Top 11 Songwriters
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I’ve been so busy since April with my non-music career. I’m the Third Mate on the S.S. Legacy, an 88-passenger cruise ship based out of Seattle. I started during a complete refit in shipyard and now we’re cruising the Columbia and Snake Rivers. I’m just finishing up my first full week off since I started and get next week off too! I’m hoping to get out to an open mic or two before I have to go back to work. I’ll try to get a note out via Facebook first.

In the meantime, I wanted to post a list of some of my favorite songwriters. These are the writers I tend to listen to during my 12-hour watches on the bridge of the S.S. Legacy.

11. Lennon & McCartney – Face it, they’re responsible for some of the best songs written in the past 100 years. New songwriters should spend at least half of their writing time studying John and Paul. Favorites: Take your pick!

10. Elton John & Bernie Taupin – Forget the hits, some of the most poetic songs ever written have lyrics by Bernie Taupin. “Sixty Years On,” “Burn Down The Mission,” and “Take Me To The Pilot” are all filled with great imagery and emotional tension. Favorites: In addition to those mentioned, “Social Disease,” “Roy Rogers,” and “Grey Seal.”

9. Chris Wallin – Chris has written more of the top country songs in the past five years than any other writer. His songs have been recorded by Toby Keith, Confederate Railroad and a slew of others. Favorites: “Speed,” and “Love Me If You Can.”

8. Steve Seskin – A masterful image maker drawing on emotions like few others can. Steve’s great with a heartfelt story. Favorites: “BFD,” “April’s Dad,” and “New Orleans.”

7. KT Tunstall – Still a young songwriter, KT has some great chops both as a writer and a performer. She’s also an amazing performer. Her version of Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” is great. Favorites: “Saving My Face,” and “Suddenly I See.”

6. Taylor Swift – I know, right? But Taylor is a masterful songwriter and one of the best melody writers around today. No doubt about it, we are NOT seeing just another teen sensation…Taylor will (hopefully) be writing songs for many years to come! Favorites: “Today Was A Fairy Tail,” “Tim McGraw,” “The Best Day,” and “Mean.”

5. Neil Young – His unplugged MTV special not only showcased his great skills as a solo performer, his songs came alive in a way only singer-songwriters can make happen. Magic. Favorites: “Old Man,” “Mr. Soul,” and “Harvest Moon.”

4. Dan Weber – In addition to being a great friend, Dan Weber is one of my favorite songwriters. I’m not alone. Since his debut CD “Ash & Bone” was released, Dan has performed on stages across the country and was a finalist in the legendary Kerrville “New Folk” competition. Dan is a master of the turn of phrase and his live shows are energy filled romps. I knew him when… Favorites: “Hank and Jesus,” “Crazy All Day,” “Dad,” and “On The Way Home.”

3. Paul Simon – Take your pick, but every Paul Simon CD I’ve got has a broken case from over use. I’ve had to download a couple on top of that since I’ve worn out the CDs. One of my all-time favorite songwriters for rhythm ideas. “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” “Late In The Evening,” and anything from “Graceland.”

2. Danny Schmidt – One of the top folk songwriters currently on tour. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Danny on two occasions and both were an amazing experience for me. Danny’s songs run towards the epic length but his lyrics, great musical touch, and amazing voice all keep me interested from the first note to the last. Favorites: “Two Timing Bank Robbers Lament,” “Happy All The Time,” and “Stained Glass.”

1. Fred Eaglesmith – I make no secret that I’m a Fredhead. Forget that Fred’s live shows are fun filled romps through prime Americana. This multi-Juno Award winner (the Canadian Grammy equivalent) has songwriting chops that are unequaled. He can take you from laughter to tears in just a few words (“He’s A Good Dog”) and wraps both sides of the mystery of a difficult relationship up in “Summerlea.” After more than thirty years in the business, Nashville is finally waking up to this great talent. Favorites: “Thinking,” “Ship,” “Spookin’ The Horses,” “Rifles and Pistols,” and “Kansas.”

There you have it. This is what I listen to in the wee hours of the mornings as I’m navigating the S.S. Legacy along the Columbia River. Enjoy!

