50 Ways To Write A Song

I discovered Paul Simon on MTV when I was in third grade, back when the video for “You Can Call Me Al” was on constant rotation. It featured Chevy Chase lip-synching the words to the song while a dour-looking Simon traded off on a variety of instruments. As I was unfamiliar with the work of Chevy Chase at the time, I assumed that this tall, tan, hysterical guy was Paul Simon. I now had a new musical hero. He was cool, funny, and made great music to boot.

This illusion lasted for about a month. I told my parents about my newfound discovery, which prompted my dad to pull out a dusty old Simon & Garfunkel vinyl from his record collection. The short one was there, with much longer hair, mind you, but the other guy was clearly not my Paul Simon. My mind had been officially blown.

I got over the hang-up, and the Graceland cassette entered into my possession not long afterward. For Simon, it was a watershed album that re-energized his career and earned him a whole new subset of fans. It now stands as one of the best albums of that decade.

As a songwriter, Simon is an American titan, one of the few that can be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan. The writer Cormac McCarthy once quipped, “Simon told us what was happening [in the ‘60s], Dylan told us what was going to happen.” Indeed.

And why they haven’t awarded Simon – or Dylan, for that matter – a Presidential Medal Of Freedom is beyond me. So, Obama, if you’re reading this ….

In our exclusive interview, Simon comes off as modest and unassuming. He says he doesn’t write with any grand themes in mind, and is not trying to make a major philosophical statement.

For his new album, So Beautiful Or So What, Simon says he’s mainly just interested to see where the road takes him, given that the commercial landscape for music has changed so dramatically. He seems buoyant about prospect of continuing to write and play music, even at age 70, proving that age is only the province of a defeated spirit.

There has always been an elusive spirit to Simon’s music, and his songs, more often than not, are tinged with melancholy. The movie Almost Famous has a great scene when Zooey Deschanel’s character Anita plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” to explain to her mother her reason for leaving home. Today, in the age of Twitter and Best Buy, that song sounds like an elegy for a lost time, when running away from home was still a romantic pursuit.

Stevie Nicks is another seasoned artist who refuses to give up the ghost. Her latest album, In Your Dreams, her first solo effort in nearly a decade, features what she considers to be some of her finest work. The ‘70s icon discusses her unique approach to writing, and relates a funny episode with ex-beau Don Henley about writing “Dreams.”

Another great American writer, Brian Wilson, offers a lesson in synesthesia, explaining what colors he associates with the different keys of the musical scale. He also makes the case that pop music began to descend in quality after reaching its climax in the ‘60s. The reason: he says songwriters went out of business. To call Wilson self-effacing would be a grand understatement. The genius behind Pet Sounds – quite sadly – says he’s unsure if his music has brought any joy into the world. Well, we’re pretty sure it has.
And we certainly don’t think the quality of music has declined since the ‘60s. There’s as much good music being made now as ever before. It’s just a little harder to find sometimes, that’s all.

But if you’re looking for some great new artists, check out Nikki Lane, a live-wire from South Carolina whose debut album Walk Of Shame marries the twang of Loretta with classic punk swagger. Another standout is Beirut, the lo-fi orchestral folk project from Zach Condon. His new album The Rip Tide is definitely one of the year’s best.

Editor’s Note: American Songwriter, July/August 2011

It’s late May in Nashville, and Justin Townes Earle is back in his hometown amid a short break from touring. For the first time in a long while, he finds himself walking the streets of Music Row – ground zero for a type of music he certainly doesn’t consider “country.”

Earle’s own songs possess a strong sense of location, and he appears to be an artist inspired by the spirit of a place. Music Row clearly isn’t one of them. “Should have waited to take my shower ‘cause now I just feel dirty!” he posts on his Twitter feed.

Justin’s father, Steve, developed his own allergy to Music Row in the mid-70s, where he moved in and out of a series of publishing deals, before finally releasing the critically-acclaimed Guitar Town in 1986. The elder Earle never considered Music Row to be a nurturing place for a songwriter. “Me and everybody like me … we have to take what we’re given,” he told American Songwriter in 2007. “Songwriters, especially the kind of songwriter I came to be, have to live in the margin.”

And live in the margin he did. In the late ‘80s, Earle released a handful of albums on MCA Records that moved from country to heartland rock to a sound he termed “heavy-metal bluegrass.” Today, Earle considers himself to be a folk singer more than anything else, a songwriter with the chops to make a living busking in the subway if push came to shove.

New York currently serves as the adopted home of both Earles. Steve pulled up stakes in Nashville several years ago and settled in Greenwich Village, paying tribute to the neighborhood’s folk music heritage on the album Washington Square Serenade.

For this issue’s photo shoot, Nashville’s Joshua Black Wilkins caught up with father and son on the boardwalk of Coney Island, that carny section of Brooklyn that was home to Woody Guthrie in the decade after World War II. Woody even wrote about the boardwalk, describing it as a place where “the prettiest of the maidulas, leave their leg prints in that sand/ Just beneath our love-soaked boardwalk, with the bravest of our lads.”

