Posts in Country
Shooter Jennings

Shooter Jennings is not one for rest. While you’re reading this, he’s somewhere creating something. You may know Jennings for his career as a singer/songwriter, and that career alone should keep him busy. But this does not satisfy the man. He also creates video games just for fun: he’s on his third now and has written tens of thousands of lines of code for these science fiction role playing games.

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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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Lydia Loveless

Want to be in a Lydia Loveless song? It's easy: sit next to her at dinner. Well, don't sit at her table, because she might not listening to you. Instead, she's listening to the tables next to her for a line or two that she can put in a song. "It's a bad habit. I'm always eavesdropping on people. If I'm out to dinner, I'm always listening to the other tables and not paying attention to mine. I'm not even doing it consciously. But I get some great song ideas from those conversations," Loveless told me.

Loveless's songwriting process involves a few rituals. She journals every day, and she's been doing it ever since she was a young child, even though her first journal was nothing but lower case e's because that was the only letter she could write. Now that Loveless is an adult, there's one part of her process that cannot waver: she must use a Pilot Precise Extra Fine Pen with black ink. Any other pen "ruins the process," she said. 

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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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Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe has been writing songs since she was a young kid, which means she's been carrying around that bucket for a loooong time. This bucket is her "idea bucket."  By her own admission, Monroe is never not a songwriter. She's always thinking about songs, so whenever she goes out (much to the chagrin of her husband), she's always attuned to her environment, its sights and sounds, for song ideas. And that's why she has her "idea bucket." She carries it everywhere she goes, and in that bucket go the song ideas that she gets by being hypersensitive to everything around her. 

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Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel

Ray Benson is best known as the co-founder of the country music band Asleep at the Wheel. The band, founded in 1969, has won nine Grammy Awards. Asleep at the Wheel is a contemporary torchbearer for the subgenre of country music known as Western swing, a more danceable kind of country music that originated in the 1920s.

But the 63 year-old Benson has a solo release out now calledA Little Piece, only his second solo album. It represents a departure from his Asleep at the Wheel material; it's more personal and was written from a much darker place, according to Benson. I saw Benson play an in-store at Waterloo Records in Austin a couple of months ago, where he showcased his new material backed by the excellent band Milkdrive. I had never seen Benson before, and his performance was fantastic.  He's a great storyteller and performer whose baritone serves as the ideal complement to his new material.

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Ryan Bingham

Before talking to Ryan Bingham, I watched some of his videos on his YouTube channel. Several of the commenters pointed out that his singing voice sounds nothing like his speaking voice.  And it's true.  I couldn't help but think about this when he talked about songwriting as a form of therapy for him, a way for him to get things off his chest. When he pointed out that the lyrics sometimes emerge from his subconscious, that singing/speaking voice dichotomy made sense: perhaps that singing voice is different because it represents something deep inside, a window unto his emotional state. 

Bingham calls writing "a very personal act" for him.  He's protective of the space he creates to write, both emotionally and physically. His best lyrics come out all at once, because a song that takes too long loses the original, raw emotion.  And his writing is cyclical: he soaks in his environment on the road and almost never writes there.  Once he's home, he writes about those experiences in a short, powerful burst, "venting and getting those feelings off [his] chest." Once those songs and feelings are out, he stops, and he feels not one once of guilt for not writing for the next few months while he gathers those experiences on the road again. 

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Chris Shiflett, Foo Fighters

Chris Shiflett doesn't get to write as the guitarist in his other band, so his side project Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants allows him to showcase his songwriting and love of honky tonk. It's a good thing, because Shiflett knows what it takes to be a good writer: he writes every day, and he reads every day. He knows that you can't improve as a writer unless you practice, and you won't be a good writer unless you know what good writing looks like. "You write all the time so that even if you write shitty songs, you'll be in good shape when the good ones come along," he told me. 

Now that Shiflett has a family (three young sons), he doesn't have much free time, driving the kids to school and taking them to afternoon sports practices.  So to maintain his skill as a writer (not just a songwriter), he often gets up at 5am before the kids are awake and writes.  As for the reading, Shiflett has dedicated his remaining free time to immersing himself in the classics, having recently torn through F. Scott Fitzgerald's catalog. I came away from our conversation impressed with his dedication to the craft: Shiflett is a tireless student of the writing process.

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Heather McEntire, Mount Moriah

I've interviewed close to 150 songwriters for this site, but no one has a songwriting approach quite like Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah. Once McEntire has a song topic, she researches it. That's right.  She researches.  Whereas many songwriters rely on the inspiration of the muse, her approach is methodical and deliberative; in fact, she says that when she sits down to write, it's almost akin to a college professor's office hours.

McEntire was a creative writing major in college, something that informs her songwriting process. Once she has an idea for a song, she reads as much as she can about the topic, because, well, she likes to learn. But if you read her lyrics and recognize the depth of her imagery and even her attention to geographical detail, none of this is surprising.  And I haven't even mentioned her voice yet, one of my favorites in music today. (Full disclosure: I reviewed the latest Mount Moriah album Miracle Temple on Merge Records in the Washington Post a few months ago.)

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