Q&A with Trapper Haskins
September/October 2009 Lyric Contest
Amateur Lyric Contest | 4th Place
Did any songs inspire you (consciously or subconsciously) to write “Out-of-State Tags”? The lyrics have a sort of “Tangled Up In Blue” feel.
That’s certainly a flattering comparison. I can’t say that I modeled it after anything specific, but I was probably listening to a lot of Drive-By Truckers at the time, especially Jason Isbell’s stuff like “Outfit” and “The Day John Henry Died”. I really like how he threads together very exact images to create the mood in those songs.
The hook (or tag) in the song actually has to do with, um, “tags.” Coincidence? When you write, is part of your technique finding a hook or tagline to make the song more accessible or memorable to the audience?
Yeah, the “tag” reference is purely coincidental. And yes, I think it’s important to work towards a memorable title or a clever twist in the hook. By that I don’t mean some cliché phrase or cute pun (there seems to be no shortage of those). I like to seek out something universal, but try to convey it from a personal perspective using very specific and concrete imagery.
The detail of the images—”floodlights,” “tin full of snuff,” “meteorites”—make familiar scenes like returning home or a young lovers car ride come a bit more alive. How do you craft images like these into your songs?
The images are largely from my own experience or stories I’ve been told. I always try to concern myself with the details in the lyric first. The details will take care of the mood, the theme, and the broader sense of the song. It’s not enough, for instance, to tell the audience that a girl has beautiful eyes. They want to hear that she wears horn rimmed glasses and too much eyeliner.
“Out-Of-State Tags” is a personal narrative, with a character looking back on his memory of a time/place. Do you often write from a personal point of view?
I do often write from a personal point of view, though I am not always the person. In this case, the character is my dad. He was raised Columbia, TN, but hasn’t lived there in forty years. Well, I played a gig down there, and before I left town I drove down to the courthouse. There was no one there, so I put the car in park right in the middle of the square and just looked around at all the darkened store fronts. I wrote that song on the drive home.
Describe your songwriting process. Do you start with a melody, lyric, idea? Do you seek out co-writers or re-write ideas from friends?
I almost never start with an idea or theme in mind. It usually starts where I’ve got the guitar or I’m humming a melody while driving and the chord progression or the tune will suggest a certain mood. I might fumble around lyrically trying out different phrases or images and if one sticks I’ll build on that. I also find that the verses usually come to me first. I haven’t done much co-writing, but I play with some other writers and it’s been beneficial to get their feedback on some new song I’ve worked up.
Tell us about the most sublime songwriting experience you’ve ever had.
I play a writer’s night down in McMinnville, TN about every week and there is an old man, Aubrey, who is always in the audience. He must be in his 70s. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He just sits and listens to the writers’ songs. At some point during my set he will always call out requesting one of my other songs, “May Rain is a June River”. I’m 32, and I find the fact that this man two generations older feels a connection with something I’ve written to be incredibly moving. It’s been very rewarding to play it for him.
What’s your ultimate goal as a songwriter? Creative or professional, or both…
Professionally, I would love to support my wife and kids doing this. I swing a hammer for a living and have for years, but I can’t stop writing. I keep a notepad in my tool belt on the jobsite and scribble down song fragments. The lunch break stories have, more than a few times, found their way into some my songs. Creatively, I would just like to have a body of work that I am proud of, that says something, and that is appreciated. I think that’s probably the aim of most writers.