“Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.” – Ursula Le Guin
There are lyrics which transcend the words that are chosen, rising above the ink used and the paper on which they are written. You might say they come from the hand of God… regardless on which powerful Supreme Being you lean, or Muse from whom you receive creative inspiration.
I’m this way about two particular lyrics, neither of which can be classified as “bluegrass-music-born.”
Regularly in my life, I turn to this Paul McCartney line:
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
I often hear people flip the words “make and take,” and that mindless flip incrementally changes the direction of the sentiment. There are so many layers to this ending verse, especially since the title of the song in which it resides is The End (from the album Abbey Road) – and it was the final song that all four of the Beatles recorded together.
The other lyric that totally rocks my cradle finds itself squeezed into what I consider to be one of the more trying recorded hits of its time – the song Wichita Lineman.
Jimmy Webb penned these powerful words: I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.
Contained in those 14 words is a deep, untold story about heartache and longing – much deeper than a guy hanging off a telephone pole listening to the buzz of the wires. And I’m willing to bet that Webb jotted down this lyric in a separate place and during a separate time and then plunked it into the song. Glen Campbell’s rendition certainly does make it all seem to feel as one … sort of.
So now that I’ve completely tricked online search engines to end up here at Bluegrass Today when someone was looking for Abbey Road, Paul McCartney, Wichita Lineman, Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb…
Let me get to the intent of my first column for the year 2015, because it really sits on the shoulders of my Artist2Artist interviews from 2014.
Writing songs and creating a lyrical moment are not about writing one song a day because that’s what someone tells you to do. Sure, that’s a good exercise to get the “creative juices” flowing, but throwing words on paper can err on the side mediocrity. Songwriting takes introspection, intelligence, life experience, and opening your soul to the mysteries of unseen forces. In addition, it is about being fearless, owning ones convictions and trusting in the unknown.
I don’t pick my *Artists* randomly, there is a reason they sit in the Artist2Artist interview chair, whether it be onstage before one of their shows at doors open, or in the quiet of a hotel room during a tour stop, or a venue green room, or the front seat of a tour bus at twilight in a gravel street-side parking lot. This past week, I turned to all thirteen of my 2014 Artist2Artist guests and invited them to send me lyrics of their own, or of others, which hold deep meaning to them.
I picked a few to highlight here.
Let’s start with Jamie Dailey. We spoke a year ago his week and at that time he said that the George Strait song for which they titled their 2013 album Brothers of the Highway was a reflection of his artistic and professional partnership with Darrin Vincent: “Darrin’s very much like a brother to me. He’s like family. I couldn’t be more blessed with a business partner than Darrin Vincent. Morally he’s one of the finest men I’ve ever met. I love him like family and I’m looking forward to another 20-25 years. We’ve already planned out what our farewell tour would be and where we would close down the last show.”
And the lyrics penned by George Strait and sung beautifully on the Dailey & Vincent album by the same name?
Sailin’ for the settin’ sun, freedom’s your best friend,
Brothers of the highway, children of the wind.
God bless you brothers of the highway, children of the wind.
Ron Block is visiting with his family somewhere with no internet connection enjoying the throws of winter dark and deep snows in the wilds of British Columbia in Canada. So I selected a lyric on his behalf. I believe he will agree that the words are otherworldly. They come from a song written by his lyricist-partner, the poet Rebecca Reynolds. Ron composed the music and from this artistic pairing we all were given the gift of Children Of This Long, Discarded Night with this intro verse:
Come, children of this long, discarded night
Encumbered by the bonds of labor’s strain
What burns against the pitch of heaven’s veil?
To woo each mortal soul from Eden’s pain?
In February, I interviewed singer-songwriter bassist Missy Raines on the stage of the Red Clay Theatre in Duluth, Georgia. I followed up with her last week, requesting her most favorite bit of song poetry. Here is how she replied:
“You hit me where I live sister. I couldn’t decide on just one.”
I selected her offering from the Pierce Pettis song Long Way Back Home, because I, too, am such an avid Pierce Pettis fan:
Sometimes the only difference
‘tween a pilgrim and a prodigal son
is just the difference ‘tween the dream that you began and the thing you become
“I wanted to do this song mostly because of this chorus. It touches on the vast world that exists between what we want and what we are,” says Missy.
Earlier this year, I sat in what could possibly be the smallest green room at any music venue anywhere – knee to knee with the fabulous John Cowan at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia. To his right was fiddle player Shad Cobb and next to me was John’s manager Brian Smith. The four of us were squeezed into a space no larger than a broom closet and painted the required “green room green.”
Yesterday he sent to me a lyric from the song Happiness by Paul Buchanan:
Now that I’ve found peace at last, tell me Jesus, will it last?
