This post is part of our occasional feature, Songwriter Profiles. If you have a suggestion for a bluegrass songwriter we might want to consider, please contact us.
Jon Weisberger became serious about writing songs in 1998, having taken up the bass in his early teen-age years. Born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and trained as a classical musician, the first songs that he wrote were recorded by Union Springs, a band that he helped to form in April 1992. A fellow member of the band at that time was Dwight McCall, who later recorded Weisberger’s song The Pathway Of My Savior (on Never Say Never Again, McCall’s 2007 album on the Rural Rhythm record label).
Subsequently, he has worked with the Comet All-Stars, Prospect Hill, Katie Laur Band and The La-Z Boys. More recently Weisberger has played bass in the Wildwood Valley Boys; Chris Jones and the Night Drivers; Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time; The Lonesome Heirs; the Roland White Band; the Harley Allen Band; and Sally Jones & The Sidewinders.
Also he has done some touring with the Tony Trischka Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular and spent a couple of years touring with April Verch.
Weisberger has also worked on the air and behind the scenes in bluegrass radio, hosting shows in the Cincinnati area and producing several after his move to Nashville in 2002.
His songs have been recorded by a wide range of top bluegrass acts including The Chapmans (Losing Again), Jim Van Cleve (Grey Afternoon and Way It Always Seems to Go), the Infamous Stringdusters (Three Days In July), Doyle Lawson (Yesterday’s Songs) and Blue Highway (Blues on Blues).
Other cuts include My Heart’s Bouquet (The Chapmans, on the same album as Losing Again), Blown Away And Gone (Del McCoury Band on The Company We Keep), Help Me, Lord (Dwight McCall, Kentucky Peace Of Mind), Lonely Road Back Home (April Verch, Steal The Blue) and Every Shade Of Blue (Cages Bend, Now I’m Lonely).
Unreleased songs that Weisberger has written or co-written include one on the forthcoming album by The Dixie Bee-Liners, Susanville, due out in October, and one on an album by Cincinnati area artist Missy Werner, whose Dwight McCall-produced album will appear around the same time.
He occasionally writes for the Nashville Scene.
Did you grow up in a musical family?
Both my parents enjoyed listening to music – classical and folk, mostly – and my father got me started playing the recorder when I was just three or four years old.
At what age did music register with you and what were the circumstances?
I’ve been interested in music for literally longer than I can remember – I have a photo of myself holding a recorder taken when I was three. I was very absorbed in classical music as a child, taking up the oboe when I was in the 3rd grade and playing it until I graduated from high school. My father bought a guitar when I was 13 – he intended to learn to play, but lost interest in fairly short order and passed it along to me. I taught myself some chords out of a book, but took up the (electric) bass soon after, playing in local rock and blues bands through high school. After a year or so of “general purpose” collegiate studies, I transferred to the California Institute of the Arts as a music major, and graduated with a BFA degree in 1975.
You are classically trained; how did that training affect your bluegrass song writing?
As near as I can tell, very little! I think it might have sharpened my analytical skills in terms of being able to understand the structure of songs, but that’s about all. Going through a bluegrass “apprenticeship” – working with local and regional, then national bands and trying to pay attention to what I could learn from folks who had been in the music longer than I – counted for a lot more.
What prompted you to start song writing?
Back in 1992, when Dwight McCall, Randy Pollard and I formed Union Springs, we approached Lou Ukelson at Vetco Records about doing an album. He was receptive to the idea, but said he wanted some original songs, and that was incentive enough for me to start writing. I came up with what I thought would make a great ballad called A Faded Picture, but when I pitched it to Dwight to sing, he thought it would sound better up-tempo, and that’s how we recorded it. For the next few years, I wrote a couple of songs each time we went to record, and wound up with three on our second, all-gospel album (Dwight’s since recorded two of those on solo projects), and two on our third and final one.
One of those was a ballad called My Heart’s Bouquet, which Chris Davis (now with Marty Raybon) learned when he was a member of the band in 1998. He continued to sing it with other groups, and in 2000, while I was at Bean Blossom with the Wildwood Valley Boys, I suggested to John Chapman that he listen to Chris sing it there, because it might be a good one for The Chapmans. He did, liked it (and subsequently recorded it), and asked if I had anything else. I had exactly one other song, which Chris had sung with Union Springs but which we hadn’t recorded, and it took me about a week to find a rehearsal tape and send it to John. The Chapmans cut that one, too – Losing Again – and it did well for them at bluegrass radio. After that I started taking songwriting more seriously and got into co-writing in a big way.
