No wonder it’s called Music City! Nashville is bursting at the seams with songwriters. Perhaps as many as 40,000. 40,020 if you did the tally at the end of April, and one of them was me! I finally made it there, having wanted to go for so long. I heard about a songwriting workshop organized by the brilliant Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter Enterprises and led by one of my favourite troubadours, Mary Gauthier. I jumped at the opportunity to immerse myself in songs and be in the company of songwriters for three whole days! That same desire took me to The Road to Stanfest in Sherbrooke Village and to SongStudio in Toronto.
The night we arrived, Mary cooked supper for all of us – jambalaya and cornbread. The next day, the hard work began, and for three days we worked on songs alone, or with a teacher, or most often in a small group. We listened intently to Mary Gauthier, along with guests Don Henry and Gretchen Peters, as they generously described their songwriting process and deconstructed some of their songs for us: ‘The Last of the Hobo Kings,’ ‘Beautiful Fool,’ ‘The Matador.’
Mary Gauthier is clearly an avid reader, referencing an eclectic range of songwriters, poets, novelists and philosophers. She is also an incredible teacher. We witnessed transformations not only of songs, but of souls. As Mary was working with an anxious student on a song, getting him or her to try changing the tempo or the pronouns or the feel of the song, the air in the room would suddenly change. It was tangible. A glance around the room showed tears, not just of emotion, but of connection. We had goosebumps or ‘chicken skin,’ as Mary put it. (As a vegetarian, I prefer to call it ‘tofu skin,’ but I digress). Mary brings out the lesson and makes what she’s doing with one song and one writer a teachable moment. She treated our songs like babies being born. She told one writer, “I think you’re having twins!” She masterfully helped shape each song, nurture it and the writer, and, by extension, all of us. Before long, some were calling Mary ‘the song whisperer. ’
On Thursday evening we headed to The Station Inn to catch a show by Jim Rooney’s Irregulars. The colourful cast of characters on stage included mandolin player, Jumbo Shrimp, and Jelly Roll Johnson on harmonica, with special guests George Hamilton IV and V. Still tanned, still awesome! Friday evening was spent at the famous Bluebird Cafe, a special thrill for me as the host of Bluebird North in Halifax. Don Schlitz, who wrote ‘The Gambler,’ put on a superlative evening of songs. I spent the evening saying ‘He wrote THAT?’ I said this silently, to myself, because the venue’s policy, as we were told before entering, is ‘shhhhhhhhhh!’
We wrapped up our time in Nashville with a supper at Monell’s soul food restaurant, where we (some of us) feasted on – you guessed it – fried chicken and marvelled at what had truly been an inspiring and transformative retreat. We learned how to write with emotional honesty and clarity. We learned that to connect with listeners you must allow yourself to be vulnerable in order to bring your deepest feelings into the light through song.
As a person who tends to crave solitude, which is necessary for songwriting, I came away feeling more connected, and better for it. We may have individual journeys, but we also have fellow travellers. CD Baby asked Mary to write a ‘Letter to a Young Songwriter’ for their series based on Rilke’s ‘Letters To A Young Poet.’ Let’s conclude with this excerpt, which captures one of the key lessons from the workshop:
“The chief danger in songwriting (and life) is taking too many precautions. There is a very real relationship between what you contribute and what you get out of this life, but satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. The point of the work is the work. Being vulnerable in your work will bring you strength.”
For more information on the Performing Songwriter Creative Workshops, see http://www.performingsongwriter.com.