At some point near the beginning of a seminar, Barbara Cloyd usually says a particular joke.
“What are the three best songs ever written?”
She knows nobody’s going to answer and she doesn’t want them to—like all joke tellers, she’d be irritated if you actually offered an honest response.
Creak-rustle of people readjusting. Hum of previously un-noted servomotor. A couple of those weird anticipatory pre-punch line chuckles we humans give for some reason—as if we simply enjoy the pause between the set-up and delivery; this might be the only enjoyment we get out of the joke, this gap.
Some of us lean forward slightly.
She can feel the room has had time to think about the question just enough for her to catch everyone off guard with the answer.
“Three best songs ever written: ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘Yesterday,’ and the one you just finished.”
Gets a laugh every time: a writer is giddy when a song comes together.
Oh, how we love when a work-in-progress drops the “-in-progress.”
It’s alive!, some little Frankenguy inside us screams.
I made something!
Woo hoo! Yep. Think I’ll play it again. Ahhhhhhhh. (Inner voice affects a Jerry Lee Lewis delivery.) Feels goooood.
Later someone in Nashville always finds fifteen things that are plain wrong with it.
(Pulls out iPhone, punches up app that plays the sad trombone.)
I’m not sure how many times I’ve heard Barbara say the joke. Several.
I’m sort of stuck on going to her seminars. The idea of me—a husband, a dad, a full-time advertising guy—taking a run at the entire country music establishment is often just too wearying, too immense, too lacking in step-by-stepness.
But I can play my songs for her and get honest, unsparing criticism, and a welcome rejection of songs I probably shouldn’t throw more time at.
I just sent off an application for her upcoming seminar. This is the best part. The pre-no. Days of Maybe. A grace period, when I can allow myself to think that I might be onto something—the way McCartney must have felt when he was playing the working-titled “Scrambled Eggs” for acquaintances to make sure he hadn’t stolen that great melody and chord progression of “Yesterday” from someplace in his subconscious.
What a glowy feeling he must have had.
Not unlike how I felt a few days ago, perhaps: I had just emerged from the three-season porch to replace in its stand the little acoustic guitar that gets to sit quietly in the corner of the living room, acting casual, knowing it’s not part of the décor and could be banished if it calls attention to itself at the wrong moment.
“Do we have to be the kind of house that has a dusty guitar in the living room?” is a question that’s always possibly about to be asked.
Out there on the porch I was able to fit the melody and words I’d been “crafting” (O Lord, I think I’m crafting; forgive my clownish vanity) onto some chords. They went together! (Van de Graaff generator discharges huge electrical bolt across its terminal gap.) I was able to softly sing the newborn song a couple times while the kids in the living room watched Good Luck, Charlie on the Disney Channel.
Cool! The song works! It has form, and a message, and (I believe) a not-ripped-off-from-my-subconscious verse melody that’s different from the chorus melody, which I find catchy; and it has an unambiguous story… I hope.
I want to believe.
Couple days after that Moment of Creation I made a crude recording of this Achievement as well as two songs whose thrilling fires of Glorious Conception had kind of subsided and been set to low after a few months.
Still, I thought all three songs were worth sending to Barbara.
She only approves a few applicants. My history with her doesn’t help; it hurts, in fact, because she likes to get new people in if she can, I think, and she wants a certain level of songwriting from me.
Frequently I don’t hit her mark.
But I’m thinking, right now, surely one of these three new songs thunks the target near the center? Near enough?
One’s about a married guy who gets seduced and has to go live with his brother. I think it’s got a lot of clever bits in it; maybe? It starts:
“Watching Sponge Bob on pirated cable
Eating a burrito at an old card table
Killing time till his graveyard shift at the factory…”
Later the story’s pretty simple:
“Loved his wife but down at the plant
Was a brown-eyed girl, he kept tellin’ her ‘I can’t’
Turned out he could, in the back of her SUV”
After establishing that his wife is back in West Tennessee, the hook is that now he’s “_South of St. Louis, livin’ in Misery_.” Which, when sung with emphasis on the second syllable, sounds sort of like “Missouri.” Uh-huh. Too clever by half? More than half? I don’t know; once you’ve figured out something clever it’s hard to forget about it.