When did you move to Nashville and why?
I moved to Nashville at the very end of 2002 – in fact, my first gig as a Nashville resident was as a member of the Sidemen at the New Year’s Eve Station Inn show welcoming in 2003. I had wanted to really pursue a career as a professional musician, and while the Cincinnati area (where I was living at the time) had many things to recommend it, it had become clear to me that the ability to support very many professionals – at least in bluegrass – wasn’t among them. As Eddie Stubbs told me shortly after my arrival, if you want groceries, you need to go to the grocery store, and for me that was Nashville.
Who has influenced your song writing and in what ways?
I don’t think many people who write for bluegrass artists can escape the influence of greats like Lester Flatt and Carter Stanley; I certainly haven’t. I also have an immense appreciation for some later bluegrass writers, like Pete Goble, Paul Craft, Randall Hylton and especially Aubrey Holt, who did and do so well at writing straightforward, satisfying melodies and plain-spoken yet vivid lyrics. Tom T. Hall and Harley Allen are two more whose work I’ve appreciated greatly. I’ve also been influenced, of course, by folks I’ve written with. My most frequent writing partner has been Mark Simos, and I’ve gotten a lot from him with respect to being precise about melodies, and how to balance distinctive language with everyday speech.
You are most often noted as a bass player; what instrument(s) do you use in your song writing sessions?
On my own, I often work on songs in my head; when writing with others, the guitar.
Tell me about the writing of Three Days In July, which you co-wrote; from where did the inspiration for that song come?
Mark (Simos) and I wrote that in the spring of 2003; I don’t remember whether the invasion of Iraq was already under way, but it was on our minds, and we wanted to write a song that would address the tragedy of war but also offer some reminder of common humanity. Our thoughts naturally turned to the Civil War, as several bluegrass songs have used that as a setting to touch on similar themes, and we thought it would be neat to turn the usual bluegrass identification with the southern side on its head – and that led us to think of Gettysburg, one of the few major battlefields in the north. I think Mark already had some melodic fragments in mind, and as the son of an historian, I was familiar with the proposition that the Confederate army had moved on Gettysburg because there was a shoe factory or two there – and once we put those two things together, the song was written in a couple of hours.
About a year after that, Mark and I organized a demo recording session with Jeremy Garrett, Ned Luberecki and Stephen Mougin. Jeremy really took a liking to Three Days In July, and I thought he did a great job singing it, so although we pitched the song to a few artists, we also turned down a couple of requests by others for permission to record it because of his interest. (That turned out to be an excellent demo session, by the way, as the Del McCoury Band recorded two other songs from the same batch – Blown Away And Gone, which Mark and I wrote together, and Mark’s Eyes That Won’t Meet Mine.)
Yesterday’s Songs on the new Doyle Lawson CD sounds as though it had interesting origins.
About a year before I left the Cincinnati area, I met a young singer there named Lisa Shaffer, who was getting ready to graduate from Northern Kentucky University. We took a stab at putting a band together, but it didn’t work out, and she moved to Nashville about 6 months before I did. Lisa’s a great songwriter who’s had cuts with Dailey & Vincent and Rhonda Vincent, among others; we kept in touch occasionally, and at one point I introduced her to Mark Simos, and the two of them did a little writing together. At the 2008 World of Bluegrass, Mark wanted to write with each of us, and it wound up being most convenient to all get together at the same time. As we were casting around for an idea, Lisa talked about singing with her family as a youngster, and from there we moved along pretty quickly with the first verse, the chorus and part of the second verse. We finished the song the next day in the 4th floor lobby of the Renaissance Hotel, as Mark had already checked out of his room, and on the work tape we made, you can hear people getting in and out of elevators in the background.
A few weeks later, when I ran into Brandon Godman (then playing fiddle for Doyle Lawson) and learned that they were in the studio, I gave him a copy of the worktape on the spur of the moment – and he called from the studio a couple of days later asking me to email him the lyrics. I think Doyle’s cut turned out wonderfully, and the fact that it marks the first time he’s played the banjo on one of his records is a really cool bonus.
