Anatomy of a Song – The Tenth Day of September

Editor’s Note: This essay traces a song from the initial idea to the recording and first public performance. We would be interested in similar stories from other songwriters.

On Feb. 19, early in the Herschel Sizemore benefit concert in Roanoke, I was pretty sure I was the most nervous person in the building.

The Travelers were getting ready to play The Tenth Day of September, a song I co-wrote last summer.

Little did I know that my co-writer, John Miller, guitarist for The Travelers, was thinking HE was the most nervous person in the auditorium. John had worked out the guitar introduction just two days before, and the band was performing it live about 36 hours after playing it together for the first time. Adding to the pressure: A California film crew was recording the performance for a short video project.

John nailed the intro and got ready to sing the opening line. This was it. Words that I had written were about to be sung on stage for the first time.

I held my breath…

Tenth Day almost didn’t get written. After Mike Conner, The Travelers bass player, introduced us early in 2011, John arranged a few songs that I wrote or co-wrote with Chris Dockins, and John and I co-wrote two of our own. One of them, River of Tears, grew out of an idea John came up with last summer after jamming at Roanoke’s Fiddle Fest with Paul Williams, Jesse Brock, Sierra Hull and others.

A quick turnaround on that one – scheduled to join The Tenth Day of September on The Travelers album due out later this year on Patuxent Records – emboldened John to throw out another idea.

“Hey, man,” the familiar voice on the other end of the phone said on a mid-August afternoon. “Let’s write a song about Sept. 11.”

My first thought:  No way. That dreadful day was too huge to wrestle into a three-minute bluegrass tune. But John and I were in the early stages of our writing relationship, so rather than reject the idea out of hand, I told him I’d chew on it a bit. I figured I’d wait a week or two, tell him I wasn’t getting anywhere and let the idea die.

My reluctance was rooted in my own experience on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the weeks that followed. As the chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News at the time, I was with President Bush at an elementary school in Sarasota, FL, when the World Trade Center towers were attacked. Later, I traveled with him to visit a Manhattan fire station that had lost many of its firefighters that day, when he sat with elementary school students who discussed some graphic art projects they created after 9/11, and when he attended a memorial service for those who died at the Pentagon. At his first televised news conference a month after the attacks, I questioned him about U.S. efforts to capture Osama bin Laden.

But as much as I didn’t want to write the song, I couldn’t stop thinking about it as the 10th anniversary of one of the country’s darkest days approached. I don’t have children, but I thought how 9/11 forced many moms and dads to raise their kids alone. I thought how a child who was six or seven at the time, would now be driving and dating. Something clicked. I sat down and started writing from the perspective of a man who had lost his wife and was looking back a decade later.

The chorus came first:

Wish I could turn the clock back

To a day we both remember.

In my heart it’s always

The tenth day of September.

The verses fell into place soon after. The songwriting muses are fickle. Sometimes I have to wrestle with words. Sometimes they just come pouring out. This was one of those pouring-out songs.

The day after I started the song, I sent the roughed out lyrics to John. He cried the first time he read them.

John is a talented arranger and a first-rate flat picker. Within a few days, he had worked up  a melody and sang it to me over the phone. I cried the first time I heard it.

John shared the lyrics with Norman Wright of The Travelers. Norman has played with the Bluegrass Cardinals, the Country Gentlemen and other bands over the years and is a first-rate songwriter. So when I heard Norman was high on Tenth Day, I felt my dream of getting a song cut was about to come true.

Then I waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

I tried not to get too excited, because I knew it would only take one good song to come along and push Tenth Day to the cutting room floor. Plus I remembered a cautionary tale from my songwriting buddy Cliff Abbott. One of his songs had been recorded by a bluegrass band that everybody knows, but it never made the album because the band landed a deal with a label that required it to go in a different direction.

Finally, on Jan. 19, after what seemed like a decade, I received formal word that The Travelers were, indeed, cutting The Tenth Day of September.

John and Mike had worked together on a soundtrack for a film project by Rick Bowman and Rick was flying in from San Diego for the debut. While he was in Roanoke, he planned to shoot a video project based on the benefit concert for Herschel Sizemore, which Mike was instrumental in putting together. And, at Mike’s request, Rick was also thinking about making a video about the band.

A year ago, I sat in Norman’s living room at one of the band’s first organizational meetings. I hadn’t met Norman or Kevin Church, a terrific banjo picker, before that night but I knew all about their music. I could close my eyes and just about hear Norman’s tenor and Kevin’s baritone singing one of my songs.

One thing led to another. Next thing I knew I was in John’s Christiansburg studio, being a fly on the wall as The Travelers laid down tracks for the song one day and played it live for the first time the next.

The film crew was in the studio, too, and would be at the show the next day. It was fascinating to watch the song come to life, hear Norman and Kevin add powerful harmony parts to John’s lead and watch all four guys work out the final details of the arrangement and lay down tracks. Each layer made the song a bit better. By the end of a long day, The Travelers had made The Tenth Day of September their song.

The next day took just about forever to arrive. But finally, John was introducing the song. Our song! On a stage that would be graced that day by some of the biggest names in bluegrass, who gathered without pay to honor one of their own.

As John sang the opening lines, I don’t think I was breathing.

The rest of it was a blur. Before I knew it, I heard applause.

I felt like I was a small part of the effort to raise money for Herschel Sizemore.

But there was something else, too.

I’ve called myself a songwriter for a couple of years.

Now, at last, I felt like one.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.