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Acoustic Blue: Song Craft

6 September 2010

Where do songs come from? It’s a question without answer that we keep asking through the ages. Music is such a pure and direct expression of the human spirit that when someone summons forth a new song, it’s natural enough to wonder: how did that happen? Complicating the issue is the fact that a song, like any form of communication, is an act of translation. We use an array of musical conventions to turn the primal noise inside us into something universal. A successful song must find a balance between inspiration and craft.

Not surprisingly, the paths songwriters follow when navigating this thorny terrain are endlessly varied. Peter Rowan likes to tell the story of co-writing one of the all-time great bluegrass tunes, “The Walls of Time” with Bill Monroe. The Bluegrass Boys’ bus had broken down on a mountain pass. Rowan was standing next to Monroe, watching dawn break over the hills, when Monroe pointed out a sound— the song literally coming to them on the wind. Think of this the next time you sing the lyric “I hear a voice out in the darkness…”

On the other hand, Woody Guthrie, the archetypal Dust Bowl rambler, wrote his songs on a typewriter. I always like to picture the lyrics of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” scrolling up out of the carriage of the ol’ Underwood. Different strokes, indeed.

In the latest installment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase, Corey Zink and his bandmates from Acoustic Blue talk a bit about the alchemy of songwriting. If nothing else, this brief clip is worth watching just to get a better look at Mike VanAlstyne’s custom built resophonic guitar. Have a look and a listen:

Two Acoustic Blue originals make brief appearances in that clip— “Sweet Perfume” and “An Empty House”— both of which can be found among the band’s recordings. As Zink explains, the latter tune was essentially written as an assignment, inasmuch as Zink and guitarist Shaun Batho specifically set out to write a song that would sum up the dark themes in an album that the band was working on. Not all Acoustic Blue songs take shape in such a deliberate fashion, however. Another Zink original, “Carved Into a Stone” grew out of a breakfast meeting with a friend. The friend’s wife had just passed away. In expressing his grief, the man said something to the effect that the memories of his partner could never fit onto a tombstone, a sentiment that Zink translated almost verbatim into the song he wrote that same day: “There’s no room for her memory carved into a stone.”

Another fundamental chicken-versus-egg question that pops up when song craft is being discussed is this: Which comes first, lyrics or music? Judging from the treasure trove of orphaned lyrics he left behind, it seems that the lyrics always came first for Mr. Guthrie, but of course more than a few songs started out as instrumentals, only to have lyrics added later.

But never mind the words; what about the melody itself? Where does that come from? I recently spoke with musician and music educator Mike Holmes (founder of Banjo Camp North and Mandolin Camp North, among many other credits). Holmes was commenting on the Greenbriar Boys’ composition “A Minor Breakdown,” and this led to an interesting observation on what makes a tune work.

What say you? Do you have a process for calling forth the muses, or any routines you avoid, for that matter? Do rabbits’ feet or rattle snake tails help? Let us know…

Yer Pal— Curly

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