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”).
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 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 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.”
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 like later when I first heard one of Robert’s records. Or one of Patty’s. I didn’t want to be a guitar player; I wanted to chase that emotion—
Throckmorton: To be a writer.
Ingram: Yeah. To connect with the world—when you hear a song and all of a sudden everything stops, everything is okay for three and a half minutes. That’s why I did it.
II. “THE EASIER IT SOUNDS, THE HARDER IT IS.”
Spong: So I asked each of you to come here today with a song in mind—maybe an old favorite or maybe just something you’ve heard on the radio recently—that you could discuss as an example of great songwriting.
Keen: I would say that John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” [a hit for Glen Campbell in 1967] is my all-time favorite song. And I can’t say exactly why except that the words just all fit together so nicely—like the ending, when he’s standing by the barrel, cupping his hands around the tin can. You know how a great book is like a tight bud of a flower that blossoms when you get to the part that’s really good? It’s the same with this song.
Griffin: The song I heard on the radio when I was little that made me fly was another Glen Campbell song, “Wichita Lineman,” which Jimmy Webb wrote. I don’t really know what it’s about, but I love that baritone guitar thing.
Keen: Those Jimmy Webb songs have great melodies.
Throckmorton: Melodies are what do it for me, man, one song that I can put in my car and listen to over and over and over the whole drive from Brownwood to Nashville.
Clark: To me the melody is just a vehicle to get the words out. I’m not a great guitar player or a great singer. And a song like “The Randall Knife” [about a knife belonging to Clark’s father that he broke when he was a child] is really just spoken word. Hopefully the music will complement the words, make a song pretty or fun or whatever.
Spong: Sonny, what song did you bring?
Throckmorton: I’d say “Green, Green Grass of Home” [a number four hit for Porter Wagoner in 1965] is a pretty damned good song. I like it because of that turn, when the guy wakes up and he’s only dreaming. That gets me big-time. And I like it because Curly Putman, who wrote it, has probably had about a hundred hits, and that song has made more money than all the other hits put together. I like songs that make a lot of money. But really I like it because it’s simple, and that’s the hardest kind of writing there is. The easier it sounds, the harder it is.
Ingram: Simplicity is not dumb.
Clark: Uh-huh. It’s learning what to leave out. Like with good guitar players—it ain’t the licks they play, it’s the holes they leave. Or when you listen to Hank Williams and think, “How’d he do that?”
Griffin: When you hear a Hank Williams song, it sounds like it’s always been there.
Spong: Jack, do you have a song in mind?
Ingram: When I first started playing music, I had 25 songs, and 24 of them were either Robert’s or Guy’s or Jerry Jeff Walker’s or Willie Nelson’s. And then every week I’d learn a new song, and one of theirs would have to go. It’s pure Darwin. One that has been speaking to me lately is Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Chunk of Coal.” It means more and more to me every day that I walk around. He does what a lot of guys I’ve always loved do. Their songs feel like they were written in three and a half minutes. And I love the way John Anderson attacks that song in his version. Done different ways, a song can make you laugh and party or make you cry.
Clark: I was thinking today about Joe Ely’s “Indian Cowboy.” The first night I met Joe, we were in Antone’s [the famous Austin blues club], and afterward we went over to Gary P. Nunn’s yard with a guitar. We sat there and played songs and drank all night long. The sun came up, and Joe said, “I got one more,” and he played that song. And it has charmed me from that moment. So we all went inside and made Joe record it, and I took that tape with me. Then I recorded it. And Joe said he heard me doing it on the radio one day, three or four years later, and that there was something familiar about it. But he didn’t remember it. So he went and bought the record and saw it was his name on it and had to relearn it.
Spong: Did he want part of it?
Clark: He wanted all of it.
III. “IF YOU GET TIRED OF WRITING, GET UP AND WHITTLE.”
Ingram: Guy, somebody told me that you write on graph paper?
Clark: I do. I drafted structural steel for a while when I was younger, and there’s just something about graph paper that makes you write straighter. And I can always find whatever I’m writing because there’s nothing else lying around that looks like it.
Spong: I think I even read that you took a while trying to find the right grade of pencil lead.
Ingram: He went to therapy for that.
Clark: There’s something about the feel of graphite on paper that I just adore. I don’t like ballpoints, and I don’t like computers, and I don’t like typewriters. But a really good, dark piece of lead on a really good piece of paper just makes you write better.
Griffin: I like red Flair pens. My mom and dad were teachers, so it’s probably genetic.
Clark: I had a song lying around once when Billy Joe Shaver was in the house, and after he left, I looked down at it and he’d written, “B minus. Needs work.”
Spong: Robert, how do you put songs together?
Keen: I sorta keep them in my head till I’m finished, then write it down. I don’t know if it’s some test to see if I can remember the words while I’m doing it or see if it can all stick together. And it doesn’t mean I won’t edit it. I learned from Guy that editing is a good idea instead of a bad idea. When I first started, I used to think the voice of God was going through my brain and onto this piece of paper. That was not true at all.
