Writing that High Lonesome Sound

The following report comes from comes from Max Gainey. He details his experiences at World of Bluegrass 2011 from the perspective of an aspiring songwriter. 

This September, as in past years, I went to Nashville to meet with bluegrass professionals as a member of the Bluegrass Songwriters Association at IBMA’s 2011 World of Bluegrass convention (WOB). I went to check out the up-and-coming artists at the Artists’ Showcases to be inspired by the performances. I also wanted a chance to try out my own songs with my amateur peers. Most importantly, I wanted to learn from the best songwriters in the bluegrass field.

The first Artist Showcase kicked off with Jett’s Creek, the Bluegrass Regulators, Foghorn Stringband, Rockin’ Acoustic Circus, and the Hillbenders. Two of these bands typified some of the divergence in modern bluegrass. The Foghorn Stringband provided finely honed tunes which harked back to the pre-bluegrass days of the Carter Family, twin fiddles, and a hint of Cajun spice. The Hillbenders, who could hold their own as a straight up bluegrass band, have chosen to tweak their music with jam band, rock, country, and a contagious joy. Both bands have concocted bluegrass hybrids typical of where the younger members of the bluegrass community are going.

The next morning found me ready to start the day at the Showcase Brunch. While I fortified myself with eggs and coffee The Roys, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, and Blue Moon Rising provided first class bluegrass. Frank Solivan’s father received recognition for his role in promoting bluegrass through the California Bluegrass Association’s “Kids on Bluegrass” program, started in 1990. His son must have made him proud that morning as Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen delivered a blistering set.

The evening showcase included Bearfoot and Nu-Blu, both were very fine. The Farewell Drifters seemed like a British Invasion tribute band who wandered into IBMA by mistake. But Jim Lauderdale absolutely dominated the stage and left the deepest impression of the week for me. His band, which included Randy Kohrs’ bone-chilling high harmonies, provided precision accompaniment which complimented Lauderdale’s molasses perfect, just behind the beat delivery. The songs he performed from Reason and Rhyme, his latest album written with Robert Hunter, sound completely modern and bluegrass timeless.

The end of the evening songwriters’ jams and rounds were daily events the Bluegrass Songwriters Association (BSA) created just for songwriters at WOB. I got my guitar and showed up at the after-hours room for songwriters on Monday night. There were already three writers there. We introduced ourselves and started taking turns performing our songs as a few more people filtered in.

Matt Merta, a friendly writer with a great sense of humor, presented a song that has been used on NPR’s Car Talk radio program and was included in a compilation they issued. He talked about how someone else had sent it in and he has been surprised how much attention it has received; you can never predict which tunes will garner attention and how they will find their own way. David Morris and Cliff Abbott (who has scored a cut with Larry Sparks), both writers for Bluegrass Today, took their turns in the song rounds. Dawn Kenney sang a couple of her songs with a beautiful clear voice.

Among the other writers present was Clint Alphin playing some of his great ironic songs, complete with heartbroken singing and masterful guitar playing. During the rounds an unassuming man quietly entered the proceedings, listened intently to some of our songs, and shyly declined to get out his own guitar and join in. At the time I assumed he was probably intimidated by the songwriting prowess we had on display. I was later embarrassed to find out this fellow was the songwriting powerhouse Rick Lang, who has a distinguished list of hits with IIIrd Tyme Out, Lonesome River Band, and many others. I found this out later in the week when he showed up onstage at the Bluebird Café performing with other bluegrass songwriting greats.

At some point after midnight, even though things were in full swing at the convention center, it was time for me to shut my guitar case and call it a night.

My main purpose for coming to the WOB was to participate in the seminars being offered. Out of the dozens available I concentrated on those created for songwriters: The Shoebox and the Garbage Can, Co-venture, Co-operation, Co-writing Co-rrectly, and the Mentoring Sessions with four professionals. At the Shoebox and the Garbage Can seminar Brink Brinkman headed a panel of professional writers who were giving advice on successfully pitching songs. Myrna Riquier, Steve Gulley, Laurie Lewis, Tony Rackley, and John Pennell all weighed in, providing a master class in what to do and not do when approaching artists with songs.

Their first rule: without a great product no one is buying. Get feedback from trusted sources about the quality of the song. Can they sing the chorus back and tell you what the song is about? Do they understand and remember the words? Can they name the title without being told? The songwriter must set aside pride and emotion to accept critiques gracefully. All panelists agreed that a basic guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demo with a great singer that gets across the words, melody, and emotion of the song works well.