Says John, “this is my favorite song from my album Sixty. Of course we never know an author’s real intention in a lyric so I’ll do my best to articulate what I feel when I sing these words. I don’t believe that my faith is a barter or bargain with God. I do know that I have failed; I do fail, and will fail. The question for me is not will you fail me Lord, so much as when I fail will I have enough faith to keep believing? Peace at last IS sustainable, but for me it takes continuous surrender.”
I was in Kansas City, Missouri at this past year’s Folk Alliance where Laurie Lewis was showcasing and teaching workshops. Our Artist2Artist radio show was recorded in her hotel room. Near the end she sang for me I’m Going To Be The Wind. She was the first one of my guests to sing live on my interview show. From that point forward, I tried to capture some live music from each of my guests for my broadcasts.
A couple days ago, Laurie sent to me her favorite lyric, saying, “This is a very interesting exercise. The world is so full of great lyrics that the enormity of choosing one thing really stopped me. I decided to go with this little verse from one of my songs, ‘The Roughest Road,’ because I don’t know how it came to be (one of those gifts from the Muse), just that it expresses the effects of forgiveness in a way that I don’t think I could have come up with on my own.”
The touch of your hand, the warmth of your smile–
They’re like the first buds of Spring, the laugh of a child
We let fall the armor, let flow the tears,
Let go the anger after all of these years
My Sins were dark, as black as night
I wondered how to make them white
Down on my knees I found the truth
This Blood’s for me, This Blood’s for you
Larry cracks me up. He said to me “I won’t say where I got the song idea, I’m sure most folks will figure it out quickly.” Which makes me want to reply, “Larry, you are not alone!”
Some of life’s darkest times are the carried on the shoulders of our music’s most talented artists. It seems that the Muse reaches out with lyrics to those in the most in need of guidance, and provides to them the voice of wisdom to share with others in similar situations.
Barry Waldrep sent to me this chorus from The Subject of Drinking, his newest song:
The subject of drinkin’, is one I can’t pass
I’m holding my future, here in my glass
I’ve studied the bottle, til my eyes were blood red
This Demon will haunt me, til the day that I’m dead
“I wrote this about many musician friends that I have known over the years that became addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. It can also stand for any addiction. The bottom line is that it can start to control your life before you know it,” writes Barry.
“The song is very personal, as I have watched many of my friends struggle with this. Some have gotten clean, but can’t go on the road to do what they love anymore because of the temptation, and some still struggle with it on the road.”
Speaking of coming through rough times, our bluegrass publicist-songbird-sojourner Robyn Taylor just came through 12 months of life’s upheavals. Like many songwriters, she finds healing through placing pen to paper and notes to strings. Yesterday she wrote to me with this:
“Here’s one of my own that really stood out in 2014 from my song It’s My Job. I almost have to sing this every day to myself! It started as an attempt to come to terms with my relationship with my Dad, but at the root, it addresses my codependency and any relationship where we take on responsibility that is not our own.
I don’t know what God has in store, but it’s my job not to worry anymore.
And friends, just about anyone can find comfort and a path forward from a lyric such as this, but it takes an artist to write it just right. Look at the way the words are placed. Thoughtful. Poetic. Simple.
“This song New Year’s Eve, like so many others I’ve written, was inspired by the work I’ve done over the past 50 years as a civil rights, union and community organizer, and the amazing people I’ve gotten to know through that work. It’s on my first album New Wood, recorded 40 years ago, dedicated to the great Appalachian activist Florence Reece, author of Which Side Are You On?”
Si goes on to say “It’s not really about either New Year’s Eve or Florence, but about the price people pay for standing up against those in power, for insisting on being recognized as fully human and themselves, for fighting to be free. But it’s also about the ways in which organizing and fighting back nonviolently against injustice can liberate us, gentle us, enrich us, remind us that change is possible, hope is possible, beauty is possible.”
May whatever house you live in
Have flowers by the door
And children in the bed to keep you warm
May the people there accept you
For what you really are
And help you find some shelter in the storm
And morning rain to ease the pain
That comes with being free
May the New Year bring you freedom peacefully
Happy New Year
And thank you to Jamie Dailey, Ron Block, Larry Cordle, Missy Raines, John Cowan, Bill Evans, Laurie Lewis, Larry Keel, Barry Waldrep, Byron Berline, Robyn Taylor, Frank Solivan and Si Kahn for sharing your talents and gifts of soul in the inaugural year of Artist2Artist with Lisa Jacobi.
To all my readers and listeners, what song or lyric has had a profound impact on your life? Please share those of your own or others, as your inspirations are music to all of us.