08 May 2017

The Song Remembers When

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the tenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

The following article is by my darling daughter, Karla Lee. Seems as if writing just runs in our genes. As for the song, Johnny Cash said it's one of the best ever written.
— Jan Grape
Karla Lee
Karla Lee— songwriter
The Craft of Songwriting

by Karla Lee

I’ve been dabbling in writing my entire life. I have a book of poetry that I wrote and illustrated when I was eight years old. It is handwritten on 3-hole loose leaf notebook paper with strings of orange yarn holding it together. At 12, I kept a diary (who didn’t?). At 16, I wrote poems full of angst, longing, and mystery. In my 20s, I started journaling about random thoughts, jobs, experiences, friends, heartbreak, happiness, which I continued when my life flowed its course into marriage, children, moving, divorce, personal challenges, triumphs, frustrations. In my 30s, I wrote a children’s book. (I received several nice rejections letters. I realized children’s books are much harder to write than one would imagine.) In my 40s, I took a creative writing class at my local community college. At the encouragement of my instructor, I submitted a few pieces to the literary journal and a couple of them were published. It was thrilling to see my work in print. Here I am in my 50s and I’m still journaling, currently in a five-year journal, which I find is a format that suits my lifestyle perfectly! It just takes a couple of minutes to jot down a few lines before I turn in at night. Writing has always been a large part of my life, but it has always remained just a hobby.

The writing format that has been my favorite since I was a teenager is the song lyric. I like the fact that it’s a short-term commitment. I can usually write a complete song lyric in a couple of hours, at least get the first draft finished. To me, it’s kind of like sitting down to solve a word puzzle, but with a lot of emotion thrown in. My mission is to succinctly convey a feeling or experience. Words are expensive in a song, so every one of them has to count. The meter has to work from line to line and it has to rhyme. If you’re lucky enough to play an instrument, you have the added bonus of being able to put music to the words, and suddenly, it’s alive! What a rush!

I live in Nashville. We have some of the best songwriters in the world. Writing GREAT song lyrics is a huge challenge. I’m not talking about songs that make us dance, although I love those too. I’m talking about songs that make us stop and listen. Songs that make us think. Songs that make us cry. Songs that take us and shake us to the core. Here in Nashville, publishers and recording artists are not looking for GOOD songs. They’re looking for knock-your-socks-off, stop-in-your-tracks songs. We have a saying in Nashville that a great song consists of three chords and the truth. It’s all about telling a believable story.

I don’t have any major “cuts”. But I’ve studied the craft of songwriting all my life and continue to write in my spare time. In Nashville, we sometimes say that songs aren’t written, they’re RE-written! It’s important to not be “married” to the first words/rhymes/lines that pop into your head. Yes, get them down on paper. But, once I have a first draft, it’s time to ask myself some tough questions:
  1. Will the opening line grab people and make them keep listening?
  2. Is the hook STRONG?
  3. Have I said something in a way that nobody else has ever said it before?
  4. Are the lyrics conversational?
  5. Does each line further the story along, or are some of the lines “throw away”?
  6. Is there a beginning, middle, and end of the story?
  7. Does the story make sense? Is it believable?
  8. Is it relatable in a personal and a universal way?
  9. Are the rhymes too predictable?
If I can’t answer yes to most of these questions, I need to keep working on the puzzle. A lot of songwriters settle for their first draft instead of taking the time to craft the lyric into something special. One song that I think is a beautiful example of someone taking the time to get it perfect was written in 1993 by Hugh Prestwood and recorded by Trisha Yearwood. Obviously, much of the “mood” is lost without the music (for full impact, pull it up on your phone or computer and listen while you read), but the wordsmithing is magnificent.


The Song Remembers When
by Hugh Prestwood
I was standing at the counter
I was waiting for the change
When I heard that old familiar music start
It was like a lighted match
Had been tossed into my soul
It was like a dam had broken in my heart
After taking every detour
Getting lost and losing track
So that even if I wanted
I could not find my way back
After driving out the memory
Of the way things might have been
After I'd forgotten all about us
The song remembers when

We were rolling through the Rockies
We were up above the clouds
When a station out of Jackson played that song
And it seemed to fit the moment
And the moment seemed to freeze
When we turned the music up and sang along
And there was a God in Heaven
And the world made perfect sense
We were young and were in love
And we were easy to convince
We were headed straight for Eden
It was just around the bend
And though I have forgotten all about it
The song remembers when.
I guess something must have happened
And we must have said goodbye
And my heart must have been broken
Though I can't recall just why
The song remembers when

Well, for all the miles between us
And for all the time that's passed
You would think I haven't gotten very far
And I hope my hasty heart
Will forgive me just this once
If I stop to wonder how on Earth you are
But that's just a lot of water
Underneath a bridge I burned
And there's no use in backtracking
Around corners I have turned
Still I guess some things we bury
Are just bound to rise again
For even if the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when

Yeah, and even if
    the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when.


©1992-1993
Trisha Yearwood

In thinking about lyric writing and the questions that I ask myself to make a song as strong as it can possibly be, I realize that these questions apply to all writing, no matter the format. Taking the extra time to dig deeper and search further is worth it. This is when the magic happens. It’s the difference between mediocre and amazing.



Karla Lee is an office manager for an engineering company in Nashville and has two grown sons. When she’s not working or writing, she spends time traveling and having fun with friends.

12 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Karla, reading your article made me realize I appreciate the story-telling of songs I might not otherwise listen to. For example, I admire the story told in Ode to Billie Joe. There’s indirection, characterization, scene, and best of all from my viewpoint, the dénouement is left to the listener to figure out. Yeah, it’s a girly song, but damn, it’s nicely done.

When I was little, my grandmother explained she story-line pathos/bathos of After the Ball, a popular song written by Charles K. Harris. In 1892 alone, its sales exceeded 2-million! It certainly captured the imagination.

janice law said...

Your advice is equally good for prose writers!

Fran Rizer said...

Karla, I feel like I know you through your mom and through our mutual love of Nashville and song-writing. Going to Nashville to pitch songs used to be one of my favorite trips. Best of luck on getting that "hit." (I had songs cut and played on radio, but I can't claim any hits.)
A great blog . . . and a song does remember when for almost everyone.

B.K. Stevens said...

Wonderful post, Karla. One of my daughters loves writing song lyrics, too. And my husband is a big Trisha Yearwood fan, so I've heard that song many times. It's haunting. Best of luck with your writing!

Elizabeth said...

Karla, thank you for an interesting article. My favorite format to write in is flash fiction. I try to keep everything you said in mind, except the part about rhyming.

Elizabeth said...

Hey Karla, I just now listened to that song. It is gorgeous!!

karla howard said...

I checked out After The Ball. So sad and well written. No wonder it was a huge hit! And I LOVE Ode to Billie Joe.

karla howard said...

Right?!! Thanks for reading!

karla howard said...

Thanks Fran. Nice to meet a fellow songwriter!

karla howard said...

Thank you! Trisha is one of my all time favs.

karla howard said...

Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

karla howard said...

I know! Bittersweet.