Clark: Sometimes, not very often but once in a while, I’ll write a song and finally get it down on paper and find that I know it without having to go back and learn it. Those are the ones that are really cool.
Keen: Yeah, I hate relearning songs. I think there is something wrong with ’em if you have to relearn ’em. They should just stick.
Throckmorton: That’s funny—I always said that if you can remember the words to your songs then you’re not writing enough.
Spong: Patty, you’ve said that you don’t write down melodies or music when they first come to you, because if they’re good enough, they’ll stick.
Griffin: Pretty much. I don’t mind tweaking a song for a few months. I think that’s part of the fun of writing, just kind of shaping it and seeing where you can take that formality and turn it just slightly different here and maybe make this bridge pop out. But mostly it just shows up or it doesn’t. I think melody writing is the easy part.
Throckmorton: What’s that ol’ boy that had “Polk Salad Annie”?
Ingram: Tony Joe White.
Throckmorton: Yeah, Tony Joe White. He used to say, “I like to get in E and be still.”
Griffin: B flat is my favorite.
Spong: Robert, where do you write?
Keen: I’ve got a little shack between Bandera and Kerrville I call the Scriptorium. I go out there and stay by myself and eat venison sausage and bang on guitars and read books for ten days at a time. I’ve got Graham Greene and [Cormac] McCarthy and [thirteenth-century Sufi poet] Rumi. I’ve got a bunch of westerns too, a whole series of Zane Grey—things I read when I get to thinking that I think I’m too smart.
Spong: And Guy, your place in Nashville is kind of a famous spot. People go there just to write with you in your woodworking room.
Clark: I always wrote by myself for years and years, wrangling words, figuring stuff out. But when you’re writing with somebody else, you actually have to say it out loud. If you’re writing alone, you can sit there and mumble it for two weeks and think it’s the greatest thing in the world. But when you have to play it for somebody, it’s just like, “Oh, man, that’s sorry.” I love having a good place to write, and I love building guitars, so what can be better than doing it in the same room? If you get tired of writing, get up and whittle; if you make a mistake there, sit down and write.
Throckmorton: I gotta come write with you. I’ve never done that.
Clark: We’ll work on your guitar. But none of the formality of Music Row co-writing. I am pretty much against that.
Throckmorton: I am too. I’d never work in Nashville anymore, cause I’d tell them to kiss my butt real quick on that deal.
Spong: But clearly you’re not opposed to co-writing.
Throckmorton: No, but let’s do it in a bar, not an office. Like when I wrote “Why Not Me” for the Judds [a number one hit in 1984]. I got a phone call from Harlan Howard, and he said, “Sonny, we’ve got to write a song for this wonderful woman and her little girl.” And he kept on and on, and finally I went over to his house. And I hummed a little bit of this melody that I’d been humming for years that I called “How ’Bout Me” and he said, “Why not make it ‘Why Not Me’?” And I said, “Gold!” And then he wrote most of the lyrics while I sat and watched. So I had the melody—it was half mine—but that was one of those instances where I probably got more than I gave.
Griffin: When I first got to Nashville, in 1994, I played the Bluebird Cafe, and this big songwriter guy saw the show and said, “I’d love to write a song with you that’s left of center.” I met him the next day in his little office, and I had never tried anything like that before, going and collaborating. So I’d throw out a melody idea and he’d go, “Now, let’s not go all Sarah Vaughan here.” I got this splitting headache and just thought to myself, “This day will end, and I’ll remember not to do this again.”
Throckmorton: Co-writing with some people is like co-painting. You don’t hear about Van Gogh ever co-painting a picture.
IV. “NOTHING BAD WILL EVER HAPPEN TO ME BECAUSE I GOT PLAYED ON THE RADIO.”
Spong: Jack, you’re selling more records and playing in front of bigger crowds than the rest of the table. And you write your own songs, but your hits have been written by other people. What do you look for when you’re trying to find a song that’s going to sell?
Ingram: It still boils down to that thing I talked about at the beginning: a song that stops my world for a few minutes. So I’ll look through a thousand songs and then tell my producers, “Here’s five that work for me. You guys tell me which ones work for you, because y’all are the ones that are trying to get it on the radio.”
Spong: So a “hit,” in the context of purely commercial success, isn’t a dirty word?
Ingram: Absolutely not. Nothing bad will ever happen to me because I got played on the radio.
Throckmorton: A hit just means that people like what you do.
Ingram: For me, it came down to not wanting to play for 25 people. I’m from Texas and proud of it. But I don’t make music for just Texans. My music is for as many people as want to hear it. Plus, I like riding in a bus. [Everybody laughs.] It means that after the show I get to go home and wake up with my kids. It’s not the ego part of having a bus, it’s—
Griffin: The sanity.
Ingram: I like having a sane life.
Throckmorton: You know, all four of these guys make a living by going and playing to people. Crowds actually show up to hear ’em and love ’em. And here I’ve written a bunch of hits, and I can’t draw flies. My dream was always to do what they do.
Ingram: But you just have to walk out to your mailbox and grab that royalty check.
