Just heard Irl Hees’ amazing upcoming cover recording of a song of mine, “Time Has Humbled Me,” from my 2003 album Crazy Faith. More on that truly head-turning recording later, when I can share it. Before I heard it, I asked Irl if he was happy with the recording. He told me a story that I count as about the highest compliment a songwriter can get. He said the husband of one of the musicians on the track was listening to a rough mix of the song in the car, and had to pull over onto the shoulder of the road to finish listening.
Now that’s what I’m talking about. As songwriters, our mission in life is to disrupt traffic any way we can.
We songwriters are part of a secret society I like to call Brothers and Sisters of the Shoulder of the Road (or maybe, for that old-time feel, Brethren and Sistren—always thought that should be a word!). The rites of passage into this tribe are three moments in your life involving cars and roads, moments that can tell you something about whether you’re meant to be, or are becoming, a songwriter.
- The first moment is when you hear a song on the radio (remember radio?) that just shoots into your skull and heart and stops you cold. You can’t believe you’re hearing something that beautiful, something that speaks so intimately to you. If you hear it and you’re driving, by gum you pull that car over and sit there listening. Maybe you close your eyes, maybe they’ve even teared up a bit. A song like that for me, that pulled me to the side of the road, was Julie Miller’s “By Way of Sorrow,” sung by Cry Cry Cry (Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, and Dar Williams).That road stop can happen to any listener. But if you’re a songwriter, or angling to be one, then along with your heart hurting and thumping, a little voice in the back of your mind is saying: “How the hell did they do that?”Anecdotes? Got your own “shoulder of the road” stories to share? What was the song? Where were you journeying?Example. The song “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road,” written by the great Matraca Berg and Tim Krekel, recorded by Martina McBride, brilliantly captures a moment like this, brought on by the wail of the “steel guitar on the radio…”
Query: Any rhetoricians out there know the technical term for this kind of figure of speech? “Cry on the shoulder of the road” is a brilliant “mash-up” of the two familiar idioms “cry on your shoulder” and “shoulder of the road.” In the same song, another instance of the same technique: “my own private hell on wheels…”
- The second moment a true songwriter lives through is when you’re driving in your car, and you get a Song Seed. One of those magical “how cool is that?” ideas. As a less experienced writer, you might say to yourself that your seed is so unforgettable you’ll surely remember it when you reach your destination. But this is the moment you’re humbled by our common human forgetfulness and say—no, better write it down! Perhaps, like me, you’ve then grabbed your notebook, balanced it precariously on the steering wheel, scribbling hastily, until the car drifts over out of the lane and nearly collides with the guardrail. (You young folks just have to talk into your cellphone. But it my day, kids, it was uphill in the snow both ways…) You’re late for whatever, but that song is burning a hole in your mind. When you’re willing to pull the car over, that’s the day you’re getting serious about being a songwriter. And learning what your real destination is.Once I did this and found myself pulling into the parking lot of a diner. I had about four verses jambling around in my head, so I went in and sat at the counter and ordered a cup of coffee and pulled out my journal. A friendly local sat down next to me and tried to start up a conversation. Several times. After I’d only grunted unresponsively, and he was starting to look annoyed, I finally explained: “Sorry, buddy, it’s just—see, I’m a songwriter, and I just had three verses pop into my head on the highway. If I don’t get them written down in the next five minutes, I’m afraid they’ll go up in smoke. And there goes my hit song. So unless you’re willing to pay for my unborn kid’s college tuition, I need to ask for just a few minutes to myself.” He looked surprised, then amused, and then nodded and respectfully turned his attention to his pancakes. Though he did shoot me a look like I had perhaps mentioned I was visiting from Venus.Anecdotes. Got any funny stories about the desperate lengths you’ve gone to not to lose a song seed? Please don’t do anything dangerous on my account!
- And the third moment. Oh my friends and comrades—may we all be so blessed… as that moment when we turn on the radio and hear our song playing. Whether our own voice or another’s voice, the thrill of knowing your work is out there, that the spark has jumped across the arc, is a thrill like no other I know. The first time that happens for you—pull the damn car over. Pour out a libation to the Muse of your choice. Thank the universe for giving you this mission, and choose to accept it.Then get back in the car and keep on driving to your destination.