Songwriter U: John Rich shares his hit songwriting process
John Rich didn’t realize that a career as a songwriter and artist was even a possibility when he grew up in Amarillo, Texas. It was when his family moved to Tennessee, near Nashville, and he wrote a song for a high school student, successfully winning his heart, that the die was cast.
Rich built one of those hyphenated careers that most artists envy. Take for example his brand Redneck Riviera, which he copyrighted in 2008 and now includes a Nashville honky-tonk, whiskey, barbecue sauce and boots, while the philanthropic arm contributes powerfully to Folds. Of Honor, a charity that gives grants to college kids who have lost a parent in battle. âWhat do millions of people all feel passionately about and can support? Rich said of his idea for the brand. âWork hard, play hard, respect your country, take care of your military, pursue the American dream of life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. This is what the brand stands for and it is doing very well.
Despite all of his success on multiple levels, Rich believes his songwriting is at the heart of it. In a recent interview with American Songwriter, he spoke about the origin of some of his co-written hits, his touching new single, “Earth to God,” and his advice to young writers looking to break through. Here are some of the highlights.
On the power of songwriting:
âI think I’m the only artist in the history of country music to have composed hit songs in a group, solo and duet. It means that I had failures at all levels, because I had to continually reinvent myself, repackage myself. I told a grade three class about it a few months ago, because I was invited to my child’s school to talk about creative writing. I held up a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and said, âThese are two of the most powerful things in the world: a pencil and a paper. The Bible began with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Our Constitution was a blank sheet of paper before someone took a pencil from it.
âYou can put whatever you want on this page. It may not mean anything to anyone, or it may change the world. You have no idea, but it’s awesome power. And their eyes twinkled. You apply that to your career, which I did. Every time my singing, my career as an artist derailed, hit a wall, didn’t go right, I would come out of those holes with a pencil and a piece of paper.
As a songwriting sniper:
“Someone give you a target and they say, hey, we need that kind of song for this artist for this date. You’re going to sniper-write this song. You customize it for that specific purpose, and a lot of these songs. that I wrote did. Faith Hill is a perfect example of that, where she came to see me one day on the road while we were filming with Tim McGraw in 2004 and she said, “I wish that you were writing a song for me. âI said, ‘I would love to write a song for you. What do you want to sing?’ And she said, ‘Write a song that would only make sense if I sang it. It wouldn’t even suit anyone else. Kind of like’ Redneck Woman ‘for Gretchen (Wilson), but I’m not a redneck woman Only Gretchen can sing that I want one like that.
âSo we’re on tour and I’m watching her behind the stage with flip flops and shorts and a cap with her kids. And then she walks out on stage in an evening gown and diamond earrings, singing “It’s Your Love” in front of 30,000 people, then leaves the stage and 30 minutes later she’s back in. his flip flops. And I realized that was what her fans didn’t know about her. She really is just a “Mississippi Girl”. So I started this song with a line that only made sense if Faith sang it, which is “It’s far from Star, Mississippi”. I knew when I finished writing that if she didn’t like it, I’d better throw it in the trash, because no one else was going to sing that song.
âI’ve been given a lot of interesting challenges like this over the years, and I really like it. I think that plays a role in being a producer, being able to understand who you are working with. Don’t take away from what they do, try to add to it or polish it and amplify what is truly unique about an artist. You can do it through songwriting, production, mentoring. You can do this in a number of ways. I had it done for me and I was able to do it for others.
By understanding the artist you are writing for:
âGet to know an artist and understand what is important to him and what interests him, what turns him on, what turns him off, what he tries to convey in his music, by understanding it. as much as possible before you start creating for them or with them is essential. It was Gretchen Wilson’s key. Gretchen sat down with me one of the first times we wrote and said, âI’m not a songwriter. I said, ‘Why, you have nothing to say?’ She said, ‘I have a lot to say. I just don’t do
know how to say it. She shows my television which is on CMT and there is a video of Shania Twain and says, pointing to Shania, âI could never do that. I’ll never be so pretty, I’ll never be so smooth, I’ll never be so pop. If that’s what it takes, I’ll never make it. I’m just a redneck woman.
