes you have to make decisions based on personal and present values over the potential values of a life-changing thing like a big move.
I’m happy with the songs that I write—I think they’ll outlast me here on earth. I hope they will, anyway. The proliferation of accessible technology makes me think that I might be correct in my hoping. Even if they’re not pushing the boundaries of time, they’re at least going to be available (though that in and of itself is a difficult realization to wrestle with from time to time). I just don’t know, though. It’s difficult for me to view the pros and cons of moving somewhere like Nashville just to establish the personal relationships I need in order to write with the people who are far more successful than I in our respective craft.
Scheduled spontaneity at 2 and 4.
I think maybe, just maybe, I’ll see if I can be spontaneous this week. Let it come around organically. Let the pros in Nashville do what they do, and I’ll keep doing what I do.
Sorry to cut this short, but I gotta run. My bank just called asking for more money.
- Leeann Ward: Thanks, NM. I like a good pop hook, to be honest. So, maybe I need to try it again.
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
- Jim Z: to call the Dirty River Boys an "Austin area band" is still incorrect. They are based in El Paso.
- nm: Leeann, you and I often have similar tastes in more-traditional country. And, to my ears, Sam Hunt's voice and lyrics …
- Barry Mazor: Matter of fact, as always--I did. The notes say the album was recorded & mixed by and at "The …
- Roger: Looking forward to picking up the Jamey Johnson Christmas EP - love all of those songs and can't wait for …
- Jim Z: that record was recorded in El Paso. (you could look it up) and other than appearing in Austin once in …
- Leeann Ward: Yes, I can always use more dobro in my life! Thanks for the Phil Leadbetter tip! I haven't been able to …
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim. The record's more or less out of Austin. But I'm sure they're also good in El Paso...
- Jim Z: Dirty River Boys are from El Paso, Texas.