There Are Songs in That Guitar: A Songwriter’s Holiday Reflection

songwriter's holiday reflections

This is my Songwriter’s Holiday Reflection

This holiday season, I find myself looking back and remembering people that have been an important part of my life. The winter holidays are a wonderful time for cultivating gratitude. Looking back, there have been people who have been there for me since day one, and there have been those who were only in my life for brief moments, but still altered it forever. I give thanks for all of these people along the way. Some know this, and some I’ll never have the chance to tell them.

I want to remember an old friend of mine, Henry Gross.

Henry and I were around each other for only a couple years. I met him through his wife, who was the real estate agent when I bought my first home. Henry is a singer/songwriter, and among his list of accomplishments, is writing and singing the song called “Shannon” (a song I used to sing along to on the radio as a kid). The first time I met Henry, I was drawn to his guitar collection. He had so many cool old guitars, and I fell in love with some of his Epiphone guitars from the 1960’s. So, Every time I visited him, I would ask to play them. But beyond that, Henry was gracious enough to teach me about these magical pieces of wood and steel.

One day, I got a call from Henry saying he’s found me a 1967 Epi Cortez.

It was owned by Bob Dylan sideman Bucky Baxter, who was reluctant to let it go, but Henry convinced him I needed this guitar. I still don’t know why Henry was driven to do this. As I was handing over $750 to Bucky Baxter, I felt like the luckiest guitar-playing songwriter on the planet. Although, with a young baby and wife to support, this was a lot of money to me. I’m not sure why I even did this!! Bucky handed me the guitar and I plucked a few notes on it, smiling big. Then Henry said, “There are songs in that guitar.”

I didn’t think much about his words at the time. I was a struggling songwriter trying to write my first big song, and Henry Gross suggested I needed this guitar.

Somehow he knew this guitar was right for me, and that guitar spoke to me on an emotional level. Within nine months, I had written my first hit song with this guitar: a song called “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio. Then, “She Thinks She Needs Me” by Andy Griggs, and “Fall” by Clay Walker. It seemed as if picking up this guitar was magical. Like it was connected to my heart. There really were songs in that guitar. I couldn’t see it, but Henry Gross saw it.

So, this holiday season, I want to offer a Songwriter’s Holiday Reflection and give thanks for people like Henry who teach us and give freely.

Hopefully, I’ll meet up with Henry again and get to personally offer him my thanks—at the very least, maybe this blog will get passed along to him. He was right. That guitar has songs in it! I’ve included a few songs you can listen to below. All were written on my 1967 Epi Cortez guitar!

Write On! Live On! ~Clay



Clay Mills is a co-founder of and a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter. He has 2 Grammy nominations and is the co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.  New book, Mastering Melody Writing, coming in 2021!


Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It – Darius Rucker


One Day You Will- Lady Antebellum


Beautiful Mess- Diamond Rio

55 thoughts on “There Are Songs in That Guitar: A Songwriter’s Holiday Reflection

  1. Clay I read your story and it inspired me to finally write you and ask some questions. 2020 is behind us now so i’m looking for a much better year this year. I’ve wrote a song but don’t play an instrument and last year I went to a piano teacher and we went through the song and she put down the notes on the orginal song sheets as I sang it for her. But this is as far as I got. She said that she basically teachers piano and this wasn’t her thing.. I thanked her and went on my way. I do have a guitar but don’t know how to play it. Do people always need to play something to write a song??? I would like to learn the guitar but find it hard finding someone in Barrie with this Covid-19. I also have other 1/2 writin songs as well. Thanks Doug Flegel Barrie ONT,

    1. Doug, Plenty of writers don’t play instruments. I know Hall of fame writers that don’t. A community like SongTown can help you learn to write your best and help you find co-writers who play.