Spong: When you open your mailbox, you don’t hear the crowd roar?
Throckmorton: I do. And that’s nice.
Spong: Robert, didn’t George Strait just cut one of your songs? The few people I’ve ever talked to who wrote songs that he recorded, guys who’d grown up listening to him, called that a distinct kind of thrill.
Keen: That was very cool. I wrote “West Texas Town,” a fun little swing song, with Dean Dillon about three years ago, and it was fun because we hung out for a couple days, going to all these thrift shops looking for Old Spice bottles, and then sort of at the end of the day, Dean says [Keen affects a gruff voice], “Hey, Robert Earl, let’s write a song.” And I said, “Okay.” We sat down and wrote that one in about thirty minutes. Then three years later, he calls up [Keen uses the same gruff voice], “Hey, Robert Earl, George is going to cut that song, and I’m going to sing it with him. How cool is that?”
Griffin: What’d he want Old Spice bottles for?
Keen:I guess he collects them. I didn’t know much about Old Spice.
Spong: Sonny, when I read about you writing for Tree Publishing in the seventies, I pictured a Brill Building—type organization and you running down a hallway, waving sheet music over your head, screaming, “I just wrote ‘The Last Cheater’s Waltz.’ ”
Throckmorton: We were a looser group than that. We used to hunt bottles too. I collect Fire-King bottles, so we’d go driving around looking for ’em. One time Glenn Martin and I jumped in the car and just took off for Florida. We had to be back by Monday, because that was my time to demo—
Ingram: You recorded demos of new songs every Monday?
Throckmorton: Every Monday. I actually had all day to record if I had that many songs. So me and Martin went to Florida knowing we had to write something to demo by the start of the next week, and we wrote “If We’re Not Back in Love by Monday” [a number two country hit for Merle Haggard in 1977]. It was just a great time, and Nashville has never been the same. [Publisher and producer] Don Gant was running the company—
Clark: He was a cool guy.
Throckmorton: Yes, he was. And he knew songs. He could hear a song once and tell if it was going to be a hit. And he discovered so many great artists. Keith Whitley. And, uh, that “Margaritaville” guy. [Everybody laughs.] Lots of folks. It was so much fun. We were all getting drunk and writing hits.
Spong: With you, Guy, I think of the difference between a personal song like “The Randall Knife” and a number one hit like “Heartbroke.” Did you approach writing them differently?
Clark: Well, yeah. “The Randall Knife” is a cathartic thing that I never thought was even going to be a song. I wrote that when my father died, and that was just to get it out there. It never occurred to me to make it a song. “Heartbroke” was different. I used to write in bound notebooks, and you couldn’t shuffle pages around like you can with graph paper. I had these four verses that I thought were really good, and about two pages over I had this great chorus. And one day, just by chance, I happen to pull those two things and put them together, and that was “Heartbroke.” They just fit.
Ingram: Like chocolate with peanut butter.
Clark: Exactly. But I must speak to this with a song. [Clark plays a new song called “Somedays the Song Writes You.”] “You can search for the way / You can curse you can pray / But the words have a way of their own.” I wrote that with Gary Nicholson and Jon Randall Stewart, and it just popped right out of the three of us. My sensibilities tell me that’s a real cliché-ridden song, except that when it all came together, I thought, “Well, it’s not something I would ordinarily sing, but it sure is true.” You can’t argue with it.
Throckmorton: And it is true. They do write you.
Ingram: See, that’s what I was talking about. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the rest of the world. Maybe it’s because Guy’s one of my all-time heroes, but sitting here—you get drawn in. You feel it curling up inside you. It’s like a drug. And that’s what songwriting is. It can take you completely away from everything that bothers you. Even a sad song. It’s comforting because you know the rest of the world has felt that way. “The Randall Knife” is the perfect example. It is the most personal story that Guy could tell. I had issues with my dad, and that connection is immediate. It made me feel like, “All right, this happens to everybody.”
Clark: You know, Vince Gill loves that song. He told me that it touched him so much, that he had the same feud with his father. Except his was over a 4-iron. He broke his dad’s 4-iron. But it’s the same thing. If you leave a place where the listener can connect to it, but not write the listener out of it by putting in so much detail that it excludes them—
Griffin: Are you thinking that when you write? “Don’t leave the listener out”?
Clark: Actually, maybe not when I’m writing it, but certainly when I’m editing it, going back over it and working it out. I do consciously think about that. But it still has to be intelligently written. You can’t write down to the listener. You have to give people credit for being smart enough to get how cool you are.
Spong: And if you write it that simply, with the right specificity, it’ll become universal.
Clark: See, I have this real haiku approach to the end result, the yin and the yang of it.
Spong: How long had your dad been dead when you wrote “The Randall Knife”?
Clark: About two weeks.
Spong: Because you’ve written songs about your childhood, memories you’ve carried around with you for years.
Clark: Well, yeah. “Texas, 1947.” And “Desperados Waiting for a Train” is about something that happened to me when I was six. Some things just come to the surface whenever they want. It doesn’t matter why, just so long as you get the song.