Songwriters have an advantage in bluegrass because artists are so approachable. But that makes it important for writers to choose a time and place that is conducive for artists to be receptive to the song. It’s always best to ask permission from the artist to submit to them, either by email or in person. Make it easy for the artist to listen at their convenience. This may be months after your submission but if the artist has kept your CD in the “shoebox” of songs to listen to instead of the “garbage can” it has a greater chance of getting serious consideration.

Louisa Branscomb and Donna Ulisse presented the workshop “Co-venture, Co-operation, Co-writing Co-rrectly.” They discussed the hugely successful co-writing experiences they’ve had together and with others. Courtesy, respect for your cowriters and their ideas, and a willingness to yield some control were their messages. We did some co-writing exercises and everyone seemed genuinely excited and happy with their results. Things got a little out of hand when a late arriving participant persisted in interrupting with a series of non sequiturs which were tactfully acknowledged. Louisa and Donna couldn’t have been more gracious and encouraging to us.

The mentoring sessions completed my seminar agenda. From the wide variety of experts available I signed up for fifteen minute sessions with Brink Brinkman, Donna Ulisse, Tony Rackley, and Chris Jones. I didn’t expect them to give me all the secrets to songwriting success in a quarter of an hour. So I decided to just have a conversation with them. I really just wanted to meet these performing and songwriting stars.

Mark “Brink” Brinkman greeted me with a smile and warm handshake. He asked what was on my mind and I gave him a brief description of my songwriting status. I explained I was an amateur writer who aspired to getting a bluegrass cut or two. I said I had some good songs in a town full of great songs. Brink was a good listener and encouraged me to keep writing and improving. He treated me with seriousness for my efforts and expressed a focused step-by-step approach to song craft. His conversation always led to what needs to happen to get the song written and in the hands of artists. He makes a tough business and high artistic standard look effortless.

Next I met with Donna Ulisse. I was a little star struck with Donna, given her accomplishments as an artist, but she immediately put me at ease. She was very genuine and supportive while she guided our discussion from songwriting to who I was as a person. In her charismatic fashion she convinced me that I could find artistic success by embracing my own uniqueness. She is also an advocate of writing in a journal every day as a way to discover songs and myself. I bet, like me, everyone feels better about themselves after talking to Donna.

Tony Rackley had already nurtured me along by coordinating BSA’s songwriter mentoring program a couple of years ago. At that time I requested mentoring and he arranged for me to submit songs to Jon Weisberger for feedback. Jon was generous with his time and we talked by phone and email to improve my skills. That was my first contact with a professional songwriter. So this day’s meeting gave me a chance to thank Tony for his helpful and supportive work on behalf of aspiring writers. He didn’t shy away from how competitive the business is but offered living proof it could be done with enough hard work. A special thanks goes to Tony for all the work he has done with IBMA on behalf of songwriters the past few years.

Chris Jones looms large in bluegrass as a performer with his Night Drivers band, multi CD artist, radio host, and songwriter. Chris asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a nurse and he responded, “Oh yeah, Phil Leadbetter’s a nurse too.” Chris made the link that we’re all in this bluegrass community together. He listened and responded thoughtfully. I was left with the impression that he is completely BS-free.

It’s worth mentioning that I ran into Lisa Aschmann at almost every gathering. She’s a kind of guiding spirit for songwriters and is able to write down all the joys and sorrows of those around her and illuminate them for others. I have been in songwriting classes taught by others who relied on her book of songwriting ideas. She was always happy to take a few minutes to talk with me.

On Wednesday night IBMA presented Bluebird In the Round with Louisa Branscomb, Dennis Duff, Leigh Gibson, Chris Henry, Jamie Johnson, Rick Lang, Nicole Witt, and Susanne Mumpower-Johnson. The performances were transcendent and by the time Chris and Louisa got their fathers up to perform I realized this music weaved all kinds of people together in ways nothing else can.

On Thursday I should have gone to the luncheon and networked. I should have attended the seminars and submitted a song for the song demo listening session. Instead I loaded up my car, had a Waffle House breakfast, and headed north on I-65. I had played every song, listened to what the greats had to offer, and gained enough inspiration to carry me through until next September. Between now and then I’ll keep writing and pitching my songs.

And maybe I’ll eventually, occasionally stumble across a tune that goes from good to great.