That songs can be an instrument of change is no big news to songwriters. It’s one of the reasons we got into the song business. In that fast passage of time, just a handful of minutes, songwriters create
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to readers of this magazine, for whom the power of song remains, even in the madness of modern times, the most compelling tool with which we can effect change. It’s that concept that led hit songwriters Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, best known for their beautifully poignant “The House That Built Me,” which was a #1 hit for Miranda Lambert, to create Shatter The Madness, a four-song project with vocals by Douglas, and four songs of courage, redemption and healing. Comprising a compelling narrative story arc, it begins with their own take on “The House That Built Me” and extends to “Legacy,” about the generation that fought in WWII. From there we go to “Good Man Gone Bad,” which reflects the modern dilemma of which bad things happen, even to good people. And it all culminates with “Shatter The Madness,” an modern anthem for everyone clinging to clarity, to sanity, even in the face of ongoing insanity.
Asked if this project signals a shift for Tom Douglas from songwriter to artist, he said, “No, I wasn’t thinking in those terms. We’re putting out these songs just to start a conversation. And I think they already have. And honestly, that’s as good as it gets. If it didn’t get any farther than this, it would still be mission accomplished. We did this just because we had to. And we had the ability to do it. We’ve been so blessed, we love the creative process. So let’s just share the music on a little different level.”
Each song will be released over this summer, concluding with the title song and music video, “Shatter the Madness,” which will be released between the end of the Republican National Convention and the start of the Democratic National Convention. It can be seen here.
American Songwriter took this opportunity to sit down with the two songwriters and discuss this project, and their ideas on songwriting in general. But because both Tom and Allen are such thoughtful and generous with songwriting wisdom, this turned into a much larger conversation on the unique nature of songwriting itself. This is the first part of that conversation.
American Songwriter: Where does a song start when you two write together?
Tom Douglas: It generally starts with Allen.
Allen Shamblin: That’s not true.
Tom: It’s usually true.
Allen: We both start them.
The song “Legacy“ is so moving, and tough to get through without tears. It’s about all the American fathers who went to war. My own dad fought in WWII, as did so many, and that impacted all of our lives to this day. And most of that generation is gone.
Allen: Well, you know, my parents and my wife’s parents are elderly. And yes, as you said, ” When that generation goes, they’re gone forever.” And that is what that song meant to me. There wasn’t a whole lot of planning or any of that, it was just emotion with no words to it. And when I went over to Tom’s house, we just began to excavate it, excavate the idea, and it just started to reveal itself. And our fathers, both of our fathers appeared in that song in different lines. And it was a very emotional day, for sure.
I can imagine. Though you said there’s no words to it, you sure found the right words. The words are remarkable.
Allen: Yeah. When Tom and I write, this happens often, it’s more like remembering than writing. We sit down, and we just start to remember, and write visually from what we see in our memories. And that’s sort of how the song progressed. With images.
I mean, the first car we had was a ’57 Chevy that I remember, and my dad was so proud of that car and loved that car. And I remember when we were kids, it caught on fire. And it’s sitting in a junkyard in Charleston, Tennessee, somewhere. I’ve got a picture of it.
I’m not trying to say this is all about my father. This was truly a collaboration and a joining of hearts and trying to honor our fathers. And it was even more than just our fathers. It was a generation we were trying to honor.
Speaking of that Chevy, that line about how you can tear down a ’57 Chevy or build the American dream, that’s a strong line.
Tom: I think what Allen and I have sensed in our twelve years of collaborating is the increased disconnection that we have from really who we are. It’s cultural, part of it’s the speed of light, part of its technology. There are a myriad of leads and complicating factors for it. But I think the affect in all of this is we just forget who we are. It’s so easy, I think, to get lost, now, than I can remember.
Allen and I’ve both got children in their twenties, and we often talk about how ironic it is that we’re so technologically connected but people feel so isolated.
So these songs really want to give a voice to the feeling everybody has, that feeling of being lost and disconnected. Allen and I really wanted to give a voice to that. We all feel lost and disconnected, but at the same time, you know, there is a way to get back home.
So really, that is part of the story, this legacy. But it starts with “The House That Built Me,” which is our first song, in which the protagonist comes back home to find himself. Suddenly, the amnesia starts to lessen, and the scales fall from his eyes. And he looks around in that house, and he realizes, “God, look at the reason why I am who I am. I’m kind of found, because of what my family has done for me. Particularly, you know, my father. It’s the father being the central figure in the story.