Which of your songs have charted or won you an award?
To date, only Losing Again has charted, reaching #5 on the Bluegrass Unlimited airplay chart; it got me a nomination for Song (or maybe Songwriter) of the Year from SPBGMA, an award I was happy to lose to Tom T. and Dixie Hall.
Which of your songs give you most satisfaction and why?
That’s a tough question to answer. Losing Again is one I’m pretty proud of; it was not only my first cut, but has been picked up by a number of bands around the country and continent, and that’s certainly a rewarding experience. Generally speaking, the ones I tend to feel best about are either written within pretty traditional bounds, like My Turn To Laugh, or pretty much completely outside of the bluegrass framework, like The Very Next Hello (both are on my album). I’m also particularly proud of Lonely Road Back Home, which April Verch recorded, and a song I wrote with Stephen Mougin called Cold Lonesome Night, which appears on a forthcoming Chris Jones & The Nightdrivers album – in both cases because pitching to an artist you’re working for or have worked for is a tough proposition!
Have you written any songs with a particular singer in mind? If so, what examples are there of that and what particular song writing techniques did you employ?
I’ve never spent much time trying to write for a particular artist. I’m not opposed to it in theory, but most of the time I’ve been writing, the song has kind of dictated its own direction, and the idea of bending it to fit one artist has tended to run counter to that. I’m a pretty strong believer in the idea of writing the song and then seeing who (or what style of music) it might fit.
What inspires you to write? Do you write from 9am to 5pm [office hours]?
I don’t have fixed hours for writing as such, but since most of my work these days is with other writers, there are definitely prime appointment times, typically 10 or 11 a.m. and going for a couple of hours. Co-writing imposes a certain kind of discipline in that regard that I find very helpful. Normally, when I get an idea, or a line, or a musical idea, I make note of it, and then when I get with a co-writer, I can pull out those notes and see what might be inspirational with that person at that time.
As you have become more experienced how has your song writing evolved?
I’ve certainly become more open-minded and adventurous as a songwriter, and have become a lot more comfortable with the process of following a song in the direction that it seems to want to go, rather than trying to force it to fit a preconceived idea of what it should be. At the same time, I think I’ve gained a better sense of how things work – balancing unusual verses with more straightforward choruses, for instance, or having a clearer sense of when a song needs (or doesn’t need) a bridge. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve become a lot more confident that a session will produce something useful!
What advice would you give for someone just starting to write bluegrass songs?
First, to listen analytically to favorite songs, and to try to find common elements among them that can serve as models for one’s own writing. Second, to keep track of ideas, lines, melodies; don’t rely on your memory to hang onto them indefinitely. Third, at least consider the idea of co-writing, especially with someone more experienced; quite a few writers are open to the idea of co-writing, even with folks they don’t know very well, and you can learn a tremendous amount from the experience. Fourth, seek out critiques from people whose opinions you respect; it can be an humbling experience, but the benefits far outweigh the discomforts. Lastly, don’t be afraid to get “out there” if a song seems logically to be heading that way; there’s more variety than ever in bluegrass, and more artists open to recording less obviously conventional material.
You took the unusual (unique?) step of putting out a CD of your own songs that were effectively demo-ed by other singers, but it was at the same time a bona fide release.
Though it’s a stylistically broader album, John Pennell did something similar about 10 years ago, and I hadn’t forgotten about it when I set out to do mine. The idea made a lot of sense to me, since I’m not in any respect a lead singer, and I have a lot of great singers among my friends. Hardly any of the songs existed in any form other than a rough work tape, and as I thought about it, I realized that I could come up with quality recordings for not much more than it would cost to make full-band demos – so that’s what I did!
Since then have you written more songs in which artists have shown interest?
Most of the songs on the project were at least a year old at the time it was recorded, and I’ve written quite a bit since then – in fact, as noted, Yesterday’s Songs was written after the project was done, and there are a couple of others written since then in which artists have shown an interest. I don’t want to provide details, because as Ronnie Bowman once told me, it’s best not to say anything about getting a cut until it’s on a CD shrink-wrapped and in the racks at Wal-Mart (!), but it looks likely that I’ll have a few more cuts out this year – and, I hope, more to come after that.
You can hear all 10 tracks from Jon’s CD on his MySpace page.