Bleary and just off the road from Indianapolis, I couldn’t muster the defensive impulse to hold out my arms and say “Aaarragaharagh” to the songwriting instructor’s dog as it ran at me from across the yard.
So it bit me. On the leg.
Didn’t break any skin—I would call it a warning bite.
“Here now,” I said to the dog, trying to adjust my voice to sound authoritative but also polite and appropriately guest-like. “Here, now.” Bark bark bark.
So began my first songwriting class in Nashville.
I edged up the fire-escape-like exterior stairs to the second story of the instructor’s house and knocked on the storm door, noting untended plants gone brown in pots around the landing. She was renting out the ground floor—possibly she’d bought this house with the money she got from the Number One hit she’d written awhile back.
“Hi, I’m Charlie,” I said as she let me in. I didn’t say anything about the dog. She offered coffee or water, and a seat next to her cat on the futon. I like cats.
And dogs, for that matter.
My classmates all lived in Nashville. They were a young kid in banking, a bighearted musician Getting Her Name Out There, a confrontational tugboat captain, a freelance IT guy, and a dabbling older lady who claimed to be “a good friend of Danny Flowers,” Danny being the writer of the wonderful “Tulsa Time,” a 1970s hit by Don Williams and one of the songs my wife would always ask my rock band to learn, though we never did.
We all sat in a small living room area with ceiling-walls sloping at the eaves.
It was there, over the course of six weeks, I grappled with the fact that just because you have a clever hook, you don’t necessarily have an idea for a song.
And if do you have an idea for a song, you probably aren’t delivering it clearly, or at the right pace, or in the right pattern.
Or with convincing details.
Or maybe you’re doing some of that, but your narrator is a weak or bad person—what country star is going to sing about how weak or bad they are?
None of which takes into account the irresistible melody you better have.
It turns out to be so hard.
And there was my witty, brilliant wife tending our young children as I drove to Tennessee: planning, prepping and policing three kid meals a day. Laundering. Scrubbing floors. Scooping cat litter, clearing clutter off the dining room table and (it pains me to think of it) ironing my khakis.
Meanwhile I’d sit in that upstairs apartment, playing songs to strangers, including this potential number one smash: I’ve only made two bad mistakes/ In case you’re keeping track/One’s leaving/The other is coming back.
Sounds like a country song, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s not. It’s a disjointed, half-thought-through mess.
I had no idea what I was doing.
At work, we were in a storm of projects the whole time I was taking lessons. Clients would halfway approve things but then make final changes right up until the deadline. Coworkers could cover for me, but it was a constant scramble.
And there I was, ridiculously, five hours south in Music City playing strangers a little somethin’ I wrote: Man oh man you weren’t kidding/‘Course I never have known you to kid/I just can’t believe that you would go and do/What you just went and did.
It was going to take more than six classes.
In every case, it would turn out—and I would be surprised every time—that I really had no clear idea of the story I was trying to tell with my song, no fresh, simple take on a universal experience. I thought I was ready, but before class ended each week I’d admit that I’d driven down with a song that was country in the same way that saying, “Sacre bleu! Haugh-haugh-haughnn!” while twirling a small invisible mustache was speaking French.
After class I would drive to the Bluebird, a little bar in Nashville where songwriting successes perform—midway into one of their verses you can usually feel the whole audience sort of slip into realizing they know this song from the radio, sort of like when your car shifts from first to second gear: if you’re paying attention, you can feel it.
Especially when you’re sitting there alone.
Nobody to talk to.
Many miles from the person you should be there with.
Who would enjoy the show, too.
The lovely, funny songs.
Go on, have a Rolling Rock.
Long as you’re here, try to figure out the difference between these songwriters’ tight, sturdy compositions and your flabby blubby dummy booby songs.
Uh-oh. Coming up on 11:00.
I was pushing it. Especially if I wanted a Starbucks before they wiped their spouts for the night. Sometimes it would be five o’clock before I got home, due at work in three and half hours.
As I made for the Bluebird door I knew my wife was making one last check of the house before bed, her arms full of Pokemon and socks and books and stray unrelated items that had been scattered all around. I knew my mildly eccentric declaration that I was going to write a country song had gone to a mystifying place for us: how could I balance everything? What was she supposed to say?
Yet, if I hadn’t taken the lessons, I’d never have realized how far I was from having a clue.
It’s awfully hard to feel like you’re in the right place, no matter where you are.
After the fall classes ended and my winter birthday arrived, I opened a card from my wife. She’s a good and thoughtful gift-giver. Often her gifts are also messages.
The card said she’d already called the songwriting instructor and signed me up for another six weeks.
Can’t remember if I told her right then that I’d also already signed up for a seminar that was going to last three and a half days. Maybe I waited till later.
I hope I waited till later.