As I drove to the songwriting “invitational” from across town, the highways were clear. A few stray flakes fell.
By supper, the town was paralyzed.
“You can stay here if you want,” said Barbara Cloyd, the songwriting instructor. “I have an air mattress.”
Three other songwriters had chosen to crash there: one in a spare bedroom, one on the living room couch, and one on the futon in her home office/recording studio. Six others ventured into the blizzard.
We were all there because we’d attended Barbara’s “Ready for the Row” seminars multiple times previously and she’d gathered us at her house believing that we all, in some way, were “serious” about selling a song.
“… Okay. Yes, okay, I will stay. Thank you,” I decided. I hadn’t paid attention to the forecast that morning, so was surprised that The Blizzard of Aught-Ten was burying Nashville. Fortunately, though, because life is uncertain, I’d brought my stuff with me—toothbrush, underwear.
Hey, all right.
Before I got into this Nashville Songwriting Effort I’d have shoved you like Elaine on Seinfeld and said, “Get out!” if you’d told me I’d be at an impromptu sleepover with four ambitious Nashville songwriters in a professional number-one-hit country music songwriter’s dining room, sleeping beneath the built-in shelves while snow baffled the Music City Street Department which, it appeared, owned one small plow and only enough salt and sand to fill the back of an old F-150.
I’d have imagined what you’re imagining: a guitar pull, stories swapped over beer and coffee, a late night of co-writing and whatnot.
Well, that’s not how it was. Basically, Liz hogged Jamie and I watched Burn Notice with Barbara and Jamie’s mom.
I had a bowl of ice cream.
Turned in early.
… You know, in life, so much depends on the telling.
This came to me years ago, after going to the same party as Meg, a woman I used to work with. Next day at the office I heard Meg describe the night before and thought, “Man, that would’ve been a great party to have been at.”
For whatever reason, I’m compelled to make a little too sure that people—who, in the end, don’t care, really—understand exactly how It was, not how I wish It had been, nor how It would actually sort of benefit me as a social entity if you thought It had been.
I was never destined for a career in PR.
Here’s how it was.
During the day, as we sat around Barbara’s living room, we’d been delivered The New Truth from Barbara and a couple pros from the music scene. These guests would enter like fur trappers coming into a Yukon saloon, coats clutched around necks, shoulders piled with snow, boots stomping on Barbara’s little rug by the front door.
Snow is so rare in Nashville everybody was playing it up.
They all agreed: it’s getting harder and harder to sell a song. What you want to do is hook up with an artist, and become the go-to song partner for someone who can get up there and sell the song to an audience.
As a listener, I applaud this trend.
As a guy who just wanted to scribble out a tight little hit and have it go up through the plumbing of the music biz and spurt out of a radio somewhere, well, it’s a change of plan.
Not by coincidence, Barbara had invited to this seminar three or four people who just might make it as artists. All of a sudden those people were our best friends there in that living room.
It felt icky, in a way, how we all knew we were there to court the singers, obeying various rules of attraction. But then, that’s what the singers wanted—that, and to become better writers themselves so maybe they wouldn’t even need a song partner someday. Which is ickier still.
To play the game: the writers try to impress the singers, and the singers try to attract whoever turns out to be the best writers.
And then the snow trapped us together!
“Whooooooooo!” went the wind!
Jamie (a singer) hauled wood in from the back porch while Keith (writer) built a fire and the lights flickered (for real) (briefly)!
Yes, Mr. Hanks, you may have the screen rights.
(sigh) … I wish it had been more dramatic than it actually was.
These were the singers:
A guy in his early twenties who clearly feels an obligation to help on his dad’s farm; yet his parents recognize his singer’s gift, his songwriter’s potential (he wrote an excellent song about kissing a girl while he’s on the tractor planting rows of corn; the title is “Crooked”), and the possibility his charm and work ethic might make him a star. They actually bought a little house on a few acres near Nashville, where Jamie and his mom stay while he’s in town Hanging With Those Who Might Help Him. His mom was there at Barbara’s with us. The snow had made it unimaginable that they might return to their place that night.
