At the 50th annual Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony last night, two of its newest honorees, John Prine and Justin Timberlake, both of different generations, described the common bond that drives songwriters to write, and the emotional satisfaction that overcomes them when a song is finished. Prine, the legendary folk singer whom presenter and long-time friend Bonnie Raitt called “our own Mark Twain, our Woody, our Will Rogers,” succinctly stated “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.” The multi-talented Timberlake discussed how important it is to create music with other co-writers who share the same hard-work ethic needed in finishing a song, no matter how difficult the task may be. “You’re doing therapy with somebody you just met. If you did that on the subway they would say ‘that bitch is crazy!’ he joked. “There’s always that one line in the song where you’re like ‘if we could just get that one line that leads into the chorus.’ You bond over that shared level of tenacity. And then every time you hear that song later on, you get to remember the moment you had that breakthrough. When people hear it for the first time, they just hear it. But you get to go back and have all those memories.”
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In addition to Prine and Timberlake, the diverse group of this year’s inductees and honorees includes Yusuf/ Cat Stevens, R&B producer/songwriter Dallas Austin, female hip-hop pioneer Missy Elliott, country songwriter Tom T. Hall and ‘70s legend Jack Tempchin (‘Peaceful Easy Feeling,’ ‘Slow Dancing (Swaying To The Music)’, ‘Already Gone’’). Special awards were presented to Timberlake with the Contemporary Icon Award, Carole Bayer Sager with the Johnny Mercer Award; music executive Martin Bandier with the Visionary Leadership Award and multi-Platinum singer/songwriter Halsey with the Hal David Starlight Award. Selected songs from each of the honoree’s deep catalog preceded their induction, performed by special guests, including Lukas Nelson, Sara Bareilles and Jack Antonoff, Patti LaBelle and Lizzo and Da Brat.
After a moving performance of ‘Father And Son’ by Dave Mathews, Yusuf/ Cat Stevens performed his 1971 classic ‘The Wind’ from Teaser and the Firecat. He then spoke deeply about his journey through life, being given a second chance after a near-fatal illness and the religious powers of songwriting. “Most of my songs are about the journey. As a young man my first search was for wealth and success. But then I was dragged underground after the first battle with fame and the Faustian demands of the music business. I was hospitalized with a thing called TB. But that was a great opening for me, a great chance, and that’s when my real journey started. And that journey was to do a search for meaning. So that kind of defined, I think, my main contribution to being a songwriter.”
“My biggest fear was not finding the answers to my, or our, limited mortality. We are creatures, unlike animals, who have to live with the knowledge of our own mortality. And that presents great questions about what’s beyond, what’s over the rainbow. And that gave me courage to seek, and to go places perhaps other people have never gone. I haven’t heard of many who have gone through so many waters, leaving my religious landscape and my cultural zone. It was not difficult for me. For some reason I had the courage to do that and I felt so dedicated to this search. And you can hear that in the song ‘The Wind.’ That says it all.”
“Songwriting is amazing,” he continued. “When you are inspired you become something of a medium, which enables people to come together and share these stories and these feelings that reveal the highest peaks and the lowest cracks in our humanity. I’m really grateful to the power above us all for allowing me to travel such a distance to find the doorway and to understand the purpose of that road. I was even allowed to come back through that door and write some more songs so I could sing and shake the hands of those people and those hearts to whom my songs spoke to.”
Halsey gave an emotional and revealing insight into her stage persona and the writer behind the mask. “As Halsey I’ve accepted a fair amount of awards. And when I do I get to come up to the podium and be exactly what Halsey is: the best version of myself: tall, confident, coordinated, sexy, brave. But before I get to be Halsey and before I get to be the best version of myself I have to be the absolute worst version. And that version is a 24-year old girl from New Jersey named Ashley Frangipane. She is vulnerable and self-critical, picking herself to pieces. And words come from her mind to her hand to the paper and she reads them back to herself and says ‘God, is that what I really think of me?’ But it’s because I take the time to be the worst version of myself that I get to be the best, which is Halsey and that’s exactly why I invented her: so I had a reason to go up on stage and be that version.”
She then touched the core of why this award meant so much to her. “But today’s not about her. It’s about Ashley. And I think that’s why I’m so nervous. Because Ashley doesn’t get awards… I somehow found the ability to put into words a version of myself that I actually didn’t mind being so much, at a time where I really hated myself. The Halsey that I get to be on paper, in songs and on the radio, she’s cool, I like her! She’s pretty badass. And so now I’ve immortalized a version of myself that’s amazing. But underneath all that is still just… me: Self-critical and vulnerable and terrified and so, so, so overwhelmingly thankful for this.”
