Songwriter U: Where Do Songs Come From?

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Thomm Jutz is a songwriter, producer and guitar player based in Nashville, TN.

He was nominated for a Grammy (R) for Best Bluegrass Album in 2020, and won the IBMA’s Songwriter of the Year award in 2021. He has had multiple number one Bluegrass songs as well as over 200 music placements in TV and Movies worldwide.

I’ve been living on a small peninsula in Percy Priest Lake for the past sixteen years.

It’s a quiet place. No street lights. I can walk to the lake in 5 minutes. 

The Corps of Engineers lowers the water level in the wintertime.

I stand and wonder about the foundations of the old houses on the bottom of the lake, about

the road that now dead-ends into the deep.

What was it like when this area was flooded by the TVA in the early 1960’s?

I take in the lake’s changing colors in spring, the heron – standing in the shallow water, silent.

That’s where songs come from.

Mister Willard’s farm house is still there, right before you enter into Long Hunter State Park, about half a mile from the lake shore.

He’s been gone six years now, he was ninety-three years old.

We used to see him every morning.

A World War II veteran whose twin brother was killed fighting in France.

Purple heart on a paneled living room wall, two old dogs on the front porch.

“How you doing, Mister Willard?”

“Oh, fair I guess – for ninety-three. Kindly warm today, ain’t it?”

His voice, high and shaky, like Earl Scruggs’.

His old home place is falling apart now.

A green porch light is glowing – somebody left it on. 

I have no idea how that light bulb lasted so long.

That’s where songs come from.

Neighbor Clay right across the street. 

If he stops you on your walk you’ll stand there for 15 minutes – easily.  

He’ll give you the rundown on what all is going on around here. 

If he sees that you need help with anything in the yard, he just shows up.

His half-brother Freddy buried back there in the family graveyard.

Overdosed, five years ago.

Their mother bent over his coffin saying “He’s always had terrible asthma.” – “We are so sorry, Miss Judy.”

Last year Miss Judy passed away. On the day of her funeral Clay said, “Gotta get that body put away, cemetery yonder’s getting full.”

That’s where songs come from.

The young family just a couple of houses down, with three small children.

He’s a police officer who mostly works night shifts. I see him leaving around 5pm every evening.

Photo credit: Anthony Scarlatti

What’s he dealing with when we go to bed?

Nina and Rick, with their new puppy Alice.

When old Darcey died we grieved with them as we did over our own dogs, Stella and Lucy,

friends for so many years – adjectives don’t do them justice.

That’s where songs come from – for me. 

Where has the time gone? 

I’ll tell you exactly where the time has gone: down the street, around the peninsula and back, every day, quietly, just the dogs and us. And for now, just us, my wife and me.

I probably wrote a couple hundred songs about this little piece of land.

————-

The TV in our house stays off pretty much all the time. Books and guitars are everywhere.

I pick up a book, open a random page and read a couple of sentences. 

I play my guitar first thing in the morning. 

By getting into the habit of paying attention, there’s a part of the brain that stays dedicated to the writing process all the time. Not just when I actually sit down to write, but also when I work in our garden, go for a run, cook a meal, or during any other activity. 

In a nutshell – my job as a songwriter is to pay attention.

The apostle Paul encouraged his followers to “pray without ceasing”, to me, there’s a parallel here to “paying attention without ceasing”, to honoring creation by creating.

Images worth writing about show up in the most unusual places. One of my favorite writers, the great poet and novelist Ron Rash, says that most of his novels start with one image.

I take mental notes, I keep a journal for ideas, I may take a photo or record melodic ideas or guitar patterns on my phone. If I don’t hold and honor those moments, those ideas are gone. 

That’s the first part of my writing process.

The second part is letting my subconscious mind help me with the work. Not every idea wants to be written right away, sometimes they’re like riddles. I’ve had lines or titles for songs that I walked around with for a year but just couldn’t find the right way to approach them.

One of those titles was “Help Me To Hold On” – it drove me crazy for a year, I knew that it was worth writing, but I didn’t know how to approach it. One morning while walking my dog Lucy, I found the key that unlocked that idea. Milan Miller and I finished it and Balsam Range put it on a record.

My friend, the late, great Tom T. Hall, one of the greatest songwriters ever to grace this planet, placed great emphasis on utilizing stream of consciousness. Letting words and sentences flow on the page, in an unedited stream of consciousness, is a way of using the subconscious mind.

Creative imagination, sitting somewhere and following a thought, envisioning it as a downward- moving spiral, is a way of using the subconscious mind. 

All of it helps to develop images, ideas and sentences into songs.

On to the third part of my writing process.

William Faulkner said, “I only write when I’m inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”

James Dickey said, “God will give you the first line, you have to work like hell for the rest.”

It always comes down to this: butt in seat, pen in hand, looking at a blank sheet of paper, messing around with a melody or a chord progression. 

I have to write all the time to feel like I’m at the top of my game. Like an athlete has to run, or spend time in the weight room, I have to practice writing.

A great classical violin player cannot bypass daily practice, no matter how advanced, or experienced, neither can I, I have to keep my writing muscles working.

To me, that means keeping 3-4 co-writing appointments per week, as well as writing on my own.

It means keeping my chops up as a guitar player.

It means paying attention to what I put in my body and working out.

It means reading – the more I read, the more I write.

It means taking breaks.

I don’t wait for inspiration to come to me, I run towards it.

When I write, I have permission to re-invent the universe and my place in it – you do, too.

What a liberating thought!

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

8 Comments

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    • As an amateur photographer and a lyricist, I have seen how being present, of noticing the way the sunlight hits the bark of a tree and so a photograph is taken, or hearing a word or phrase that inspires a song, are very similar. Listening and watching in wonder, following our senses and thoughts – isn’t it thrilling?! I’m inspired by so many things. Today you were my inspiration. Thank you!

  1. Mr. Jutz,
    This is one of the finest pieces on writing in general –not just songwriting–that I have read. I used to teach creative writing in some fancy school, and I wish I had this article then to share with my students. But for now, I keep plugging away at my own stuff and reading your article gives me hope. Thank you.

  2. Mr Jutz I was really inspired by your article. I have just finally begun to put some of my thoughts on paper at age 63. I found that if I could pull things out of me that I’ve hidden away deep inside of me and just write them down it’s a big help. As I’ve gotten older I noticed the things around me while my life has kind of slowed down. I find that the beautiful kind acts seem to be the exception and not the norm. I think your article will help me look deeper at the things around me and to realize there’s a lot more cool stuff going on out there than I thought thanks again.

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