Someone asked me a while back, “what’s your songwriting process?” I think I mumbled, ‘uh, I dunno, I write stuff and sometimes it rhymes, and sometimes I figure out how to play guitar to it.’ Which sounds like the kind of thing Ray Wylie Hubbard would say (which secretly is exactly what I’m trying to do, ’cause if I could sound like him, man that would be cool). I wasn’t just making that up either. It’s not a bad description of what I do sometimes. Most of the time, for me, what works is to start with a line or two. Often it will be rattling around in my head, but sometimes it comes other ways.
Sometimes someone just hands me something and it works. Recently, the bass player in Malibu Drive (click for gigs and such) Jim O., who works construction when he isn’t playing bass, came to rehearsal and told us this story. He was working on an overhaul of a grain elevator in our area, and as he was stripping old tin siding off one of the buildings, he found a name carved into the wood underneath. The tin had been on the wood for at least a hundred years, but the wood itself was older. Jim said, “man, this name is just too good. One of you has to write a song about this.” The name they found on the wood was ‘Kentucky Slim.’ Which really is begging to be put in a song.
The problem is that the name is all we have, and normally I start with a sense of story, or an idea of some lines. In this case all I had was a name. But a good name for sure. So that rattled around in my head for a week or so, and I worked on other things (one trick is to always write something, even if it’s just noodling around with some lines- work breeds work).
Eventually the name was too much and I just started messing with some thoughts. Looking back, the challenge was to write a song about someone that I didn’t know anything about, and wouldn’t ever know. In fact what was interesting about Kentucky Slim was that we don’t know who he was. And, because I’m me, Kentucky Slim is going to just bore the crap out of me if he’s a happy guy who spent his quiet, stable life loading grain. So I started with the idea that maybe he rode the train (the grain elevator has an old railroad siding). Plus, his name wasn’t “Colorado” Slim, so he doesn’t sound local.
Kentucky Slim jumped a Westbound train
Running from a life of sin.
Cool. West bound trains are always better, at least in this country, and nobody hops a train because things are going well. Not in my songs anyway. Now we need some rhyme (explanation of why we need rhyme to follow).
With only a bag of secret pain
And many a scar on his fragile skin.
The guys gotta have a bag, right? And scars are cool. So he should have some. Notice I’m just making crap up here? Notice the total lack of vision or clear goal for the song? One of the things I love about working in rhyme and meter is it forces the logical part of my head to concern itself with something other than editing my ideas. I’m busy trying to make the rhyme and line length come out, so I’m not thinking ‘god, you just wrote the dumbest line ever in the history of man and you should burn this paper and all your crayons too, and take vow never to write ever again.’ I’m just trying to find form and rhyme, so then I’m free to write, instead of thinking too hard about meaning, which has never helped me much.
He spent a night beside the track
At a siding where they loaded grain.
Carved his name on the wall out back,
Then he headed West again.
I’ve now expended the entirety of facts I had to work with here. Since I’m feeling ‘inspired’ (which as Todd Snider points out is ‘the word they use when you’re making shit up’), I don’t care. If I need more facts, I’ll make them up. And I have a verse structure going, with a sort of double verse thing completed already. But if the whole song is this form it will get boring I think (especially since this is probably going to be a song about not knowing who the hell this guy is), so maybe we need a shift, and one that bumps up a little musically (notice nothing I’ve done is musical yet, although there is a sense of rhythm inherent in the lines). Also, I always remember the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers rule of songwriting: “baby don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” So I think I’ll try something that will be a chorus.
Kentucky Slim, Kentucky Slim,
Where you going boy, where you been.
This is a race that you can’t win.
Kentucky Slim, Kentucky Slim.
One of the best things about songwriting is repetition. I like it because you can say the same thing over and over and sound really good, which doesn’t work very well in the rest of my life. Then I picked up a guitar and tried singing it. I was trying to stay away from starting with a G or D, which I do a lot. So I went with an Em, then just tried to keep it going. It seemed like a train beat would be appropriate, so that’s how I was strumming as I searched for chords that supported how I was singing the lines. The chorus needed to jump up a bit, so I went to a C. Not sure I like that, but for the moment it is working and I haven’t found anything better. I’m not sure I’d call what I do ‘composing,’ but I am searching for a melody line to sing, and once I have it down I try to replicate it in the following verses.
Here’s the Soundcloud link to the verse and chorus above. Where would you go next with this song (or where do you think it’s going)?
So there you go. The start of a song. It needs more (I’ve since finished it), but that’s how I got going. While I was messing with lyrics I did keep writing lists of rhyming words, which I do a lot. I don’t know how many I used, but the act of making the list seems to help. And as I write I’m looking for a structure, because until I’m as good at this as Jackson Browne, my verses need to be about the same (he does have a verse structure in that song, it just doesn’t feel that way, which is why he’s so freakin’ good).
I have been reading Jimmy Webb’s book Tunesmith. If you want a killer book about songwriting, it’s great (very technical, but really good). But mostly it’s making art by braille. Which is to say, I have no idea what I’m doing until I’m done.
Note: I did google ‘Kentucky Slim,’ -there’s a band on the west coast, someone on the east coast using the name (Kentucky Slim Sterling), and coolest of all, a bass player with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flat in the 1950′s went by ‘Kentucky Slim.’ The name found on the side of the grain elevator is at least 100 year old, so no chance it’s connected to any of that. But I’m not surprised to find it elsewhere.