It was a fitting locale for our cover shoot, given that Woody is a guiding light for both songwriters. Steve paid direct homage to the legendary singer in the song “Christmas In Washington,” at once a prayer and call to arms for left-wing activism that also summons the ghost of Joe Hill, the songwriter and labor-activist for the Wobblies. “The Gulf Of Mexico,” off of Steve’s new album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, also invokes Woody’s spirit. A modern day folk-ballad with a strong Irish lilt, the song traces the lives of three generations of workers who made their living on the water. The song’s denouement comes in the form of the oil spill, and we’ve seen a Gulf that has turned from blue to green to blood red.

Guthrie served as one of the touchstones for Justin’s album Harlem River Blues, an impressive song-cycle that imagines a cross-section of southern music through the prism of big city life in the 21st century.

“When Woody Guthrie was around, he wrote about what was around him,” the younger Earle tells AS. “He wrote about all these amazing new inventions, like the Grand Coulee Dam. He was taking an old form of music that he had learned in Pampa, Texas, and was translating it to a modern time.”

Earle’s most Guthrie-esque tune on Harlem River is “Wanderin,’” a roustabout tale that casts the protagonist as a sort of latter-day Huck Finn.

Now, my father was a traveler and my mama stayed at home
And she cried the day that he walked out and left us on our own
But now I’m older than he was when I was born and I don’t know
Which way is home so I’m wanderin’

In our story, the younger Earle says he’ll always consider himself “white trash from Middle Tennessee.” Buried beneath the wanderlust of his songs is the search for a home. Here’s hoping he keeps searching, at least for the sake of his songs.

Buy the issue.

Editor’s Note: November/December

It’s early October, and Nashville is still reeling from the moveable feast of music and madness that was Next BIG Nashville. For two days, the city hosted a music industry conference that attracted some of the best minds in the business. Top that off with four nights of music at venues throughout the city, with more than 150 bands from across the country that ranged in style from country to indie rock to hip-hop and electronic music.

It was a success on all fronts.

Music City, of course, has always been about more than twin fiddles and steel guitar. Anyone who lives here knows that. But, thanks to events like Next BIG Nashville, the city is emerging on the national stage as a hotbed of talent, for music and entrepreneurs of all stripes.

Kings of Leon, our cover subject and one of the biggest rock bands in the world, just happen to call Nashville home. Though they spent much of their youth traveling the byways of the South with their dad, an itinerant preacher, the band cut its musical teeth here, recording its first EP in Nashville, in 2003, when bassist Jared Followill was a stripling of 16. Buy the issue to read more.


Originally published in Richmond’s Style Weekly. May 2008.

Last summer Wayne’s granddad gave him a vial of poison. The bottle was small and green and featured a skull and crossbones on the label.

“I think you’re old enough to have it now,” his granddad said. “I stole it off a German at the end of the war. Maybe you can use it one day on one of your enemies.”

“Thanks, granddad. Are you sure?”

“Of course,” he said. “I know you will use it wisely.”

Aside from his Rambo survivor knife, the poison was Wayne’s most cherished possession. He kept it hidden on the top shelf of his chest of drawers, along with his Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.

Wayne never told anyone about the gift. His grandfather had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few months earlier, and Wayne had been told to report any unusual activity.

“If he does anything weird, like complain about spies in the attic, let me know,” his mother said.

Wayne had the chance to use the poison a few weeks later, after his friend Jerry betrayed him. Jerry was one of the most popular kids at school. He was charming, athletic and excelled at Cub Scouts. He was also the first boy in class to put his hand down a girl’s pants.

But Jerry, for all his strengths, was insecure. One afternoon he began telling classmates that Wayne’s mother worshipped Satan.

“She and a bunch of other kooks go to City Park every night and make fires and praise Satan,” he told them. “Then they have sex with each other and do drugs.”

In recent weeks Wayne had begun selling chewing tobacco on the playground. Every Thursday Wayne stole all the chew he could from a drugstore, selling it to his classmates the next day for two bucks a pouch. The new business made Wayne the most popular kid in class. At least until the rumors started.

A kid named Pete finally told Wayne what Jerry had been saying.

“He says she wears a black robe and leads them through chants,” Pete said. “It’s scary stuff. I sometimes get nightmares.”

“Jerry’s a dead man,” Wayne told Pete.

The next week Wayne decided to put several drops of poison in Jerry’s pouch. Wayne sold it to his foe the next morning. Before class, Jerry had a chew on the basketball court. Nothing happened. “Why was it taking so long?” Wayne thought to himself. In the movies they died instantly. Maybe he didn’t use enough.

Jerry lived. He even had another chew that day at recess. Wayne went home that afternoon and tasted the poison. He didn’t die either. He had seen fake poison at the magic shop. This was probably the same stuff. He was pissed at his granddad. He decided to leave the bottle on his granddad’s nightstand. He wanted to humiliate the old fool.

