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Point of View 

We asked renowned Australian
guitarist singer/songwriter, Mike McClellan
to answer the following question...

Mike McClellan

April 2009

The Question:
 Is "three chords and the truth" enough?

Response by Mike McClellan share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Each January, for the last 4 years, I have been going to Tamworth to teach at the CMAA's Country Music College. Admission is by application and a rigorous selection process culls the many who apply down to the 21 we invite to join us. It's among the most stimulating things I do in my working life - and among the most exhausting. We cram into two short weeks a massive amount of information, demand an enormous amount of both students and teachers and conclude with a graduation concert that almost invariably exceeds all our expectations. And almost all of the songs performed on that final night have been written during the previous two weeks. Inevitably, some in the audience have protested that among the songs are several that "aren't country".

One of the things we ask each student to do before they come to college is to define what they mean by the term "country music". Invariably the definitions are as diverse as the students we accept for we have gone out of our way in the last few years to be as broadly inclusive as we can believing that a contemporary definition of "country music", at least in Australia, ought to accommodate quite a wide range of what might be defined as very different genres – folk, blues, roots, bluegrass, country, bush ballads, even some rock and pop etc. Call them what you will, they all spring from the same well. (See my earlier article on this web site.)

Asked to define country music the great Nashville writer Harlan Howard responded with what has become an oft-quoted cliché - "three chords and the truth". That definition could be applied to many of the forms I have referred to above – the blues is essentially three chords, as is most folk music. Early rock'n'roll (and for that matter much of contemporary rock'n'roll) was no more than a sanitised version of the R'n'B that thrived in the Chicago clubs of the 40s and 50s, which in turn grew out of the blues of the deep south where three chords were often two more than many blues men needed.

During a college workshop on song writing I encouraged the students to explore the songs of writers whose work would not be classified by most as country music, using the songs of Jim Webb, Paul Simon, The Beatles and Danny O'Keefe to illustrate several aspects of the craft. The point being of course that among a rich catalogue of outstanding songs each have several that might easily be called "country". Indeed Jim Webb's "Highwayman" won a Grammy in 1985 as country song of the year although few would suggest he's a "country" writer.

During the workshop one of my students threw Harlan Howard's famous line at me saying, if that's all we need why are you saying we should listen to "all this other stuff". My response was brief, to the point and probably too glib – "because writing great songs, irrespective of the genre, isn't just about how little you put in, it's about how much you leave out." I then went on to expand on my response suggesting that you don't "write" a song you re-write it and in the process you may eliminate much of what you began with, musically and lyrically, before you might consider it finished. But of course that process of elimination assumes that you have started with much more than you might finally need, which in turn suggests that you are fully aware of the range of song writing tools at your disposal and, having explored several, have retained only those that make the song you are working on come alive.

Let's back pedal a little. What is this mysterious process called "song writing"? The Nashville song writing industry, at least at the professional level, functions pretty much like New York's Tin Pan Alley that dominated the publishing business in the USA during the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. If you're a staff writer for a major US country publisher (which usually means you have been paid an advance against royalties) you clock on in the morning, work with a co-writer through the day and clock off when you're done. Pinned to a board somewhere in the office will often be a list of producers who are looking for songs appropriate for the next act they are about to take into the studio – "Hey guys, Garth Brooks is looking for some new material, want to have a crack at something for him?" Of course when you sell as many CDs as Brooks does every writer in the country is trying to pitch "his next guaranteed No 1. Smash" to his producer. Writing like this usually means analysing the style and content of each act to whom you might want to pitch a song and creating within those constraints. And often those constraints will be tight. Every top country act (or every act for that matter) wants a hit, whether it be to repeat a past success or establish a new career. And country hits are frequently very close to Harlan Howard's simple formula – mostly three chords tied to lyrics that will be someone's version of "the truth". And if you have enough "someones" you've got yourself a hit.
Harlan Howard wrote within those constraints, frequently for specific performers. The classic "I Fall To Pieces" was written for Patsy Cline who turned it into a huge hit. While the formula was elegantly simple his ability to find new ways to apply it was remarkable. He apparently wrote more than 4,000 songs (most were solo writes) during a career spanning more than 5 decades, constantly refining the art of the three or four chord melody. However, he also believed that the real strength of his songs lay with the lyrics – he is often quoted as saying that his best songs were 90% lyrics and 10% melody.

So, at this point you might well suggest that my student was right – if you want to be a commercially successful country writer you don't need much more than three chords and lyrics that make an emotional connection with the target market. However, few of us are Harlan Howard with the ability to constantly reinvent the formula, to create melodies that, for all the simplicity of the chord structures, stay with you. (I can still sing one of his 50s hits, "Heartaches By the Number", note for note. It has a melody so irrevocably tied to the lyrics that I cannot imagine one without the other – which, for me at least, is one of the most compelling arguments for the greatness of a song.)

In the hands of lesser writers "three chords and the truth" has become a formula for mediocrity. Too much country music is bland, simplistic and uninspiring. There is little melodic invention and many lyrics are often no more than a string of clichés, revisiting the same themes without any new insights and precious little emotional "truth". Slick production, clever marketing and a fiercely loyal audience have enabled the US country market to thrive but these days the commercial end of the market rarely encourages or even supports innovation - that's coming from the fringes of the country scene. (There are many who might suggest that it never has, but that's a subject for another day.)

Harlan Howard's belief, that the most important part of his songs were the lyrics, has given too many aspiring writers an easy "out". Great lyrics take time and hard work to achieve. While it's true that Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to "Autumn Leaves" in around 15 minutes, "Skylark" took him a year to complete. Most write pages of lyrics before refining them down to the few lines that will make up the song. And great lyricists are rarely completely satisfied with everything they write. Oscar Hammerstein, who like Mercer wrote lyrics to some of the classic songs of the last century, among them "All The Things You Are", was never happy with the way he'd used "divine" at the end of that song and according to his fellow writer Gene Lees (Songwriters and Poets Modern Rhyming Dictionary, Omnibus Press 1981) vowed that before his life was over he'd find a better way to finish it. He never did.

During the years when I was touring extensively I accumulated volumes of lyrics given to me by enthusiastic fans with the assurance that within these pages were the words to what were certain hits - if I could just write a melody for them. Most were abysmal, many downright hilarious and some no worse than what passes for lyrics in every second country song you hear. Inherent in these requests was the assumption that, as I had written the music for a hit or two, I would have no trouble putting a melody to their words.

The art of writing great melodies remains as mysterious a process to me today as it did when I first began back in the 60s. Listening to my first recorded efforts now I can hear the influences of my heroes in almost everything I wrote. In some instances far too obviously - much to my embarrassment. But I was learning and as I frequently tell my pupils at Tamworth the best way to learn is to analyse what great writers do, absorbing their influences until you reach the point in your own work where those influences are no longer apparent and an identifiable style of your own has emerged. But if all you ever listen to are three chord country melodies you will be bound to repeat the clichés and unless wedded to a brilliant set of lyrics it may never be heard beyond a small circle of friends.

It has long been my contention that the best writers draw from a wide variety of sources for their inspiration. They listen to and absorb everything. "Three chords and the truth" is where we all start and indeed is where all popular music started, but if you never go beyond Harlan Howard's adage you may never discover enough to unearth the real beauty in what those three simple chords can provide.

© 2009 Mike McClellan

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