Pitch Perfect

We asked five Texas musicians—Guy Clark, Patty Griffin, Sonny Throckmorton, Robert Earl Keen, and Jack Ingram—to tell us the secret to writing a great country song. Their answers were predictable (avoid Nashville), surprising (read Rumi), and downright quirky (two words: “graph paper”).
Pitch Perfect
Clark, Griffin, Throckmorton, Keen, and Ingram, photographed at the Hotel Saint Cecilia, in Austin, on May 11, 2009.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

(THE PANELISTS)

Sonny Throckmorton
Sonny Throckmorton lives in Brownwood and is one of country music’s most successful songwriters, penning more than fifteen number one hits and dozens of songs that are now considered standards, including “Why Not Me,” for the Judds; “The Way I Am,” for Merle Haggard; “Middle Age Crazy,” for Jerry Lee Lewis; “It’s a Cheating Situation,” for Moe Bandy; and “Friday Night Blues,” for John Conlee.

Patty Griffin
Patty Griffin first received attention as a singer-songwriter while performing in Boston coffeehouses, but she moved to Austin shortly after the release of her debut album, Living With Ghosts, in 1996. Her songs have been performed by artists ranging from Bette Midler and Linda Ronstadt to Solomon Burke and the Dixie Chicks, who recorded “Truth No. 2,” “Top of the World,” and “Let Him Fly.”

Jack Ingram
Jack Ingram began his career in the mid-nineties and has gone on to mainstream commercial success, having been named 2007 New Male Vocalist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. The Austin-based musician has recorded seven Top 20 hits, including one number one, “Wherever You Are,” by Nashville writers Jeremy Stover and Steve Bogard.

Robert Earl Keen
Kerrville’s Robert Earl Keen was part of the wave of Texas singer-songwriters who followed Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in the early eighties, building a devoted audience with intimate, literary portraits (“Mariano”) and sing-along fare (“Feelin’ Good Again”). He’s best known for two songs that grew into bona fide cultural phenomena, “The Road Goes on Forever” and “Merry Christmas From the Family.”

Guy Clark
Though he’s lived in Nashville since 1971, Guy Clark remains the dean of Texas singer-songwriters. Born and raised in Monahans, he has written two number one hits—Ricky Skaggs’s “Heartbroke” and Rodney Crowell’s “She’s Crazy for Leavin’ ”—but he is better known for his own versions of highly personal songs, like “ L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “Homegrown Tomatoes,” and “The Randall Knife.”

I. “I’ VE GOT NO IDEA WHAT COUNTRY SONGS ARE ABOUT.”

John Spong, Texas Monthly Senior Editor: Let’s start with definitions. When I talked to Guy about getting together to discuss country songs, he said, “I don’t know what that is. That’s not what I do.”

Guy Clark: I’ve got no idea what country songs are about. Hell, I’m a songwriter. I try to write about what I know, and if somebody country does one of my songs, I love it. That’s probably the reason I still live in Nashville. I went there to try to be a songwriter, but I gave up trying to understand that marketplace. Writing for a marketplace just offends my sensibilities. I always said, “If I ever break even, I’m movin’ back to Texas.” I haven’t done it yet.

Spong: Sonny, do you consider yourself a country songwriter?

Sonny Throckmorton: Well, I guess I do. But I never set out to be. I wrote a whole lot of country hits, but I never tried to write one.

Clark: That might be the secret.

Throckmorton: I starved to death until I was 35. But all of a sudden they were cutting everything I wrote. That just happens. You sit down, start rambling, and bam, you’ve got something. Trying to write hits is hard. Roger Miller said that it’s like takin’ a candy bar from a gorilla.

Clark: I was there when he said that. I even put it in a song [“Must Be My Baby”].

Throckmorton: For “Trying to Love Two Women” [a number one hit for the Oak Ridge Boys in 1980] I was turning my car around at the end of my driveway one morning after getting my newspaper. I lived on a farm and my driveway was pretty long, so, being a lazy songwriter, I took my car. And the guy next door was standing out in his yard, and he says, “Are we keeping you awake at night?” I said, “No, you’re not.” And he said, “Well, would you do me a favor? If you hear shooting down here some night, would you call the cops?” And I said, “Well, sure. What’s going on?” And he said, “I’m trying to love two women.” Boy, by the time I got home I had that song already wrote. It was one of those God-given songs.

Jack Ingram: Does the guy know you wrote it?

Throckmorton: Yeah. And can you believe he wanted part of it [the royalties]?

Spong: Robert, you tried for a while to go the commercial-songwriter route in Nashville, right?

Robert Earl Keen: That did not go very well. But I was really successful with all the temp agencies in town. I signed up with two or three, so my phone rang all the time, but it wouldn’t be anybody from Music Row. I remember my defining moment as a Nashville songwriter was when I was literally digging a ditch, cramming this shovel in the ground and throwing that dirt over my shoulder … and thinking my dad had said that if I kept trying to make a living writing songs, I’d end up digging a ditch.

Spong: Patty, people are always asking what category to put you in, if you’re folk or country or what. What are you?

Patty Griffin: I don’t know what I am. I just make up songs. I used to hate the title “folk music,” because I liked rock and Motown. I never listened to folk music when I was a kid. And then I started the girl-with-guitar thing in Boston, and everybody called me a “folksinger,” which made me picture a girl in a field of daisies. I wanted to be a rocker, so it pissed me off.

Spong: Jack, when did songwriting first occur to you?

Ingram: Well, Sonny, when did y’all write “The Cowboy Rides Away”?

Throckmorton: In 1980.

Ingram: So it came out on the George Strait record Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, in 1984, and I heard it in the backseat of my mom’s car as a fourteen-year-old kid. I didn’t like country music necessarily, but I got this feeling, just

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