What the jukebox taught me about writing

Bobby Braddock’s been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. You don’t know the name, but I guarantee you know his songs:

“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” by George Jones. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” by Tammy Wynette. “People Are Crazy,” by Billy Currington.

Here in Nashville, Bobby Braddock is a songwriting god.

Reading about him, I was reminded of something that’s easy to forget:

Songwriting, like any kind of writing, requires some talent, but mostly it takes a lot of work.

Songwriting is Bobby Braddock’s job. He can’t afford to sit around until something inspires him to write. He just has to write.

Listen to this. It’s from an interview Bobby Braddock did a few years ago with a website called larrywayneclark.com:

“Well, the people that think that lightning’s going to strike and that you can’t discipline yourself to do inspired work, I think that’s not true at all. You can make yourself write stuff, and you keep doing it and keep doing it and eventually the good stuff will come….”

That’s a great attitude when it comes to writing anything.

Here’s another example:

Couple years ago, I went to hear Bob McDill at the Hall of Fame. He’s another Nashville songwriter, one of the best: “Amanda,” by Waylon Jennings. “Good Ol’ Boys Like Me,” by Don Williams. “Gone Country,” by Alan Jackson.

Before he retired, he aimed to write a song a week. He had an office, and he went there, and he worked.

He said the song “Amanda” came in about 30 minutes, but “that’s the last gift I got. Afterward, it was blood, sweat and tears.”

He wrote a song with Dan Seals called “Everything That Glitters.” Here’s how it starts:

Saw your picture on a poster, in a cafe out in Phoenix;
Guess you’re still the sweetheart of the rodeo.
As for me and little Casey,  we still make the circuit
In a one-horse trailer and a mobile home.
And she still asks about you all the time;
And I guess we never even cross your mind.

There’s a lot of story in those six lines. McDill said he and Seals worked on that song for “months and months and months” until they figured it out, got everything just right.

Blood, sweat and tears.

Writing, any kind of writing, is work. It’s great if you’re inspired, but usually you’re not, and the only thing you can do is write through it, and if you’re lucky, the good stuff will come.

28 thoughts on “What the jukebox taught me about writing

  1. Is this the same “Amanda” song that says, “fate shoulda made you a gentleman’s wife?” If so, I sing it to my husband frequently. He LOVES that, of course.

    Great post, Todd. If I didn’t write through the uninspired patches, there would be very little writing going on. “Eventually the good stuff will come.” I like that idea a lot.

    1. That’s the song. It’s interesting, the attitude of these Nashville songwriters. It’s nothing like you see in the movies, where the guy gets drunk and pours his heart into a song and it becomes a hit. It’s all about writing and rewriting.

      1. Living in the South does give you a different perspective on the Civil War. The talent in Nashville is so good. You see so many people who fail to realize how tough things are in this town. Nashville is a special place. When you talk to people in other parts of the country they think Nashville has nothing but country music. The reality is that its a few blocks downtown.

      2. Hi, 1959duke! It’s crazy, how much talent is knocking around this town, and it’s not just country. It’s rock, too. Jack White lives here. Kings of Leon are from here. Ben Folds lives in Franklin. The people who make it are just the tip of the iceberg.

  2. So true! I am very fortunate to have a writing job that has taught me this. Being on staff means sometimes I have to “be inspired” at the last minute or on a topic that isn’t so very inspiring. Writing does require the same practice and discipline as anything else worth doing.

    Great post as always!

    1. Thanks, Michelle. I worked in newspapers for almost 20 years, and when you’re on deadline, you can’t afford to have writer’s block. You just have to write and, if there’s time, you can go back and fix it later.

    1. You know, it’s like Tom Hanks’ line in “A League of Their Own,” where Gina Davis says playing ball is too hard: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.” You could say the same thing about writing.

