Kevin Welch:
keeps on writing songs

When Kevin Welch talks about songwriting, people tend to listen. The man knows what he's talking about. His songs have been recorded by artists including Moe Bandy, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, the Highwaymen, the Judds, the Kendalls, Patty Loveless, Reba McIntyre, Charlie Pride, Ricky Skaggs, Pam Tillis, Randy Travis, Don Williams and Trisha Yearwood.

A man with a craggy, lived-in face and with straight brown hair down to the middle of his back, Welch knows the Nashville songwriting world, having made a good living for three decades as a contract writer for Tree International. "When Steve Earle made Guitar Town,"" Welch says, "it opened things up a little. Nashville went into one of those periods when they were open to more progressive music, and I got signed by Warners."

He cut two albums for the label, Kevin Welch and Western Beat, and got a good taste of what big-time country music was all about. "Warners was good to me," he says. "They left me alone for my first two albums, but they told me that wasn't going to be the case with my third one. They were going to be more hands on, so I asked to let out of my contract and they let me go."

Back in Nashville, he says, "it used to be that if you got dropped by one label, you walked across the street to another one, but the trend to conglomeration ended that. We didn't have anywhere to go anymore. All of my friends were in the same situation. Kieran Kane had just left Atlantic, so one night we drank entirely too much vodka and formed a record company, Dead Reckoning." Mike Henderson, Tammy Rogers and Harry Stinson were also partners in the label. By releasing their work on their own label, they avoided the inevitable Nashville system compromises.

He figures they got out of the Nashville system just in time. "The industry is dying and being reborn," he says. "Nobody knows what it's going to become. Because of conglomeration, there's only two record companies left. The market is a lot smaller and it's geared completely to monster hits. Songwriting contracts are drying up. Every year they give smaller advances and all they're interested in is bad songs. When my deal with Tree Publishing came up for renewal this time, I didn't even bother to renew it. I didn't want to play that game anymore."

He says he hasn't quite quit the system fully, though. "Once a week, I go over to Mike Henderson's house and we try to write a song that'll put our kids through college. That's the extent of my participation."

Welch says he quit the system because he wanted to write his own songs, the songs that speak to him, and he's done very well with those songs. The fact that his current album, Lost John Dean, which he recorded with Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplan, beat out Bruce Springsteen, as well as Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler, to hit No. 1 on the Americana charts testifies that the songs that speak to him speak to others as well.

For Welch, writing begins with the definition of a song. "A song is a delivery system for information," he says. "It's a heard medium, not a written one." A song has its self-expressive impulse but it's also an act of communication. "I don't consider a song finished until I've sung it in public, gotten reaction from an audience."

He also is a strong believer in minimalism. "If it can be left out," he says, "leave it out. " It's easy to overcrowd a song so you have to be careful to keep it concise and sharp. Too many words or excess notes can make it flabby. "You can't have anything excessive in it," he says emphatically. "Nothing."

How do you know what to leave out? "Ask yourself what's the nuance of the song, what do you want people to get. The answers to those questions determine content, form, everything." Welch is a believer in organic form, feeling there is a form the material wants to be in. The job of the writer is to discover that form, not to superimpose one that may not be right.

For example, he says, that every song has an inherent melody. "Sometimes it can take a long time for that melody to make itself known. If that's the case, you just use a dummy melody, one that carries the lyrics until the real melody shows up."

"In the early drafts of a song, anything goes. As far as the technical stuff goes, like rhyme schemes, meter and so forth, it's best not to drop down on it too hard. You can interfere with the song becoming what it wants to be. The shape will emerge. Trust it."

What determines the shape? "The idea of the song. It's not always obvious and you can be confused about it. The idea you end up with is not always the one you had in mind when you started. The idea has to be clear by the time you finish. My mantra is 'Lay it in their laps.' I say that when I'm writing and I say it when I go on stage."

A lot of people overemphasize the melody, he claims. You have to consider the melody of the lyrics. The spoken language has rhythm and melody, too, and it has to be considered. "The lyrics are everything. The song begins with the words and they're always primary. A song is a particular tool for saying something. It's not a poem, it's not prose. It's a different thing altogether and the lyrics are its heart. I think of the melody as putting wheels on the words."

Welch's form of natural, organic songwriting, his idea of not forcing the song to go in a particular direction, means that he has to trust the process. One of the biggest mistakes songwriters make is known in the trade as editing early. Too many times, songwriters try to insist that a song conform to a preconceived notion and do rewrites before the material is ready. You have to allow the shape to find its way.

And what if the shape doesn't emerge? What if you find yourself stuck in the song and can't find the handle? "If you run into a problem," Welch says, "stop. Put it away, work on something else for a while. I've got drawers full of songs in progress. Every once in a while, I'll go through the drawer, pick one out and work on it. Very often when I return to something, the song will emerge. I've got songs that took 10 years to finish."

His song, "Sam's Town," is an example of this process. "Out in Oklahoma, where I'm from, somebody'll have a piece of land and it's pretty much worthless but the mineral rights guys will buy the rights to it and you'll see drilling rigs go up overnight. Every so often, they'll hit and then the royalties come flowing in. We call it 'sudden money.' It's the same thing with songwriting. A writer will go along for years starving to death and then he'll get lucky with a song that becomes a big hit and the money'll just flow in. It seems like a fortune but if you average it out over the years, it pretty much comes out to minimum wage. So, you go kind of crazy and think you've got it made till pretty soon the taxman comes knocking at your door, a lot of times right after the money's all gone.

"That's what 'Sam's Town' is all about. Gary Nicholson and I were playing Sam's Town Casino out in Vegas and the first night we gambled away all our money, so after that there wasn't anything to do but write songs. The first verse of 'Sam's Town' was written on the back of a Sam's Town coaster and the chorus was written on a napkin. So we had the structure of the song, the idea, but we couldn't figure out what was going to happen to the guy. It took us five years to finish it."

Not all writers have that kind of patience. "Kieran Kane never returns to a song. If he runs into trouble, he throws it away and moves on to another one." Welch says. "I go back. I finish them sooner or later."

He emphasizes that coming up with good songs is both an art and a craft, and he thinks there's far too much emphasis on the craft part of writing. Songwriting texts are full of rules, declaring, for example, that a song must be 32 bars long with a verse, chorus and bridge. Song structure, the books say, demands that the major key switch to a minor for variation. "This is a good example of rules that have to be tested and frequently broken," Welch says. "You only use a bridge if it makes the song stouter or if it offers a needed release." He picks up his guitar and picks while he explains. "My song, 'Kicking Back in Amsterdam,' is a very simple song, only two chords and a repetitive structure. It has a developing tension, though, and a bridge would just wreck that tension.

"So instead of a bridge," he continues, moving up the neck of his Gibson with his chording hand, "I just took the tonic chord to the fifth position and kept up this little shuffle rhythm. It gave the release while maintaining the tension. So you can use fundamental guitar chords or something else structural, instead of a bridge. Use what the song demands."

Asked about his biggest songwriting tip, the piece of advice he would give to anyone struggling to sharpen up his skills, he says, "My biggest tip comes from my friend, Ron Davies. It's this: do it anyway. Sure, you're going to feel bad, you're going to get discouraged, you're going to feel like you're going after something you can't reach, but you have to go on. You have to do it anyway."

Kevin Welch keeps on doing it.

by Michael Scott Cain
18 November 2006