“Do you know why I go to Nashville for my songwriting stuff?” I asked my 12-year-old son as we drove home together after two days in, yes, Nashville for a travel soccer tournament.
He had that tone kids get when they’re making the answer up as they go.
“…that’s where they… buy songs?…”
He’s overheard me talking about ‘selling a song’ over the years. “Yep. Especially country.”
“Country?” Apparently he didn’t realize till now that I had Gone Country. My wife and I listen to old rock, new rock, alt rock, folk rock, Stax/Volt/Reverend Greenish stuff, an occasional musical soundtrack, Nashville then and now, so-called Americana and a lot of NPR, mixed with a little classical and even some comedy. He’s ambivalent.
“So… only country?” The idea of limiting myself struck him as odd.
“Uh-huh. I’m trying. It’s hard.”
This was new territory for us. He knows I go to songwriting classes now and then, but I never talk about my Music Row ambitions with the kids. I’m not sure why.
I think it’s because I’ll probably fail.
All three kids know I was in a rock band. In fact, on iTunes the boys listen to my old band’s stuff, and I love that they do, though it’s weird walking through the living room and being confronted with Old Ghost of Me yowling some obscure lyric that I can’t completely explain.
Me from 1990, at high volume from the iMac speakers: “Leaves and cement blocks are fawwwwwl-ing…”
Them, shaking their Wii controllers: “Aw man, look out! Wario!”
Me from 1990: “… In a few weeks it’ll be snowwwwwwwww…”
“First I have to write a good song, then I have to sell it,” I told him. “Nashville mostly buys country.”
We were driving through one of those “Watch for Falling Rock” areas in Kentucky where at some point Mightier Humans More Ambitious Than I Am sliced a small mountain in half with what must have been absolutely giant saws, so that we might drive on a road between two skyscraper-sized walls of what I am not completely confident I’m correctly identifying as limestone.
In case Dad’s Unlikely Attempt To Sell A Country Music Song is not something he wants to talk about, I point out how the sun is reflecting off the water that trickles down the probably-limestone.
“Cool!” he says, because he knows I want him to appreciate natural beauty and he’s such an agreeable kid, such a good boy.
A few more miles roll under the car. I’m thinking, “None of the other soccer dads are trying to sell a country music song. What a burden this information must be. I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. I wish I were more into golf.”
“Do they pay a lot of money for songs?”
That’s my boy. “Huhhhhh, well, yeah, if you sell one. But first you have to get someone to agree it’s good.”
He put his feet on the compartment that holds the airbag, which I had told him earlier not to do because of course I was imagining the bizarre damage to his body if the airbag deployed. This time I let it go because I was trying to string together a complicated idea.
“See, there’s people who… well, they listen to lots of songs. When they hear one they think is really good, better than most, they say, ‘Okay, this isn’t bad.’ But, y’know, there’s thousands of songs they can choose from. So your song has to be better than all those. In these people’s opinion.”
I was trying to keep my eyes on the road but also check to see if I was boring him.
“If they think it’s one of the best of the thousands, then they try to sell it to a country singer. Other people are trying to sell songs to that singer, too. So now, a whole lot of people are trying to get the singer to like their song the best. And the singer probably has friends who wrote songs, so if all things were equal he’d rather sing one of his friend’s songs, anyway. Maybe he even wrote a song with his friends,” I said, and sighed. The tires changed their hum from the usual tan cement-y hum to a black asphalt patch hum. After a moment it switched back to the tan hum again and I picked up the thread.
“Then—this is kind of a drag—if the singer does buy your song, he might not record it.”
“Huhm,” said my son, as in, “Okay, well, this is kind of interesting, but I might stop listening because it’s confusing.”
“So. Now you have to hope the country singer records it. Then, if they do, you have to hope they finish it.”
I didn’t get into what ‘finishing’ was. I was just assembling a long, discouraging train and that’s one of the boxcars.
“And if they finish it, then you have to hope they put it on their album, which they might not. And if it gets on the album, at that point you get some money.”
