Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I’ve been writing songs every since I was a little kid. The first one I remember, I was six or seven years old and Babette, age nine, whom I loved with fierce if uncertain passion, announced she had started taking singing lessons. I reasoned a song might be an appropriate way to impress her, but it didn’t turn out that way. I remember that she used the word anodyne, which is the same in French and English, and I thought it had something to do with mercurochrome, but it didn’t.

I wrote songs in my teens, but mostly I focused on other people’s stuff and quickly figured out that knowing a total of seven chords was more than enough to play 90 percent of what was on the radio. Then, in my late 20’s, I joined a bluegrass band and realized that bluegrass calls on three chords. I wrote a couple of instrumentals and learned to play them badly on the Dobro.

I estimate that by now I’ve written maybe 100 tunes. Most are pretty simple progressions though I occasionally like to throw in a C dim or an F#minor 7th just to keep things interesting. They’re both great and seldom used chords. I also spent time learning to play the pedal steel guitar, an insane instrument with two necks, 20 strings, eight pedals and five knee levers, plus a volume pedal. The instrument is devilishly hard to play but makes wonderful sounds and offers an unlimited range of chord changes.

For me, a song starts with a couple of words, perhaps a fragment of or a whole sentence, an image, a brief event, an interesting turn of phrase. Someone might make a comment, unexpected in its clarity or scope, or unwittingly use a phrase that causes a spark. Recently, an acquaintance told of fighting “sad little battles,” and it stuck. I’ll be doing something with that. Some time ago, a friend from whom I hadn’t heard in months called to say, “Dixie and me, we’re doing fine!” Dixie is her 15-year-old daughter and it was such a wonderful phrase that it became the refrain to a song about the slow death of a small town and the endurance of its survivors.
Occasionally, I come up with what I think is a good double-entendre. Then, invariably, tiny grappling hooks become embedded up there in my brain and stay determined not to let go until more words are found, until a story is told in its entirety. That’s what happened with Lucky Tonight, the tale of a philandering husband and his bingo-playing wife. And then sometimes it’s straight theft. An image from an existing song will beget a new and different concept…

All in all, it’s an enjoyable quest. I like the challenge of interesting rhymes (and it’s true, nothing rhymes with ‘orange’ unless you’re Cockney, then ‘door hinge’ sort of does) , the play of the meter, the cadence and intonations. When the first stanza has taken life, I type it out on an index card that I keep in my wallet.

By this time I also have a basic idea of the music itself. I’ve played long enough to have heard (and copied) unusual riffs and progressions, as well as special instrument tunings. Drop the high E string of a guitar to a D and you have a built- in chord machine used by just about everyone from Muddy Waters to the Stanley Brothers to Bowie to the Stones. I have a slide guitar using that tuning and can play some very cool licks just by barring the neck with my index finger.

I’ll never get rich at this. My stuff lacks the hook of pop music, but that’s OK. I’m perfectly happy being a basement player with an occasional open-mike outing. A decade ago, a bunch of friends and I formed a band recorded a CD, and it’s there for posterity. Want to listen? Go to the iTunes Store, look for Idylwood, and download December Light. At .99 cents, it's a bargain...

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