BLACKHAWK: Q&A

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

To misquote Shakespeare, “The song’s the thing,” and with no group is that more obvious than it is with BlackHawk.  After two CDs and over 10 charted singles, including “Every Once In A While” and “I’m Not Strong Enough To Say No,” it is conceivable that BlackHawk could be the group which heralds the sound of 21st century country music.

BlackHawk emerged just about the time some thought country music was about to fall on its tin ear.  Instead, the trio of Henry Paul, Van Stephenson, and Dave Robbins, beamed it up from the doldrums of mediocrity, cutting through the clouds like a laser of clear white light.

To misquote Shakespeare, “The song’s the thing,” and with no group is that more obvious than it is with BlackHawk.  After two CDs and over 10 charted singles, including “Every Once In A While” and “I’m Not Strong Enough To Say No,” it is conceivable that BlackHawk could be the group which heralds the sound of 21st century country music.

BlackHawk emerged just about the time some thought country music was about to fall on its tin ear.  Instead, the trio of Henry Paul, Van Stephenson, and Dave Robbins, beamed it up from the doldrums of mediocrity, cutting through the clouds like a laser of clear white light.

The prime factor in this re-orientation of country music is the song itself.  While Paul was a founding member of the legendary Southern rock band, The Outlaws, Stephenson and Robbins collaborated as the dynamic songwriting duo behind hits for Restless Heart, Kenny Rogers, Dan Seals, Reba McIntire and Eric Clapton, among others.

While the three of them have developed into a formidable songwriting trio, their CDs also reflect the contributions of some 20 other songwriters.  The reason is simple: for BlackHawk the song really is the thing.  In the following interview, the members of BlackHawk offer their ideas and opinions about writing songs in 20 questions put them by American Songwriter.

AS: What is the difference between writing for yourselves now versus writing for other recording artists?

Dave: We used to say, ‘Hey, let’s sit down and write a hit.’  You just try to write a commercial song without selling out too much.  But, writing for BlackHawk is a little different deal, trying to write stuff that lends itself to harmonies rather than just this wonderful melody that a solo artist can sing.

AS: So there is more freedom and latitude in what you can write for yourself.

Henry: Not only freedom; you emphasize it.  Most of what we’ve had success with has been made on the cooler side of the fence.  We just gravitate toward that because it satisfies a certain intellectual – musically speaking sensibility.

AS: That’s more characteristic of pop music, isn’t it?

Van: I think that’s where we are coming from musically.  We all have a good history in country music, but we all grew up listening to pop music.  The two are intertwined in our songwriting.  If it’s a real traditional song, we can’t sing it – you won’t believe it if we sing it because we’re not that.

AS: This is really a group of songwriters.

Van: We sweat blood over what we record.  We spend more of our energy writing and listening to songs.  I have a little studio we take on the road and we do demos in our hotel room.  We sit in hotel rooms 150 days a year with guitars and writing is by far the most important thing when it comes to making a record.

AS: Can you take more chances when you’re writing your own songs to record?

Van: I think you’ve got to.  Look at “Strawberry Wine.”  That’s a pretty chancy record.  If you want to play it safe, you can.  There are plenty of people who will let you do that.  But I’m not afraid of taking chances at all.

AS: Talk about your early days as songwriters.

Dave: When we started out there was only a handful of artists who wrote their own material, or had anything to do with it.  Everybody looked for songs.  Very few people were involved with writing their own music.  You sat down and wrote songs because everybody was looking for them.  We also had a publisher, Bob Montgomery, who was very hands-on.  He was a great song man and a writer himself.  But we were just writing what we felt and all these people were recording them.  That’s what we did with BlackHawk; it was kind of a natural evolution.

AS: Tell me an advantage of co-writing.

Van: I used to write by myself when I first started.  It would take forever.  We get together and write a song in two or three hours.  It would take two or three weeks by myself and I still wouldn’t know what I had.  It’s just really good to have other people there.

AS: Co-writing can speed up the re-writing process.

