From The Side of the Road… pitch session for bluegrass standards

Some of our best-known bluegrass standards were most often written by one person or maybe two, like Carter Stanley or Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Almost none were written by a committee of three-to-five writers, meeting for a 2:00 p.m. writing appointment on Music Row. 

At those sessions there’s usually somebody pitching an idea, hoping to get the other writers inspired. I have often wondered how some of the classic story song ideas were initially pitched. Take Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as an example. I realize that song was written by a single writer, Johnny Marks, but stick with me for a moment for the fantasy:

“Hey, I’ve got this idea for a Christmas song about an extra reindeer . . .”

“Really? Does Santa need another one?”

“Well this one has a shiny nose that has the ability to guide the sleigh through fog.”

“Did this come to you in a delirious dream, by any chance?”

I’m thinking this song would never have been written, or have become the giant Christmas hit that it was, if it had been conceived this way. This got me thinking about some of the bluegrass songs we know and love. Would they have ever come into being if they had to be proposed to a few other writers who were hoping to write something commercial and predictable that day?

Here are a few of the pitches I’m imagining:

Matterhorn (actually written by Mel Tillis):

Writer 1: “I have an idea for a bluegrass song set in Switzerland.”

Writer 2: “Well I didn’t see that coming. Will there be cows with bells?”

Writer 1: “No, I’m thinking of a song about climbing the Matterhorn.”

Writer 3: “Uh okay. And what happens? Who’s the mountain climber?”

Writer 1: “Well, I’m thinking there would be four of them, one Irishman, two British guys, and an Australian named Albert or Alvin or something. We can flesh that out later.”

Writer 4: “This sounds like the start of a joke. Are you thinking of a funny song?”

Writer 1: “Well, not really. As I envision it, everybody dies, starting with the Irish guy.”

Writer 2: “Fun.”

Writer three eventually talked the group into one Australian climber (named Spencer) who survives, plus a love interest named Marianna.

The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake (actually written by Albert Price, AKA Bill Monroe)

Writer 1: “Hey, I’ve got the start of a song about a little girl who wanders off by herself in the woods, sort of a parents’ cautionary tale.”

Writer 2: “Hmm, what happens to this little girl in the woods? Is this going to freak people out?”

Writer 1: “Oh nothing too bad. I was thinking the little girl would encounter a dreadful snake.”

Writer 3: “Oh great. Do you have a title idea for this disturbing ditty?”

Writer 1: “I was thinking The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake, but I’m open to other ideas.

Writer 2: “Straight to the point! I like that about you.”

Writer 1: “I’m thinking she calls for her daddy and asks him to kill the snake.”

Writer 4: “And does he?”

Writer 1: “I hadn’t really gotten that far. Maybe we can just leave that hanging.”

Writer 3: “What about the girl?”

Writer 1: “Oh she dies from the snakebite.”

Writer 2: “Great. Anybody else have anything they’ve been working on?”

Down in the Willow Garden:

Writer 1: “I’ve got an idea for a song called Down in the Willow Garden.

Writer 2: “Sounds lovely. A picnic love story perhaps?”

Writer 1: “I was thinking more of a guy killing his girlfriend in the garden.”

Writer 3: “Nice idea, Quentin! Why do you always have to be so dark?”

Writer 4: “How does she die?”

Writer 1: “Well, I was thinking he’d throw her into the river.”

Writer 3: “Too Banks of the Ohio. Can we vary it?”

Writer 1: “I also thought of her drinking poisoned wine, since it’s a picnic.”

Writer 4: “Too Little Glass of Wine. Could he stab her with a knife or sword or something?”

Writer 1: “Hey, why don’t we do all three? He’ll poison her, stab her, then throw her in the river.”

Writer 2: “Again, much too dark. Sometimes I wish you’d go back to the reindeer with the red nose. That was nice.”

Writer 4: “Well if we write this, we’d need to make it very slow and mournful.”

Writer 1: “No, I was really hearing an uptempo waltz.”

(Writer 2 now has head in hands and is mumbling something unintelligible)

Writer 3: “Can we at least put a minor chord in it?”

Writer 2 eventually gets it changed to a love story. The two drink wine and eventually kiss. Anything else is implied. The girl is named “Rose Conley,” at the request of Writer 1, which Writer 4 thinks is awfully specific.