Bonnie Raitt praised Prine’s keen knack for profound reflections on what might seem mundane to others. “The best songwriters and poets can get you to see something that may have been right there in front of you the whole time and you just never noticed. John can fit so much meaning and insight into such deceptively simple lines and leave a heart-wrenching moment of hilarity, empathy or hard fought truth into such beautiful stories and characters, then wrap them all up in melodies as comfortable as slipping into your favorite pair of jeans. What a gift!”
“I always dug the lyrics to songs,” Prine said. “I used to buy Country Song Roundup and Hit Parader and I’d see all the songwriter’s names and publishers and it was such a thrill for me. When I first started learning other people’s song I had trouble learning their lyrics, or remembering them. So I started making my own lyrics up. And bang! That was my beginning as a songwriter.”
“I love songwriting,” he continued. “I love to paint myself into a corner and have to rhyme my way out of it. And when I co-write I always try to pick out a really good restaurant, so if things ain’t happening in the first 30 minutes, just go: ‘Hey man, let’s go get some lunch.’”
Tempchin eloquently recalled how music was the centerpiece of his younger years and, like Yusuf, guided him through life’s journey. “When I was a small kid in San Diego I walked around the block whistling every song I could think of. Then I got a bicycle and I went up to the music store and bought a harmonica and worked out every song I could think of. Instead of playing outside, I sat in a chair and read books. Then I became Midnight Jack, staying out all night with the music people, the last guy to leave the party, always looking for the next song. But when your future becomes your present, like right now, sometimes it can totally rewrite your past. And all the whistling, harmonica playing, book reading and crazy nightlife seem like they’re okay now, like they were steps on the path to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
As the first female hip-hop and rapper to be inducted in the Hall, Elliott received praise from former First Lady Michelle Obama in a pre-recorded video speech. “Missy, I want to thank you for all of your trailblazing ways. Thank you not for just sharing your gift with the world, but for being an advocate for so many people out there, especially young girls who are still figuring out how to make their voices heard.”
Missy Elliott shared a wide range of emotions during her ten-minute speech. Reflecting on her first stab at writing songs as a toddler, she humorously said, “I didn’t think being on the side of my grandmother’s house and singing about roaches would lead me behind this podium today.” As she continued her speech she became overcome with emotion. “I get so emotional. I cry because it’s a lot to take. Twenty years! I’m just now realizing all the things I’ve done. I thank you all for letting me smell the flowers while I’m alive.” The tears then overtook her as the significance of the recognition hit her. “Even with all the work that I’ve done, I don’t know. I’m assuming it’s just God. I don’t know why I’m here.” She composed herself and finished with advice to aspiring songwriters. “I want to say one thing to the writers, to the upcoming writers, ‘Do not give up.’ We all go through writer’s block. Sometimes you just have to walk away from a record and come back to it. But don’t give up. Because I’m standing here- and this is big for hip-hop too.”
Tom T. Hall was not present to receive his award, but delivered a video speech thanking the Hall for the recognition. His close friend Peter Cooper, editor/writer for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, spoke of Hall’s importance to country music. “Tom T. Hall changed the very language of country music. He wrote sophisticated tales of simple people. He was Flannery O’Connor with six strings.” Jason Isbell performed a moving version of Hall’s ‘70s protest song “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken),” which chronicles a wounded war hero returning home after losing his legs. The song was occasionally covered by Isbell’s former band, the Drive-By Truckers, and undoubtedly served as an inspiration for Isbell’s own anti-war classic ‘Dress Blues.’
R&B producer Dallas Austin recalled writing to Warner Brothers Records as a young boy. “I was seven or eight years old when a melody hit me so hard that I had to learn how to play it. The song was ‘Soft and Wet’ by Prince. When I learned he played every instrument on the album I had to write Warner Brothers asking if the songs I sent to them on a cassette tape could be considered. They wrote back saying ‘Nope!’ They do not accept unsolicited material. No music deal for the eight year old Dallas.” Nevertheless Austin persisted. “But because someone on the other side of the Prince Warner Brothers album responded, even if it was a ‘no,’ I knew that all I had to do was keep on trying until somebody said ‘yes.’”
On the red carpet prior to the awards, American Songwriter caught up with inductee Jack Tempchin and captured attendees as they entered.
On writing ‘Slow Dancing (Swaying To The Music)’ recorded by Johnny Rivers:
“I was in a bar and I noticed that nobody got on the dance floor until they played a slow song because people wanted to get close to each other. So I thought there should be a song called ‘Slow Dancing.’ And about that time I met a girl and I was falling in love and I somehow felt like I captured the moments. And she’s still with me and we’ve been married for 46 years. I feel like it’s probably one of my best songs. Because every time I sing it, it all feels right.
Tempchin on his new upcoming record: “I have a new album produced by Gary Nicholson. It’s coming out on Mailboat Records, which is Jimmy Buffett’s label. I co-wrote one song with Gary and there’s one song I co-wrote with Glenn Frey which has never been recorded and one he recorded called ‘True Love.’ And then all the other songs are brand new.”