“Wow,” he said, meaning, “That’s a lot of work to get to the point where you get any money.”
I wasn’t done.
“But! That would be, you know, a nice amount of money but not so much we’d be, y’know, ’We’re rich! Rich!’ Or whatever.”
His eyes shone.
“For a lot of money you have to hope that they release it as a single for the radio to play, which only happens to one or two songs from the whole album. If the single does well, which it might not, that’s where the money is.”
It’s not all about the money. Or maybe it is.
Oh, of course it’s not.
But is it?
“How much would you get then, if they… y’know…?” he asked. I think I heard a little deliberate nonchalance.
“They say a Top Five hit is worth about four or five hundred thousand dollars,” I said, wondering (a) if I should reveal the amount I’d heard once at a seminar, because God Only Knows what the real answer is; and (b) what the hell are his reference points for amounts-of-money?
“Oooo,” he said.
Uh-oh. Wait a second.
If those are horses I’m hearing, son, hold them.
“But, now, if you have a co-writer, you divide that in half. Three writers, thirds. And you have to take out taxes, which is, like, a huge amount,” I said, totally unsure whether this was a good conversation or a stunningly bad conversation.
“So how much would it…?”
“Enough. Enough that it would be very nice. IF it happened. It’s probably not going to happen.”
We rode listening to the tan cement-y tire hum.
“I doubt I ever sell a song,” I said, trying to get him to stop dreaming whatever a 12-year-old dreams when you say he’s going to definitely have a lot of money for sure, soon, because you’re Dad and you have a Plan. A Plan! To sell a Song!
Way to go, Dad!
“I can’t even get a song written than everyone agrees is good,” I said. It was like reeling in a kite on a windy day, a kite that you could infer might really be enjoying flying around in the sky.
We’d never really talked about it before. I hadn’t planned out what I was going to say. Maybe I assumed I’d just find the right words when the topic of my Nashville Escapades came up, something about having a dream and pursuing it, maybe; not giving up, staying quietly determined when the odds are against you, listening to your inner voice, finding a way to apply your talents to what people wanted in the world.
Instead, I accidentally ended up telling him (falsely) it was a matter of time till we had a butler.
I just hope he doesn’t talk about it with his friends. He probably won’t; he’s a quiet kid. But I deliberately hadn’t mentioned my Nashville Thing to any of the other soccer parents on the trip, though we’d all driven down to Music City with our kids and even spent fun hours casually drinking together while the boys ate spaghetti.
I just didn’t want to get into it.
Nobody wants to hear some stringy fantasy about how you think you’re going to sell a country song. It’s too peculiar.
Besides, they all think it’s trains and mama and cheatin’ and that scene in Blues Brothers where they’re throwing bottles.
At one point, I even acted like I couldn’t think of any country artists when we were talking about whom we might run into at the gas station while we were there. “Alan Jackson, maybe,” I threw out, choosing one that any normal person would know, when in fact I knew we might run into Luke Bryan or Rory Feek or—wouldn’t it be cool—Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert fueling up their vintage land cruiser before a big date.
It’s just too oddball. These soccer parents are a bunch of normal people. Most golf. They all spend their time doing normal things.
And, oh, we do normal things at our house, too—we camp sometimes, by God. We walk the dog and take the minivan for oil changes. I mow the lawn, my wife is manager of my younger son’s soccer team and pops popcorn for the fourth grade fundraiser every other Friday.
Normal as… what, blueberry pie?
Wait, that’s from a Broadway musical song.
See, I do this songwriting thing. None of them do that. Their lives revolve around their church, their boat, their lucrative small business. Building a deck is their summer project, not working on the bridge of a love song.
“So, yeah, I have one song about a guy who’s attracted to a girl’s porch light, sort of like a June bug, and they’re falling in love, but I’m not sure what new information I can include before the final pre-chorus,” I could have shouted to a soccer mom across the noisy team table at the Franklin, Tennessee Buca di Beppo chain restaurant. “Oh, but enough about that, what’s your golf handicap?”
It’s much too hard to explain.
Even to your kid.