This article was first published on CLUAS in Jan 2005
How To Write The Perfect Country Song - A Masterclass
Jules Jackson shares a few trade secrets...
he won a Grammy in 1998 for 'Unchained', Johnny Cash took out an ill-tempered
advert in Billboard to the tune of $20,000 that complained at the refusal of
Country Music stations to play list the record. This refusal was based on the
fact that, in the eyes of Nashville, Cash had released a record that wasn't
'country' since Cash had included a number of songs on the track list that were
written by rock musicians such as Beck.
Is there such a thing as a 'country song' I hear you ask? Well, yes there is and the genre is as clearly defined as the horror movie or the detective novel. So, to clear up the matter once and for all I have decided to give y'all a brief master class in the essentials of writing a true country song. Follow the instructions herein and you too can write like an old timer.
You could define country music in many ways but this is the best.
-> Pop is: Things are Great Baby!
-> Rock is: Things aren't great Baby, but we can make them great if we try!
-> Country is: Nothing is any good and it never will be Baby no matter what we do!
It isn't jazz so fancy bar chords and other trickery is out. Many great country songs just use G, C, D or G, D, A or some combination thereof. No need for F here my friends. Whew!
When it comes to guitars for country music, there can only be one choice. Washburn Guitars out of Chicago. Washburns are played by artists such as David Allen Coe, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Dolly Parton. That's all you need to know.
Country artists don't sing songs, they tell stories. Many greats like Willie Nelson or Kenny Rogers have limited singing voices but fantastic speaking voices. A country artist's spoken delivery is as finely tuned as that of a lead actor in the RSC. It has to be because the great country songs are really stories set to music and made to rhyme. They have storylines, characters, action, dialogue, plot twists and denouements. Stonewall Jackson's song, 'BJ the DJ', is a great example of this with it's opening verse, "A story 'bout a pal of mine / Who worked down near the Georgia line / A D.J. in a little country station". The song goes on to relate the sad demise of our hero due to his penchant for unsafe driving, "B.J. the D.J. / Only twenty-four / A wreck at ninety miles an hour / He'll spin the hits no more". Now, you don't have to make your songs as complex as that to achieve your effect since any reference to physical actions such as fighting, dancing, drinking, driving, killing or kissing will suffice. In order to bolster the storytelling effect, country songs frequently employ a first person narrator who speaks in a confessional tone to the audience as in, "Well, my name's John Lee Pettimore / Same as my daddy / And his daddy before".
THE SINGER'S DAMAGED PERSONA
Great songs are about great pain so it follows that the singer should have some life experience to help them understand that pain. Classic bummers that help the singer interpret the song include as follows.
-> Divorce: Tammy Wynette
-> Prison: Johnny Paycheck
-> Alcoholism: Hank Williams
-> Drugs: Waylon Jennings
-> Golf: Willie Nelson (only joking...but he does play and has a good handicap I believe)
-> All of the above: Johnny Cash
The great theme of country music is lost love in all it's forms. No love affair ends well, no marriage is happy, everybody ends up with the wrong person, if they end up with anyone at all. If you write about nothing else, you must write about this, preferably from hard won experience. An example:
"Woke up this morning / And you were gone" - is pure country
"Woke up this morning / When you kissed me on the head /
You told me you loved me / And made me breakfast in bed" - is not pure country.
John Hiatt's beautiful 'ANGEL EYES' is definitely not a county song since it includes the lyric, "All you fellas / you can look all you like / But this girl you see / she's leaving with me tonight". Now if the girl left with one or more of the other fellas instead, that would be country.
Better than losing the one you love is losing the one you love to someone you trust like your best friend, relative, preacher, horse etc. This idea has emerged out of an old maxim of Southern Etiquette that states, "You gotta dance with the one that brung ya". When you don't, you get country music classics such as, "I was dancin' with my darlin' to the Tennessee Waltz / When an old friend I happened to see / I introduced him to my loved one / And while they were dancin' / My friend stole my sweetheart from me."
No character looms larger in country than Jesus. Sometimes he is God, The Lord, The Saviour, even The Man Upstairs but Big J is always accorded the respect of his position and is never, ever, questioned about his mysterious ways. If he helps you out, Hallelujah; if he doesn't, well he has his motives there too. The reason for this is simple since, by the time the singer gets around to singing his/her song he/she has hit rock bottom and has no one left to turn to. Jesus is the only one still around to listen. You don't mess with that kind of last-ditch solace. This also explains why the Islamic world has not, to date, produced any good country music. Conversely, Judaism has thrown up many great country singers because, well, Jesus is Jewish too as in Kinky Friedman's "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain't makin' carpenters that know what nails are for". 'Nuff said.
The Devil is a lesser character than Jesus but important all the same. He can be mentioned in passing as in 'The Devil's Right Hand' or put in a personal appearance as in "The Devil Went Down to Georgia'. Generally, the Devil shows up to try and make a bad situation worse as in Kristofferson's line, "You see, the devil haunts a hungry man".
