From The Side of the Road… five heads are better than one

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Chris Jones has been unexpectedly detained at the Canadian border, so we are running this pre-pandemic column at his direction. It’s Charlie Sizemore’s favorite!

Co-writing is definitely the mode of Music Row. We have a great co-writing tradition in bluegrass music, too, like the songs of Flatt & Scruggs, and it’s a tradition that’s alive and well in our music, and growing. It’s in the Nashville system that this method of writing really shines, though, and we hear the results on the radio and see it on the Billboard charts. Often the more writers the better, with songs written by three, four, or even more people. Think of recent gems like Kick the Dust Up (three writers), or Truck Yeah (four writers). One mind couldn’t possibly have been enough to come up with those. 

I sometimes wonder, at times when my mind should have been focused on something more useful, what it would have been like if some of our revered bluegrass classics had been written in the style of “bro-country” hits. Would we have gotten the songs we know and love, or gotten heavily homogenized ditties hammered out in committee, geared towards big airplay and streaming numbers.

Here’s how the process of writing Carter Stanley’s The White Dove might have played out in this scenario:

Writer 1: Here’s an idea I’ve been kicking around, it’s called “White Dove.”

Writer 2: What kind of song are you thinking of? Sounds like a Gospel song. Is that what we’re doing today?

Writer 1: No it’s just more of a mournful song with Gospel elements.

Writer 3: Very tough sell, but let’s see what we can do.

Writer 4: Sorry I’m late. What are we doing?

Writer 2: Writing one called “White Dove.”

Writer 4: Oh cool (quickly grabbing guitar). “My baby’s like a white dove, she gives me that good love, that’s what I dream of . . .”

Writer 3: I like where you’re going with that. Glad you showed up! Of course we’d have to tweak that melody a little. It sounds exactly like “Big Green Tractor.”

Writer 2: That’s what I like about it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Writer 1: Well okay, but I guess my idea was more slow waltz.

Writer 3: Pretty depressing.

Writer 1: Perhaps, but . . .

Writer 4: Okay, a little faster than “Big Green Tractor”: My baby’s like a white dove, she gives me that good love, when I’m down she brings me up, my tempest in a tea cup.

Writer 2: I like the sound of “tempest in a tea cup.” Very cool, but remind me what that means.

Writer 4: I don’t know, man, it just popped into my head. Maybe it’s teapot . . . I’m not sure.

Writer 3: Since we’re not sure, how about “a hoedown dust-up” in that spot.

Writer 4: Sure. Sounds good.

Writer 2: I think we’re getting close on this.

Writer 1: But this is pretty far from what I . . .

Writer 3: Have we worked barbecue stain into a song lately?

Writer 4: No, but we should. Verse two: “A barbecue stain on her tight white tank top, she’s walking so slow that I almost go bankrupt.”

Writer 2: That’s good, but I don’t know about “bankrupt.”

Writer 3: How about, “she’s looking so good, I wanna party till the sun’s up.”

Writer 4: That’s it!

Writer 1: Uh guys . . .

Writer 3: Got something?

Writer 1: Well yes, but now it doesn’t exactly fit where this is going.

Writer 4: Lay it on us anyway. I love your ideas.

Writer 1: Okay. “In the deep rolling hills of old Virginia, there’s a place I love so well.”

Writers 2,3,4: (silence)

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