A lot of time I have a difficult time explaining what one of my "tours" are all about. It is a "TOUR" through the participants, past, present and future, and while most come to Nashville, I do it in other places, primarily, the Frank Brown festival in Nov. in Perdido Key Fla. Many people contact me from all over and I try to work them in any time I can give them an "EAGLES EYE" version of the songwriting and music industry.
Last year I worked with a Fla resident, Jeff Walker, four a couple of days. Today he sent me a testimonial about his experiences and I thought I'd post it here.
For anyone who would like to know more, have a relative or someone that might be interested, read along and see if it might fit you.
Just finished my first “tour” with Marc-Alan, Barnette. There are plenty of informative, entertaining and even eloquent testimonials and participant reviews on Marc-Alan’s website, so it’s with no small risk of possibly being redundant (and what songwriter isn’t willing to take that risk?), that I offer my recounting of a great experience.
I’m an older guy who has dabbled with songwriting for years, but with no aspirations to do anything professionally. I do, however, want to get better at it for some reason that I’m still trying to work out. I guess I get a weird mental charge out of the process of coming up with a word or phrase that has just the right syllables for the available space in the piece, or from stumbling upon a graceful rhyme that’s not too cheesy just when I thought I might be stuck and have to reload on the preceding lines. Something nice seems to go off in my brain from finding words with sing-able consonants and vowels and that actually advance the idea of the song or maybe resolve the setup with a catchy hook.
I love dialing in an unexpected but uncontrived sounding metaphor, and I get fired up when I occasionally nail the words to “show, not tell” something, and doing all that without being too precious or artsy-fartsy. And it’s especially cool when, during that search for the right words, the whole story or message of the song takes an unexpected turn and becomes something way more interesting than what I thought I was writing about to begin with. So, my outreach to MAB was mostly with the hope he might could help me supercharge my effort to do things like this. I am here to tell you--he did that and a helluva lot more.
My tour with Marc-Alan was not in Nashville, but was at the Frank Brown Songwriter’s Festival which took place at various venues along the gulf coast in south Alabama and northern Florida, which was logistically easier for me to get to than Nashville. MAB said that just about everybody in the Nashville songwriting community would be there for this event anyway, so it would be nearly as good as being in Nashville. We set up a couple of days with a plan to meet and review some of my stuff, to hit a few shows and meet some folks backstage, maybe do an open mic, take a stab at writing a song together and generally get me some exposure to what the Nashville songwriting scene is all about.
On day one, I think we maybe got through a dozen songs in the morning and another five early that evening after we had hit the infamous Florabama Lounge for some afternoon open mic performances. Marc-Alan asked me thoughtful questions after each song and almost always had a suggestion for a tweak or two. He did it on the first song I played for him, which was one that I thought was pretty unassailable. (Probably unsaleable, too, come to think of it.) He actually had me turn a portion of a verse into a bridge and, when I tried it on for size, I was amazed at how it had improved the song. I would never have seen it, but it was perfect and kind of brilliant. But that had to be a one-off, I thought.
As I began to realize that he was going to have suggestions for every single song, I started preparing myself to offer at least some token resistance, and to defend the status quo of my little works. But it kept happening that I truly liked all his ideas for improvements. I couldn’t quite get my head around one of the changes he suggested on another number, so he whipped out his guitar and played & sang this song he had just heard for the first time, but with his revised chorus. It was just mind-bogglingly better! I remember having a fleeting thought that this was borderline witchcraft or something.
We kept at it. I would play and croak out the vocals on my numbers and he would scribble a little something and then show me a tweak. I shouldn’t neglect to say that he would explain why, and in a coherent and kind way, how the tweak would probably improve how the song would come across to an audience. He knows how that sensibility can easily get lost in a writer’s introspective tunnel vision and, for MAB, it’s everything.
Songs are for sharing, transmitting, broadcasting. If it isn’t heard, it doesn’t speak. He gets that part really instinctively and he’s got this almost savant-level ability to help you see it and feel it. On one number, he suggested eliminating a verse which I had to agree was kind of unnecessary and, as a result, it eliminated a little bit of drag that I had noticed when performing it. That added some energy to the song and that seemed like it would potentially trigger a release of more emotion in the delivery.
On another one, we swapped the position of a couple of verses and the story just flowed better. It was so obvious to MAB, but I just hadn’t seen it before. Kind of a eureka moment for me on that one. He pointed out some instances where I was kind of burying the hook or the title line and he came up with some ideas for relocating a particular line to a place in the song structure where it would stand out more. I gradually started feeling like my little catalogue of songs was getting much more polished and I was getting all kinds of ideas for how I might think about a lyric the next time I’m in editorial mode.
