Scheduled Spontaneity

Drew Kennedy | November 9th, 2010

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.

  1. Rbaird
    November 9, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    These words ring true my friend.

  2. Ollie
    November 9, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I’ve never really understood the concept of co-writing, either music OR prose. In my view, writing isn’t a team sport– it’s usually a lonely, tedious endeavor. I’ve always liked this line by the late New York Times sports writer, Red Smith: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein and bleed.”

    As for making light of the notion of “scheduled spontaneity,” writing songs may be different from writing prose but I’ve always found that if I wait to start writing prose until the muse strikes, I never get anything written. I often I have nothing to show for my efforts, but I need the discipline of getting my ass in a chair at pre-scheduled times.

  3. Barry Mazor
    November 9, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    I mostly write what I write alone, and I’ve also written collaboratively; they’re different, but not mysterious. I’ve done magazine, corporate and screenwriting work which were collaborations, and have never understood why some find it difficult to see that songs can work that way. Read up on such amateurs as Rogers & Hart, George & Ira Gershwin, Lennon & McCartney, –and hey, Jimmie Rodgers & Elsie McWilliams, or Felice & Boudleaux Bryant.

    The poor, solitary, bleeding writer image is romantic, self-dramatizing, and occasionally it’s even a true picture of certain writers and their art at certain times–but a lot of the work is a craft, and one that can be effectively shared by some people, in some teamings. This has simply been proven by the results. What’s not to understand?

  4. Ollie
    November 9, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Barry-

    I don’t know about the other song-writing teams, but I’ve read that Lennon & McCartney wrote separately but agreed early on to share all writing credits.

    I was imprecise in my original comment. I’ve also shared many co-writing credits but it’s always been for work in which I wrote one section of something and someone else wrote a different section, or in which one person wrote a first draft and a second person heavily edited and essentially re-wrote large portions of the original draft. What I find mysterious is sitting in a room TOGETHER with a co-writer and throwing out lines or sentences for comment. I’m sure many people successfully co-write together at the same place and time, but that’s a technique that I find mysterious.

  5. Drew Kennedy
    November 9, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Ollie– I think Bobby’s making light focuses more on the “2 to 4″ part of the quip than it does anything else. Any writer has to have a certain level of discipline in their writing, be it sitting down every day, or simply knowing when the time is right and making sure you have the means to allow something to come out of you when it beckons to do so.

    As for co-writing and what Barry is talking about, I think the ability to be humble about your limitations is incredibly important. When you have a specific idea, and you know someone who is better than you when it comes to its specificity, you do the idea itself a grave injustice by not reaching out to that person. Sometimes you can go it alone (in my case, I often go it alone) but I never try to take an idea for granted– ideas are wonderful gifts. If I need someone to help me get through an idea I treat it the way it deserves to be treated and pick up the phone.

  6. Jon
    November 9, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here, Drew; it seems to me that unless a song comes out of a random encounter, every co-write, whether with a complete stranger or your best friend, is the result of “scheduled spontaneity.”

    Ollie, what’s not to get about the concept of co-writing? I can see having questions about the mechanics of it, but the concept itself is pretty straightforward. Personally, my experiences with co-writing have been overwhelmingly positive; I love starting out with essentially nothing and winding up a few hours later not only with something finished, but something that neither I nor my co-writer(s) could have come up with on our own. And (in my best Bill Monroe voice) the people really seem to like it, you see.

  7. Kelly
    November 9, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    I think many people get tripped up when they try to reconcile the romatic image of creating art, directly from passionate and sudden inspiration, and sensible, practical ways of getting things done, sometimes. Sure, “writing appointments” arent exactly sexy sounding to us non-songwriters, but there sure seem to be a ton of great songwriters who seem to make those appointments over and over again.

  8. Barry Mazor
    November 9, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Lennon and McCartney sometimes worked quite together, and yes, often separately with feedback with the other… Both are on the record about that..

    In any event, collaboration is commonly done, and is commonly successful.

