“This line here, with the ‘ten thousand crickets,’” said the very powerful publisher, the well-regarded son of a man who managed one of Nashville’s most successful artists ever. “It… It’s… It’s, um…”
He spoke softly. A little too softly for such a big room.
I leaned way forward.
I tried to cup my ear in a casual way that didn’t look like someone imitating an old, old man.
“It’s…” he said, in no rush to continue.
This powerful person is sort of famous for his quirky mannerisms. Other writers had mentioned his quirks to me before I signed up to take his classes.
He looked off into the anteroom of the old mansion. He looked down at the lyrics. He looked off into the anteroom again, then up at the chandelier which provided about forty percent of the light that would typically be required in a room this size for most people’s eyes to see properly.
About fifteen of us sat around an old vinyl-wood-grain-covered conference table with nicked edges, dead center in the mansion’s former living room. Since it was summer, the huge fireplace was an ashy, yawny hole.
CMA awards and certificates for number one records leaned casually on the mantel and around the room on flat surfaces, possibly placed there “temporarily” by someone returning from a ceremony, then never moved.
It was too dim to read any of them from where I sat at the table.
Probably the beautiful dark wood in the grand old Music Row home absorbed most of the light. Also, the chandelier was too high in the air. And it was missing a light or two—we all know how hard it is to keep up with burnt-out bulbs. Also, the bulbs might have been those watt-saver bulbs.
It was an unquestionable privilege to have this man’s attention, to take this songwriting class in this room. It was my turn. I was getting advice.
I was surprised that a lot about the mansion said that lavishly outfitting one’s famous publishing company is an untoward display of wealth. Perhaps we could infer an attempt to put us at ease, a hospitable gesture, the notion that we struggling writers would appreciate a frugal hand with the loot, and would surely be more at home if the furniture were purchased second hand at office furniture auctions, or perhaps simply bought once a decade and never replaced.
The whole class sat patiently at the dinged table.
Eventually the class leader, the fortunate son (and yes, I’m clumsily keeping names quasi-anonymous), found the words he was searching for.
“This line, with the ten thousand crickets… that’s… about ninety-nine hundred crickets too many…”
Everyone at the table laughed, including me. Because it was funny, and because it was a relief. And it was suddenly obvious. Of course; of course. Too many bugs spoil the mood. Yes.
It seems like I have this sense of “duh, of course” after every critique from any high-level Nashville person. They almost always say something reasonable that should have been obvious to me, and wasn’t.
Guess that’s why they’re the professionals. Or maybe because they’re the professionals, I’m more apt to listen to them. Who knows.
The song I had brought to this class is probably the most-rewritten song I’ve got in my quiver. Its narrator has gone from first person to third person, from man to woman. It used to be slow and dreamy. Now it’s an up-tempo toe-tapper.
In each incarnation, I suppose I “believed” in the song.
Sometimes I think about how we put together original songs in the basement where our rock band used to practice, years ago, making so much noise my wife was unable to watch TV. (She read a lot of books during those years.) I’d be wide open to the other guys adding parts; I expected it. But I could control what happened, to an extent, and after a few rehearsals, the song was arranged, figured out, done: you could tell a new drummer (there were several new drummers), “This Is How The Song Goes.”
There is no end to the revisions a song goes through in Nashville.
Some writers struggle with that.
Example: I was at a publisher pitch. There were oh, say, ten of us playing songs for three publishers. One of my fellow Hopeful Songwriters had moved to Nashville from Ohio—he’d recently retired from his day job. He and his wife relocated, buoyed by the rave reviews a songplugger had given his songs.
A songplugger is a person you pay to pitch your songs.
It’s an iffy situation.
The plugger has an incentive to butter you up. The plugger benefits from you deluding yourself, and is inclined to say things like, “Oh, this is great. I definitely know a couple publishers looking for this sort of thing that I’d like to take it to.” It may not be a lie, really, but it’s probably a stretch.
And boy, is it good to hear. You write a song, and what you want is praise. You’re greedy for it. And the plugger has it for you. So it seems worth the investment. Yet somehow it rarely works out—usually because the songs just aren’t ready.
Of course, there are some songpluggers out there who are scrupulous, blunt, and picky.
But not many.
Anyway, this guy had been flattered by a plugger and retired to Nashville. Bought a house. And the song he played at the seminar… well, it was clear to all of us that it needed work, and in fact might not be worth revising since it would never really be commercial.
He didn’t want to hear that.
At one point, a publisher was confused by some lyrics. So the émigré explained, “Well, that’s what the woman in the song was thinking when she was looking at the waterfall. That’s what’s on her mind as she stands on the bridge.”
“Oh, see, well, I didn’t get that.”
“Maybe that’s okay, if you didn’t get it.” The guy was getting defensive.
“If I don’t get it, I think there are other people who won’t get it,” said the publisher matter-of-factly.
“It’s my song. It’s art. People can get out of it whatever they want.”
Neither of them wanted to concede their point. The publisher said, “Well, I think most people in Nashville expect a song not to be confusing.”
“It’s not confusing.”
“It is if I don’t understand it.”
“I just explained it to you.”
“You won’t be there to explain it.”
The guy from Ohio was very upset. One could infer (it might not be true) that his whole decision to relocate was coming into question with this discussion. In desperation, the erstwhile Buckeye referenced his plugger. “He thinks this song has a lot of potential.”
“… well, it’s in his interest to say that, now, isn’t it.”
The writer’s face was gray.
To avoid having my face turn gray, or bright red, or having my stomach lining start to eat itself, I try to listen to criticism from people who couldn’t care less what happens to my song. I welcome it. And I can withstand even the darkest opinions of my work if I follow a little piece of advice I’ve heard: When someone criticizes your song, you should activate a filter in your brain. This filter goes between the ear and the cerebral cortex, and inserts a phrase before everything the critic says—"Charlie, you’re really smart and talented, and I think your work is great, but there’s a perspective that I have on this particular song that I think you might benefit from, and I’d like to offer it to you, free of charge…" If you imagine those words coming before the criticism, you’ll survive.
With the filter in place, I eventually got the song with the crickets (they’re gone) to a point where I could imagine spending money to have someone demo it.
I know a woman in Nashville who’s a really good singer. She did a great job, and in fact, she liked it so much she put it on an album of hers. I agreed to let her use it for nothin’, so the title of these columns still stands; I haven’t actually “sold” any songs.
All I did was re-think and re-do and rearrange and revise and and rework and mend and amend a song that, if nothing else, wound up on my friend’s album.
If anything else happens to it, I bet it’s in for some more changes.
I apologize to you also, Spirit of Independent Art. Because if the changes seem sensible to me at all, especially if a powerful son or daughter is suggesting them, I’ll probably set about altering the song.