Songs with room to breathe

Over at southerngospelblog there’s a discussion afoot based on a J.D. Sumner quote about songwriting to the effect that “songwriters only have so many songs in them, and then they run out and could / should quit writing.” Daniel rebuts the parts of this claim he disagrees with and you can judge for yourself the merits of his case.

For my part, I think Sumner was probably right that most writers - of songs or whatever else - have only so many original things to say and then they run out, at least of original ideas. I recall a few years ago reading of something that Stanley Fish, who’s a big blanking deal in the world of literary criticism, had reportedly once said to a graduate student: that if we’re lucky, we all have one really good insight into literature and life in our careers, and we keep writing various versions of that over and over.

That last bit is key. What I think he meant was not necessarily that everything’s a waste after The Idea hits you. Or in Sumner’s terms, that you could/should quit. Rather, the measure of a career’s success has less to do with how reliably original you are and more with how you can keep saying what matters to you with a certain freshness that doesn’t rely on the big splash of a debut.

This is where I think southern gospel struggles so much. It’s like everyone, no matter how many decades they’ve been around, wants every song to sound and be received like it was the first big then they ever did. That’s great in the abstract, I guess, but in practice it creates a thousand crappy little imitations that debase that good first thing you did. As we’ve been discussing recently, a lot of energy goes into orchestrations and elaborate arrangements to convince audiences that This Is A Great Song based on its capacity to sonically overwhelm people. One commenter put it this way:

Producers like Barry Weeks (Booth Brothers, Brian Free) use a “wall of sound.” Producers like Wayne Haun and Lari Goss use other techniques to bolster songs.

Weeks comes from a pop angle and is more aggressive in grabbing the listening spectrum. Goss and Haun come from an orchestral or choral sensibility, and they seem to choose certain motifs for their arrangements, hoping to add layers of interest.

The real question is why artists persist in cutting third-rate songs. If the producer can’t convince the artist to drop a weak song, the producer and the musicians are forced to make it sound as strong as possible, because they are being paid for their expertise. As a result, the artist and the record label think they’ve been proven right and release it to radio (especially if the artist has written the song). Vicious cycle.

Indeed. The result of this cycle are songs that, to rip off a phrase from a recent DBM review, don’t ever seem to come up for air. It’s a problem that’s endemic and structural and self-reinforcing, by which I mean mediocre songs that receive the Full Lari and Barry treatment end up sounding so larger-than-life that audiences start to assume that’s what good music has to sound like, and so the process loops back around on itself, infecting the creative side of things. Here’s another comment from that same recent discussion about third-rate songs that speaks to this problem from the industry’s internal dysfunction:

If A&R (Artist & Repertoire) Directors, record label execs, and producers would do their jobs there would be less 3rd rate material on the radio. You cannot expect an artist to be objective about a song they have written. That’s where a respected A&R Director should step in and tell “the king” that he’s wearing no clothes. But artists have egos (that’s what motivates most of them to seek a platform) and A&R Directors usually do little more than serve coffee and tell them how wonderful they are. Few producers are long-sited enough to invest the energy required to steer misguided artist toward wiser song choices….they’re hustling to finish charts and line up their next project before next month’s rent comes due. As long as everyone who’s ever owned a radio believes they can write a song, we’ll continue to have 3rd rate material. The best way to expose the bad stuff, and ultimately make it unacceptable to pass that junk off as legitimate, is to have a few incredibly written songs released throughout the year. Side-by-side comparisons are starkly revealing. Sometimes people don’t realize they’re being served slop until they begin to smell steak.

All true, except perhaps the contention that good songs rise to the top by their own power. Often good songs do come out winners - “Born to Climb,” as this reader noted, is a good example, and I would also say “Over and Over,” if we’re sticking with Jeff and Sheri songs, was a songwriters’ song, a textbook example  of a tune that spreads the musical work of the song in equal proportions across lyrics, vocals, harmony, and orchestration to achieve its marvelous, soaring , beautiful effect (having Charlotte Ritchie didn’t hurt either!). But so much cut-rate swill also ends up winning out too in sg that it’s hard to believe good music has much of a uniquely shaping influence in the process.

Daniel provides a list of writers he says refutes J.D.’s call for played out songwriters to put down their pen, but just to take one of his examples - Kyla Rowland - it’s also possible to see the drift in her catalog of hits in the last several years as confirmation of the first part of what Sumner was saying about the limited resources of the imagination:  big monster anthem/ballads aren’t the only thing Rowland writes, but ask ten ordinary fans in the fried hog fritter line at NQC what they know of Kyla Rowland and chances are they’re going to respond with some reference to one of the gigantic, increasingly derivative warhorses that take up all the oxygen in the room by the time they’re done. Some are better than others, but in general I liked this song the first time, way back when it was called “One Scarred Hand.”

