On Songwriting

Writing Bluegrass Gospel

June 2024

When I first discovered Bluegrass back in the mid 1980’s I was immediately drawn to gospel songs on the recordings I’d listen to. Doyle Lawson’s “Rock My Soul”, the Bluegrass Cardinals “Sunday Morning Singing” albums were two of my favorites, and became very influential. I noticed that some of my favorite Gospel songs were written by Randall Hylton who penned “Gonna Be Movin’” and “I Hope My Lord Will Let Me In”. I decided right there and then I wanted to write songs like that.

I was attracted to the sound and musical styling, which was different that anything I’d ever heard before.

I started writing, but quickly found out it was more difficult that I thought. My early attempts sounded too much like other songs I’d heard before. I needed to be more original, more innovative, come up with stronger song ideas. I kept at it, trying to develop my own writing style, establish my own identity as a songwriter. The hard work paid off, and in 1990 the Lonesome River Band recorded one of my Gospel number  “Listen To The Word Of God”. That was a highlight moment for me as a songwriter, and gave me confidence and a ray of hope that I desperately needed.

One very important element of writing good songs I learned early on was to try & write what you know and are familiar with. I started drawing from my own experience, my own relationship with God, my own struggles life, and my faith. I built a collection of songs that became the foundation of my first all original gospel album “Look To The Light”.  At that point in my life I was really struggling and in a downward spiral. The songs on that album were deeply personal and in the process of writing them became my own redemption. It was very therapeutic. Through songs on that recording like “Thirst & Hunger”  “How Far Will I Fall” and “I’ve Been Redeemed” , I told my own story, shared part of my spiritual journey.

“Look To The Light” was a life changing experience for me, a turning point. I made a pact with God that if He would pull me up from the deep hole I was in, I would dedicate my life to writing and recording songs of Faith. That was back in 2010, and that’s been my focus, my purpose in life ever since. I continued to write new Gospel songs that I would pitch to bands/artists to record, also started building a collection of songs for another gospel album.

The initial challenge was coming up with new song ideas, new song concepts. I spent  hours every day brainstorming searching for new song titles, story lines for future songs. I would listen to some of the 1st generation Bluegrass Gospel music from Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, others for inspiration.  I also had success from taking some of the pop songs I grew up with in the ‘60s, use the song titles, but put a gospel spin on them. Another big turning point was when I started my co-writing journey back in 2012. I started collaborating with writers who were well known for writing Bluegrass Gospel. That led to better songs, and a lot more song cuts. My co-writers would often come up with the new song idea we’d write, something I would never have thought of.

My approach to writing gospel songs is to come up with something new and refreshing, folks have not heard before. Not just the lyrics but with the music and melody. I’m a big fan of the blues element

in Bluegrass and draw from that often. Also I like writing songs that are soulful.  I’m always exploring, searching for new new sounds on my guitar. I sometimes use open tunings, try I modal or minor chord setting etc. I find it’s really helpful in making your song unique, not just like the rest.

Back when I was writing songs for my 2nd Bluegrass Gospel album “Gonna Sing, Gonna Shout”, I came up with, and started using the term “Blue Collar Gospel”. It was because I found myself writing story style gospel songs, that really didn’t actually sound like a gospel song at first glance. One of them was “Sunday Morning Gospel Jubilee”. The first verse of the song starts out:

“Sonny wasn’t one to tolerate no preachin’

You’d never catch him dead in any church

Huntin’ and a fishin’ that was his religion

Six pack and an old red flannel shirt”

“Blue Collar Gospel”  represents a particular style of gospel song, about ordinary people and their faith. Themes about every day hard working folks, their struggles, failures, triumphs, and relationship with God.

My newest release on Billy Blue Records titled  “Blue Collar Gospel”, is an 11 song collection of songs geared to the  “believers” and “non-believers” alike. Songs I hope will resonate with everyone who hears them.

