The improvisation that is the hallmark of bluegrass is usually thought of in terms of instrument breaks, but at a workshop Tuesday at the World of Bluegrass conference in Nashville, Lisa Aschmann and John Pennell demonstrated it can apply to talking about the music as well.
Pennell, who invited a young fiddler named Alison Krauss to join his band Union Station some years ago, was a last-minute replacement for Mark Simos in a workshop that was originally billed as an effort to group-write a bluegrass song in 45 minutes. With Simos grounded by flight delays, Pennell and Aschmann switched gears and focused on pointers for developing the tension and release, harmonies and melodies that combine to make great songs.
While the focus was bluegrass, the pair of much-published songwriters injected an all-star cast of songwriters into the discussion, including Mozart, the Beatles, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan and the ubiquitous Bill Monroe. But along with the heavyweight names, Aschmann and Pennell offered some basic advice, starting with an admonishment not to make the process or the result more complicated than it needs to be. “You don’t have to divulge the secrets of the universe in a song,” Pennell said.
While lyrics are the focus of many songwriting workshops, this pair of presenters put much of their focus on the melody. While the process of creating a melody can seem complicated to outsiders, Aschmann reminded the audience that there are really only six choices to get from one note to the next – go up a little or a lot, go down a little or a lot, hold the note or rest. And Pennell demonstrated on the guitar how the same melody can take on a different feel by changing the key and the instrumental approach.
First, he played and sang the Beatles Nowhere Man as it was written, in a minor key that gave it a pop feel familiar to several generations of listeners. Then he switched to a major key with a simplified I-IV-V chord progression played in a boom-chuck style and – voila – he was playing a countried-up version as recorded by Red Knuckles.
The group didn’t write a song in 45-minutes, as advertised, but under the idea that writing credits should go to all those “in the room” when the song was created, splitting the credits about 30 ways would have been more about math than music. But there were plenty of ideas from the publishing stars to leave at least one songwriter eager to get back to his music room to try some new tricks.