  9. Drew Kennedy
    November 9, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Again, I believe the comment to be one that is more pointed on the allotment of time issue than it is the literal definition of the term. I was implying that I find it difficult to turn in meaningful work when given such a short amount of time to find common ground with a co-writer, and then build on that common ground to the point of delivering a worthwhile song.

  10. M.C.
    November 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    I also think most creative people schedule time to work on their art or craft, they don’t just go about their lives waiting for inspiration to strike. Painters do, novelists do, sculptures do, etc.
    Guy Clark will say he writes a lot more songs now that he co-writes than he did when writing alone (which he also still does), because it forces you to come up with ideas, it encourages you to work, and so on. People don’t just stop by, they schedule time with him.
    The great Jerry Chesnut, on the other hand, says he writes best at dawn with a cup of coffee and a guitar, and since it’s hard to get other writers to join him at 5 a.m., he tends to write alone. But, as others have said here, sometimes an idea only gets so far, and he’ll ask another writer to give it a listen and see where they take it together.
    Solo writers sometimes work on scheduled, or even forced, spontaneity, too. Glenn Sutton tell wrote “What Made Milwaukee Famous” for Jerry Lee Lewis after he got a call asking if he had a song because Jerry Lee was recording the next morning. Sutton looked down and saw an for a beer “that made Milwaukee famous.” So he came up with the title on the spot, said it was a great song and he’d bring it by the next day. Then he sat down and wrote it.
    From what I’ve heard, it’s just as likely that Nashville pros who regularly make co-writing appointments at 2 and 4 will end up realizing they’re not inspired that day, and they’ll go for some BBQ or a beer instead. The good songs come when they come, even if you’re working on a schedule.
    But I think part of what Drew is saying is that everyone works differently. Thank God for that.

  11. Barry Mazor
    November 9, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    “part of what Drew is saying is that everyone works differently. Thank God for that.”

    And Amen..

  12. idlewildsouth
    November 9, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    I love co-writing, when it works, but man can it be torture sometimes. Like Drew said, I’ve found the key is finding that person it works well with. I have a couple of people I write with frequently and they all have the same basic idea about what’s important to a song being great. When you can find that type of relationship, the finish your thought kind of connection, it’s the same as writing alone as far as having the real art and inspiration come through.

  13. Jon
    November 9, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Well…I’ve co-written songs that took 3 or 4 3 or 4 hour sessions to get finished, and others that took an hour and a half from walking in the door to walking back out with a finished song – and as near as I can tell, the amount of time taken had no discernible connection to what I see as the quality. Talk about mysterious…

    In my experience, which is admittedly not strictly Music Row – though not that far from it, either – it’s unusual to regularly write with new people. Everyone I know balances some new faces with plenty of familiar ones, so the notion of going from an appointment with one stranger to another appointment with another stranger two hours later doesn’t really square with the reality here. In fact, I don’t know too many people who will schedule more than one appointment a day, either, though that may just be my limited experience showing. (I don’t like to do it very often myself, even though it’s been pretty fruitful – the two co-writes I have on the latest Stringdusters album were written on the same day).

    On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for writing as often as possible; I was complaining about having scheduled myself an appointment for every day of the week recently to a co-writer – our appointment was in the middle of that week – and when I said it was wearing me out, she just looked at me and said, “really?” And in my experience, the more you write, the easier and faster – and better – it gets.

  14. luckyoldsun
    November 9, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    MC–
    I read a similar story regarding Beth Nielsen Chapman and “Nothing I Can Do About It Now.” Willie Nelson’s producer told her they were recording and asked her if she had a song for Willie. She told him she did–and then she went home and wrote it.
    It was Willie’s last No. 1 (not counting duets with later-generation hitmakers like Toby Keith).

  15. Ollie
    November 10, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Thanks. I think this was/is a very interesting column and thread.

  16. Janet Goodman
    November 10, 2010 at 11:06 am

    I enjoyed reading Drew’s piece.

    Songwriters often walk into co-write sessions prepared with hooks, or choruses or parts of verses. These can be good starting points for their appointments.

    I’ve heard that Bobby Boyd “specializes” in writing bridges – a bridge master of sorts – brought in to help finish a song. Maybe someone out there knows more about this.

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