We took a break and headed to Florabama to see some performances—mostly afternoon open mic stuff by aspiring songwriters just trying things on for size. MAB encouraged me to pay attention to the technique and approach ideas to song development we had been using and to think about where some of the originals we heard there either got things right or, if not, why they didn’t work. We went backstage where the artists were hanging out and I got to meet some industry folks. I’m not sure there was a soul in the place who didn’t seem like an old friend of Marc-Alan’s.
We went back to his place, reviewed (and fixed) a couple more of my pieces and then kind of recapped the day. He gave me an assignment for the next day which was to come up with a “scenario” for the lyrics on a new song—just a kernel of an idea to get one started, plus an approach to the “groove” for it by choosing an artist, living or dead, that I like but who is way outside my own typical comfort zone. The idea was that we would collaborate on this song and come up with it on the spot. Yeah, right, I thought. Usually takes me at least a week to even get a rough draft of a whole song.
The next day, I brought my wife along for the first hour or so and we kicked things off with a wildly entertaining collage of stories and lessons by Marc that included some Nashville history, the current state of the music industry business (such as there is one) and tons of fascinating anecdotes about Nashville characters, minor and major. He told some amazing stories about how certain songs, often ones the writers felt were throwaways, found their way into the mainstream. This was so incredibly fun for both of us that we could have done it all day and it would have been worth every nickel MAB’s modest daily rate just for the sheer entertainment value. The guy can certainly spin a yarn and his “life well-lived” is loaded with material. If you ever do book time with him, do yourself a favor and make sure there’s some casual time for just letting him tell you some great and sometimes hilarious stories.
So now it was time to get down to business and see if we could write a song. I threw out this idea from an encounter I’d had the night before with an old guy at a bakery I was talking to. He’d started to complain about the cold weather, then caught himself and said, “You know, I likes every kind of weather the good Lord throws in my path. I’m grateful, grateful just to be living and breathing.” This was the week before Thanksgiving so I suggested maybe a lyric about recognizing the things we’re lucky to have might be timely. For the musical bit, I took a wild flyer and told Marc that one of my very favorite songs, but with a feel I couldn’t imagine ever attempting with my own tendency towards Americana murder ballads, little white bread pop ditties, bluegrass throwaways or semi-cornball country numbers, was one called “I Believe In You” by one of the great all-time soul singers, the late Johnnie Taylor.
I played a little of the recording for him since he wasn’t familiar with it and he said, “That’s right up my alley”. I was kind of surprised, but thought, what the hey—let’s see what he’s got. He kind of hunkered down over his notebook and told me to just keep talking—that he would use my stream of consciousness to feed into his and help generate lyric ideas. This was something I’d never considered would help somebody’s originality, but I guess it’s not so different from a solo writer listening to the voices in his head.
After 5-10 minutes, he seemed to be onto some thing and he shushed me so he could dig in. I went for a walk for about 10 minutes and when I came back he said, “how about this?” He picked up his lefty Cole Clark and started banging out this funky groove. He sang a verse and a chorus of a song he called “Every Single Breath I Take”. It was incredible. Did this guy really just do this in 20 minutes? Is this how they did it back in the Brill Building days? Then he challenged me to come up with the next verse. After about an hour, I managed to grind something halfway coherent out. We both realized it had a couple of thorny problems—I had a bit too much of a Hallmark greeting card line in there at one point where I was trying to catch a rhyme target.
I remembered him telling me how to open up my thinking about the structure when I felt stuck or trapped, so I flipped some lines around and replaced the Hallmark line with something less cheesy. Lo and behold, there was a pretty decent song there. Mark captured all the changes on paper and then played and sang it straight through without a hitch. It was pretty damn good and I’m sure I was a bit slack jawed. Marc said, “You’ve just been MABBED”. indeed I was.
That evening, I had the further pleasure of seeing MAB perform at a club in Pensacola with his sometime onstage partner, singer-songwriter Jimbeau Hinson. They absolutely knocked it out of the park with great songs and passionate, soulful deliveries and we clapped till our hands hurt.
Marc-Alan Barnette is a national treasure. I highly recommend to any aspiring or even veteran songwriter that treat yourself to a taste of his generous teachings and experience what they can do to your evolution as an artist. The worst that can happen is that you’ll have a spectacularly entertaining time in the process.