To talk to Chick Rains about songwriting is like listening to one of his songs. On the surface of things seem pretty straightforward. He speaks like his melodies, succinctly and directly. His phrases flow from a basic emotional statement like the main idea in his lyrics. He is a soft-spoken man with modest clothes (a Varsity style concert jacket and baseball hat) and an ’89 Honda Accord.To talk to Chick Rains about songwriting is like listening to one of his songs. On the surface of things seem pretty straightforward. He speaks like his melodies, succinctly and directly. His phrases flow from a basic emotional statement like the main idea in his lyrics. He is a soft-spoken man with modest clothes (a Varsity style concert jacket and baseball hat) and an ’89 Honda Accord.
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A closer look reveals layers of intelligence that would scare off even the most confident Vanderbilt master’s degree graduate. He is a veteran and a master of the lyrical craft. He knows how to shape context and content into the form of a song with seamless perfection.
Rains is far too humble to say it, but many feel he’s written several of the modern classics in country music like Mickey Gilley’s “A Headache Tomorrow or Heartache Tonight,” Reba McEntire’s “Somebody Should Leave” and Janie Frickie’s “Down To My Last Broken Heart.” Recently he’s combined his experience with multi-talented singer and guitarist Wade Hayes for “Old Enough To Know Better,” and “I’m Still Dancin’ With You.” He had his first number one when Johnny Lee recorded “One In A Million.” I asked Rains if he would share some of his insight and experience.
“There’s a lot of luck at play in songwriting,” Rains cautions. “There’s always voodoo involved. Either the label hears a different single or the timing is wrong. It’s never a cinch. I had “One In A Million” in my catalog in L.A. since ’72 or ’73. I knew Jim Ed Norman (the current president of Warner/Nashville) out there. He was just a kid hanging around the publishing company where I wrote. Everybody knew he was a talented guy. His claim to fame was being the keyboard player in Shylo, which was Don Henley’s first band, and arranging the strings for “Desperado.”
“By the time I got into Nashville in ’78, Jim Ed had already had some major success producing Anne Murray. He produced “Lookin’ For Love,” (for Johnny Lee) and remembered “One In A Million.” It was the follow-up single and debuted at number 26 but it took a long time to get up the charts. At the time there was a prejudice to country from pop radio towards Urban Cowboy. It’s no different now but country was so big at the time, it was hard to keep it off the radio. Every week the song climbed a few notches until it finally reached number one Christmas of 1980. I learned not to count on anything because of that. I thought the song would be an instant number one, but it’s always a struggle.”
Rains was 37 and found himself at the center of the largest musical phenomenon of the time. Robert Altman had directed Nashville just a few years before and many people like Jimmy Bowen, Bruce Hinton and Eddie Reeves had just moved to Music City from California.
“It was a bigger movement in the mid-70s than it is now,” Rains explains. “You had Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Bob Dylan had just done dealing with deeper emotions, not just cheatin’, drinkin’ songs. It was sophisticated country gone to town. There was more intelligence and maturity in songs like “For The Good Times,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”
“I had always written country songs. Growing up in Oklahoma, my influences were Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills and Hank Williams but I knew I couldn’t write “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” I related to Kristofferson because he was writing about things a young adult could relate to at that time. His songs weren’t hokie. They were conversational but they dealt with complex issues. The publishers were looking for material to pitch to mature artists that had something to say about the condition of the world.
“Back before I moved to Nashville I had enrolled in modern poetry class at summer school. This was around the time I came back from Vietnam. In the class we studied Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. I wasn’t ever into modern poetry but I really felt what they did came from a real place. They would operate from a motif, a germ that turned into a larger idea. Each ripple from the main idea would hold a piece of the original thought. I learned to stay the course.”
“This is a mistake young songwriters tend to make. They try to say everything at first. Good songs come from an emotion, a spark that comes from a real place and that moment turns into an idea or a hook line. Once you have the idea you have to stick with it and come back to it. That’s part of the craft that you have to learn but then you have to let it go and do some living.”
