d.b.a. Songwriters: “The House That Built Me”

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Videos by American Songwriter


Writers wonder more about what it takes to get a cut these days than just about anything else. Lots of things are cited…networking, business acumen, demo quality, even how to shake hands properly. But very rarely do we see actual, tangible examples of success from a song craftsmanship point of view.

A writer submitted a song to me recently about a situation that made him think of his childhood past. He submitted two rewrites to me, each one targeting my suggestions from the previous critique. Instead of telling him what to do next I thought I’d use an example of another song that took someone back to their childhood memories…this year’s CMA song of the year, ”The House that Built Me”, performed by Miranda Lambert and written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin. I sort of reverse engineered it, so to speak, by asking the question, what would Miranda’s song be like if it had been written like your song? You may be interested in my comments.

Dear xxxxxx,

Your chorus does a better job of saying how seeing those kids remind you of a time when things were simpler. You paint a picture of someone who sometimes is reminded of his/her youth and thinks back on times when the crises and issues of adulthood were still far away. In your bridge you say if you experience this again you won’t mind and might even enjoy it.

It’s a sweet song, it makes us all smile, we can all relate, and musically it’s very nice.

To discuss it on the level of market potential is another matter. The problem you face with this song is there have been thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of songs written about ‘sometimes I long for my youth’. So to tackle such a topic it’s mandatory that you approach it from a unique perspective. You might be unique in being reminded of it while being stuck behind a school bus, but having that be the thing that makes it unique just wouldn’t be enough to make a dent on today’s market. Listen to Miranda Lambert’s song “The House that Built Me”. It’s obviously not the exact same idea that you put forth in your song, but it’s a song in which the singer is thinking back on her youth with sadness as well as a smile so I’d like to use it as a comparison for a moment.

Imagine if all the lines the first verse in that song basically said she was trying to get somewhere and wound up at her old house. Then imagine the whole 2nd verse was devoted to an image that reminded her of her and brother playing (or perhaps another image from the past). Then imagine that the 3rd verse was devoted to another single image that reminded her of her friends (or, again, perhaps another childhood experience). Then imagine the entire message of the bridge was ‘I hope to come back here again someday’. My question is, would that song pack the punch that it does now?

Look at the 1st verse:

I know they say you can’t go home again
I just had to come back one last time
Ma’am I know you don’t know me from Adam
But these handprints on the front steps are mine

Right away there’s intrigue…she’s gone back to her house, but we’re drawn in by how it’s said. The listener perks up and asks, “Why not go home again? What’s this about?” Then what draws us in further is the fact that there’s someone else living there, and we know that even though she doesn’t actually tell us that. In one sentence she conveys it precisely, not to mention beautifully/poetically, by saying “Ma’am, I know you don’t know….are mine.” Right away there’s all kinds of intrigue, emotion, and this suggestion that this woman in the house has seen those handprints and until today didn’t know who’s they were. It also speaks to the fact that there’s a piece of her (the singer) that’s indelibly imprinted (literally, and emotionally) on that house.

All this intrigue, curiosity, sentimentality, and emotion, while at the same time providing the factual information necessary to develop the plot. We know how she feels, plus we even have a sense of the surprise in the woman who answered the door. All this, and in only four simple lines!

Look at the 2nd verse.

Up those stairs in that little back bedroom
Is where I did my homework and I learned to play guitar
I bet you didn’t know under that live oak
My favorite dog is buried in the yard

I don’t say this to berate your lyric, but if you read this next verse you’ll see she provides more factual information about her youth in these 4 lines than you have cited in your entire song. But not only does she provide us with the factual events and images necessary to move the plot, we’re also shown so much emotion that surrounded those events…the pain and broken heart experienced through the loss of her dog, the accomplishment made in learning the guitar, the hours of work put in doing homework, as well as the safety and warmth provided through the image of ‘that little back bedroom’. All in four frickin’ lines!!!!! We already feel like we know her at this point, and we recognize that house. We get it. We feel for her. We wonder what other pain she felt. We wonder about her brothers and sisters, if she had any. She doesn’t say, “this all reminded me of playing with my sister” because she doesn’t have to. It’s almost like we hear kids voices, dogs barking, what else….