Henry: We wrote a song one day called “Good Love Gone Bad.”  I thought it was a great song.  We came back the next day and Van says, ‘Let’s call it “Bad Love Gone Good.”‘  As it turns out, that was a good call.  We re-wrote the chorus and John Anderson cut it, and we cut it on our second record.  That’s just part of learning how to write with someone – being sensitive to other people’s ideas.

AS: Are the great song men, publishers like Bob Montgomery, as prevalent today as they once were?

Van: I don’t think so.  Most of the small companies have been swallowed up by the bigger publishers.  You don’t get that kind of personal attention.  They also have song quotas now, which quite honestly is a damper on a writer’s career – to have to boil his contribution down to numbers.  I think it’s the worst thing they ever did in this town.

AS: That can result in mediocrity because a writer is trying to meet his or her quota of completed and turned in songs for the year.

Henry: If you compare Nashville to the NFL, in a way, they both just keep expanding.  The talent pool is still the same, but there are more teams to go around and you’re farming out songs to twice as many artists.  Well, they all can’t be good songs.  People complain of stuff sounding alike.

AS: Giving writers song quotas is a bit like telling a traffic cop to give a so many tickets a month.  Somebody might get one they don’t deserve.

Dave: When you love to write songs as we do, and it’s really a part of you, it can to a certain degree take the fun out of it.  When you’re under the gun, it’s November and you’ve still got 10 more songs to write  – I guess that’s my biggest gripe about it.

AS: I think that you guys would be pretty self-motivated to write great songs for yourselves.

Van: Song quotas just add unneeded pressure to the whole situation.  Nobody needs to stick a fire under us to get us to write.  We know that in another14 months we’re gonna be in the studio again.  We want to be on our own records.  If it doesn’t add up to what’s on a piece of paper in somebody’s office, I’m sorry, but they’re gonna get some last minute tunes that aren’t what they should be.

AS: Is eavesdropping on conversations a good source of ideas for songs?

Henry: I heard this said and I believe it’s true.  One of the most important qualities of being a great songwriter is being a good listener.  You’ll hear great titles if you shut up and listen.  People say them all the time.

AS: Do you write down these ideas or trust your memory?

Van: I write titles down.  People give me business cards and I write titles down on them.  My wallet’s full of them right now.  That’s usually how songs come to me – in the form of titles.

AS: Do you read much, and is that a stimulus?

Van: Sure it is.  Anytime you put words in your head, you’re gonna get stimulation from it.  I read self-help books – because I need a lot of self-help.

Henry: It’s awesome; it is to me.  I read American Literature.  Dave is more up on the best sellers.

AS: Why don’t each of you tell me what was the hardest part of songwriting for you to learn.

Dave: When I moved to this town, I didn’t have a clue about lyric writing.  I’d write all this keyboard stuff and just put anything I could think of to go with it that rhymed but I started listening and somewhere a light clicked on, and I started contributing something that made the lyric clear or said it in a different way.

Van: I used to write songs that wandered off into emotional things that probably only I was feeling and was going to get.  To make it good is something I still chase.

Henry: I learned that if you’re going to be the character in a song, it’s important to be someone who’s likeable.  If you write a character into a song and his behavior is unattractive, basically nobody’s going to want to hear it anyway.  That was a big breakthrough for me.

AS: What about originality in a lyric?

Van: There are just so many words and rhymes, like fire-desire and true-blue, that after you’ve written for a while and you’ve written so many songs with those words in them, you try to transcend that trap of using those easy rhymes.

Henry: Another thing too – you don’t want to write “cuts like a knife” – that’s just a suggestion.

AS: You’ve also been an outlet for great, unique songs by writers other than yourselves.

Dave: “Just About Right” was Jeff Black’s first cut.  Hit songs sort of sit back, and a lot of people never get to hear them because they’re just a little different.

AS: Writing quality songs isn’t easy is it?

Henry: There’s a very broad misconception of what Nashville will take for a song.  People think country music is easy to write because they think in terms of history, instead of the present or the future.  Songs that are being written today are songs that are on the couches of every psychoanalyst.  You’ve really got to go deep to get it over the fence.


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