“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.