  3. One of the really sad things you see in thsi town is how many dreams get crushed. The fact remains that Nashville is still a good old boys town. Many of the major rock bands come to Nashville to record for the quality of the back up musicians.

  4. Bravo! Bob McDill might be my new hero. I can’t listen to people talk about writer’s block. You just sit down and you do it until you have something. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, the end. Any writer who pays attention can find a story.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks, Maura! I thought it was really interesting how long he worked on “Everything That Glitters.” I remember him talking about needing to establish the characters right up front and in just a few words, the idea that there’s this father and daughter barely getting by on the rodeo circuit while the girl’s mother goes off to pursue her dreams of stardom, and there’s this hint that the little girl isn’t a little girl anymore, that she’s growing up. I mean, there’s a lot of story in those six lines, and there’s not a word out of place, and that doesn’t happen by accident.

  5. Nice post, Todd…Dan Seals was one of my favourites…

    It’s amazing how many people think it’s “easy” to write…maybe that’s why it’s so hard for most of us to make a living doing it…sigh…

    Wendy

  6. Excellent post! I have read this same sentiment from so many writers. So many people think (and I used to be one of them) that writing is this magical thing that can only happen when the muse is willing. Well, it can be if you don’t want to write for a living. If you want to make writing your job then you have to treat it that way. Your arse in the chair for x hours a day doing the work.

    1. I’ve had people show me their manuscripts, and they’re just awful, so I’ll make a suggestion, something minor, and usually, they’ll balk. So many people imagine themselves as writers, but most of them don’t want to write.

  7. There is an art to song writing. I used to be a courier in downtown Nashville and you stand at 4th and Church and just watch how people react to the country music people. Its sort of funny to watch. One day they were shooting a video and people acted like Jesus Christ was coming down 4th. Of course the question would be if he could find a place to park? Nobody else can!

      1. Actually some of those folks work in the 211 building on 4th. But you are right to people who live here its no big deal.

  8. I’m incredibly far behind on reading, writing, and commenting. I just stopped by to review the terms and conditions of the stylish blogger award, but this caught my eye and I’m glad I read it. Two of my favorite topics combined.

    First, congratulations to Bobby Braddock and thanks for passing that along.

    What you write is so true of writing, as well, I’m sure, of other forms of creative expression. There’s more, but I’ve been trying to write something along these same lines for weeks now, with nothing worthwhile coming out. I’ll keep trying. . . .

    1. I think it was Curly from The Three Stooges who said, “If at first you don’t suck seed, keep on sucking ’til you do succeed!” And then he said, “N’yuck, n’yuck, n’yuck.” Or, maybe it was “Woo, woo, woo, woo, woo.” I forget. I’m sorry. What were we taking about?

  9. Great post. I love Maura’s comment, “Any writer who pays attention can find a story.” People always ask me if everything that happens to me is funny. I say yes. It’s because I intentionally see it that way. Very little happens by chance.

  10. Stories present themselves every minute of everyday all you have to do is look. I tell my wife that I want her to always be aware of her surrondings for saftey reasons. Its the same concept with finding stories.

  11. I think a lot of what folks consider “writer’s block” is what others simply call “fear.” Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of Microsoft Word, whatever.

    As Todd mentioned, writers on deadline don’t have the luxury of waiting for the muse to strike. Sometimes good enough is the best you can do. For paying jobs, I’ve only missed a deadline once or twice. But when it comes to my “real” work, the fearful perfectionist takes over, and she knows there are no consequences for missing self-imposed deadlines.

    1. Good point, Kim. It’s a lot safer not to write something than to write something and have someone tell you they don’t like it.

      And nothing clears writer’s block as well as a paycheck.

  12. Hi, Todd. I popped over from Hippie’s blog. Great post on the work and reward of being a writer, regardless of genre. As the wise sage Anonymous said, “Don’t let a single day go by without writing. Even if it’s garbage, if garbage is all you can write, write it. Garbage eventually becomes compost with a little treatment.”

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