I could keep going but I can’t write this all night so I’ll skip to the bridge: It says:

You leave home and you move on and you do the best you can, I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am.

There it is. The point to the entire song is revealed. Simply telling us the story wouldn’t have made it “song worthy.” There had to be something to sing about. And what’s worth singing about is the fact that this girl needed to go through this experience to learn more about herself and gain something for her life that would help her in the future…perhaps even save her from herself. That’s a message that’s worthy of sharing with the world. Maybe we can do the same thing, even if not literally, perhaps in spirit.

There’s a purpose in telling us this story that goes way, way beyond, “I went back to my old house and it made me feel good, and maybe I’ll do it again.”

Songs have to take the literal facts of a story and turn them into something else…something that transcends the basic plot of “what happened,” or “what I did,” or “what I experienced.” It has to really make something special out of something simple. That’s the way real life is…amazing things happen out of silly little events, and that’s what we want to hear about in songs. It’s not enough to write an account of the silly little event itself. It’s how the silly little event changed you and made you into something new. Furthermore, it’s about how what she learned from that silly little event might change us and make us into something new.

Finally, there’s the craftsmanship in this song. Look at the hook. She’s standing there talking to the lady at the door, asking her if she can come in, and cleverly says, “I swear, won’t take nothing but a memory”. That’s some serious songwriting right there. Talk about building on a common expression and using a little word play to lay out some raw emotion…wow. And of course the word play of “the house that built me.” It’s a turn of a phrase, but not for the sake of turning a phrase ‘cuz (said with a twang) that’s what ya do in country music. And especially not for the sake of being clever or cute. She turns a simple phrase, but in so doing makes the statement of a lifetime. The singer states with absolute clarity, “This house helped form who I am today.” That is pretty major word usage right there. The subtle craft if songwriting…there it is, right before your eyes.

I wanted to point out what songs have to do these days to compete on Music Row. They have to pack a serious punch. You can write a song about a simple experience and talk about how it made you feel, and you might make people smile and even feel good when you sing it, and if you do that you’ve succeeded as a songwriter. But if you want to get a cut by a major artist you have to take it up a few notches and take those every day experiences that make people smile and reveal something about life that will stick with your listeners and make them think about their own lives, perhaps from an entirely different perspective.

That’s how hard it is. That’s probably why I still don’t have a major cut…I’m still figuring this stuff out. I have lots of songs that’ll make people smile, but I may only have one or two that even tip their hats to this level of craftsmanship. There’s so much to it and these writers…they’re good. Their so good that they make it look easy. It’s so free and natural that we don’t even recognize the craft sometimes. It’s flat out deceptive.

Hope this helps. (the rest of those lyrics are listed below if you’re curious. I only touched on the chorus and there’s another verse that gets even deeper into the personal stuff that this experience highlighted.)

I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out here it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself
If I could walk around I swear I’ll leave
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me
Mama cut out pictures of houses for years
From Better Homes and Gardens magazine
Plans were drawn and concrete poured
Nail by nail and board by board
Daddy gave life to mama’s dream
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out here it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself
If I could walk around I swear I’ll leave
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me
You leave home and you move on and you do the best you can
I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out here it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself
If I walk around I swear I’ll leave
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me



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Bill Renfrew has an extensive background in teaching songwriting and evaluating songs, and has years of professional experience consulting on songwriting and song rewriting, which he does through his website. He owns and operates Write THIS Music, an independent music publishing company, and Bombshelter Recording Studio, both of which are located in Nashville, TN. For more Renfrew, check out Writethismusic.com.

 

 

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  1. Awesome Bill, I printed this off, and I will keep reading it over
    and over to digest your full message. I am working on a new song, so this will help me. Looking forward to working with you again, thanks for everything, Cheryl

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