The Melting Pot: Write Your Own Songs … Or Don’t

“Write your own songs.”

It’s the title of a pretty good Willie Nelson song, and it’s the mentality that seems to define country music, along with other buzzwords like “authentic,” “genuine,” “real,” and any other synonym one wants to place there. Ask someone to give a definition of the genre and the typically associated characteristics of the artists that define it, and you’re sure to, at some point, find someone who will note that it’s about “real life,” and that artists write what they know based off their own experiences, or experiences witnessed from afar – the story songs, if you will.

And you know, it’s a fair way to sum everything up in a neat little nutshell, even if it is a clichéd and fairly broad one by now. Country music, to me, has offered a platform for some of the greatest songwriters and storytellers we’ve known yet – from Hillbilly Shakespeare Hank Williams to Dolly Parton to Alan Jackson and beyond. Not to say that songwriting tropes are confined exclusively by law to one single genre, but it’s rare that you’ll hear an intricately detailed yet simple song told from personal experience or a relatable story better than what country music has offered throughout its near-100-year history as a commercial music genre.

But is songwriting the only element that defines the genre? Does it really matter that artists be able to write their own songs to be considered “authentic” in the eyes of certain fans?

At this point, you likely know how this conversation goes. “Of course not,” you might say. “George Strait, George Jones, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris and more cemented their entire careers by recording outside songs – who are we to dismiss them?” Or maybe you agree that it matters, and maybe you’ll say that it’s disrespectful to the Willie Nelsons and the Townes Van Zandts of the world to discount one’s songwriting ability as anything less than essential to what makes them an “artist.”

And the truth is, it’s a heady conversation probably best avoided, but there are merits to both sides, and who it really matters to depends on the role one plays in music engagement. For artists, I can’t say for sure (for I am the lowly basement-dwelling blogger); it plays into that notion of authenticity, and what matters in the music creation process is solely up to each individual artist. The hungry, wide-eyed ones just starting out probably feel like they have to prove their worth, and good for them, I guess. But there are also several songwriters we know today because other artists recorded their songs and exposed them to a wider audience. The aforementioned Emmylou Harris, for example, did just that and bridged a generational divide between newer and older country fans by recording older songs long thought forgotten.

For fans, I’d argue it’s mostly a non-issue altogether, and I can’t decide whether that’s a good or bad thing. Is it bad, for instance, that the world only started paying attention to Chris Stapleton when he stepped into the solo spotlight with 2015’s Traveller, even though he’d been active not only in bluegrass and southern-rock bands before, but also worked behind the scenes as a songwriter for acts like Kenny Chesney and George Strait – acts that traditionally have been known not to write the bulk of their own hits? Is it bad that Lori McKenna suffered a similar fate, only gaining commercial and critical attention after Tim McGraw recorded her own “Humble & Kind,” despite recording a slew of her own solo albums before?

I admit, as a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to who wrote what. YouTube was still a relatively new concept, and I didn’t scour the Internet for information on my favorite artists like I do today. I was somewhat stuck between a primitive and contemporary age – able to hear pretty much whatever I wanted to, but still reliant on radio for my primary discovery method.

Like pretty much any passive music fan, the singer at the forefront of the microphone was who mattered most – the singer who had to either bare their soul or try and adapt to a song written by another – either because they understood what the writer wanted out of it or because it had a good hook. Or both. And perhaps there’s something to be said for how that hierarchy has been established throughout time. Unless you’re more than just a passive fan, chances are you’re not scouring the liner notes of an album or searching online to find out who wrote what. That discovery process has always been classified as this mind-blowing experience – like a secret to discover that’s not so secret but still awesome to find, nevertheless. Granted, due to a myriad of factors – including the success of aforementioned artists like Stapleton and McKenna today, vinyl sales that provide confirmation people will still pay for physical forms of music and cherish what they have, and the general ease of access to the Internet for this type of behind-the-scenes information – I think we do place a greater emphasis on the writers behind the hits today, just as we even do on who produced those hits, as evidenced by Dave Cobb’s notoriety in the 2010s. Perhaps in 20-30 years we’ll even care who mixed or mastered something.

For now, let’s turn the focus back on the writer – the one responsible for the words on the paper, and perhaps even the one responsible for the composition itself, if they write alone. They may not be the best singers in the world; maybe they can’t even play worth a damn. But if they write for themselves, chances are you’re going to hear who that writer is as a person – perhaps not through the personal details or even the life stories, but through the essence they communicate: are they quirky and chipper? Do they have some issues to work out? A little bit of both? Maybe they’re not writing for themselves, but instead for the artists that don’t write their own material – you know, the singers.

And therein, I think, is the true answer to our beginning question of whether it even matters or not. In truth, the writers and the singers shouldn’t be viewed as rivals any more than they already are through the traditional business-oriented lens of the industry. There’s a relationship present there that works better together, rather than apart. Is it really such a bad thing, for instance, that Mary Chapin Carpenter introduced a wide audience to the wonders of Lucinda Williams through her recording of “Passionate Kisses”? Is it bad that Trisha Yearwood and Lorrie Morgan saw the potential in Kim Richey and recorded some of her own hits, even though they’re the ones that found chart success and not her? Really, is it so bad when any artist chooses to showcase a song they believe in to an audience that might feel the same way?