I truly believe that writing Gospel music is my calling, the Good Lords plan for me. I’ve been told that spreading the Holy Word Of God through my songwriting and music releases is a form of ministry. I believe that to be true. It is my hope that my “Blue Collar” Gospel songs touch the heart, stir the soul, and bring others closer to their faith. That would be the greatest reward of all!

– Rick Lang


Overwriting

July 2023

There is a great tendency for songwriters to “overwrite.” I struggled with that myself in the early days of my songwriting journey. Always wanting to say more, I’d come up with songs that would have as many as five or six verses.  Not paying attention to time, some these songs would be four minutes, even longer. I never realized that most radio DJs are unlikely to play songs that are more than 3 1/2 minutes in length. Back in the early ‘60s radio would not play songs that were over 2 1/2 minutes long.  The writers of those songs had to follow that hard fast rule if they wanted their songs to be cut/played.

Once I became immersed in co-writing, I discovered that many of the people I wrote with could write a great song with two verses and a chorus. A revelation!  Since then, I have embraced the concept of trying to be being concise, using less words that say more. In re-evaluating some of my older songs I realized some of the content was weak, off topic, some was not essential for the song to be effective. I ended up re-writing many of these over time. I started studying the lyrics to songs that were shorter, simpler, but still very effective. Both Tom T. Hall and Randall Hylton were masters of that.

When I first discovered Bluegrass back in the mid ‘80s two of my early favorite songs were 32 acres by Randall Hylton, and Aragon Mill by Si Kahn. Both had two verses and a chorus.  There have been hit songs written that only have one verse and one chorus.

My approach today is to write a song with the least amount of lyric necessary to tell the story, get your point across, ultimately serve the song the best way possible. There is an old saying that “less is more” ….that’s something to think about.

Below are the titles of a few hit songs that are great examples of concise Effective songwriting.

  • Thirty Acres – Randall Hylton
  • Where Rainbows Touch Down – Randall Hylton (This song has one verse, one chorus)
  • Aragon Mill – Si Kahn
  • Wichita Lineman – Jimmy Webb (recorded by Glen Campbell)
  • Walk Right Back – Sonny Curtis (recorded by the Everly Brothers) (This song has only one verse, one chorus)
  • Bye Bye Love – Bordeaux & Bryant (recorded by the Everly Brothers)
  • Pretty Paper – Willie Nelson (recorded by Willie Nelson /Roy Orbison)
  • White Christmas – Irving Berlin (recorded by Bing Crosby) (This song has two verses, no chorus)
  • Crazy – Willie Nelson (recorded by Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline)
  • Crying Time – Buck Owens (recorded by Buck Owens/Ray Charles)
  • Hello Trouble – Buck Owens (recorded by Buck Owens)
  • Together Again – Buck Owens (recorded by Buck Owens/Emmy Lou Harris)
  • Sing Me Back Home – Merle Haggard
  • If We Make It Through December – Merle Haggard
  • I Will Always Love You – Dolly Parton (recorded by many top artists)
  • Sweet Dreams Of You – Don Gibson
  • Blue, Blue, Day – Don Gibson
  • I Can’t Stop Loving You – Don Gibson
  • I Still Miss Someone – Johnny Cash
  • Hickory Wind – Graham Parsons
  • Stand By Me – Ben E. King (recorded by Ben E. King) Yesterday – Lennon McCartney

Writing Story Songs

March 2022

With the release of my new story song album “A Tale To Tell”, I’ve taken time to step back and take a look at the process of writing story songs and how these songs came to be. For whatever reason, I’ve been writing more story songs than ever over the past few years, and my catalog keeps getting deeper. Took me a long time to develop an approach that I felt worked well, and ended with a good result. Thought I’d share how my process to writing story songs has evolved.

For starters story songs can tend to be too long, with way too much lyrical content. That was a huge obstacle I faced with my first attempts at writing story songs. I would have songs with as many as six to eight verses, occasionally with no chorus. Some of my ideas were based on full length books or novels I had read. How do you condense that down to a three- minute Bluegrass song? A big challenge!

