For those who don’t know, “Live Like You Were Dying” was a huge King Kong-proportioned hit awhile back, sung by Tim McGraw and (as a songwriter, I must point out) written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman.
I’d managed to schedule a “nice to meet you, maybe someday we’ll co-write” meeting with a friend of the guy who sang the high harmonies on “Live Like You Were Dying.”
That’s how this fellow “sold” himself to me, how he established his credibility in as few words as possible: good friends with the guy who sang the high harmonies on “Live Like You Were Dying.”
He said it so smoothly, so quickly, I’m sure it’s a phrase he’s said many times.
Immediately I understood from the knight-like proclamation (“I am Norbert, son of Thal, grandson of Blamley the Fearsome”) that I could trust a friend of a guy who sang high harmonies on hit records. I could proceed believing he would likely be worth listening to while he was talking of matters relating to country music writing and selling, and I should treat him with respect as he is far better connected than I. And although he’s three concentric circles out from the Actual Monster Smash Hit, I understood that his claim is legit.
So I iPhone-mapped my way to this fellow’s apartment complex. Inside his apartment was a big mixing board, in the area someone else might have their dining room table. A recording booth was where a coat closet might have been.
Thoughtfully he asked if I minded before he smoked a Pall Mall.
“Yeah, it almost killed him,” said the high-singer’s friend, whipping the match in the air to extinguish it. “You know that last note at the end, that goes on and on? Byron Gallimore [McGraw’s producer, who needed no appositive in our chat] insisted he do it for real. Byron’s a real stickler. ‘Cause you know, they can sample and extend that sort of thing in Pro Tools, all day long, just take a note and draw it out as long as they want. But Byron wanted to do it for real. One breath. If you listen, you can hear how long that high note goes on. It’s real. It’s that long. Being the high part, of course, hitting that note takes a lotta breath in the first place. Greg [the one who sang high] said he came out of the booth and was sure he had popped something.”
Fortunately, of course, Greg didn’t. (Though the tease before the newscast in which his fatal “popping something” would have been announced, had it happened, would surely have played ironically off the title of the song: “Coming up—the man who sang the high harmonies on ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ has died… as he lived…”)
This sort of casual, upfront appending-of-your-qualifications happens in every industry, of course. Before a wealthy young financier swept in and took the account in “a different direction” that did not include our agency, my Claim To Legitimacy locally used to be, “Well, my advertising agency has done the Steak ‘n Shake restaurant ads for eighteen years. I’m actually the voice of ‘bean crock’…” (I swear, if you lived in the Midwest or Southeast and were watching TV in the ‘90s or early aughts, you’d know that was a moderately cool claim.) (“bean crock”)
Once I did an ad with a director who billed himself as “the guy who came up with that sequence where Ace Ventura is born from the rhino costume, before Jim Carrey fired me.”
Perhaps most impressive was going on location to shoot some insurance ads with the cinematographer for Terminator, who claimed in what seemed like it might be an Austrian accent, “I wahs on the ahther side of the cahmera when Schwahrzenehggearrr said, ’Ah’ll be back’…”
I’m sure whatever industry you’re in, you’re working on the most efficient phrasing of your claim—the ostensibly modest yet somehow impressive bid to be taken seriously.
Here’s how the lady who assembles some of the seminars I’ve attended often describes herself; note the many sub-appositives:
Barbara Cloyd hit the top of the charts with the Lorrie Morgan single “I Guess You Had To Be There.” She has booked shows for many years at The Bluebird Café, Nashville’s premier showcase club. Her ability to spot talent is well known in the music industry and her introductions have opened doors for writers like Marcel (“Nothing to Lose”), Barry Dean (“God’s Will”), Anthony Smith (“Run”) and Brett Jones (“Little Past Little Rock”).
At a party I was taken to in Nashville everyone at my table was impressed by the entrance of a lanky man with a cowboy hat and neat beard: “That’s Thom Shepherd; he wrote ‘Redneck Yacht Club’ and ‘Riding With Private Malone.’”
Everyone at the table’s eyes met, honored, when Thom sidled up behind me and hovered over my head to talk to the woman to my right, who knew him from a music festival they’d both performed at. I couldn’t look at him without twisting around weirdly, so I basically listened to their conversation as if it were a conference call. But he did shake my hand and smile at the end, when my awkward twist was appropriate.
