Where great music comes from
A friend of mine who sings with a prominent southern gospel group was talking to me the other day in email about finding good/great songs. In the course of the back and forth, he wrote:
One thing we’re focusing on is to find and hit (really good) songs. It’s a consistent theme. The problem is….good from who’s perspective. It’s like no one can seem to agree on what is a good song. Obviously, what we’re doing is not working in that regard. We have only had one number one song in [many] years. So…I will work on that.
It’s a fair point: Good songs are tough. You can’t throw a free “Jesus Got R Done” t-shirt through the Freedom Hall Expo Center without hitting an artist bugging a writer for great songs, man, we’re looking for your best stuff … I mean, the next “Champion of Love” or “The Lighthouse.” Well, yeah. Who isn’t.
I’m sure some important music has emerged from this kind of solicitation. But as much as anything else, artists need a gut check on this kinda thing. If an artist is struggling to find and record great songs, the problem isn’t going to get solved by relying on songwriters to give you their best stuff. Most songwriters have a catalog of songs ready to pitch to artists at any given time. They’re holding back what they think is their best stuff for artists who have proven an ability to take ownership of the music they record.
For the downmarket groups, this means your energy would be better spent working on imprinting your own style on songs rather than harassing songwriters who aren’t going to give their best stuff to a b-list group anyway. But for the established groups of the sort my correspondent is a part of, the salient point here is that you not only need access to songwriters’ best stuff - is this a good song in general? - but also an instinct for song selection: is this song good for us, can my guys and I sell it, can we make it good, bring it to life, give people a reason to care about it and us? (Insert old chestnut here about George Younce adding that “step … in .. to … the water” bass lick to Talley’s original song and thereby illustrating the difference between finding good songs and making great music).
Or, if you don’t have that sense or don’t trust it, find someone who does.
Or (and this is increasingly the more common path for most groups), create the impression or the appearance in the fans’ eyes that you have someone whose instincts on “good” music you and they can trust. This is what Rodney Griffin has given Gerald Wolfe, especially now that Griffin’s well’s started running dry. The conspicuous drop-off in the quality of his output since, say, the Quartets project (their last really fine album with some good Griffin pieces on it) doesn’t matter that much. Why? Because it became settled law years ago that Rodney Griffin writes Great Songs and Gerald Wolfe and Greater Vision support Great Songs from a Great Writer.
The Perrys are trying something similar, I gather, with Joseph Habedank. His writing has promise but so far has been marked by creative indiscipline and conceptual underdevelopment, but the Perrys are going all over God’s green gospel earth telling folks that this boy can write as well as he sings … just listen here to our new song. And off they go. Expect to see Habedank’s name on the favorite songwriters ballot any year now.
Ernie Haase has taken a slightly different route, surrounding himself with superb writers in Joel Lindsey and Wayne Haun, and – as far as I can tell from reading liner notes and song credits – appending his name on the co-write line in several instances. How much he does or doesn’t contribute to the creation of the song is immaterial (and I have no reason to think he doesn’t contribute something, however out of proportion it may be to what Lindsey and Haun are bringing to the writer’s table). He’s got bankable writers helping him create bankable songs that he can stage around the idea and image of his own ongoing quest for the divine musical light, both as a singer and a writer, as gospel artist and faithful scribe to movings of the spirit in southern gospel.
All these examples make me think that No. 1 songs aren’t really the best metric for good music. The SN chart measures plenty of things (primarily how much you pay your radio promoter) but not really great songs. There’s no accounting for taste and all that, but I’d say less than a quarter of the songs that go No. 1 are really “good” songs, if good is taken to mean performatively engaging, creatively influential, and historically lasting both in their appeal and performance.
People don’t remember a song because it went No. 1; they remember it because it makes an abiding impression in some original yet recognizable or familiar way (here we might note that the definition of a good song also overlaps with the definition of style: easy to recognize, difficult to define, and impossible to imitate). What that “way” means for any given artist … well, there’s your $64K question, and usually the answer has less to do with the formal features of the song itself and more with the atmospherics, optics, and style unique to the artist or group.Email this Post