The key is just hitting just the most essential points in the story. Say a lot with less words. It is important to include as much as possible detail in the song that support the story line. Names, places, specifics. It’s important to help make the song authentic, genuine. Include as much visual imagery as possible….paint a picture with words. For example, approach your song like someone writing a script for a TV movie. Describe the opening scene so the listener can visualize what’s happening.

I’ve come to believe the music/melody you create for a story song is as important as the lyric. It’s important to set an appropriate mood for the song that’s a good fit for the story you are telling. The music for each song should be different/unique so they don’t all sound the same. I write on the guitar so I’m always exploring for new sounds. I’ve used open tunings, variations of standard chord forms, major/minor/modal sounds, Bluegrass, blues old time, swing, jazz sounds. My songs vary a lot in musical stylings. I also experiment a lot with guitar rhythms, flat picking, finger picking, cross picking which has helped a great deal.

When I was writing songs for “A Tale To Tell” I tried hard to create varied music settings and tempos to make it interesting and enjoyable for the listener. 

It takes a conscious effort but essential in putting a collection of songs like this together for a full album.

Here’s the lyrics to one of the songs on  “A Tale To Tell” . Took me years to finish, lots of editing (both lyrics & music), to come up with a version I was happy with. Well worth the effort.

Lost Town

@RickLang

Sure am glad to meet you, Doubleday’s my name
First time I been back here since 1938
When they flooded this here valley, covered up my childhood home
Great granddaddy settled here in 1863
Plowed these fields and raised the crop that fed his family
The stonewall that you’re looking at is all that still remains
…..of life way back then

Chorus
Lost town, lost town
They went & tore it down
Lost town

I was only 9 years old when we got the news
Government had sealed our fate, there was nothin’ we could do
On the very ground we’re standing on, they’d build that reservoir
Sittin’ in the barber shop I heard an old man say
Every building on these streets must be hauled away
….Our little church house, the school, and the general store
Now they will be no more

Chorus
Lost town, lost town
Now it’s nowhere to be found
Lost town

We watched as the wrecking ball took down the old home place
Each and every one of us tears streaming down our face
Til there was nothing left but a big hole in the ground
Funny how your mind works the older that you get
Things you remember, things you forget
You know the worst of it all is to be taken from your kin
Well knowin’ …. you can’t go home again

Chorus
Lost town, lost town
They went & tore it down
Now it’s nowhere to be found
Lost town


Writing Christmas & Seasonal Songs

December 2021

I have always been a big fan of Christmas music since childhood, especially all the Christmas classics most of which were written in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. To this day millions of people play them over and over during the Holidays….and never seem to tire of them. There is a “timeless” quality to songs like “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”. They have become, over time, part of the fabric of our society.

About 20 years ago I thought to myself, man we need some new Christmas songs….maybe I can take a stab at writing some. I explored the existing Bluegrass Christmas song catalog, and came across very few, “Christmas Time’s A Comin'” by Tex Logan being one of the most notable. I started spending time trying to come up with new Christmas/Seasonal themes that had not been done before. It was incredibly hard! None-the-less I was determined to come up with some fresh ideas, bring something new to the table.

My very first original Christmas tune was called “I Dreamed I Was There”. It was an incredible breakthrough for me personally. I kept at it, and over the course of the next few years wound up with a catalog of about 20 original Christmas/Seasonal songs. I would block out a few weeks after The Holidays each year focusing on writing new Christmas songs, adding to my growing catalog. Back in 2003 I recorded and released by very first Christmas Album “The Season Of My Heart”, that featured 14 of my home-made Christmas tunes. The response was fantastic, and the album was voted one of the top 25 Holiday music releases of 2003.

I kept on writing and built a collection of new material for my 2nd Christmas CD “That’s What I Love About Christmas”. A contrast to my earlier release, this one has the feel of some of the early Christmas Classics. Produced by Stephen Mougin, we recorded ten of the new tunes, with the help of some great Nashville area jazz musicians and vocalists. The end result exceeded any expectation I had, the title cut winning an award for the IMEA Christmas song of the year.

