Honey, who’s that one about? or a songwriters’ dilemma

Let’s face it: it’s difficult to be married to a musician, but it may be most difficult of all to be married to a songwriter. As the spouse, you end up hearing songs about bad relationships, break-ups, leaving on the next train to Memphis, etc., and naturally wonder if this is an expression of your songwriting spouse’s discontent, restlessness, or worrisome knowledge of Amtrak’s remaining routes. This is to say nothing about murder ballads. It’s only natural, if you’re prone to taking songs as a literal expression of what’s going on at the moment, to ask, “is that about me?” or “is that about us?”

On the other side of the lyric equation, there are the positive love songs (there are at last count only about 12 of these in bluegrass music, but they do exist). If they describe a person or a situation unfamiliar to you, the spouse, you’re naturally tempted to ask, “who’s that about?” or “when did that happen?”

As the songwriter, how do you respond to this kind of question? I can say that personally I take real events and real emotions from different parts of my life and work them into other stories that are often fiction, but which contain real life elements. There are kernels of truth in there, and elements of fantasy, and they turn into songs that are not specifically autobiographical but are very much influenced by my own life. This makes answering specific questions about them somewhat complicated.

Fortunately my wife is also a songwriter, so in theory that makes these things easier to explain.

If you’re more of a literal or strictly autobiographical songwriter, however, I can only recommend that if you just wrote a positive love song that is specifically about someone other than your spouse, I discourage saying something like, “That’s about someone I met last month. She’s an awesome kisser.” No good can come of this. Also, if you just wrote a break-up or leaving song that is literally how you feel about your current relationship, coming clean about that is also fraught with danger, and should be done cautiously. In both cases, you have problems much bigger than how to answer a question about your songs.

I haven’t even touched on the cheating song, which we have very few of in bluegrass music, and when we do, they tend to morph quickly into the murder ballad. 

For the spouses of songwriters, I would encourage you to just let them express themselves as they have been doing, without worrying too much about the specifics of the lyrics. The danger in causing a songwriter to feel too self-conscious about his or her lyrics is that you’ll end up with a bottled-up songwriter. This isn’t a good thing, and living with one is even more difficult than living with a free-flowing songwriter. You can expect long periods of silence, strange diets, unconventional hobbies, and irresponsible purchases of musical instruments and/or shoes. They may even turn to watching sports.

Meanwhile, as a songwriter, there are some steps you can take to make your songs less controversial at home. I’ll admit up front that none of these solutions is ideal but you’re welcome to try them.

Put all your songs into the third person. This takes you out of your songs entirely, so they are by definition about someone else. The problem with this of course is that for the non-spouse part of your audience, you will start to seem like a songwriter who isn’t ever expressing true feelings. You’re now just a neutral go-between. Third person songs can also be awkward if not handled right.

We have a number of third person bluegrass songs that work quite well, beginning with Uncle Pen, but also including Barbara Allen, Sawin’ On the Strings, and Uncle Will Played the Fiddle. Okay, mainly songs about uncles, but we do have them. Other songs just wouldn’t work well converted into the third person: “Bury Him Beneath the Willow,” “He Doesn’t Believe You’ve Met His Baby” (good luck with that one), “She Saw the Light,” “Love Him Darling Just Tonight” (this is awkward on several fronts), or “She Wishes You Knew.”

Set all songs in the 19th century or earlier:

What spouse can be concerned about a love song or a leaving song that took place in 1862? Alternative idea for more contemporary or progressive bluegrass songwriters: set your songs in the distant future. If you can also put these in the third person, e.g. “Her Little Cabin Home in Space,” you’ll be completely safe.

Write songs about animals:

Yes of course we have songs about dead horses (Molly and Tenbrooks, Goodbye Old Pal, etc.), but you need not feel confined to the deceased equine theme. There’s always room for more songs about dogs, cats, frogs (or froggies), rabbits, and possums, but feel free to branch out into songs about goats, squirrels, ducks, skunks, iguanas, or badgers.

Write songs about inanimate objects:

We have these in bluegrass music, too, though they’re mostly about trains: Wabash Cannonball, Wreck of the Old 97 (also in third person), Orange Blossom Special, etc. There are lots of songs still to be written about other trains, but also airplanes (like Air Mail Special), cabins (from the cabin’s viewpoint), roads, trees, cars, guitars, boots, rocks, washing machines, and I’m sure eventually smartphones. “Who is that about?” quickly becomes the less troublesome “What is that about?”

Next week: Cheating songs set in outer space