Don Schlitz And The Truth About Songwriting

2012 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Don Schlitz once again graced University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill music students with an insightful talk during a SHOF Master Session on October 14. This virtual event was hosted by Dr. Jocelyn R. Neal, Professor of Music and Associate Chair of the Department of Music, and was attended by her students.

Songs written by Don Schlitz have played major roles in the careers of Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, The Judds, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Keith Whitley, Alison Krauss, and many other performers. Schlitz was the ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year for four consecutive years from 1988-91. He has won three CMA Song of the Year Awards, two ACM Song of the Year awards, two Grammy’s and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. His huge catalogue of hits include such classics as “The Gambler,” “On the Other Hand,” “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “Deeper Than the Holler,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “When You Say Nothing at All,” “One Promise Too Late,” “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and many, many more.

Dr. Neal introduced Don Schlitz and kicked off the hour by talking about the times during which Schlitz "came up" in the ranks of songwriting. "He went to Nashville in the 1970s, during a time period when country music songwriting was really changing and there was a different collection of people. There was a different literary approach to writing lyrics and that was the crowd he merged with there. He had his first number one hit in 1978 and that has been followed by 23 more, making a total of two dozen number one country hits on the charts."

Schlitz began with the basics premise of ideas for songs. "Ideas will lead you to cleverness more than cleverness will lead you to an idea, and ten ideas will give you ten clever starts a year to songs without even trying. If you love music and you say 'I'm a songwriter' you're gonna get ten ideas a year that are great. They might be ideas we've all had but they're great because they come from your perspective." He told students his friend and fellow songwriter Bob McDill advised him long ago, "Your job is to write forty more songs in order to get on the radio."

Schlitz went on, "Here's how I like to say it; you take your idea and you make it small. Then you make it smaller and smaller and smaller and then you walk around it and there are 360 windows, so you can look in at this idea and see those 360 possibilities what could happen with it. You can look at it sideways and under/over, but you turn your head and that becomes your unique perspective. Trust your unique perspective on that idea. Be the reporter to figure out what it is and get inspired by the story." 

Diving deeper, Schlitz said, "A spoiler alert; you're the main character in your songs...you're all the characters, and now you've got to tell this story. You need furniture, You need environment, you need to say what you're looking at. See what people look like, or what their eyes look like or their lips or what's going on behind them, or the other people that are going on. You become a journalist and you tell that story. Then the rhythm of the language, the rhymes are important, and the truth, even more so. In my early years of writing songs, we used less words sometimes." 

Imparting more sage advice, he said, "The most important thing a writer can do is read. I've written from source material things that did not happen to me, but I assumed those things for the character in my song."

Regarding song form, Schlitz said his friend and SHOF inductee, the late Tom T. Hall sometimes would not use a chorus, and "I've gone through times when I didn't use a chorus either." He went on to say, "I'll tell you this from the Kenny Rogers example which I think is a very effective way of writing; if you have a sad song make it up tempo. If you have a really happy song bring it on down. Also, I always like to put hope in a song."  

When it comes down to the goal of students getting their material out there Schlitz advised them, "You really should be able to communicate the song before you expect anyone else to. You can go play your songs for old people, old people love the attention, and then go play your songs for homeless folks. It shows that you care and that you're part of a community. Possibly, the best thing you could ever do is to sit around playing your songs for each other. Learn by imitation. I'd written a few hundred songs before I wrote The Gambler."

He then talked about the value of co-writing with others and told the students to try collaborating with those who don't do exactly what you do in order to challenge yourself.

Dr. Neal said students had read several interviews and articles about Schlitz and listened in advance to a playlist that he had curated to prepare for his visit. They then submitted questions ahead of time, and it led to wonderful insights. Schlitz also played a some songs during the visit, including ones that weren’t recorded as big hits by commercial artists.

He spent a full 75 minutes with the students, and even after class ended and they had to go to their next classes, Schlitz stayed and played one more in answer to one of the students’ questions that he hadn’t gotten to during class.

A member of the SHOF’s President’s Advisory Council and former director of the board, Schlitz initiated and has developed with Dr. Neal the Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session program at the University of North Carolina. The last previous Session was held on March 22 when Schlitz interviewed songwriter/singer Georgia Middleman.