COUNTRY WEEKLY ARTICLE
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THE "D" WORD.....DISCIPLINE
(from fence painting to songwriting)
reprinted from "Country Weekly"
by Jack Sundrud
In the movie, Karate Kid II, Ralph Macchio’s character ( let’s call him "the kid" ) is assigned the tedious task of painting his teacher’s sprawling old wooden fence using only an awkward inside half-circle brush stroke. Days go by. The sun blazes cruelly. Somewhere near the end of the fence the kid breaks down. His poor little arms are aching and he’s loopy from paint fumes. In frustration he turns on his mentor with a vicious whine. "I’m a fighter, not a laborer!" he rails. "Why are you making me do this?" Without answering, the old man throws a round-house punch at the kid’s sternum. The kid responds in slo-mo with his once weak arm coming up in a gentle inside arc that easily blocks the would-be fatal blow. A moment of insight dawns on the kid’s meagre brain. Suddenly he understands that all those hours of trudgery were but another step in his mastery of martial arts. And so, the kid goes on to trounce the bad karate dude and make yet another sequel, all because he learned the value of discipline.
And so it is with songwriting. When those beautiful, simple, classic song ideas strike us like lightning bolts out of the blue, we’ll be ready for them. We’ll know just how to mold and shape them into that heart-wrenching masterpiece we always knew we could write. Why? Because we’ve been paving the way for this very moment. We’ve been chewing pencils to the nub, staring at walls and blank pages, writing good songs, mediocre songs and songs we will eventually deny having anything to do with. We’ve been listening to every conversation for that magical turn of phrase, that cleverly hidden hook. We’ve been practicing.... discipline.
When I first started writing songs as a young teen, I’d write only when it was fun. And since I had little idea how to actually write a song, it didn’t stay fun for very long at a time. My first song began, "What in the world’s come over you? You’ve been so uppity lately...". I won’t embarrass myself further. You get the picture. But I was determined to learn.
I started paying more attention to the mechanics of songs. Why did this particular passage give me goose bumps? Why did that song bore me? I studied my favorite records for clues. I wanted to call up those same emotions in my own songs. I sought out other writers and collaborated. I took some music courses and read poetry. Slowly, my songs crept from terrible to pretty bad and eventually became mediocre. I was on my way!
The next big step was moving to Nashville where my fragile psyche received a terrible shock. Here I saw the masters at work. I heard beautiful, moving songs that seemed to spring whole from the pipes of heaven. I was inspired, yes, but also very intimidated. I reviewed the songs I’d brought to town with me. I wanted to cry. I thought, " What am I doing here anyway? I don’t have a chance!" I hid in my apartment and licked my wounds for a number of weeks. I contemplated just going back home.
But that period of self-pity was also a period of discovery for me. It hurt to face the fact that my songs weren’t very good, yet I also found that, though a little bruised, my desire to write was still alive.
Yes, I did indeed want to be a songwriter. I decided to see what I could do to improve myself. I haunted the local clubs on songwriter showcase nights-watching, listening and occasionally singing a tune of my own. I went to music biz functions and writers’ workshops. I met some established writers and picked their brains. I wanted to know how they did what they did. What time did they get up? Go to sleep? Did they write day and night or only when the muse drifted by? Co-write or alone? Pen or pencil? Did they write with guitar? Piano? Kettle drum? I thought someone would let slip the secret, the key to the whole thing, and I could whisk this morsel of wisdom home to churn out hit after flawless hit.
But I didn’t get that secret from anyone. In fact, the only consistent thing I heard from respected writers in Music City was to just keep writing. "The angels may whisper magnificent ideas in your ear," they said, "or you may spend hours scratching out the most boring piece of drek you’ve ever heard, but just keep writing. Show your work to people you trust. Try to be objective about the criticism you receive. Do some co-writing. Bouncing ideas off of others will help you to discover and develop your own strengths and will show you there are no set rules. Whatever works for you is what’s right." I was told that practice and discipline will help you find your own rhythms- when you’re at your best and when it’s time to close up the notebook and call it a day.
So I gave a quarter turn to the end of the ol’ mechanical pencil and dug in. I wrote every day. I made some home demos and toted my slim satchel of songs around to a few publishers. I got shot down. I whined a lot. But each time I got up a little quicker.
I was making a living during this time as a road musician. While playing in Michael Johnson’s band I came into contact with producer Brent Maher. Brent was looking for a new act to produce and he liked the sound of Michael’s band. This was the inception of Great Plains. Somewhere during the early stages of this project, Brent heard some of my songs. He liked them and gave me a whole lot of encouragement. I jumped at the opportunity to write for a band like this one. There was real power and heart in the sound. By the time we’d finished our album, I had written or co-written all 10 songs.
The single "Faster Gun" from Great Plains’ self titled debut album landed in the top 30 on the national charts. My work with Brent also led to a publishing contract and to other artists recording my material.
I continue to write nearly every day. Looking back, it’s very rewarding to see the progress I’ve made as a writer. I’m not an authority on how to build the perfect song, but I’m grateful for what I’ve learned and what I continue to learn here in Nashville. Oh, I’ve gotten pretty good at hitting the waste basket with crumpled up paper and I have pulled out a lot of hair (I’ve got the bald spot to prove it). But when a freshly written lyric truly captures what you feel about life or about love, when a melody touches your emotions deep down, when you know it’s right....there’s nothing else like it.
So if you want to write songs, if you need to write songs, just keep on writing. Keep painting that fence. It’s a noble and worthy discipline. And one day, when a great idea comes flying at you, your hand will rise up in that familiar arc, grab your pencil, and out will flow the culmination of all your efforts.