I told Rains I always thought that “A Headache Tomorrow or Heartache Tonight” made me feel like I was in that bar experiencing this sense of despair even as a child. I had no idea what heartache was but he made me feel it.
“That song comes straight from reality,” Rains replies with a smile. “I was sitting in the Gold Rush [a Nashville bar/restaurant] one night, not long after I had moved here, and I was talking to a girl in the bar. She told me this story about her lover and how she knew she couldn’t win. If she stayed she knew she would regret it in the morning but if she went home there would be heartache waiting. So I listened and the song was halfway written as I drove home in the car. Elliston Place and that whole area around the Exit-Inn was a hangout for young people in the music business industry. A lot of ideas came from personal experiences I had with friends.”
Rains went on to explain the importance of getting inside the subject about which you write and how important it is to make it real. When Rains wrote the song, “Somebody Should Leave” with Harlan Howard, he related to the situation but hadn’t actually experienced it yet. He said that the song came from a fun fishing trip he took with Harlan, but years later it became a self-fulfilled prophecy.” He later realized the buried emotions he was experiencing at the time surfaced in the song.
The genius of that song is that it is unresolved at the time you hear it although you get the idea that the lovers will break up. It puts the listener in the moment of discovery with the singer. This is a powerful emotional device that characterizes many of Rains’ songs. They are usually written in the present and sung in the voice of the narrator of the first person.
I went on to ask Rains about the current state of country music and the direction it might take in the future. “I think the truth has been lost in entertainment,” he says. “People used to write songs about the world, and it was great. Now if you write about the world nobody likes it. People are tired of the news of the world. They are numbed by the monster of the media. What is the place for truth in sadness? Songwriters used to write about harsh realities and force people to feel, but these days they have to entertain the listener. Songs aren’t about characters anymore because people want to listen to songs about themselves. They want a real or positive message about their own lives.”
“I suppose I sound like an old man but I guess I’ve grown up. I wanted to write those songs about the world and social problems when I was younger but I felt I didn’t have the knowledge. Now that I do have it, I don’t find it that interesting and you can’t get a young guy to sing about things he doesn’t understand yet. You’re writing for artist half your age. That’s how I approach a song with Wade, by saying I’m “Old Enough to Know Better (But Still Too Young To Care).”
Finally I asked Raines for some advice on writing a song and becoming a successful songwriter.
“The cold hard truth of being a successful songwriter is that you have to realize that this is what you do for money,” he says. “Audience is everything. You have to know your audience. Still if what you’re writing isn’t about you, it won’t work. So you have to find out your part in the equation. Songwriters are trying to deal with the truth whether it is entertainment or enlightening. Give yourself completely to it. If you wind up on a shelf or broken, at least you did what you wanted. Do it because you love it. It will be rewarding because you’ll be with creative friends. It’s the relationships, the laughs (that make it worthwhile). If a hit to you is the end-all be-all then you’re screwed up. It will only be a temporary fix. Then you have to do it again. You think there is something to overcome, but writing a good song is the real payoff. If you know this to be true, you won’t need approval from everyone else. You’ll know you did it well. You may never be satisfied completely. The record may not sound like you want it. You just have to keep doing it. You have to produce once you’re in the factory and continue to re-invent yourself. Radio changes and artists change. Try to get inside the artist and see what you can relate to.”
“I’ve known Chick Rains since I was twelve and I have always respected his work but not until now did I realize how complex he really is. He walks a fine line between creating a song for an artist or the public and keeping it true to his own experience.”
“I suppose his wisdom is knowing that if it hasn’t happened to him, then it won’t be real and it won’t have the potential to affect someone else on an emotional level. What moved people emotionally is what herds them into record stores and in turn into your songs. So take a lick from Chick and keep it real, whatever you feel. Your experiences are great songs waiting to happen and a great song will always be successful no matter what type of apples the orchard is selling.”