In some ways, I can understand the argument. I myself get annoyed when artists bill a song as “incredibly personal” to them and don’t have a writing credit on said song. And in my own Fifteen Favorites features, I find it easier to discuss at length the artists that do write their own songs compared to the ones that don’t. It doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be found elsewhere, however.

In truth, while singers may not be able to claim the words written as their own, they can add a tremendous perspective and weight to a work that can enhance, rather than steal from, it – one example being the mirrored female perspective Sammi Smith lent to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” that made it go from purely sensual to revolutionary. When I think of what I loved about hearing George Strait as a kid – even beyond, you know, the gorgeous neotraditional country sound – I think of him as the effective singer that I think, at least in part, helped catapult his success. His smooth, crystal-clear tone could make his more upbeat moments come across as easygoing and rollicking – like the sly “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” – and could add a mature, lived-in tone to his more serious selections – like the melancholic wanderlust of “Amarillo By Morning.” When I think of Trisha Yearwood … well, come on, she’s Trisha freakin’ Yearwood. What more do I need to say?

Plus, it’s not as if the artists that write their own material are inherently “better” than those who don’t, or that pure singers can’t craft their own artistic identities through songs not written by them – aren’t most of the experiences that shape who we are largely the ones inspired by those who inspired us? Some writers just aren’t great singers; some singers just aren’t great writers. Of course it helps when an artist is capable of writing a great song and offering it the delivery it deserves to resonate with as many as listeners as possible, but even songwriting legend Willie Nelson didn’t write “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”; he just made it his own. But whether that makes an artist “good” or “bad” is inherently subjective to each listener’s own perspective; emotional nuance or a lack thereof can really only be determined by each individual listener, and only for themselves.

What truly comprises a song is a wonderful melting pot of different areas of interest coming together for the greater good – lyrics, vocal delivery, production, and possibly even more. And so long as there’s room for every artist to express their craft in a manner fitting to them, there should be room for the writers, the singers, the producers, and everyone else in between. Country music offers a big enough tent for that.

6 thoughts on “The Melting Pot: Write Your Own Songs … Or Don’t

  1. Great, insightful read, Zack!

    My personal view is that whether or not an artist wrote a song has no bearing on how enjoyable it is or how it should be evaluated. But if I’m (for some reason) ranking or comparing artists based on how talented I think they are, or how much I believe they’ve contributed to country music, or other similar criteria, of course artists who are writers will get additional points, all else being equal. For example, even though I enjoy George Strait’s and Alan Jackson’s overall bodies of work about the same, I would rank Jackson ahead of Strait in many respects because Jackson is both a great singer and writer whereas Strait is “only” a great singer. That obviously doesn’t mean anything outside of this specific kind of exercise, though! And of course, whether an artist writes their own material is just one factor out of many.

    I definitely agree with your overall point that ultimately there’s plenty of room for both kinds of artists, and artists who aren’t songwriters definitely shouldn’t have that held against them.

    *edited for clarity*

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    1. That’s all fair, honestly! I myself am a bigger Jackson fan than a Strait one, heresy as that may sound to some. Like, “Remember When” is just that sort of intensely personal life journey that needed to come from the heart of the artist singing it … but I guess I can also say at least Strait hasn’t written an “I Still Like Bologna” in his career. 😂 It’s a weird debate, for sure!

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  2. This is nit-picky, but “Humble and Kind” wasn’t Lori McKenna’s breakthrough. Her breakthrough was in 2005 when Faith Hill recorded three of her songs for her Fireflies album. She got a major label deal after that and steadily wrote for other country artists. She also had her first hit radio song in 2012 with Hunter Hayes “I Want Crazy”. Also, “Girl Crush” came before “Humble and Kind” and it was massive.

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    1. Yeah, that’s all fair. I guess with “Girl Crush” I keep thinking the controversy surrounding it at the time overshadowed pretty much everything else about it, and that after “Humble & Kind,” it felt like more people paid attention to, say, 2016’s ‘The Bird & the Rifle’ than her earlier albums (that, to me, were mostly just as great).

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  3. awesome read and a good reason I love your site so much. I have often asked this myself because I’m newer (about 4 years ) in country music Fandom and it does or did bother me when I found out so many don’t write their own songs or have are the last credit on a song written by 5 people. Most of my life I have only listened to mostly rap where if you can’t write your own lyrics you shouldn’t be rapping(it’s a damn sin! ) so maybe that carried over into my country thoughts.

    As time progresses though I am a bit more forgiving on the matter . I like a ton of artists in country who don’t write their own stuff because they have talent elsewhere (vocals ) . I do prefer and have more respect though for those who can do it all because it takes their artistry to a new level I guess you could say. I basically feel like you . It doesn’t really matter because everyone is better at this or that but it is nice to know the artist was fully all in on the songs. Those who can write hits for others are also very talented and what takes more talent? Don’t know but respect to all.

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    1. Hey Jared,

      First of all, thanks so much! Really appreciate that!

      But hey, I totally get that. I’ve been saying for years now that country and rap have more in common than people may think (both driven by strong regional pride. Both are genres that are used to telling stories, and both love their alpha-male heroes, especially if they’re outlaws. Both aren’t afraid to speak about the real problems of the downtrodden, etc.).

      And like I said, even I’m kind of torn on the debate as a whole, so I certainly see your perspective on why you value songwriting ability a lot and why you say you’ve changed a bit over time. It’s an interesting discussion, for sure! Thanks for your own thoughts on the matter, by the way.

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