      Cheers, Clay

  2. I’m grateful to you for sharing this important story. I have been pulled in many directions lately, but for the relatively small amount of time I have been able to devote to Song Town activities, I have gotten a lot. Looking forward to reading your new book Mastering Melody Writing. Guitars are important to me as well. I only own a very few, I am aware of the relationship we tend to build with our instruments.
    I’m pretty sure a speak for a great number of people when I say, “We appreciate you !”……B

  3. Clay, I appreciate so much your brief stories that provide so much encouragement and knowledge. Thank you for being one of those who chooses to share. Merry Christmas sir.

  4. Your posts are always so informative. I learn much that helps me as a songwriter. But I enjoyed this heart story as well.

    Thanks for sharing,

  5. I really enjoyed this such a touching tribute. I love your song “She Thinks She Needs Me”. Andy Griggs voice is so nice! Love the others too of course. Thanks for sharing this special story. I’m sure that magic guitar has a lot more beautiful songs in it because of your talented writing skills. 👍🥰 I love this verse🎶 Sometimes she cries on my shoulder
    When she’s lyin’ next to me
    She don’t know that when I hold her
    She’s really holding me, holding me. 💗

  6. I sent Henry a link to this page. This is what he said:

    Go ahead… make my Christmas! Thanks for sending.

    I haven’t seen Clay in a while but have had the privilege of hearing him play a string of his great songs on that very guitar at a Bluebird songwriter’s night.

    I’ve always loved guitars but believed that certain ones match up with certain playing styles and/ or personalities.

    When you write a song you can’t be sure where the inspiration comes from, it’s a spiritual connection with all of our experiences, past present and future. We go by the gut and fly by the seat of our pants.

    The guitar didn’t write those songs- Clay did.

    What the guitar did was make such a comfortable fit in his hand and mind’s eye that he couldn’t put it down. It made it easier for him to play that extra minute longer so he was in the zone to receive the message.

    A well matched guitar is a bridge to the undeniable spirituality that is inspiration. The honesty and earthy naturalness of the right guitar connects you to it’s history and your own. Put the two together naturally and you’ve got a vibration that can be heard by listeners in their souls.

    I don’t have as many guitars as I used to but I try to hold on to a handful that draw me to them over and over. In short the right guitar is like the right anything of consequence in your life.

    The older I get the more I understand the saying “If it’s not everything it’s nothing!”

    Wishing you and yours the healthiest and happiest of New Years! Henry

  7. Clay,

    Thanks for sharing those memories. After a summer that I borrowed my cousin’s Hagstrom I electric, my first guitar was a $28 Silvertone electric, circa 1970. I could barely play the thing but I was having a lot of fun trying and playing out with it. I eventually moved up to some better guitars and bands. I still can’t play that well but am now producing music and moving in the direction of songwriting so the dream continues. It’s a lifelong learning curve and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

  8. Thank you Clay for sharing this wonderful story. You have a good friend in Harry!

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – Shannon

  9. I saw Henry countless times back in the day, usually headlining small clubs like My Father’s Place in NY. Great songs, great performer – amazing guitars! He had a ’52 or ’53 Gold Top that was a tone monster. To me, it was the very foundation to many of his songs.

    Guitars do have songs in them, but most important – when you get the right guitar in your hands, it will speak to you. It becomes an extension of your hands. I move in and out of guitars like some folks change socks. You’ll know you have the right one (or ones!) when you hold it. When they stop talking, you know it’s time to move it on to someone else looking to strike up a conversation.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

  10. When I saw the title of this blog and saw the picture, it reminds me when I look across the room at my guitar in the corner, I know it’s staring at me like daring me to pick it up, like a bottle of whiskey you know you shouldn’t pick up because once you start you won’t be able to put it back down.

    Sometimes it will “guilt” me into picking it up like a whining puppy. (sigh)

    I also remember my first guitar. It was under the tree and I thought, what the heck comes in that shape of a box???? LOL

  11. Very cool story brotha! I have a buddy that turned me on to the Epi Cortez too! You might know him… 😏😎
    Wherever he is, Henry would be proud that you passed on the tradition of loving those beautiful gee-tars.

