Who Was The Best Songwriter?

So, who is the greatest composer of modern popular music?  Is it the team of Lennon/McCartney?  Bob Dylan?  Maybe it’s Paul Simon?  What about Eminem?  There’s so much talent to consider that it seems an endless argument to try to define the king or queen songsmith. 

 In our age of information overload it’s easy to change one’s opinion on this topic.  It seems that every page refresh reveals yet another songwriter we forgot about.  Yes, the list is vast. 

 Most people have never heard of a Texas born poet named Mickey Newbury.   In 1968 Mickey stunned the music industry with a feat that had never been achieved by any other artist.  He had four songs in the top five on music charts in four different categories.  Three of his tunes went to number one and one rose to number five.  Amazing as it seems, the following songs were simultaneously topping the charts:  

  • Kenny Rodgers: “Just Dropped In (to see what condition my condition was in) Pop chart hit which launched Rodger’s career.    
  • Eddy Arnold: “Here Comes the Rain, baby” Country charts. 
  • Andy Williams: “Sweet Memories” Easy Listening charts.
  • Solomon Burke:  “Time Is a Thief” Rhythm & Blues charts.

 Kris Kristofferson is quoted as saying “God, I learned more about songwriting from Mickey than I did any other single human being…  I’m sure that I never would have written Bobby McGee, Sunday Morning Commin Down… if I had never known Mickey.  He was my hero and still is.”

That same “hero” continued to write songs recorded by industry giants including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bill Monroe, Johnny Rodriguez, Hank Snow, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, Ray Price, Don Gibson, Brenda Lee, Charlie Rich, David Allan Coe, Olivia Newton-John, Joan Baez, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, John Denver, BB King, Linda Ronstadt, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Roberta Flack, and of course, the king himself, Elvis Presley.  Countless others have recorded Newbury’s songs. 

In fact, his songs have been recorded by hundreds upon hundreds of artists.  To this date over 1,000 covers have been documented.  Mickey himself recorded 25 albums of his own songs.  During the 35 plus years of his career, he always considered himself a songwriter first and a singer second.  Each album was critically acclaimed and highly desired by a passionate fan base all over the world.

One of his greatest works was his creation of “An American Trilogy”.  This was a medley recorded by many, including Elvis Presley.  In fact, it was the last song Elvis sang in his final concert.

Mickey was once referred to as “the Robert Frost of country music” but he was also labeled a “hippie cowboy”.  He was the first of the so-called “outlaw” movement in the 70’s along with the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings etc.  Unlike others, he never accepted this label and continued to create recordings using musical instruments and melodies never attempted on traditional country efforts.

His songwriting style was very deliberate.  He would usually start with a melody he finger picked on his gut string guitar, then fill in the words.  Often he would throw away verses in order to craft the perfect song.  When he was finished the result would be a beautiful yet simple rendition.  Mickey could literally paint a picture with his lyrics.

 Take for example:

 Sweet Memories

 My world is like a river, as dark as it is deep
Night after night the past slips in and gathers all my sleep
My days are just an endless stream of emptiness to me
Filled only by the fleeting moments of her memory
Sweet memories, sweet memories

She slipped into the silence of my dreams last night
Wandering from room to room, she’s turning on each light.
Her laughter spills like water from the river to the sea
I’m swept away from sadness, clinging to her memory
Sweet memories, sweet memories

Although Newberry spent much of the 80’s retired, he ended the decade doing what he loved; recording and touring.  He died from a prolonged battle with pulmonary fibrosis in late 2002.  He was only 62 years of age.

 Of his many awards and accolades Mickey was the youngest member to be elected into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame.  He made more appearances on the Johnny Carson Show than any other individual. There will never be another songwriter to equal this Texas born poet.

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Song Writing 101

I love to write.  The thing is, I find it hard to write without making it rhyme, then I put a melody to it.  Thank God for this blog.  It allows me to make a point without it being in a structured form of:

  • Opening verse
  • Verse two
  • Chorus
  • Verse three
  • Repeat chorus.

Yes, thank God for this blog.  And to be quite honest, if I’m lucky, more people will read this than has ever listened to any of my songs.

I have been writing songs all my life, and as I have stated, I have never made a dime doing it.  I made my dollars programming computers.  Songwriting and computer programming go hand in hand.  It’s slow work, it has to be perfect, and it has to get to the point quickly.  Both can be written in minutes but some take a very long time.  You have to take your time and be very detailed, but eventually you will get there if you have patience.  With both you can work on more than one project at a time.  Currently I am working on four songs, thus, they will take forever to finish.