If you are a songwriter and a fan of Christmas music, you might consider giving it a try yourself. The world needs new Christmas songs to keep the music fresh, and help us to celebrate the Holiday traditions we hold dear. If you do, here are a couple thoughts I’d like to share on the subject.

  1. Listen to your favorite Christmas songs-music (any genre) to draw ideas from, both lyrically and musically.
  2. Try to find topics/themes that have not been covered before, or put a new spin on an old song idea.
  3. Think back to your childhood and remember how much fun it was the first time you saw snow fall, caught snowflakes on your tongue, built a snowman, made snow angels. 
  4. Come up with some original music for your song that has a “seasonal feel” to it. Create an appropriate setting for the lyric.
  5. Try to find a story to tell, that works well in a winter setting.
  6. Try to capture the “Spirit” of the Holidays and the “wonders” of the season in your song.

The last couple years have been the most prolific of my life, resulting in enough new Christmas/Seasonal material for two full albums. Both are in the planning stages and hoping to release one each year starting in 2022. Stay tuned, will keep you posted!  


Editing & Re-writing

June 2021

I’ve found a very important part of the songwriting process is editing and re-writing. Especially useful in my solo writing. I’ll usually come up with an initial draft the day I write a song and then step away for a while. When I come back to it, I’ll identify areas that need to be improved, lines that need to be strengthened. Sometimes I find I’m not loving the initial melody I came up with, or the chord progression. Then I start to experiment and work on it until I discover something I like better. This can take days, weeks, months in some cases. When I really get stuck, I might bring in one of my co-writers to help with the song. If I feel the concept/idea is strong, I won’t stop until I feel it’s rock solid. I’ve learned that becoming my own worst critic has served me well. 

There have been times I’ve finished a song, actually had it recorded, and decided it still needed work or could be improved. Sometimes several years after initially writing the song, I’ll go back to the drawing board and try to create a completely different version I like better than the original. I’ve actually been known to completely scrap the song, take the title and start over from scratch. This process has been really helpful, leading to much better, and more polished songs. In recent years I’ve been mostly co-writing whenever I can. On days I don’t have a writing session set up, I’m most likely in the studio editing or re-writing one of my older songs. I find the time and effort spent doing this has really paid off in big dividends and will always be a part of my songwriting routine. 

Lost Town

A good example of the value of editing is Lost Town, the first single from my new story song album. I had written the song specifically for the project 3-4 years prior to the actual recording.  The original version had six verses (or more) and no chorus. Only two chord changes in the entire song. Old-timey feel.  

When I sent it to producer Stephen Mougin asking for his input, he suggested the lyrics needed streamlining, and I should try to find a more interesting and varied music setting. Worked on it off and on for several months but wasn’t making any progress. Decided to set it aside for a long period of time and come back fresh. Six months later I picked up my guitar, the most updated lyrics I could find, and took a new approach. Sang it in a minor key this time, tried a different chord sequence, and discovered that’s’ exactly the song needed. Within an hour I had re-written the whole song including adding a short chorus. Sent along Stephen and he loved the new version. I never gave up on the song, just kept working it until it felt right, sounded right, and now it’s a featured track on my newest studio recording.

Pouring Emotion Into Your Song

When I write, there are a few priorities I focus on that will have a major impact with the song. On the top of the list is “pouring emotion into your song”. I want the listener to “feel something” when they hear it.

If they do, I feel I have succeeded at some level. That emotion is transferred from the writer, to the singer, to the listener. I’m never really concerned all that much about song mechanics, perfect rhyming, being structurally correct and all that stuff. I want the song to be real and believable. That’s why I mostly write about what I know and familiar with. Real life dramas, real life experiences. Write the truth. Be conversational. Write as you speak!

One example of that was a song I wrote a few years back entitled “Looks Like Up To Me”. It’s based on a book I once ready by Mississippi author Eudora Welty. The story line is about the plight of the south after the Great Depression. Those were the hardest of times and folks were struggling just to survive. They basically had nothing, and things got so bad they could hardly get much worse. I was totally captivated and moved by what I read. That spawned the line “Been down so long, it looks like up to me”…..which became the battle cry of my song. I attempted to tell their story, pouring as much emotion and feeling into the song as I could muster.

