“Kids, I’m going to take you to eat at a pun.”
Right in the middle of downtown Nashville was a big interstate traffic jam. Kids and I were on the way home after seeing my mom in South Carolina (their mom stayed home with pets and work obligations).
I’d been putting off a bathroom break until I found a Cracker Barrel, but now we’d been sitting still for several minutes. I took advantage of knowing the territory and wheeled off at the next exit into the city.
We drove past the honky tonks where the tourists go. I rolled down the minivan windows and we could hear the bands honky-tonkyin’. It was certainly different from Indianapolis.
“So… we’re eating at a pun?”
The kids know I hate puns. I haven’t attempted an episode of “Your Dad Is Speaking A Dull, Extemporaneous Essay” to explain why, though I’m not above it. For now we just agree that corny puns make us groan and let it go.
But like lots of people, I hate puns because—well, why?
Well, I guess, they’re usually deployed by people who know you’ll think the pun is annoying.
Which is annoying.
But it’s more than that. The pun is not your friend. The pun fools you into thinking you’ve had an idea. It pesters and woos you, like a drunk friend with a bad idea they’re talking you into, by making you feel clever. But the pun actually never has anything to do with anything. Like your drunk friend, it’s just going to waste your time and maybe reduce other people’s respect for you.
A pun sidetracks you. It’s your friend who won’t let you get anything done.
It doesn’t know how to further the conversation. It can’t help you figure out anything important. A pun doesn’t bond people together by revealing a shared understanding of life. A pun says nothing about human experience or emotion, at least not on purpose.
A pun is rarely funny.
Sometimes it forces you to laugh grimly along with it, but that’s not humor. That’s force of personality.
A pun distracts you from being profound. Or helpful. Or insightful. It’s just diddling around with the etymology of the language we happened to inherit.
Worse, your drunk pun friend sets up an unnecessary distance from whatever point you’re trying to make: instead of being persuaded of something significant, the people around you start thinking about how smart you think you are to have noticed how the spelling of the representation of something tweaked slightly makes it look like there’s a relationship where none actually exists.
A pun is so desperate to be brought into the company of your friends, it’s satisfied with making people roll their eyes when you speak, as they wait for you to get back on topic. The pun tries the patience of everyone around you. A real friend would not do that.
“You mean, the name is a pun? Or the building is? Or what we’re going to eat?” said my son. He was kind of worried. He has a lot of opinions about eating.
We pulled into Noshville, a New York style deli where I’d eaten after a songwriting seminar once with other songwriters. I figured the three finicky eaters would all find something at a deli that serves breakfast all day.
Noshville. (rolls eyes, orders corned beef on rye)
Most of the people I know who don’t listen to Nashville stations assume that pun-based hooks are A Hallmark of Country Music, because they’re mostly familiar with “Friends in Low Places,” or silly stuff like “She Got The Gold Mine, I Got The Shaft.”
Puns did used to be sort of a trend—in fact, the songwriting advisor Barbara Cloyd, from whom I’ve learned a lot, says, “There was a period where if you could sing the first verse, and have the chorus mean one thing, then reveal information in the second verse that changes the meaning, that was a formula they loved.”
It sort of turns the chorus into an enormous pun: its real meaning is this, but you’re pretending it means that.
In fact, the #1 hit recorded by Lorrie Morgan that Barbara wrote follows that formula—in the first verse, the narrator is chatting about her day with her husband, and tosses off an anecdote about how romantic it was to see a loving couple downtown that afternoon in a café window. The narrator realizes the story isn’t really coming across very well, and sings, “I guess you had to be there,” like you do when you know your joke is falling flat. Then she reveals in the second verse that it was the husband himself she saw—caught him!—with his mistress, to whom he was driven because their marriage had become lifeless, a fact the narrator admits and ruefully owns when she sings the second time, “I guess you had to be there.”
“They don’t want that kind of stuff now. It’s too clever-for-clever’s-sake,” Barbara says.
So. There we sat that night, me and the kids. Outside Nashville’s Noshville were thousands of songwriters, hidden away, all of whom were working a whole lot harder than I currently am at trying to write a country song.
You can sense it.
Sometimes driving around L.A. when we’re on TV ad production trips, I’ll swear I can feel the desperation and flop-sweat and strain of trying to be quickly clever dripping from the palms. I think I can sense, almost see the tense sadness as L.A.’s creative community feels itself perpetually, daily, losing its grip on influence and power—the idea that everyone you’re competing with is getting ahead of you right now hangs in the Pacific air.
Same in Nashville’s Southern air, but even more focused: all the writers are trying to force themselves to come up with some insight into human relationships and hang it onto one of three songwriting formats. And they’re beating you, me, us to it—to the insight that you, I, we might have come up with if you’d/we’d/I’d been spending time hammering out a song instead of—instead of what, eating at the deli with the kiddos?
