From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music


As a long-time music journalist, I have always been fascinated by two questions: What makes a song a hit? and Where do songwriters get the ideas for songs? What are those intangible factors that cause one song to resonate with listeners across cultures and continents, and another equally strong song to fade into obscurity? Throughout the course of talking with the songwriters included in this collection, I discovered there are perhaps as many possible answers to that question as there are songs and songwriters.

The late Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, spoke of the “ancient tones” that reside in our collective unconscious and are passed down from generation to generation through folk songs, lore, and — who knows? — possibly even genetically. In this collection, Bill’s son James tells us more about the inspiration behind his father’s classic bluegrass fiddle standard, “Uncle Pen.”

Jimmy Webb, writing on what is possibly the shortest, yet most covered, song in his amazing catalog, says it is still a mystery to him why “Wichita Lineman” has been so popular. “It’s a lonely, romantic, prairie gothic image,” he says of the lineman working on the plains. “I definitely tapped into it and used it with ‘Wichita Lineman,’ which is also, of course, a love story about a guy who can’t get over a woman.” Webb reveals he wasn’t even finished with the song when he sent it to the studio for Glen Campbell to hear — that he intended to add another verse and chorus later, but the song was arranged and recorded before he knew it.

Southern literature and poetry certainly have a solid place in inspiring country music lyrics as well. Alex Harvey (“Delta Dawn”) credits Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, along with French street poet Rimbaud (who influenced Bob Dylan’s writing), as having a big impact on him. Bob McDill is a fan of author Robert Penn Warren and playwright Tennessee Williams, and credits them for having influenced his songwriting. McDill alludes to “those Williams boys: Hank and Tennessee” in “Good Ole Boys Like Me.”

It’s also surprising how often William Faulkner pops up in country music lyrics. The bard of Oxford, Mississippi is alluded to in both Pam Tillis’s “Maybe It Was Memphis” (written by Michael Anderson), and Tim McGraw’s “Southern Voice” (written by Bob DiPiero and Tom Douglas.)

A number of other songwriters in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music noted the influence of film and theater on their writing. Tony Arata wrote Garth Brooks’ hit, “The Dance,” after seeing Peggy Sue Got Married. John Hartford wrote “Gentle on My Mind” after he and his wife Betty watched Dr. Zhivago together one evening in 1966. And Billy Edd Wheeler, while a graduate theater student at Yale, wrote the Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash classic, “Jackson,” after reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Go figure that one.

According to many of the writers in this collection, the songwriting Muse often manifests at the oddest times and in the oddest places. Tom T. Hall finished “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” on the back of an airplane barf bag on his way home to Nashville from the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, inspired by an old gentleman he met in the hotel bar the night before. Larry Henley finished “Wind Beneath My Wings” on a piece of scrap paper while sitting in a fishing boat. And the number of hits that have been written on bar napkins is legion.

As far as what makes a song a hit, Jimmy Webb says in addition to the obvious factors, such as the quality of the melody, the lyric, and how well the song fits a singer’s voice, everything from the level of humidity in the studio to the way the song sounds in an automobile can affect how far a record makes it up the charts.

The popularity of songwriters clubs like Nashville’s Bluebird Café, and television shows like PBS’s Austin City Limits and Legends and Lyrics attest to the fact that many music fans of all genres share my curiosity about the inspirations behind songs. So here are the stories behind 101 classic country songs, spanning five decades, by some of Nashville’s top tunesmiths. They are songs born of dreams, joy, pain, anger, love found, love lost, family, faith, courage, pity, compassion, and honor. They are, as many songwriters say, “life set to music.” Happy reading.

I would like to thank a number of people in Nashville who went above and beyond the call of duty to help put me in touch with many of the songwriters included in this collection. They include Gerilynn Pearce at Universal Music Publishing, Aaron Mercer at Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Kissy Black and Dawn Delvo at Lotos Nile Marketing, and Vanessa Davis of Splash! Public Relations, and Taylor Lindsey.

I would like to thank my wife Clare Rudder and daughter Abigail for being so supportive during this project, and my mother Jane Rudder, who has always been my biggest fan. I also want to thank Bob Jacobs and Leigh Holmes at Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing for giving me this opportunity and for their tireless efforts in helping me assemble the manuscript, photographer Alan Mayor for coming through with so many photos, and all my friends at Joy Church International in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. I am truly a blessed man.

~Randy Rudder

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