The main difference is that computer programs will become outdated and will die.  When you write a computer program you can never take ownership of it.  Things change and there is always new ways to doing things which makes your work obsolete.  Songs last forever.  I’m still just as proud of the first song I ever wrote as I am my latest compilation.  You always have to go in and make changes to computer programs.  When you finish a song, if it is done right, it is cut in stone.  The only times you have to tweak a song is when some nasty ass publisher don’t like a line and ask you to change it.  Making this change can sometimes alter an entire verse or chorus.  Oh the horror!  But, when it’s finished and put into operation(recorded and released) your done.

In most cases, when a song is written it should have a title, an introduction, a body, a bridge or chorus, and a close.  The title should tell the entire story and define the rest of the work. As a friend of mine use to say, “well, its written, now just finish it”.  In most cases introduction should substantiate the title.  This is why it is good for the first line in the song to be the same as the title although this is not always possible.  The body should further define the title/introduction.  The bridge or chorus is a deviation from the rest of the song both in melody and ideas, but should keep the same focus as the rest of the work.  The close should add a bit of finality to the entire effort. 

Lets examine a song that a friend of mine and myself wrote and analyze all of the components.  This song only exist in a word document, but our melody is complete and it just needs recording. 

 Honey Quit Your Drinkin Or Me   ©

This is the title.  Notice that the song is written.  It just needs “finishing”.

Verse 1 
Honey quit your drinkin or me
Honey why can’t you see
If you have anymore                                  
I will walk out that door           
Honey quit your drinkin or me         
Verse 2
Honey quit your nights on the town             
You quit your running around                       
Get down on your knees                              
Or you will see                                          
Honey quit your drinking or me                   
You spent your life in a bar                          
It didn’t get you that far  
Verse 3
I’m tired of you having your way               
You staying drunk everyday                      
You’ll end up lonely                                  
And then I’ll be free                                       
Honey quit your drinking or me                   

Now if we analyze this song, what do we surmise from it?  Well, it’s structured fairly well.  It flows nicely and you can probably hum a little melody line just by reading the words.  If your a songwriter you understand that it is in 3/4 time.  But the most important thing is that “you know the title from the first listen”.

 Well, enough of this…  I thank you for letting me rant and, believe me, I got a bunch off my chest.  Maybe on a future blog I will have a link where we can go straight to the song and see if it sounds anything like what you expected.


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Chorus Hooks

Back when I was a little bitty baby songwriter living in Nashville I was very impressionable.  I use to soak up all the knowledge I could get from some of the most talented writers and music professionals known to mankind.  This publisher once told me that the number one rule was “people need to remember the title”.  He would tell me it was always best to have the title be the very first line in the song.  This rule hampered me far more than it ever helped.  Finally I had to consider that the “hook” might be in the chorus. 

Now please understand that I’m not one to go breaking all the rules, but sometimes things have to be done a little differently.  In some cases I think it’s best for a song to build up to the “hook”.  If you choose this style of writing, the chorus is where you will eventually nail the title. 

Click on Home Sweet Home below and listen to a song Ronnie Brown and I wrote.  This is our example of a chorus hook.

HomeSweetHome ©

 Leading up to the chorus home is never mentioned but it’s surely implied.  The latter part of the song just fills in more detail, and then it needs to lean on the chorus one more time.  If you can get a listener’s attention with a good introduction they will figure out the title soon enough.

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The Chorus or Where’s the title?

The chorus is where the story is defined regardless of the structure of the song.

 You got to know when to hold ’em know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away know when to run

 The entire song leads up to the gambler spilling his guts.  After he’s through spilling he puts out his cigarette, pulls his hat down over his head, and fades off to sleep.  But wait!  The words echo in the strangers head.

 You got to know when to hold ’em know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away know when to run

So…Where’s the title?  The song has about 400 words and only mentions “The Gambler” two times as an afterthought.  I will bet that anyone who ever listened to this song remembered the title from the first time they learned it.    

During a chorus the song usually crescendos up.  Harmony vocals sometimes join and new instrumentation appears.  A majority of the time the melody will change to a more robust, upbeat deviation of the verses, but if you listen carefully to “The Gambler” you will see that this is not the case.  The melody line is, pretty much, the same in both verse and chorus.  I guess when Don Schlitz wrote this classic he decided to leave well enough alone and just hook it with: 

You got to know when to hold ’em know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away know when to run

Blah. Blah. Blah.

No wait!  I got to finish.
You never count your money  when your sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealin’s done


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