It’s a weird time…
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Had the pleasure of meeting Kent Parkstreet

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 at Tigardville Station Wednesday night. Great sax player. We really didn’t get a chance to talk much but he let his horn talk for him during a rendition of “Rosie” and that was enough. At some point during the night I pulled out my iPhone and sent him a friend request and within a few minutes he replied with his acceptance. So, I guess we talked electronically. It’s a weird time to be alive. This morning as I recoup from the 13th of 13 Nights on the River, I am browsing through Kent’s blog and getting to know him a little. Electronically again. Weird again. But, I can strongly recommend Kent’s blog, a mostly daily account of one musician’s life. Recently he shared this quote from A.A. Milne:

“When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

Kent’s an Aussie and is headed back to Oz soon (maybe already there?) so getting to know each other will have to happen electronically until next year. Sometimes it’s a good weird. Besides, anyone who can quote Winnie-the-Pooh is alright in my book.

Being a part of the “music scene” is like this so often that it escapes me how magical it can be. We meet someone new, become FB friends, and then get to know each other. We get to know our music, our friends and family, our religion and politics. Then, after enough time passes, maybe we actually get to sit down and enjoy each other’s company. I’m getting ready to go to my first Sister’s Song Camp next week and will be getting to enjoy the company of a lot of songwriters who regularly take Things from the inside and put them out in the open for other people to look at. Pooh understands; I try to understand.

So Kent, let me know when you’re coming back to Portland. Maybe we can share the stage again or at least grab a mid-day breakfast and cup of coffee to talk about the last song we’ve tried to move from the inside to the outside. It’s a weird time, but somethings never change. Safe travels until then.

Mumbling, stumbling, wondering…
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Union Gospel Mission SpokaneHard to imagine now but there was a time when I studied to be an evangelical minister. (I know!) I used to go down to the Union Gospel Mission in Spokane and practice my sermons at the soup kitchen. A surprisingly enthusiastic audience, I thought I was getting pretty good because of all the “amens” from the congregants. In rethinking it, though, I suspect they were just hungry and hoping I’d wrap up so they could eat. While the word “amen” has a lot of meanings, the most common is “so be it.” I think there’s another definition that means, “get off the stage and let us eat” … loosely translated.

I have a new student who is a fledgling songwriter. As a young college student she spends a lot of her non-school hours thinking about love. A good start for any songwriter. I think it was Willie Nelson who said he only wrote two songs: one about falling in love, and one about falling out of love. For some reason, and without meaning to cast stones, a lot of songwriters (mostly women but some men as well) fall into a trap in their writing by writing for themselves about themselves. It’s clearly cathartic since it seems almost universal, but it doesn’t make for good songs. The boyfriend or husband who left/cheated/stayed and made life bad for me. La, la, la … la, la. But, who’s the audience for these songs? It’s certainly not the audience.

I don’t mean to trivialize because these events are clearly painful for the writer, but might I suggest: Did anything good ever happen in your life? Could you please write a song about that? Please.

Big Al Anderson wrote an amazing song (recorded by Alabama among others) that starts simply:

So here’s another morning
Soon she’ll be waking up
I watch her, and wonder
If there’s a better word for love

In four short lines I know everything I need to know about the singer’s relationship to his beloved. It’s not a sunny or rainy or Christmas morning. It’s “another” morning. This has happened before. There’s repetition and routine here in just four words. It’s just a day like every other day. What’s going to happen? What’s the premise?

“Soon she’ll be waking up.” Pretty ordinary. It’s another morning and she’ll be waking up. Who hasn’t had this experience? Most of us have it everyday. Waking up next to someone you wake up to every single day of your existence. There’s nothing special about this. Why would anyone write about it? It’s just an average ordinary experience on an average ordinary day. Boring.

But, what Big Al has done is taken an average ordinary experience and made it extraordinary: “I watch her and wonder, if there’s a better word for love.” This isn’t ordinary, it’s remarkable. Epic. How many people wake up to this every day? This is a man singing to all women everywhere. I don’t just want you for last night, I want to be the one who wakes up next to you every day for the rest of my life. This is a guy, right?!? What woman doesn’t want to hear this? What woman doesn’t, at some level, long to hear this from her man? Al has tapped into an incredible emotional need that women have to be connected to their partner. And he did it in just four lines; 21 words.

There are several “laws” of songwriting. One of the most important is to “show” not “tell.” Too many songwriters write “I love you.” Al Anderson wonders if there’s a better word for love. Which do you think is most powerful?