So: “The man who wrote ‘Redneck Yacht Club’ shook my hand.” That’s what I have to say instead of “Thom Shepherd…”
There aren’t a pair of songwriters who outrank the Nichols-Wiseman team (“LLYWD”) in Nashville. Both of them are well respected and prolific. Wiseman even has his name on a certain style of writing, a bouncy, homely, crafty, concise, fun-to-say, delightfully specific string of details: “I went sky diving/I went Rocky Mountain climbing/I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu” from LLYWD.
Or from another Tim McGraw song, “Six lanes/Taillights/Red ants marchin’ into the night/They disappear to the left and right again/Another supper from a sack/A ninety-nine cent heart attack…”
Or from a Kenny Chesney hit: “It’s the way that she looks with the rice in her hair/Eating burnt suppers the whole first year/And askin’ for seconds to keep her from tearin’ up…”
Or from a Phil Vassar hit: “Kids screaming/Phone ringing/Dog barking at the mailman bringing/That stack of bills/Overdue/Good morning baby, how are you?/Got a half hour/Quick shower/Take a drink of milk but the milk’s gone sour/My funny face/Makes you laugh/Twist the top on and I put it back/There goes the washing machine/Baby don’t kick it/Promise I’ll fix it/Long with ’bout a million other things.” C’mon, modern Nashville haters, look how efficient and charming that is. Tight.
It seems so unfriendly of the world to ignore songwriters, for Nichols or Wiseman to have to explain to their new Range Rover mechanic, “I’m Craig Wiseman. Craig Wisema—well, I’m a songwriter; I wrote ‘Live Like You Were Dying.’” [And by the way, I’ve noticed he doesn’t have to say, “co-wrote;” if you co-wrote something, you get to say you wrote it.]
And it must be even more complicated for Byron Gallimore: “Well, I was running the session for ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ for Tim McGraw. Yeah, y’know, I insisted that we take that long final note and hold it for real, not use any computer gimmicks. That was my call.”
Maybe in Nashville Mr. Gallimore doesn’t have to do that. But if his car breaks down up here in Indianapolis, he’d have to.
We’re all just looking for an appositive. Or to improve the one we have, and maybe even get it down to one great thing that eliminates the need for the run-on: “son of Thal, grandson of Blamley the Fearsome” is less necessary if you can just say, “tamer of Jo-Mon the Chimera.”
And now Twitter makes brevity even more necessary: state your best claim about yourself and stop typing.
Anyway, the guy with the friend who sang the high harmonies agreed to consider co-writing, and he dispensed some final advice (including the removal of the word ‘Unsuccessfully’ from this column’s title—"It’s just so negative," he counseled). I drove to a parking lot to change my shirt which smelled like Pall Malls, which was fine with me and I really didn’t mind, but I had another meeting scheduled where I just wanted to smell like the laundry detergent my wife uses: another meeting in the quest to affix a new boxcar to my train of Nashville credentials.
Right now that train is hardly even one of those single handcars like in the cartoons where you pump the handle up and down to power it along the railroad tracks: “I’m Charlie Hopper; I’ve been a finalist for a couple of fairly obscure songwriting awards, I’ve written advertising jingles, I’ve… uh… I’m… (bean crock)”
I’ve got friends who’ve won Nashville Songwriter’s Association International contests and gotten co-writes with famous songwriters and had songs “held” by well-known artists and maybe even the artists recorded the songs. The flashing of their verbal IDs goes much smoother.
As I drive, of course, I dream. What does it feel like to really get there, to be a Kristofferson, to need no introduction, to be THE person with your name and make all the other people with your name say, “No, not THE (name here).”
What’s it like to have most people—randomly selected Home Depot orange-aproned folk helping you find the right inch diameter PVC pipe for your project—simply nod. To be a living songwriter people have actually heard of.
“Hi, I’m Stephen Sondheim.”
“Randy Newman here.”
“I’m Dr. Luke. Lukasz Gottwald. I wrote… oh, never mind. Can you just fix my Range Rover?”
The list is short. Most are known as singer or band leaders first.
“Howdy. I’m Jack White.”
“Dude, I’m Billie Joe Armstrong.”
If you’re in Nashville, possibly, in many circles, one might get by with just “Hello, I’m Craig Wiseman.”
No one knows who the writer is, though, not really, unless she’s also the singer and especially if she’s Taylor Swift. Dame Swift doesn’t even have to say anything. She just shows up and smiles.
Best keep working on my appositives.