As America continues to find its way forward, in fits and starts, following the summer of 2020’s racial unrest, it’s perhaps timely to lead off this week’s look at songwriting expertise with Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” with its powerful rejoinder, after hearing, repeatedly, “That’s just the way it is . . . some things will never change”: “Ah, but don’t you believe them!” Other gems in the Hornsby canon include “Mandolin Rain” and “Jacob’s Ladder” (written around the time of the televangelist scandals of the 80’s), which show the breadth of Hornsby’s stylistic capabilities. If you like bluegrass, check out the latter and dig the bass solo at the 3:35 mark.
Hornsby got a degree in jazz studies, which informs his musicianship in sometimes startling ways:
I’m really glad I went to music school, because I think it really broadened my horizons. I’m just a guy from a small town in Virginia. [I w]asn’t turned on to a whole lot of interesting music there. But at school there were a lot of like-minded, kindred, searching people, looking to do [new] things. So consequently I got turned on to everything from Stockhausen to George Jones. So if I want to move my music to another level, take a left turn, I don’t have a problem doing it, at least on the knowledge level, because I’ve studied a lot of different kinds of music.
Would that more songwriters for the church could go to music school or, absent that, would expose themselves to influences outside of the close-knit, potentially inbred current soundtrack of contemporary worship music (cwm). I think it would make a difference.
If there’s one wish I had for cwm songwriters, it would be for a little more willingness not to settle for the obvious chord progression, the predictable melody, the Christianese-drenched lyric. I might be wrong, but it seems as if that happens a lot, when the same type of four-chord power ballad dominates the current lists of today’s “hottest worship songs.” I’d love to hear popular cwm songwriters say something like Hornsby says here:
The process of writing, for me, is not very cut and [dried]. One thing for sure, it’s one long process of self-editing and self-critique. I think a lot of [songwriters are not] . . . tough self-critics or self-editors.
To combat his own penchant for laziness, Hornsby takes scrupulous notes and jots down ideas whenever he feels the inspiration:
Now comes the work; the inspiration only takes me so far. I carry a notebook with me at all times. I read your Tom Petty interview, and I was interested to see that he has all his old notebooks. Well, I do, too. Somewhere. . . .
Sometimes–like I saw Petty does–I go through [them] if I’m kind of barren, kind of dry. Because there are a lot of things in there that never became songs. I go through there, and generally I don’t find much. But every now and then I [find] something that . . . emotionally gets me in some way. So I accumulate a bunch of different bits.
Practicing a lot can’t help but give you song ideas. . . . Something that feels great to you and feels like something you can really develop. When I get a germ of a melody, I press “record” on my little box and accumulate a cassette of maybe twenty thirty-second bits. It could be a chord progression; it could be a groove. . . .
The modern equivalent here, of course, would be the audio-recording app on your phone. Hornsby continues, with refreshing honesty:
So I’ll accumulate this tape, and when it’s time to write the record, I go to this little wealth of information that I’ve accumulated, all these hopefuls–hopeful ideas–and I’ll listen to the tape, and a lot of the time I’ll wonder what it was I thought was good about something. Because it’s in the moment, and sometimes something in the moment is really truly special, and sometimes it’s . . . not really that great. I’m not good at identifying at the time something that is really [fabulous]. The real thing. So it helps me to have a little distance and to go back.
Throughout this series, we’ve heard songwriters discuss the differences in writing at the piano vs. writing with a guitar. Here’s one more option for those with the means to be this creative. Responding to Paul Zollo (whose book Songwriters on Songwriting has been the starting point for this series), when asked whether he, a jazz pianist by background, writes only at an acoustic piano, Hornsby says,
Generally. But . . . I wrote some songs on accordion years ago and I liked that. Because it takes you to a different place. It’s good to get away from your typical trip.
Most of us don’t have access to an accordion and wouldn’t know how to play it if we did. But I wonder what cwm would sound like if a few songwriters, on occasion, forced themselves to write via a $50 ukulele from Guitar Center or, in the spirit of Leonard Cohen, on a cheap Casio keyboard from Wal-Mart.
Diversity is such a buzzword these days and appropriately so the vast majority of the time. How about a little more diversity–melodically, harmonically, lyrically–in contemporary worship music? Bruce Hornsby could serve as a great model for two of the three, anyway. Consult your local Psalter for the third.
The Lord be with you!