A soulful guy who seems to be getting his second start in life, and has chosen “Singer in Nashville” as his fallback. He’s a new father, and he’s one who ventured back out into the blizzard—he didn’t want his wife to feel abandoned. There were several references to his personal struggles that weekend, but I never caught any details. He was friendly, and when he sang, he closed his eyes and summoned the voice of a man with Life Experience.
A guy from Sopchoppy, Florida. Damn, I don’t even know where to start with Grant. More to follow.
A Confident Girl Who Stayed One Hour
One of the guests was a singer, a young lady who was confident and centered. She was originally from Colorado or northern California, one of those confident, centered places. The snow meant nothing to her.
Nor did we writer-class-takers, really.
I won’t go into each and every writer who was there—the one most central to the story is Liz.
Liz is a friend who’s like H2O—she combines well with almost every element except magnesium.
Late in the afternoon, after the first batch of seminar attendees had left to make their way through the snow, the rest of us broke into co-writing teams. Liz was grouped with singer/farmboy Jamie and Grant from Florida.
I got soulful Perry (he hadn’t left yet) and another writer guy.
My team wrote a “funny” blues song called “Class Action Suit” where the singer is wearing a suit that makes him have class so he gets some action. Not to disown it—notes from the session are undeniably preserved in my Moleskine—but frankly, I went along to get along. When we “presented” our song the next day, the snow had prevented the guy who was the song’s prime mover from returning, so Perry and I had to sort of explain the song, then defend it against questions that we weren’t prepared to answer.
While we were punning it up in the home office-bedroom with the blues song, the other team had a big fight. Grant vs. Liz, arguing loudly, standing up, their voices getting higher pitched and more indignant, Jamie sitting in a chair looking up at them with his head moving back and forth like he was watching angry tennis.
We could even hear them with the home office-bedroom door shut.
Eventually Grant left.
That’s why, when Liz, me, Barbara, Jamie and Jamie’s mom found ourselves encamped under the same roof that night, it was the gentlemanly thing for me to let Liz pursue the song that her team should have written earlier. Barbara was tired from hostessing duties, so I didn’t ask if she wanted to co-write. Jamie’s mom and I had a nice chat.
Burn Notice gave way to Medium, or In Plain Sight, or I don’t know. One of those.
I texted home.
Not so long ago, of course, I would have called home.
Having been obliged to travel a fair amount for my job, I have mastered the Call Home. The goal of the Call Home is to have a nice conversation, not to give a vivid description of the blast you’re having, nor to kvetch, nor to drain the person at home of every detail of the household. Central to the Call Home is tone of voice: not too distracted, not too simperingly sweet, perhaps a discreet touch of regret at the necessity of the trip.
The Text Home is similar, but compressed. Tone must be implied through efficient word choice.
I’m getting pretty good at it.
My iPhone has preserved my texts from that night:
ME: Hi, you.
HER: How’s it going down there?
ME: Fine. Snowed in. Spending the night at Barbara’s. On an air mattress.
HER: Snowed in! It barely snowed here.
[She is always wanting a big snow to come and cancel everything so I knew to infer jealousy.]
ME: Nashville has no idea what to do with snow. It’s a mess.
HER: Well be careful.
ME: I will.
HER: Your kids are all up watching TV. Are you having a guitar pull?
[She is horrified at the idea of a guitar pull.]
ME: Nope. Watching TV here, too. Seminar’s going fine.
HER: Are you famous? Are we rich?
ME: Not yet.
HER: Okay. Goodnight, you.
The next morning Barbara made coffee for herself, Liz, Jamie’s mom and me. Jamie had orange juice. We were looking at the snow in her backyard when there was a commotion at the front door.
Grant came stomping in. “Well, I can tell nobody’s left the house! I made first tracks!” It was sort of like the arrival of a balding, goateed, Southern-voiced, burning-eyed detective in an Agatha Christie reboot: the Hercule Poirot of Sopchoppy.
Luckily, there had been no murders.
Now that would’ve been a story. . . !
Coulda-killed-hims don’t count.