I’m not a song writer, but an article in the November issue of Smithsonian magazine titled, “The Long Way Home” about Rosanne Cash caught my eye. Rosanne’s father is Johnny Cash and her step-mom is June Carter. I remember my father’s stories about his family going to the general store on Saturday nights in southern Virginia to hear the Carter Family sing. It’s funny how connected we can feel even generations apart.
I’ve never heard her music, but I was intrigued at how closely her writing process parallels that of novel writing and the stages we move through for art. She always wanted to write story songs – narratives and ballads like ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ - but didn’t feel it was her strength. Most of her lyrics came from personal introspection which she narrated from her own perspective. She realized that the questions we ask ourselves change with our time of life. So she took a chance, tapped deeper wells and let someone else tell the story.
One of Rosanne’s new songs was a deeply personal story about her father’s house on the lake in Tennessee. It was quite different from her other songs, and after singing it live, a man came up to her and confirmed that we all have “that house on the lake.” She realized that “The more specific you are about places and characters, the more universal the song becomes.”
I feel this is true because specifics make the story come truly alive for us. Maybe we fill in our own blanks, but we don't connect with vagueness. It just doesn't cut it. Specifics allow us to connect clearly, then take a step back. When we view life through someone else’s lens we have the freedom to process it fearlessly. Like playing dress-up, we can invest ourselves as far as we want to go, and set the mask aside when we are done. But we are always changed by the experience.
I encourage you to check out the article here to see the process Rosanne and her co-writers went through from research to finish on one of her narrative songs. The process for novel writing is much the same, if on a broader scale, but it is so much more challenging to convey one’s story in 54 lines of lyrics.
The last time my life experience connected