A more ambiguous character than either Jesus or the Devil since the term can either refer to the object of your affection as in Trace Adkins', "You're one hot Mama / let's turn this room into a sauna" or your maternal mother, "I'm the only hell Mama ever raised". Sometimes she is both as in Brooks and Dunn's, 'Mama Don't Get Dressed Up For Nothing'. Mama can also be a good or bad influence on your life depending on how you are treated by her, as in Tracy Byrd's lyric "When mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy". Danny Mayo and James Dean Hicks sure went for a home run when they penned this lyric, "But Jesus and Mama always loved me / Even when the Devil took control".
The Blues, everybody has them, country music thrives on them. Ignore them at your peril. Gram Parsons, 'Still Feeling Blue' is a good example of this element of the genre as in, "Every time I hear your name I want to die / and now I'm still feeling blue". George Strait also uses the phrase to good effect in, "Woman, you sure got this old redneck feelin' blue / what's goin' on inside me / I ain't used to goin' through". Jimmy Rodgers was a past master at getting 'blue' into a song as in, "Why should I always be lonesome? / When sunny and blue are the skies". Clever eh? Blue moons, blue eyes, blue birds and Blue Ridge Mountains are also acceptable.
Anywhere below the Mason-Dixie line will do.
Also, please try and avoid being cute by making references to rural Holland, Provence, The Cotswolds or Kiltimagh thinking that this could qualify as country too. Kiltimagh is not Alabama regardless of what you were told. Besides, it's much easier to rhyme 'New Orleans' than it is to rhyme 'Oughterard'. Even so, I once had a go and came up with, "Mama, you make me hard / In Oughterard." Although, "Baby let's split this scene / and get you out of those blue jeans / In New Orleans" is better somehow. When in doubt, mention Texas...as in, 'T for Texas'.
Despite what some people think, Death does not feature in every country song since the point is often that living can be worse as in Willie Nelson's, "I've just destroyed the world I'm living in". (I feel your pain Willie). When it does appear, Death can come of a broken heart or by another's hand as in, "I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die", or "I'm shot in the breast / And know I must die". Johnny Paycheck once shot a guy for real in a bar room in Hillsboro Ohio. You just can't fake that kind of sincerity.
Country music evolved out of the tradition of working cowboys singing cowhand ballads such as 'Texas Cowboy' around the campfire or on the range and was later popularized in Hollywood by singers such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Real life cowboy Brownie Ford's classic recording of 'Streets of Laredo' is a lasting testament to this tradition with lyrics such as, "I see by your dress / That you are a cowboy". However, the image of the cowboy was enshrined in country music by Hank Williams. He even named his band The Drifting Cowboys. Waylon Jennings classic song, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys", highlights this aspect of the genre perfectly. See, there's Mama making trouble again.
By the way, there was a brief attempt by the gay community to appropriate the image of the cowboy for their own ends, such as in the on-stage dress of pop groups like VILLAGE PEOPLE, but this was quickly rebuffed by Nashville. Country is straight to a fault. In fact, KD Lang abandoned country the moment she came out as a lesbian. I once remember hearing a singer being booed off the stage during the live radio broadcast from a US Country Music festival after he had changed the lyrics of 'Streets of Laredo' to give it another slant as in, "I see by your Stetson / That you like to go dancing / In bars with no women". The audience made him pay for that one.
WORDS OF WISDOM
It is always good to introduce a character somewhere in your song to give the narrator a bit of useful advice. Kenny Rogers 'The Gambler' makes a virtue of this gambit and puts the wise old character center-stage, giving him all the good lines as in "Son, I've made a life out of readin' people's faces / Knowin' what their cards were by the way they held their eyes / And if you don't mind me sayin' / I can see you're out of aces / And for a taste of your whiskey I'll give you some advice." The wise sage is a handy trick as it allows you to say things that the narrator could not know since, if he knew them, he would not be in this mess. Some songwriters even get Jesus to perform this function as in, "Then a voice said / Kinky, it's Jesus here / you know that I ain't no square". You may of course use anyone you like in your song and his or her advice does not have to be delivered in person. Instead, they can issue their wisdom via television, telephone or even email!
Now, how do we put this all together? Well, I leave you this week with our case study song that combines all the above elements into a cohesive whole. Now, all you need to do in order to sing this song properly is to break up with your true love, get drunk, get thrown in jail, do time, get out, find the Lord, buy a Washburn geetar and start twangin'. Until next week, ride 'em amigos!
GOD MADE TEXAS (THE DEVIL MADE YOU)
by The Reverend Jules Earl Jackson Esq.
When will I learn Mama?
When will I see?
You'll never leave that man
And you'll never be with me
You'll never be faithful
You'll never be true
God made Texas
The Devil made you
Heard Johnny Cash on the radio
Telling this cowboy
Some things he should know
He said, "You only love women
Who make you feel blue."
God made Texas
The Devil made you
When will it stop?
Where will it end?
Will I have to kill you
In the arms of a friend?
As you dance barefoot
Up in Syracuse
God made Texas
The Devil made you
Like or loath this article? Then add your voice to the thread on the CLUAS discussion board about this Masterclass of the Rev. Jules!