It actually took me years to write, with several incarnations, before I felt I effectively captured the spirit of the song. Here are the lyrics, and if there was one thing I would want to impart to all writers, it would be: ‘Write what you feel, feel what you write”. 

Looks Like Up To Me
@Rick Lang

When it comes to troubles, Lord knows I’ve had my share got my share,
I can’t remember when I felt so low.
The crops have all been ruined by the flood this year,
And they’ve repossessed most everything I own.
I’m drowning in a sea of misery.
Been down so long it looks like up to me.

The more I try to get ahead, it seems the more I get behind.
And every day it’s just more of the same.
The front porch still needs fixin’, but the cost is much too high.
And that ol’ tin roof still leaks when it rains.
I’m doomed to live my life in poverty.
Been down on the bottom for so long…it looks like up to me.

*CHORUS
They say to keep my chin up, look on the brighter side
But the situation’s hopeless as can be
From way down here everything I see….looks like up to me
….Looks like up to me

I’ve watched my life unravel, right down to the last thread.
All I’ve worked for vanish in thin air.
I feel just like a pebble you toss into a well.
I keep fallin’, but I ain’t hit bottom yet.
Here I am Lord on my bended knees.
Been down on the bottom for so long…it looks like up to me.

*CHORUS
They say to keep my chin up, look on the brighter side
But the situation’s hopeless as can be
From way down here everything I see….looks like up to me
…Looks like up to me

Concept Albums

I’ve been working at writing songs for nearly thirty years to this point. I tend to write about things I am familiar with, and lean towards subject matter that resonates with me. At some point I came to realize that several of my songs had ocean themes and story lines. It’s not really surprising as I live only about thirty minutes from the ocean, and over the course of my life have spent a great deal of time along the NH and Maine shoreline. My family and I have had many life experiences that are in some way connected to the sea, some of which have found their way into my songs.

In looking over the lyrics to these “ocean theme” songs, I realized that they could potentially make for an interesting concept album. Something I’d really never considered before.  That was about 15 years or so ago. I checked around and could not find another recording project like the one I had in mind, so I became fascinated about the prospects. To make this a reality a few things would have to happen. I would need enough songs good enough to record, with various story lines and musical settings. Although I was off to a good start I still had a lot of work to do.

First I needed to “tighten up” songs I had already written, some of which needed improving. That involved months and months of editing and re-writing. Truth be told it was really a difficult task, but essential to create a really good recording. Some songs just needed minor changes, others I had to start from scratch… like The Rising Tide. I actually only kept the title and replaced everything else (words and music). The effort paid off as the new version was much stronger than the initial attempt.

Then I needed to add more songs to broaden the scope of the collection. So over the course of the next few years would come up with a new one here, a new one there. The trick was to find story lines that were different from the others I’d written. Eventually I had close to thirty “ocean theme” songs, of which we would pick twelve to record. Took a lot of time, a great deal of effort, but as I learned a long time ago you cannot put limitations on the creative process.

I selected  “The Undertow” as the album title, and turned my long- time friend Bob Dick to produce the new recording project.  Bob had produced & engineered my first Christmas release “The Season Of My Heart” and was very familiar with my writing style. Most importantly he understood my vision for this unique concept album. A key element was to establish the music setting and instrumentation appropriate for each of the story lines. We both had performed and recorded Bluegrass and Gospel music in the past, but this one required a different approach. It needed to have an overall “ocean feel”. Accordingly we didn’t pay attention to a specific genre, but what felt right for each of the songs. Although basically acoustic, we added piano, electric guitar, percussion and accordion to a few of the selections.  That gave the album a few more textures, and more variety of sounds.

From start to finish it took six years to create “The Undertow”, but was well worth the wait.  The performers included many of the friends that I had written with, performed with, recorded with in the past. Together we successfully created my very first concept album, a one of a kind recording, and hope folks will enjoy hearing this new collection “ocean theme” songs.