Sometimes putting a song together is easy — like when you beatbox to your pets as you put out their food. (Don’t worry, we don’t judge and they don’t judge… unless they’re cats, because, you now… cats.)
But if you want to put something together that will please more than Mr. Wooferson’s floppy ears, a little research is recommended. Songwriting is an art and a science, and you can study it just like any other art form. Anytime you’re reading about writing (songs, or novels, or scripts), you’re learning and getting inspired. You can’t stop it; your brain loves this stuff!
Here are three books that we’ve found particularly useful and inspiring when it comes to country music, but to be honest, most of what you’ll find here could apply to any kind of musical storytelling.
First up, we have Writing Better Lyrics, by Pat Pattison.
This is a sharp, insightful, unflinching, not-taking-any-of-your-BS look at writing lyrics. It’s jammed with great perspectives and exercises to help you get out of the familiar and easy pattern, and find genuine and fresh inspiration. Whatever level you’re at, you’ll find something here that will jolt your imagination. It’ll get you thinking about lyrics, choruses, verses, the flow, and even words, in a different light. Whatever genre you write in, this book will have something for you. If you’re struggling through writers’ block, try one of Pattison’s exercises — you’ll be writing a new song before you know it.
Next up, Nashville Songwriter, by Jake Brown.
This is a fascinating series of interviews with some of Nashville’s finest and most storied songwriters, talking about how they wrote some of their biggest songs. If you want to learn about the process of songwriting, you go to the source: Merle Haggard, Ashley Gorley, Kelley Lovelace, Chris DuBois, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, John Rich, Sonny Curtis, and many others. They each talk about the moment of inspiration for one or more of their hits, the way their initial idea was sketched out into the bare bones of a verse or two, before finding the chorus, then re-finding it with new inspiration, and how they got through to the final hit version. These are the people doing the work, talking about how they do the work. Even if you’ve never heard of some of the writers or songs, you’ll learn something about the many different ways that songs come into being.
Lastly, and more specifically focused on Nashville, is If You’ve Got A Dream, I’ve Got A Plan, with the epic subtitle How to get your songs heard by music industry professionals and get your foot inside a closed-door business. Damn!
It’s by the aforementioned Kelley Lovelace, who has cowritten many of Brad Paisley’s hits. It’s over ten years old now, but its core principles remain true. Lovelace looks at the business of writing songs in Nashville (and outside if you can’t move there) from top to bottom, giving useful insights into the mechanics of the country music industry, including writing, cowriting, pitching, open mic, royalties, and much else. Lovelace knows the industry from the inside out, and writes in an engaging, accessible and inspiring way.
These are just three — there are whole libraries of books about songwriting, as well as, of course, the internet. You can find countless interviews with songwriters recounting their moments of inspiration and the detailed process of how they shaped their song. Taste Of Country has a great series called Lyrics Uncovered on its site. This installment focuses on how Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark wrote Musgrave’s hit Biscuits. Check it out, then take a look through their archives.
What it all comes down to is this: keep exploring. That’s the best way to grow and to stay inspired, which means you won’t only be impressing Mr. Wooferson, you’ll also be ready when the muse comes knocking on your door.