Songwriters talk process and craft at panel presentation

Songwriting panelists Photo by Matthieu Rodriguez, posted on the AMP Facebook page

Local organization Asheville Music Professionals teamed up with the Grammy-affiliated Recording Academy for a panel discussion on songwriting, followed by a songwriters-in-the-round performance.

The dual events, held at The Altamont Theatre on Monday, June 22, featured songwriters Gretchen Peters (a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee; has written for Etta James and Bonnie Raitt among others), Tift Merritt (a North Carolina native and Grammy nominee for country album of the year), Jim Lauderdale (has recorded 26 albums and won two Grammys), Dave Berg (named Billboard country songwriter of the year, has written for Keith Urban, Blake Shelton and others) and Erika Wollam Nichols, general manager of The Bluebird Café in Nashville. Local recording artist and three-time Grammy-winner Steven Heller moderated.

The panelists shared their thoughts on process, inspiration and craft and took questions from the audience as well as answering previously-submitted queries. From humorous to inspired, here are some highlights:

On when to write

Gretchen Peters: I try to avoid writing. Writing is more difficult for writers than for other people.

Jim Lauderdale: Morning writing is good when I’m co-writing, but I like to write alone at night.

Dave Berg: The older I get, the less I get up [when an idea comes to me in bed] to write it down. Sometimes I decide I need sleep more than this idea.

Jim Lauderdale: I have to plan writing trips or clear the day. Otherwise the day is gone and I haven’t had time to write anything.

A full house at The Atlamont Theatre for the songwriters panel.
A full house at The Atlamont Theatre for the songwriters panel.

On writing while on tour

Dave Berg: I don’t travel much. I always dreamed of making it as a songwriter so that I can never leave my house.

Tift Merritt: I’ve always found that when I’m touring, I only write really bad things. … I love having a writing routine. I always have a notebook and write down prompts or conversations I hear.

Gretchen Peters: Touring is all about putting out energy. Writing is about getting quiet. … I think of myself as a magpie — I find shiny things and bring them back to the nest. When I find time, I go on a binge of finishing.

On tradition versus innovation

Tift Merritt: There’s a tradition of songwriting and a love of that tradition that you’re carrying on. There are artists who come along and explode their form, but I’ve never felt like that was my job.

Dave Berg: When you can say more with less, it’s a lot harder, but it’s more satisfying.

On editing

Gretchen Peters: Record what you’ve written and get as far away from it as you can. What helps me to rewrite is to listen back.

Tift Merritt: To me, [editing] is a conversation with myself, and not letting myself off the hook.

On testing new material in front of an audience

Gretchen Peters: I’m OK with judging if I’ve done a good job with the recording, but what happens when you get out into the world is almost a continuation of the writing process. It’s a continuation of the life of the song.

Tift Merritt: [Playing live] is the real test. It’s easy to be in your self-contained I-think-that-works world.

Jim Lauderdale: It’s fun to have a song you’ve almost finished, to try it out. You can tell [as you’re playing it] whether it’s working or not.

On influences

Tift Merritt: I always looked up to Eudora Welty. Her fiction is so potent and she lived such a unique life.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “Songwriters talk process and craft at panel presentation

  1. shannonp

    Billy Edd Wheeler lives in this area. It would have been nice to see him included in this panel. He’s a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and has written songs recorded Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers, Judy Collins, and Neil Young, just to name a few.

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