The most recent one (the one that has me presently competing with the anonymous composer of “Amazing Grace”) isn’t clever-clever at all—I’m trying to fight that too-clever thing: it’s about a guy walking around in the front yard after a fight, and he doesn’t want to start it up again by yelling at his wife but he wants her to come out and watch the moon come up with him while he shuts up. At every chorus he sings a little “oo” melody quietly, hoping it lures her.
The last one’s an attempt to be sort of earnest: back when we were dragging the kids a couple blocks to the Methodist church, before we sort of unofficially gave up on pulling angry, resentful tots out of warm weekend beds to receive The Living Word (so yes, we’re lapsed Methodists, which in truth is not that far from being practicing Methodists), I heard the minister one morning say we ought to “fix our busted relationships.” He led a closing prayer that was uncharacteristically short: “Lord, let us seize our moments.” I thought that was nice, though if some estranged person in the congregation were moved by that advice and chose to act that very afternoon, she’d have to work around a Colts game. Which is what happens in the song.
So I felt pretty good about these three. I hit “send” then PayPalled Barbara the submission fee.
Got this email a few days ago:
You know I always want you to be one of the writers I choose, but this batch of songs didn’t do it for me. I’ll send my thoughts on them within a week.
Hope to see you soon,
So, I was bummed. Not mad or anything, and glad she doesn’t whitewash or happy-talk me (or anyone) just to make a buck. She gives her honest opinion and it’s usually both reasonable and hard to hear.
We’ll see what she says. I paid a little extra with my application so she’d take the time to write a brief review of each song.
She’ll be brutal. That’ll be good.
Maybe I’ll get in her seminar next time.
After I wrote the above, I got this email about a week later:
Here are my thoughts on the songs you sent in with the workshop application.
SOUTH OF ST LOUIS:
To me what is good about this song is really great. I love the description in the verses and the way you tell the story. The “turns out he could” line is hysterical.
Where I feel let down is in the chorus. It seems to me that musically it wraps up too fast and it’s too big of a jump from “That’s history” to “South of St Louis…” It seems to me that it needs some lines before the hook that make a point to the story, like “If you like your home you better not roam if you don’t want to be” (only better.)
LIGHT OF A LOW MOON:
What I like best about this song is the oooooh’s in the chorus. I just think it would be a lot more entertaining if he was singing to her. [FAILED AUTHOR’S NOTE: THE WHOLE SONG IS HIM SORT OF TALKING ALOUD TO, WELL, TO WHOM? HE ISN’T ADDRESSING THE LYRICS TO HIS WIFE, HE’S JUST TRYING TO LURE HER WITH THE “OOO’S…” SO I GUESS HE’S TALKING TO…TO, UH, THE AUDIENCE? OKAY, I DON’T KNOW.] It just felt odd to me that this was information he’d be sharing with a third party.
WAITING ’TIL THE HALF:
I love the idea but, again, it didn’t quite work for me how you developed it. To me it got stuck half-way between funny and tender and it didn’t make me feel any emotion.
I think humor can be very effective even in a serious song, but this song didn’t really pull me into her heart where she loves him and wants to be a better person. I’d like to see you go deeper with this idea – make her vulnerable and make this a beautiful song about asking forgiveness and bringing spirituality into a love relationship.
Without that I just found it unpleasant to hear images like how she let him have it and that he slept on the couch.
I buy all that (literally, come to think of it.) She sees a lot of songs.
I don’t know why I can’t predict a lot of these comments. I’ve gotten some of them every time.
I probably will again next time.
And yeah. There’ll be a next time.
Look out, Sir Paul. I’m aiming for the second spot in that joke of Barbara’s.