“I said, ‘Gretchen, don’t you really think much of Loretta Lynn?’ She said, “Of course she’s probably the greatest who’s ever done that.” I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because she didn’t care. She just said what she was thinking. I said, ‘That’s what you have to do. Instead of trying to sand your rough edges, you should put a magnifying glass on your rough edges. Because tens of millions of people will identify with it and say, âHe’s our hero. I am her. It’s my daughter.’ If you have the guts to say it, I think you can be a big deal. She said, ‘Okay, let’s say it.’ And about 45 minutes later, we had written âRedneck Womanâ.
âThere are a lot of different ways to approach songwriting depending on the job at hand. When I write with and for another artist, I go into their minds and their world in a voyeuristic way what they’re trying to do, and I try to add elements to it. If I write for myself, then it comes straight out of your chest. I think any professional writer will tell you that they use different palettes depending on the job at hand.
On writing rhythms as well as words and music:
âPeople ask me how the songs come to mind. They ask if it’s the lyrics first or the melodies first. Usually it will be words first for me. But what I find are words that land on a beat. If a certain line comes to mind, it might not be a shattering line. But it comes to my mind in such a way, with a certain meter typed in those words, where you can sing it to a beat and the beat is already there. So you build the song around that initial seed of that song idea. ‘Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy’ (by Big & Rich) was like that. Dumbest song ever, isn’t it? But everyone loves it because you feel like you can just relax when you hear it.
On young writers preparing for work:
âMy biggest advice to an aspiring writer, if you get the chance to sit in a room with a senior songwriter, you better come up with pages and pages and pages of well-developed ideas. , of choruses that you have already written. I’m talking about full notebooks. Because nothing is more disrespectful to a great songwriter than a brand new guy or a brand new girl with nothing, watching the great writer say, âWrite something great for me. It’s like, “no, what ideas have you brought to the table, and I’m going to help you develop those ideas.” This is how it should work.
âFrom experience I’ve sat down with a lot of writers and up and coming artist / writers who walked into the room and said the same to me, and buddy, that twists you right off the bat. Because it’s disrespectful. I’ve spent my whole life getting to the point where your manager or your record company wants to send you to a room with someone like me to do a specific job. You have to know what you want to talk about and develop some things. ”
On his new single “Earth To God”, inspired by the chaos of the news:
âThe thought I had was ‘What do we still have in common?’ I thought, ironically, that the thing we have in common is that neither of us can control what is going on right now. Whether we disagree or not, none of us can control what we see happening outside our own windows. And we also have in common that we are all created by God and that He is right there. If you reach out to him and talk to him, he will respond to you. I had this picture of an old man in the WWII Army sitting behind a CB radio, pushing the button and saying, âEarth to God, come to God. And what does Earth want to hear God say? ‘It’s God. Come back, Earth. This is what we want to hear.
âThis thought was so striking and so simple for me. I thought, well, I’m just going to write down what I had in mind. It was about 25 minutes and here is this extremely simple saying that I didn’t even feel like I wrote it down. It was a very rare feeling as a songwriter. I don’t think I ever had that feeling from the over 2,000 songs I’ve written – that it was programmed into my mind and pulled out by the pencil. It’s not a hit song or anything like that. It wasn’t written to be a hit song. It was written to get this message across.
On being a free agent in the world of country music:
“When you don’t have a recording contract and you don’t have a publisher, and you can sit down and write something like ‘Earth To God’ and publish it and millions of people are on it. affected is a huge feeling for an artist to have – you are not beholden to the schedule, the budget, the schedule, someone’s opinion, none of that. Honestly, as an artist i never felt like i had more freedom than now, because no one can tell me i can’t do something. it’s an amazing feeling. most people would say, “He’s glad he didn’t have a record deal? You bet I’m glad I didn’t have a record deal. It’s like Johnny Cash would say, it’s like a bird out. of a prison. âThat’s what it feels like.
On her favorite part of songwriting:
âThe most fun for me is sitting in the room with other extremely creative people, serving a cocktail and hanging out for seven or eight hours – the camaraderie, the excitement of creating something new, the energy that is transmitted and between these different personalities. It’s almost like a transfer of energy between the writers. It’s a very healthy thing for a creator to be around other creative people, whether you’re writing the song of the year or not. Most of the time, it’s not what you write. Most of the time you write a song that no one will ever hear. But it’s a little fun too. You don’t know where this thing might end, because you’ve seen a few end in some pretty big places. It is an exciting process.