Clearly, tonight’s priority is my making sure they put absolutely nothing on my daughter’s pasta, not butter, not cheese, nothing; and having an opinion on the goofy drawing my son is making on the placemat; and indulgently allowing the side of French fries my other son wants with his pancakes.
I’m gathering usable experience!
I’m filling the creative well!
And, well, yes, it’s important to be present for at least some of the kids’ rapidly passing childhoods.
But sitting in Tennessee, here, now, it’s palpable: I’m aware that I’m not surging ahead.
Maybe I should wish puns on my faceless competitors. “Hey, all of you: get hung up by the temptation of a stupid pun until I get a chance to work on something insightful and moving,” I telepathically project into the nighttime in Noshville.
Our faint interior reflections on the window beside our booth confuse how the twilight looks as we check out who’s going into the tattoo parlor across the street. I considered driving the kiddos past places I haunt when I’m in Nashville for songwriting. But we needed to get back on the road. I needed to get home to my wife. And those places are nothing to look at.
Besides, I haven’t haunted them much lately.
They may no longer qualify as haunted.
I have been exorcised.
And it’s the right thing. I’ve been busy “researching.” Work, family, work, family, work, family.
Face it: the only reason I was even in Nashville right now is I had to pee. We were officially doing nothing but driving straight through on the way home from seeing the kids’ Grandma, where she’s keeping my 87-year-old uncle company as my 84-year-old dad sits and stews, abandoned, irritated, alone in Indiana because he’s a contrarian of the first order and his constant, tedious pick-pick-picking finally drove Mom out.
She won’t ask for a divorce, but there’s no money, so she’s enjoying the low country of the barrier islands near Parris Island’s Marine base while Dad keeps saying he doesn’t know why she left.
All the rest of us know why, but I really don’t think he does.
While we were there she took us around, and we stood on the beach at Port Royal, across a stretch of water from Marine recruits. Just like a movie, we could hear over the water a loudspeaker with a voice saying, “A-left, left, a-left right left…”
In between us and the stressed-out recruits were dolphins, several of them, porpoising and entertaining us inlanders but always diving again before we could take their pictures.
Everything’s all mixed up.
I don’t know what’s going to happen.
How do you know if you’ve quit something?
Because in reality, I haven’t recently taken any obvious steps to further a Nashville songwriting career.
Work is pretty demanding right now. So are the kids’ schedules. I shouldn’t go to Nashville on a lark any time soon.
Yet I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
And (sigh) I’ll be honest: I’m hatching a plan. We’ll call it Plan B.
The weed will always force itself through the sidewalk crack.
The weed never really goes away, despite your metaphorical herbicide.
Another weed grows to replace the weed you kill.
I could yank this Nashville songwriting weed. But there will always be something growing out of that crack in the cement.
So yeah: Plan A is where I write a song, make some friends in Nashville, those friends give me honest criticism and, eventually, confidence, then maybe a happenstance connection to a publisher; the publisher likes a song enough to either ask for more, or to give me a “single song contract” which would probably entail making a better demo (which the publisher might help me pay for) and pitching it (probably to a specific artist).
A few fantasy-conjured months later I get to pay off all my debts and send these kids to a nice school instead of the local commuter college. Maybe Vanderbilt! (We drove around the Vanderbilt campus a bit on the way from Noshville to the interstate.)
The trouble with Plan A is, there are so so so so so so many artists now who write or co-write their own songs, the demand is dwindling and there are fewer artists who need “machine” songs from Music Row writers. There’s still a need, and a machine to fill it, but it’s not like it was.
And it’s expensive to keep trying.
So Plan B.
I might have mentioned I’ve been covering Cars songs in a band. That band expanded its repertoire to include a bunch of wedding-reception-type songs (plus a Guided By Voices song, snuck in to preserve the cred of some of the band members), and sort of kicked the asses of a wedding party last Fall.
Plan B could be that I see if some of those wedding reception guys want to put a little band together to perform original songs. I could teach them my country stuff. Then maybe we could make full-band demos cheaper than I can get it done in Nashville, and have something for the publishers that way.
And instead of farting around, distracting myself from family and work to play cover songs for weddings, I would be creating an outlet for songwriting. Working toward a goal.
Something like that.
It’s not a fully formed plan. It’s a plan hatched on a road trip while the kids are plugged into electronics in the back of a minivan.
We’ll just see where this whole songwriting thing slowly, slowly goes.
“Back to the car, kids. Five more hours and we’re home.” Goodbye, Noshville. For now.
You’re totally expecting a pun right now to wrap this up neatly, but I won’t do it.