How to Write a Hit Song
I go to a lot of songwriting workshops. I believe that I can always learn something from someone who has had more success in the music business than I have.
I also realize that some songwriting workshops are tailored for the presenters specific genre, and the rules that apply to that genre may or may not apply to other genres. So, I put what I learn about how to write a good song to use, add the nuggets I get from a workshop into the songwriting quotes, and let the rest go.
Since I live in a area where there are several Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) chapters, I've gone to a lot of NSAI workshops. I've also gone to a lot of workshops by successful songwriters who aren't associated with NSAI and/or who don't write country songs. I've learned a lot from all of the workshops and song critique meetings in the last 20+ years. And, I'm still learning.
I recently attended a NSAI workshop by Max T. Barnes. He's an excellent songwriter and presents his material clearly. He gave us the formula for writing a successful current country hit in the first few minutes of his workshop, and kept coming back to it, explaining the why and how of each part of that formula, and talking about the music business. It was an extremely informative workshop. I took five pages of notes and started writing a song based on his suggestions. I like where the song is going and I intend to finish it.
My earliest musical memories were sitting on the piano bench next to my mother as she played and we sang together—Irish songs, Cowboy songs, old songs. My favorites were "When You and I Were Young, Maggie," Tumbling Tumbleweeds," and "Sweet Betsy from Pike." I started listening to songs on the radio in the 1950s, listening to rock 'n' roll that my older sister liked. When I was five, I could sing "Catch a Falling Star" all the way through, and did whenever my parents paraded me out to perform it for their friends. I don't remember a time when we didn't have a TV in the living room, and I was addicted to the show, "Hit Parade." From it, I learned all the words to "The Wayward Wind" by Gogi Grant. As I got older, I saved my allowance to by 45s, single songs that I loved. The first one was Robert Mitchum singing "Thunder Road." By then, my sister was listening to jazz and my mother was playing albums of show tunes on the stereo in the living room. The songs from "Pajama Game," "Sound of Music," "Flower Drum Song," and "West Side Story" still play in my head.
"Most of the really good songs are dead true. ... It had to have happened to have the song be there. Every time I've tried to make stuff up it just kind of falls flat. So the majority of my work is something that happened to me, I saw happen to someone else, or a friend of mine told me happened." — Guy Clark
When I was in junior high and high school, I got interested in folk music. A lot of folk music has the element of dissent in it. Pete Seegar, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan became my heroes. When other kids were screaming and swooning over the Beatles, I was playing acoustic guitar and singing protest songs—songs protesting war, protesting the destruction of the earth, protesting discrimination. So were my friends. There were a lot of songs, a lot of singers, and a lot of recordings.
But the radio wasn't playing them. The radio was playing love songs and surfing songs and songs about teenagers dying in car wrecks that somehow were still love songs, if a bit creepy. Yes, folk music sneaked onto the radio for a short time. The Beachboys did a great version of "Sloop John B." But the real protest songs didn't make it onto the radio.
I liked those songs. My second 45 was Brenda Lee singing "I Want to Be Wanted." I also liked Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio, Chad and Jeremy, Badfinger, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Crosby Stills and Nash. Uh oh. Back up. The Jefferson Starship actually wrote songs that protested what was going on. "Blows Against the Empire." "A Child is Coming" on "Volunteers" with its line "Let's not tell 'em about him" so he won't be drafted into the war. At the height of the Viet Nam war, there were a lot of protest songs on the radio: Crosby Stills and Nash's "Wooden Ships," Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
And the war became very unpopular, very fast. The government, the Nixon administration, was under pressure for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was to end the war in Viet Nam.
What do you know? Music, popular music, has the power to change the world. If it didn't, why would the "city fathers" want to "dismantle" music?
So, what do we hear on the radio today? "... a three-minute, positive, up-tempo, love song in the now, with a catchy intro, hooky chorus, unique first line and ... written in first person." What's missing from this description? Could it be true emotion? Could it be content? Could it be meaning?
One of our assignments from the workshop was to find a current country song and write five songs just like it. It's a good exercise, so I decided to try it. I had to drive to downtown Colorado Springs, then to northeast Denver and back home again in one day. I dialed in the country stations and listened to country songs. For hours, I listened to country songs, and couldn't remember a single song. No hook stuck in my mind. It was literally mind-numbing. Country music is truly the opiate of the masses.
Do you think that's a coincidence? With all that's going on in the world, all you hear on the radio is mind-numbing pap—songs about drinking, songs about partying, songs about meeting the right guy or gal, songs about how great life is, songs about how great life was, songs about how great mama and daddy are or were, songs about tractors and plastic cups. Anyone who has noticed and commented blamed the bean-counters.
Corporations have taken over food, television, radio, water, medicine, air, and the government. The foxes are running the hen house. We were sold out: virgins waiting to be slaughtered on the alter of corporate greed. And we're being given food, water, radio, TV, medicines and even the very air we breathe to keep us docile and under control until they're ready to stretch us out and bleed us dry.
What would happen if protest songs about the way corporations control our country were heard on the radio?
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Chuck Cannon talk about songwriting. Near the end of his talk, he performed a song that he'd just written. He said he thought it was one of his good songs but he knew it would never get air time on the radio. It was about the corporations. He called it "Greed."
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