Richmond’s Difficult Legacy

Originally published in The Washington Times – Saturday, May 3, 2008

On April 4, 1865, just two days after Union forces had taken Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln arrived in the Confederate capital with his son Tad. The city’s black residents gave the Great Emancipator a hero’s welcome, while the city’s whites greeted him icily.

Today, a bronze statue of Lincoln and his son sits at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center. The president, who wears a melancholy expression, has his arm wrapped around his 12-year-old boy. Behind him, etched in stone, are the words: “To bind up the nation’s wounds.”

The unveiling of the Lincoln statue in April 2003 marked a turning point in Richmond’s attitude toward the historic conflict. “We in Virginia are glad to claim him as one of our own,” said then-Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine. “Abraham Lincoln is one of us.”

Richmonders, of course, have not always considered Lincoln “one of us.” Any visitor to Richmond recognizes what seems to be the city’s preternatural obsession with its Confederate past. Monument Avenue, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, boasts monuments to four Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

However, a new museum in Richmond is taking on the conflict in a different way. The American Civil War Center, which opened in 2006, approaches the conflict from three perspectives: Union, Confederate and black. The museum offers a more balanced interpretation of the war. “No side offered a monopoly on virtue,” a video tells visitors at the beginning of the exhibit.

James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author at Princeton, was one of several historians involved in the planning. Mr. McPherson, whose scholarship has dealt with all three perspectives addressed by the exhibit, says the museum is unique on the national stage. “Most of the other museums that deal with the Civil War have a particular perspective,” he says.

Though the museum opened in 2006, the foundation has been around since 2000. H. Alexander Wise Jr., a former director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, got the ball rolling back in the late ‘70s. Mr. Wise created a national board and enlisted the support of historians from different viewpoints. Those involved collaborated in a “harmonious and creative” manner, Mr. McPherson says.

The center’s founders felt it was important to have the center in Richmond. Also, the center is located on historic ground, atTredegar Iron Works, an iron foundry that was the largest munitions factory for the South during the war. Across the James River is Belle Isle, a former Union prison camp that has become a public park.

At the beginning of the exhibit, visitors have the opportunity to vote on what caused the war. The exhibit concludes with a look at the war’s legacy. Adam Scher, the center’s vice president of operations and interim president, says one of the primary goals is establishing a connection between the war and contemporary life. He adds that the legacy portion of the exhibit strikes the greatest emotional chord.

“We talk about issues that still linger,” he says.

The museum also has worked with several schools in the area as part of an effort to foster civic engagement and explore issues of race and reconciliation.

“Students are our most important audience,” Mr. Scher says, “and in many cases, they have not formulated a perspective about this story. It allows them the opportunity to see the story from different sides.”

Less than 1½ miles away from the American Civil War Center is the Museum of the Confederacy. Founded in 1890, it is one of the oldest museums in the nation, but it has struggled in recent years. Attendance is down, and funding has long been a problem. Not to mention that the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center has practically eaten the museum, making it nearly impossible to locate. Next to the museum stands the White House of the Confederacy, which is open daily for tours.

Waite Rawls, the museum’s president, acknowledges that the museum has suffered an image problem for some time. “There’s a big gap in the reality of what the museum is today and the perception the public has,” he says.

During the 1990s, Mr. Rawls says, the museum began an effort to change its image, offering exhibits on the struggle of blacks for freedom in the South and the role of women in the war.

Mr. Rawls insists that the museum is not in competition with the American Civil War Center. In fact, he says, Richmond as a whole is in competition with other historical cities. However, he thinks his town comes up short when it comes to marketing its historical offerings.

“If you look at Northern cities, particularly modern, progressive cities, they put [historical legacy] at the forefront,” he says, citing Boston, Philadelphia and Washington as examples.

Richmond, Mr. Rawls says, has an advantage in that regard. Cities such as Charlotte, N.C., he says, aren’t so fortunate. Still, Richmond is unique in that its history is sometimes considered an albatross, a fact that is often chalked up to race.

“Twenty-first-century racial politics have used the Civil War as a political football,” Mr. Rawls says. “Blaming that on the Civil War is a peculiarly local phenomenon.”

Nevertheless, the conflict is still a big draw for tourists in the Old Dominion. One out of every 10 visitors goes to some Civil War site, says Richard Lewis of the Virginia Tourism Corp. “There’s so much to see,” he says. “You’d be hard-pressed to do all the Civil War stuff in Virginia in one day.”

There has been a move recently by city officials to pay greater tribute to the role of blacks in the city’s past. Last year, the city unveiled the Slavery Reconciliation Statue in the historic Shockoe Bottom area. Identical statues have been erected in Liverpool, England, and Benin, in West Africa, representing three prominent focal points of the slave trade.

Virginia is planning its Sesquicentennial Commemoration — or 150th anniversary — of the war, beginning in 2011 and running through 2015. That will likely set the tone for Civil War tourism in the former capital of the Confederacy in the 21st century.

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to improve the way Richmond has been marketed,” says Jeannie Welliver, director of tourism for the city of Richmond.

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