Posts in Americana
Jim James // My Morning Jacket

Jim James of My Morning Jacket wants to be a happy songwriter. And a healthy one too.

A fair amount of the songwriters I’ve interviewed extol the virtues of writing while hungover. Others talk about how marijuana helps their creativity. Still others credit sobriety with making them better thinkers. But few, like James, have openly advocated physical exercise as a means to boost creativity. He wants more songwriters to get out of the studio and into fresh air. He’s also sick of the idea that misery is an essential component to writing.

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Courtney Marie Andrews

Courtney Marie Andrews needs to be alone.

That is, she needs complete solitude when she writes. Where other songwriters thrive on a bit of commotion or even chaos around them, not Andrews. She needs solitude because it provides her the best chance for self-reflection and an "uncluttered headspace" in the songwriting process. And she has to know that she's alone too. But she doesn't necessarily need to be at home when she writes: in fact, she often prefers someplace new. "I think it's more that I like to travel and feel out of my element, and I think my best songs come from that space. I lean towards writing songs in unfamiliar places," Andrews told me. Her process also involves what she calls "chunk writing." She doesn't like to write on tour; that's where she collects all of her notes for the later songwriting process. But when she gets off tour, she blocks off a two-week chunk on her calendar and does nothing but write.

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Whitney Rose

By her own admission, Whitney Rose is an "unapologetic romantic." This isn't surprising if you know her music: it's about as authentic and throwback as you can get in the country music world. There's a little bit of Patsy Cline, some Loretta Lynn, and even some Dolly Parton too. 

But Rose is old school in other ways too. As you'll hear in almost any song she sings, she's a storyteller. Rose laments the art of storytelling in song as a dying art (something Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours told me in our recent interview). And don't even get her started on the state of penmanship instruction in schools. She told me that she was "appalled" to learn her two younger siblings aren't even being taught cursive in schools. Just typing. Unsurprisingly, Rose has never used a computer to write her lyrics. And she can only write under one condition: there can be no one around, not even anyone in the house, when she writes. Rose's writing happens spontaneously. She's been known to walk out of restaurants and parties, no matter who she's with, when she feels a song coming on. She goes home and goes into, in her words, "musical labor."

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Evan Felker, Turnpike Troubadours

Evan Felker, songwriter and guitarist for Turnpike Troubadours, has his own version of the nuclear football, the bag that never leaves his side when he's on the road. It contains everything he needs to write a song: his laptop, a composition notebook, and a legal pad. Each serves a specific purpose. The legal pad is for song ideas and random lines, and for this he uses a pen. The composition notebook is for the lyrics, and for this he uses a pencil. Then the computer is where the fully formed song takes shape so that he can copy and paste to see where the lines work best. 

As you may have read in the last few days, Turnpike Troubadours have a new album out October 20 called A Long Way From Your Heart. Felker details some of his songwriting process behind the new material in our interview. He decided to write songs with a narrative bent filled with fictional characters inspired by the people he's known throughout his life. Many are from the area around southeastern Oklahoma where he grew up, from places like the factories and mills he worked after finishing tech school. Felker co-wrote one of the new songs on the album, "Come As You Are," with his good friend Rhett Miller of the Old 97s. (I interviewed Miller a couple of years ago, and I have to thank him for putting me in touch with Felker.) Here's what Miller recently told me about Felker...

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Tift Merritt

"Adjectives and adverbs are not what we need to be singin'," Tift Merritt told me during our interview. Like any good songwriter, the Grammy-nominated artist favors economy of words and simple language in her lyrics, just as two of her biggest literary influences are Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver. "A lyric needs to feel as if somebody could've spoken those words while standing in line at the post office," she said.

Merritt studied creative writing in college and has been writing across genres for a while. Songwriting is just one of her many creative outputs. But while Merritt might favor economy of language in song, her description of her writing process is filled with metaphors. She talks of "rolling around" in her creativity during the early stages of the process and of discarded song ideas as "pebbles on the trail to the next idea." She typically spends her mornings on words and her afternoons on music, because the lyrics require the sharpness of the morning. After lunch, Merritt says, that's when "you invite an instrument to come sit down with you." 

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M.C. Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger

M.C. Taylor will tell you that he's not a narrative songwriter. There may be a story behind the songs, but they don't really tell a story. And even if they did, he wouldn't tell you what those songs are about because that's not his duty as a writer. Taylor would never dare tell you what meaning you're supposed to glean from his lyrics. "Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can't quite tell whether it's happy or sad. That's the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. My songs are about whatever you want them to be about. You have your idea and I have mine, and I would never disabuse anyone of their notion." he told me.

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Rosanne Cash

You don't win four Grammy Awards and receive eleven additional Grammy nominations by letting the muse come to you. You don't have eleven #1 country singles and twenty-one Top 40 country singles by waiting for inspiration to strike. And you certainly don't become a member of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame by writing only when you feel like it. When you're Rosanne Cash, you write. And when you're not writing, you're thinking about writing.

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Jim Lauderdale

Jim Lauderdale has been called a "songwriter's songwriter," and for good reason: he's written songs for artists like George Strait, The Dixie Chicks, Elvis Costello, Blake Shelton, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, and Gary Allan. He's released 28 studio albums since 1986, with a new one out this spring called London Southern. He's won two Grammy Awards. He's also the host of the fantastic "Buddy and Jim" show on Sirius/XM Radio. In short, Lauderdale is enormously respected in the country, bluegrass, and Americana music genres.

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Allison Moorer

Everyone offering career advice seems to want to steer people away from the humanities. Don't be an English major, they say. You won't make any money.  Singer/songwriter Allison Moorer has fortunately dispensed with this silly bit of advice: she's finishing her first semester at The New School in Chelsea, where she's getting her MFA in creative non-fiction. As someone with a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature, I fully support her new career path.

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Ray Wylie Hubbard

I know no better demonstration of the link between reading and songwriting than the advice Ray Wylie Hubbard gives songwriters: "Don't just listen to 'The Ghost of Tom Joad.' Read The Grapes of Wrath. That’s a classic song, but Springsteen wouldn't have written it if he hadn’t read Steinbeck."  Of course, Steinbeck is probably a beach read for Hubbard. His staples are writers like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. And before he goes to bed each night, he'll often pull down Dante's Divine Comedy from the bookshelf to see how that text might inspire his songwriting. 

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James McMurtry

James McMurtry wants his old iPhone back. The singer-songwriter hasn't been the same writer without it.  And it's all because Apple changed its Notes app.

In the days before computers were the default method for composition, McMurtry wrote lyrics on legal pads. He has boxes filled with legal pads filled with lyrics. He became intensely familiar and comfortable with those yellow pages; there was something about that yellow and those lines that made the words pour forth from his felt-tip pen. McMurtry eventually turned to computers, but with them he sacrificed portability. Cell phones solved that problem. And when McMurtry found that the Notes app on his iPhone 3 looked like that old yellow legal pad paper, well, the words flowed. It was creative nirvana. 

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