    Merry Christmas to you, and your lovely wife!


  12. Nice story, Clay! What year did you buy that guitar? I ask because that price is way lower than I was preparing for when reading the story. Good buy!

    1. It’s always been a really great vintage guitar at a much cheaper price than a vintage Gibson, even though it was built in the Kalamazoo Factory. I bought it about 15 years ago I believe. 🙂


  13. I love your story, Clay, and feel the same way. Many years ago, guitars began to “call out to me”. I went to a guitar shop in the 1980s looking for a parlor and left with a dreadnaught. I’ve walked into stores like Gruhn with no intention of buying and left with brands I have never heard of because they spoke to me from where they were hanging on a wall. And I believe with all my heart that they are loaded with songs begging to be extracted and freed to see the light of day. There’s some kind of romantic attachment that certain guitars lead us to, and you can hear this in Neil Young’s song “This Old Guitar”.
    I also love the comment in this post about Arlo Guthrie’s view on the muse flowing just beyond our height, and that the inspiration and songs are there for the taking if you stretch a bit and are open to receiving them.
    Wonderful reflections, Clay, and much gratitude for all of us to have the gift of passion and the ability to do what we love.

  14. What a wonderful account of an incredible exchange! Thanks so much for sharing.

    A custom guitar builder friend, Charles Whitfill tries to match necks with bodies that vibrate at the same or complimentary frequencies. You can feel that to be the case first strum. I think there are woods, both age and type that vibrate in tight harmony with the vibes of our bodies and souls. Sounds to me like Henry is a bit of a wood whisperer and knew from how you reacted and interacted with his guitars that the guitar Bucky had would be a great fit with your vibe. Sounds like that indeed is the case. We can all walk into even a shop like Gruhn and strum away on hundreds of guitars, but we all know that only a few will have a very good feel and response. Congrats on finding one of those select few special fits.

  15. I love stories behind songs! The guitar story reminds me of our brief trip to Nashville last Christmas. We were loading up my boyfriend’s big SUV, and I asked him about putting in his fiddle. He didn’t think it was a good idea, so only brought his guitar — and, of course, the first place we went to and he mentioned the violin, the guy’s face lit up, and he said, “Great! Go get it!” (I didn’t have to say anything.) BUT, out of that came my song “Everybody Plays the Guitar.” Lesson learned, and fun song.

  16. Sure needed to hear this. Sometimes I forget how I felt when I bought my first guitar at 13 with my babysitting money (Sears Silvertone). When I finally got it, it was hung around my neck for months until I could play & sing “Tom Dooley” without stopping between changing chords. Sometimes playing out 4-5 times a week gives me my “guitar fix” but I really want that early passion back. Merry Christmas & thanks for the gift.

  17. A great reminder that in addition to talent, perseverance and discipline, every successful songwriter needs a CHAMPION. Wishing a merry Christmas and champions for us all😉❤🎶

  18. Great post, Clay! That’s a beautiful way to look at a guitar or any instrument, that it holds songs that it needs you to play. Your instrument is your first co-writer.

    It’s also a good excuse for me to convince my spouse: “I need to buy another guitar, so I can write different songs.” 🙂

  19. Love this and these types of events that can do so much to shape our future. Unless you look back, you can so easily take for granted who you are and how and why you do what you do. My Christmas present this year is a guitar I’ve been looking at for years now 🙂 And in my case it was “There are performances in that guitar”. But there are no performances without the songs, so I welcome those too! 😉 Thank you for your blog and Merry Christmas!

  20. Nice post Clay… I’ve heard that expression before about there being songs in a guitar… thank you for reminding me about it and about all the other people to be thankful for too… have a great holiday season and Happy New Year!

