My husband and I spent two days last month attending a songwriter festival, and you should not feel bad if you don’t know exactly what that is. We didn’t either, which made the ticket price that much more disconcerting.
We paid up, then showed up, because my husband is friendly with one of the festival organizers, an outrageously wonderful man named Ben Anderson. We wanted to support Ben’s vision for this first-time event that was a true labor of love for its organizers.
Ben is from Nashville, a place neither my husband nor I have ever visited. We are aware, of course, of its reputation as a country music mecca. (Stay with me here–this is about writing, I promise.)
Country music is not for everyone. And it is generally not for me. Unless, apparently, I’m attending an inaugural songwriter festival filled with the gods of country music songwriting past and present, whose origin stories and jewel-box masterpieces, delivered with grace and humility and humor, elicited tears one minute and laughter the next, making my heart pound and firing my imagination.
Writing was the focus throughout the Park City Songwriter Festival. We discovered that when you remove the veneer of some country songs – the vocal bells and whistles, the grammatical transgressions and the biceps – the writing can be pretty magical.
The men and women who presented their writing at the festival ranged from newcomers to industry veterans and award-winners. Grizzled grandfathers with snow-white hair cascading from their Stetsons shared stages with mid-lifers, college kids and bartenders.
The stories they all told! Stories of love and pain and loss and addiction and life’s infinite absurdities, stripped down to their essences, leaving us with poetry and short stories, odes and operas. Turns of phrase that hit us in the gut.
Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize started making more sense.
The festival’s focus was heavily but not solely on country, which got me thinking about some favorites in other genres, and how it would be to experience them through reading rather than inept car-singing at the top of my lungs.
I looked up John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery, one of Bonnie Raitt’s big hits. Devastating; like the ghost of a Sam Shepard play. Little Feat’s Roll Um Easy popped to mind, obscure but beloved (by me, anyway). In print it reads like Bukowski, soggy, jaded, yet razor-sharp. Neko Case’s Margaret vs. Pauline with its gut-punch ending is a New Yorker short story in miniature.
We could all go on for a very long time thinking of beautifully written songs.
Out of context, some songs read so differently it would be a fun (and writerly) parlor game to print out lyrics, put them in the proverbial salad bowl, then have friends who came over for dinner take turns reading them aloud while everyone guesses their titles and whose hits they are.
Go look up your favorite songs. Read the lyrics. What’s in there? How did they say so much in so few words? Their economy is riveting. Talk about darling-killers. There are lessons in there for us.
A songwriter named Even Stevens shared a story of how one day in the grocery store he demonstrated to his son his ability to write a song about literally anything. He glanced down at the coffee cup in his hands and dove into his craft: “Black coffee, blue morning….” Black Coffee later became a hit for Lacy J. Dalton.
We soaked the writing in all weekend at the festival – sometimes sitting rapt and silent with just a few others in a small basement bar, another time singing along with a couple hundred other souls to an Eddie Rabbit medley (excavating every single word from our long-term memory banks as if we’d rehearsed). We left inspired and shaking our heads at how life keeps reminding us that cynicism is deadening, and not to judge what we don’t know. And to pay more attention. Closer reads, closer listens, more penetrating gazes onto the world.
- In one song, a youngster included the line “like a pearl from a clam,” a reminder that facts and research play a role. I realize ‘clam’ is easier to rhyme than oyster, but listen, buddy: Pearls do not come from clams.
- You should definitely make a pilgrimage to the songwriter festival next year if possible.
- My husband has started online guitar lessons. And although he pretended like he was joking about trying to write some songs, he’s obviously serious.
- I came out with computer keyboard blazing and have been writing ever since. Then after the writing, I cut and cut and cut. There are almost always too many words in there.
- Nashville has been added to the travel bucket list.