If I could just get that first line…

Chris JonesPeople in Nashville have often heard it said that everyone there is a songwriter. This is probably true, and if you’ve spent any time listening to country radio in the last several years, you’ve no doubt heard quite a few songs that sound like they were co-written by your pizza delivery guy and a junior high kid who recently spent time in the principal’s office for defacing school property. If you live in Nashville, it’s just a thing you do, whether or not you appear to have any natural talent in that direction.

There’s no reason for Nashville to be singled out, though. There’s nothing in the water there (besides a chlorine taste) that makes you more qualified to become a songwriter than someone drinking the water in Poughkeepsie, NY. The fact is, if anyone in Nashville can write songs, anyone anywhere can write them.

Please note that I’m not necessarily talking about good songs. Writing those may require an actual gift in that area. There could even be art involved. What I mean is that almost anyone with a pen and paper, or perhaps an iPad, or a recording device of any kind, can string together lines that may or may not rhyme, and put some sort of melody to them.

For many people wanting to get started in this rewarding field, what they need more than anything else is a way to get the creative ball rolling. In other words, they need a first line.

The first line of a song is critical, and is often very difficult to come up with. It’s the thing that sets the tone and draws the listener in, or if it isn’t a good one, causes the listener to change the station in search of news about the upcoming Wyoming primary.

Consider these classic first lines (or two):

“Tonight I’m alone without you my dear
It seems there’s a longing for you still”

“I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free”

“I’ve been working out in the rain tied to a dirty old ball and chain”

“It’s upstairs downstairs out in the kitchen”

(this is a song that starts with a great deal of movement and multiple locations, a perfect device for grabbing the listener’s attention)

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee”

(songwriting rule #86: any first line with the words “Gitche Gumee” in it is guaranteed to be a classic, but unfortunately it can only be used once, and it’s already been done.)

Naturally, coming up with lines like these that will go down in history is no small task. I  wrote them down, not to intimidate you, but just to illustrate the potential power of the first line.

How on earth do you get started at all, though? Well, for those of you still sitting there with that yellow legal pad that’s completely blank, except for some doodles that look sort of like demonic shrimp, I’m here to help. Below are some all-purpose first lines (or two) for a variety of songs. I’m even including rhyme suggestions for each one, should you choose to go that way. I offer these as a free service, though if they lead to the next Big and Rich or Big Country Bluegrass hit, 10% would be kind of you.

A love song (positive, a bluegrass rarity I know):

You’re so much better than my last love
I dodged a bullet there

(suggested rhymes: hair, care, prayer, bear)

A love song (sad):

Little darlin’ you keep treating me like two cups of dirt

(suggested rhymes: hurt, flirt, skirt, blurt  note, for non-U.S writers: you may convert two cups to 475 milliliters, but it does create a meter/metre challenge)

A murder ballad (from the girl’s point of view):

Willie asked me to take a walk
What could possibly go wrong?

(suggested rhymes: long, song, prong)

A murder ballad (from Little Willie’s point of view):

My love tells me I’m controlling, I can’t imagine why

(suggested rhymes: cry, pry, untie, peanut butter pie)

Nostalgic, cabin-type song:

That used to be our cabin home, they put a Walmart there

(suggested rhymes: blare, stare, lair, billionaire)

Dead horse song:

My good old Paint’s not moving, I hope he’s just asleep

(suggested rhymes: creep, deep, beep)

Abstract and artsy contemporary bluegrass song:

Wind, wild and brooding, of a couch did speak

(Suggested rhymes, if any: creak, bleak, freak, oblique. Note: you could change “couch” to “coach” if you want to tie in a sports element)

Good luck in your new vocation. Please send all demos to address unknown.