  21. Good post, great story! Thanks for sharing! I got a used Maton at Artisan in Franklin a while back. After noticing a faint phone # and name on the case, I was curious who the previous owner was. That led to a really neat Facebook post from the previous owner saying statements about how much she loved the guitar and how much she hated to have to get rid of it, and that all the people that had complimented her for it could go get it and she’d be happier if it went to a good new owner, etc. We’ve since connected on Facebook and she told me it’s name is Munchkin, and while no confirmed yet hits have come out of it, I can relate to the great mojo of an instrument.

  22. Thanks for sharing this story. The name Henry Gross didn’t strike me until you mentioned the song. What a thoughtful guy and being a writer, he got it.

  23. That is truly inspiring Clay! I sure hope to get more involved in ST next year! From one Alabama boy to another Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  24. This is one of my all time favorite stories of yours Clay. The heart-felt emotions that these songs evoke are pure magic…Just like you and that Cortez. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  25. When I got my Martin I had the same experience. It was as if my songs finally found a conduit. I’ve been writing with thst guitar for 42 years. I’ll probably never get a cut but I can’t stop writing. There are too many songs still in there.

  26. Beautiful story! Your words bring hope that we all have that someone out there that can see just what we need to bring us to where we should be. Thanks!

  27. Thanks for sharing your story Clay.

    It’s the biggest gift for a person to see your talent and drive within, even when you can’t, and look out for you to guide you forward. Ya. Your story touched me.

    And what got me even more was listening to, “One Day You Will.” That one hit home for me today. This songwriting journey will continue to be one that’s a mixed pallet of emotions; moment to moment. The important part for me right now is to be patient with myself. I’m on a brand new journey and while I may seem unclear, overwhelmed and uncertain at times, I know things will start to unfold if I allow it to, on it’s own time, not mine. Yup… I totally felt that song in my bones this morning.

    Thank you and Happy Holidays ?

  28. I have a philosophy that, as long as you’ll reach for your ‘instruments’, guitar, pen and paper, brain and body, there’s another song to be written. Someone is going to write another great song. We’re all going to hear it and agree, ‘That song can stand beside the best I ever heard.’ So why can’t that next great song be waiting in your guitar, your brain?

    Arlo Guthrie posits the concept of the Cosmic Flow. He gestures that it passes by just a little above your head, and you can stick your head up in it and there are songs sort of ‘swimming’ by like fishes, and you can catch them! If you don’t, they swim on and some other songwriter catches them.

    Paul McCartney said he thinks he wrote all his great songs years ago and there won’t be any more ‘Yesterday’s’ or ‘Blackbirds’ coming to him. I think…I know…he’s mistaken. As long as he reaches for his instruments there will be more to come. Reach for you instruments Paul!

    Merry Christmas!

    1. Dear Clay:
      These songs that you posted and the story you wrote are truth. They speak to my heart in a universal way.
      They make me cry,tears of joy and grititude, and remember what it means to be alive.
      Gary, I so agree with you as well.
      Guitars are made of wood.
      The wood was once growing and alive.
      It still moves and breathes, changes with whatever is going on around it.
      I believe guitars and instruments have spirits same as all living creatures.
      The more sensitive we are to them, the more they thrive.
      Its our job to love them and help them express themselves because that’s what we were all made for.
      Much love, Merry Christmas..Now I’m going to wipe the tears and write a song. XO
      Thank you.
      Tedi May
      Tedi May

  29. One more tomorrow, evergreen & memory lane! I was groovin’ on Henry long before Shannon put him on the charts! What a great influence, awesome story bro-merry Christmas! 🙂

  30. Thanks for sending a holiday message that isn’t just about deals or stocking stuffers. I feel like my inbox is full of nothing but commercial offers this week. Keep on strummin’ Clay.

  31. Wow – what an amazing journey you and this Epi cortez had – a true partnership all because of a wonderful friend – You’re an amazing person Clay – thank you for sharing “There are Songs” in this guitar – Merry Christmas – Happy New Year ?

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