This song should be required listening for every aspiring songwriter in any genre of music, and a few of the veteran writers could stand to listen to it once or twice too.
Songs that make a difference in someone’s life are the kinds of songs that we should hear every day. Whether the song makes someone laugh when they are sad, cry because they have been there, or fall in love all over again, it should touch someone every time that it’s played on the radio or every time it is played at home or in a car.This song should be required listening for every aspiring songwriter in any genre of music, and a few of the veteran writers could stand to listen to it once or twice too.
Songs that make a difference in someone’s life are the kinds of songs that we should hear every day. Whether the song makes someone laugh when they are sad, cry because they have been there, or fall in love all over again, it should touch someone every time that it’s played on the radio or every time it is played at home or in a car.
The evening that Cash describes in this song must have been a magical one. The songs sung by the songwriters during that guitar pull have become standards: “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” “Both Side Now,” “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” “A Boy Named Sue.” What an opportunity to hear some of those songs for the first time, sung by the writer in someone’s living room. I know I’d love to have been there.
Those evenings still happen in Nashville. I would guess just about every day a songwriter somewhere sits down with friends and plays them new songs. I know it happens among my friends all the time. It can also happen, but on a larger scale, at a club during writer’s nights. You know it’s a special moment when the writer says “I just finished this song and I want to see what you think about it” to his audience. While that song may touch you and other people in the room at the time, only time will tell whether it will be recorded and the songwriter will be able to touch others through his words.
Larry Gatlin was the instigator for this Johnny Cash song.
“Larry came over one night when I was doing my last album and we were talking about songs,” Cash recalled. “He was singing me a song he’d just written.”
Gatlin remembered the day in even more detail.
“It was a rainy old day and I was going to see John,” Gatlin said. “I love him very much and I told him I thought he was a hero and I thought people had started taking him for granted. There was a time when he was a real spokesman for the underdog and the working man, the country man – the man in black, and just because he’s been around for a while doesn’t mean that he can’t continue to be.”
The two started talking about the night recalled in the song, a night when, gathered in one room, were some of the greatest songwriters of all time: Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Mickey Newbury, Joni Mitchell, Joe South, Graham Nash, Shel Silverstein. There people sang their songs: “A Boy Named Sue,” “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” “Both Sides Now.” They were songs that became rulers by which other songs are measured.
“I told John that we need to hear great songs again and I know he can write them,” Gatlin said. “I said, ‘John, if you gather around you again the great songwriters that you used to have come over to your house, who used to sit and sing those great songs, you could do it again.”
“I said ‘John, there was a time when the music was important. We have to redouble our efforts to make the songs we sing important again. We have to do songs that make a difference.”
All this was going on while the two were discussing the upcoming Highwayman project, and when Gatlin made the statement “we have to do songs that make a difference,” Cash responded “I like that title better than any of them.”
“So Gatlin said to me, ‘why don’t you write it’ and I did, and I brought it to the session and we recorded it,” Cash said.
Songs can make a difference in people’s lives. A songwriter friend of mine told me once time that he writes songs for people who don’t know how to express themselves in words. When they hear it in a song they think “that’s how I feel,” or “that’s what I’d like to say to (whomever).”
I think that’s a very true statement. I know I’ve felt that way before when I’ve heard a certain song. When you feel that way when you hear a song, that’s the song that makes a difference in your life. When you’re the writer of that song that makes a difference, you are a very fortunate and talented individual.