An Open Letter To Young Songwriters

I write with a number of young songwriters and I can’t count the times that I have referenced an older song (80’s or 90’s) and discovered that they had never heard the song and in many cases, had never heard of the artist either. This isn’t shocking to me – I once was that guy myself. But it does make me want to pass on something that my mentor, Kim Williams, told me years ago.

I had just gotten my first writing deal and had written a song that I thought turned out amazing. It was called “Waltz Across Texas”. I proudly presented it to Kim and he gave it a listen. He had a huge smile on his face as the song ended and I thought that I had really impressed him. Turns out, I had made an impression, but not the one I wanted to make.

Kim said “You know that is iconic song for Ernest Tubb, don’t you?” I didn’t know that. I didn’t know one song by Ernest Tubb. I didn’t really like the super twangy old country. I didn’t understand why it even mattered. Kim changed all of that.

He very kindly explained to me that you can’t copyright a title and that I could, if I wanted, proceed with trying to pitch my song. But, he also explained that pitching it would reveal my ignorance of country music to nearly everyone I pitched it to and that most artists wouldn’t cut my song out of respect for the big hits of the past.

He went on to say “You are trying to be a torch-bearer for country music. The man carrying the torch needs to know the people who brought the torch to him.” That statement really had an impact on me. I asked Kim for a list of artists and songs that I should check out. And I started researching the great songs from the past. I listened to all of the “Songs of The Year” for about 30 years ago until the present. I explored artists that I had never heard before. I became a student of the genre that I was trying to write.

And my writing changed. I discovered that I had been simply chasing what was on the radio. I was a copier, not an innovator. But, by learning what brought country music where it is today, I also learned to anticipate where it might go in the future and to write songs that actually change and shape the music on the radio.

When my song “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” came out on the radio, the great R&B country grooves from the past had long been out of style and forgotten. From my research, I knew that those feels really resonated with people in the past and I believed they could do that again. So, I wrote a song with Jason Matthews that had an older, R&B feel. Guess what? It became a huge hit and created a new resurgence of that kind of feel in country. We would get pitch sheets saying “Looking for something like “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right”. I never would have written that song if I had not started to study music from the past.

Whatever genre you are writing, you owe it to yourself to become a student of the past. The more you know about what worked 20 or 30 years ago (or more), the most likely you are to become one of the torch bearers that changes and shapes music instead of just copying what is on the radio today.

If you want to carry that torch, look forward, but never forget to look back.

Write on!  Marty

Marty Dodson
Pro Songwriter/Traveler/Music Fan

One thought on “An Open Letter To Young Songwriters

  1. Thanks for this great story and commentary Marty. Some years ago, I had an advanced writer explain a simular thought to me. He said “You can’t know where it is you are going, if you have forgotten where you came from”. Thanks for the great work y’all do at Songtown….!

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