I don’t blame her for this, necessarily. Why not ride the warhorse as far as it will go, right? But I remember listening three or four years ago  to  a Mercy’s Well album that showed up in my mailbox. It’s a pretty forgettable album on the whole, but  toward the end there’s this quiet little downtempo number — all shuffling backbeats and subtle stringed fills called “He Said Yes,” written by Donny Henderson and Bill Turpin. It’s got all the formal ingredients of a big roof-raising power ballad, including a title/hook with monosyllabic words that can easily scan across big open harmonies of the even bigger finish, and some classic chord progressions in the chorus that, the first time I listened to it, made me think, oh yeah this thing is headed for the stratosphere by the time it’s all over.

So here comes the bridge, and things build a little, a chorded walk up to the III, the IV, the V… and I’m thinking, feeling really, almost as if by instinct, here it comes … the half-step modulation up and cue the strings and horns and harps and spoons and washboards and take us on home and off to the moon.

Except not. The voices swell a bit and the instruments come together to create an intensification of sound and feeling, but then things calm back down … the vocals fall back away to the lead alone for a few bars, so that the finale is more thoughtful denouement  than the more typically explosive climax. Like “Over and Over,” it’s an insightfully balanced composition that distributes the musical labor evenly, beautifully, with powerful restraint.

It’s not the kind of song that makes a career, but it’s also not the kind of thing an inexperienced or young writer (or producer) pulls off. It requires time and experience and not quitting when the first starburst of originality wears off. It’s sad when that happens, but surviving it often means coming out the other side with the confidence to pull back a little creatively, and leave some white space around the edges, leave some notes unplayed and pitches unsung … to leave, in short, some room to breathe.

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  1. Brian wrote:

    Maybe “running out of creative things to say” happens to bloggers, too. 6 of your last 8 posts are talking about something someone else said.

  2. Michael McIlwain wrote:

    It might be true that Doug is dealing with quotes from others, but no one dissects and analyzes what has been said like Doug does it. Doug’s commentary makes me think and challenges me to select songs that have good structure and form as well as a theologically sound message.

  3. Kyle wrote:

    Here’s one major problem with your argument (and SG as a whole): southern gospel music, more than any other genre, is a majority of independent artists. Anyone who has a few bucks can write and record their own music, send it to a “promoter” who slaps it on a compliation disc with other indies, and sends it to radio stations, who feel it “un-Christlike” to refuse an artist who has put so much of their “talent” into a song. Even if a radio station refuses a song, the artist comes back at them, accusing them of not following God’s command because “God gave me this song, and I KNOW He wants it heard!!”

    I agree 110% with Doug’s assessment that artists need to be told “no” every once in a while. If an artist is paying a producer, part of the producer’s job is to tell them “yes” or “no.” Otherwise, produce your own album, since you already know it all!!

    Especially if an artist is under contract to a label, the label has every right to say “no way” to said artist , considering the label has a vested interest in the final product.

  4. NG wrote:

    What JD said might be true in Southern Gospel Music where you’re basically limited to one topic instead of everything in life. Lots of secular writers (obviously not all) have had long writing careers. Consider lyricist Johnny Mercer and these great, diverse songs over almost 30 years plus many more I don’t list: Lazy Bones (1933); Jeepers Creepers (38); Fools Rush In (40); Autumn Leaves (47); Glow Worm (52) and Moon River (61)

  5. Casual Observer wrote:

    NG (#4) I disagree that Gospel writers are limited to one topic…The Bible is not limited to one topic (ever read Song of Solomon?) Christians can write and sing about the entire realm of existence. What makes it “Gospel” is a decidedly Christian perspective. The only parameters are truth and decency.

  6. Casual Observer wrote:

    I believe that writers continue to write songs if they continue to explore and grow as individuals. But so many of us reach a point (usually later in life) where we tire of heavy lifting and retire from growing mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Just like any other muscle, our minds can atrophy apart from regular exercise. I also believe that, as time marches on, some writers begin to believe that they are no longer relevant and that their day has passed. Thankfully Southern Gospel musical styles don’t constantly shift like other genres do, but still…there are subtle changes in sensibilities with each new generation that can cause older writers to feel out of step with modern times.

  7. NG wrote:

    #5 You’re right. I should have said most SGM writers limit themselves to one topic. You point out that they can write about the entire realm of existence from a Christian perspective. I just don’t generally hear SGM songs about loving your spouse, helping your neighbors, fighting poverty, protecting the environment, seeking justice, etc.

  8. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Mercy’s Well has a knack for not singing a song the way you think they’re going to sing it. Their series of Hymns CDs is their most creative work.

  9. Kyle wrote:

    I agree with #5. Anyone ever heard of Van Stephenson? Ordained minister, Christian, and one third of the 90’s country trio, BlackHawk.

  10. Jim wrote:

    #7 - Great point. Most SG artists feel they have to include two blood songs, one every knee shall bow song, a couple of heaven songs and a slap in the face song to other religions, then a patriotic one to insure a standing O. That only leaves 3 open slots for something that deals with the every day life of the listener.

