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What To Write About...


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So what does one write about? I don’t usually have the “What do I write about?” problem; I’m either working on an “assignment” (from Coventry or the Writers’ Guild, say) or an idea somebody fed me just took form (or flight). I noticed the originals that the professional band performed Saturday night included a lot of love songs (their traditionals were a lot more diverse). Love, I suppose, is a safe thing to talk about: it’s pretty universal—since virtually everybody’s been there, or is there, you can talk about it and be pretty certain your audience will understand.

There may not be many other themes these days in commercial country music. There’s religion (following very conventional, Protestant forms and imagery, though), drinking, and how wonderful it is to live in the country (written and performed, one Nashville pundit noted, by people who have never been there). Maybe not much else. (I don’t listen to the radio much.) There are political songs—comedian Ray Stevens has done a bunch of them—but it’s hard to do political songs without sounding preachy (and even Ray sounds preachy in a lot of them).

And my own stuff? Well, “Earwigs in the Eggplant,” my most recent “keeper,” is a love song, but the love is more an afterthought; it’s an alphabetical (sort of) listing of plants and garden pests, twisted into a love song because it had to be about something. It was deliberately written so that 45 Degrees North would have something about vegetables for the Manzanita Farmer’s Market gig.

“Selling Off My Body Parts” is another hymn for the Failed Economy (and the idea originally came from daughter)—tongue planted firmly in cheek because I very much do not want to be preachy. “Pole Dancing for Jesus” is a religious song primarily in style—and happened because Gene Burnett passed on that clip from Fox News. And “Blue Krishna” is kind of unclassifiable; it’s really just one of those “wondering” things, answering the question (once I’d seen the Krishna painting in the Rainbow Lotus) “Why is Krishna blue?”

And then I’ve got what I think of as the Bad Guys Series, sensitive treatments of a mugger (“Last Song of the Highwayman”), a serial killer (“The Dead Sweethearts Polka”), a stalker (“In the Shadows, I’ll Be Watching You”), and a suicide (“Angel in Chains”). The last three of those resulted from challenges by the Coventry songwriters group over in England, and the first was a deliberate attempt to write a medieval ballad (though I ignored about half the rules for medieval ballad-writing in the process).

It almost follows the mantra I gave the Songstuff folks in my bio: “Happy, upbeat, uptempo songs about death, lost love, betrayal, religion, and dead animals.” Even my love song for my wife from last year, “Always Pet the Dogs,” still has a dead (actually, reincarnated) dog in it.

Two conclusions from the above: (1) I get nearly all my ideas from other people. And (2) I sure don’t follow the conventional pattern. I don’t know if the latter is a good thing; I suppose I could always say, “Well, there’s more to life than love.” (And religion, and drinking, and living in the country or wanting to.) Maybe the focus on love (et al.) in other people’s songs is the result of so much writing being done in a vacuum; when you have a limited frame of reference, perhaps you end up with a limited repertoire. I very much do not want that to happen to me (and I suppose I have to live with the consequences).

Final thought. If what I’m doing isn’t marketable, why do people keep requesting the songs?

Joe

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