  11. quartet-man wrote:

    One of the reasons the Gaithers started writing was because there weren’t songs that said what they wanted to say. The quote said something to the effect that most (or all) of the songs talked about Heaven and dying and that there was a lot of living between now and then. So, the Gaithers might have been one of the first modern day writers to write about different aspects of the Christian daily life.

  12. Casual Observer wrote:

    NG (#8) I agree that there aren’t a lot of songs about the things you listed. That may be because, when give 3 minutes to say something profound, most of us cut-to-the-chase and present what we believe to be the bottom line issue that - if dealt with - affects all those other side issues of life that you listed. It may be a bit reductionistic, but ultimately most of us believe that if you love God with all your heart, you will, in turn, “love your spouse, help your neighbor, fight poverty, care about the environment, etc.”

  13. Jim wrote:

    Casual - so that is why we repeat it over, and over, and over . . . pearly gates, streets “paved” with gold, that ole lepper, that ole blind man, ole Lazarus, and more recently, ole Mohammad and ole Buddah - and can’t forget ole Glory.

    Now I understand.

  14. cynical one wrote:

    Casual — You’re right in theory, that if you love God with all your heart, you SHOULD, in turn, do those other things. But we don’t tend to do those things (except, maybe loving our spouse, sometimes).

    We say we love our neighbor, but there’s that house down the street with 3 Latino families living in it . . . And we wouldn’t get caught dead witnessing to a prostitute. We give a few coins to the Salvation Army at Christmastime, so we’re helping to fight poverty, aren’t we? And care for the environment? We can’t give up our gas guzzlers, or plastic grocery bags.

    It’s kinda like a recent book titled “The Christian Athiest.” Check it out.

  15. Casual Observer wrote:

    I agree that there should be more songs about the practical applications of faith in daily living, but…and here goes a can of worms…I believe that most Christians view (and respond to) charity, citizenship and environmentalism in completely different ways than the typical social-conscious secularists do. I’m convinced that many of those who reject God and His claims tend to busy themselves with a lot of “good” deeds in order to feel better about themselves. Perhaps they feel that this brings balance to the scales and, if there IS a God, at least they can stand before Him as “good” people on judgement day. Then there are those who feel guilty for living in a free country and enjoying all that freedom affords (earned or not) and to them charity is a sort of penance. I don’t doubt that most celebrities see taking a public stand as an environmentalist as a good PR move (one doesn’t want to appear selfish or one dimensional in Hollywood). I’m trying to be careful NOT to paint with a broad brush here, but we all know that, apart from the transformational work of Christ in a life, we are all fairly selfish and uncaring. So I think a lot of believers don’t necessarily buy into the bandwagon effect in regards to the environment and “fighting poverty” because we are suspicious of the ORGANIZATIONS behind much of it. That’s not to say there aren’t good and bad in it all. But bigger than that…you can’t overestimate the difference between the Christian world view and the world view of non-believers. To most Christians, “fighting poverty” does not include creating more Government hand out programs that perpetuate the problems by creating generational dependence on big government and sapping any self-respect that individuals may have. So why would I, as a believer, buy into a popular social movement that - in my opinion - exacerbates the problem? Of course, the fact that I WOULDN’T is trumpeted by a “we-care-more-than-thou” media as being “heatless.” Fighting poverty involves helping people help themselves. I don’t have time to elaborate on all that entails, but I certainly believe the church needs to do more to implement the proper way of helping the poor. Regarding the environment - just because I don’t buy into the manufactured hysteria thrust upon us by former Vice Presidents, doesn’t mean I, and most believers, don’t feel a sense of stewardship when it comes to the planet. But we don’t react every time some think tank releases a report that yet ANOTHER thing we fat Americans are eating, drinking or driving is destroying the planet. First of all, how pompous of us to think that mere man can destroy something as vast as God’s creation. Ain’t gonna happen. But again, we are suspicious of the machine behind the movement. Do your homework and follow the money. The sky is not falling. God is ultimately in control - not MAN! It will be over when God’s say’s it’s over. We don’t have to assume the role of deity. So whatever the Cause de Jour may be, I like to believe that grounded Christians calmly weigh all things in light of eternity and respond with a measured sense of calm and sanity. The church has always been at the forefront of charity - from ancient times to The Great Depression to Katrina. The good we do…should be done quietly and “in the name of Jesus.” Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Give to the poor, but don’t announce it on the 5 o’clock news.

  16. Jim wrote:

    It’s official now. Casual is a Baptist.

  17. Casual Observer wrote:

    I’m not always right, but I’m never in doubt ;)

  18. quartet-man wrote:

    #17, Are you sure? ;)

  19. irishlad wrote:

    i had to laugh when jd told mosie lister that he´d written a new song mosie said really what´s to the tune of? shows you what he thought of jd´s writing skills.

  20. Jim wrote:

    Great story Irish, but that was Albert E. Brumley and not Mosie.

  21. Donny wrote:

    Hey, man. Loved your thoughts. Don’t know how I just stumbled across this tonight.

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