When I interviewed you about “The House That Built Me” back in 2010, you mentioned the Eudora Welty quote, “If you know one house really well, you know every house.” And you applied that principle to your songwriting. All these songs are so rich with details and memories.
Allen: The way Tom and I co-write, and I think Tom will affirm this, there’s really no agenda and no intellectualizing going forward. When we co-write, we sit down and try to write our deepest joy or our deepest sorrow that day, whatever it is. And after all these years, it seemed like there’s this thread running through these songs.
We got to a place almost like a song idea, where when you get a song idea, we don’t try to impose our will on it, we try to serve it. And we got these songs, we started thinking about how do we best serve these songs? So that’s kind of how we’re here.
That’s such a good lesson for songwriters, that you don’t impose your will on a song. It’s not like building any normal thing, but that you have to go into the song and kind of follow where the song leads you.
Allen: Exactly, exactly.
And how do you do that? That’s the hard question.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. It’s unique. It isn’t like any other kind of activity in life.
Allen: How do we do it? We just jump in. Working with Tom, it’s like spontaneous combustion. I mean, we sit, we talk, we go to our respective legal pads. And so many times, Tom will come out with this amazing verse, or chorus, or idea. And I’m over there trying to do the same.
And then once we have something on the table, a piece of granite rock, so to speak, we start chiseling. We just go at it and really, I love working with Tom in that he is so willing to abandon a good line for a better line. And he never gets married to the line. We can be in the studio doing the demo, and if somehow, we decide that even our favorite line is not serving the song like it needs to, there is no deliberation. We just go for it. Because in the room and in the process, the song is always the star. We’re just trying to serve it. I keep going back to that word serve. I’m not coming from a moral idea. I learned that the hard way. I learned from years of trying to impose my will and coming up with songs that were just flat and laid there. I realized that there’s dimensions to this that we don’t fully understand yet. And I just try, and Tom’s the same, in that I think we try to open up and go wherever we’re supposed to.
I see a big part of the magic is that you guys have so much respect for each other. You seem to have found a perfect collaboration. When I first interviewed Tom, you gave Allen credit for coming up with the title, “The House That Built Me.” Which not every songwriter does. That’s an important title. And you’re both so generous in your praise for each other.
Allen: Well, that’s Tom. Tom has a gift for making – and I think this is important in collaboration – for making your writer feel comfortable and making them feel they’re fully accepted and fully appreciated. Tom’s incredible at that. And I hope I do the same for him. Because, you know, I might’ve had the sparkplug for “The House That Built Me,” but he came along with the transmission. It’s a true collaboration, top to bottom.
Tom: Great collaborations are really like love. You could go on a lot of blind dates, but when it’s love, you know, it’s just magic. It’s undeniable.
Allen: Tom carries the ball. He’s brilliant at both words and music. He’ll tell me to pick up my guitar, but then he goes to the piano and the guitar. So I would say, Tom quarterbacks the melody, if you want to put it that way.
Tom: You know how it is. You can play C, A minor, F, and G, and then all of a sudden, you know, Allen picks up the guitar, and all of a sudden, he plays a C, A minor, D minor, and G, and all of a sudden, it’s like, oh, man, that’s – that’s it. It very hard to separate it. I almost prefer to look at it just as the whole. I’m not unwilling to dissect it. When you’re in the room, sometimes, just somebody being in the room changes the molecules of a song, even literally if they didn’t say anything.
Allen: We both write by ourselves, and we both have always written by ourselves. So we’ll go our separate ways for a couple days, or a week, or whatever. And then we come back, and share, and say, what do you have? And what do you have? And just merge it. And look for the lines that excite us. We I look across the room and see that twinkle in Tom’s eye, I go – I get excited, you know? And then – so that’s kind of how we do it.
The song “Shatter the Madness” is the title of this collection, and quite a song. I love how you set up that title with the words “scatter the sadness.” It’s a perfect rhyme, but for the entire title, not just one syllable.
Allen: Well, that was Tom. I was fortunate enough that day to come in just like any other day, and Tom says, “What do you think of a song called `Shatter the Madness’?”
Tom: Allen and I love pure rhyme. Any time that we can do that, we certainly want to do that. We’re not as strict as you know, Jimmy Webb is. Or Stephen Sondheim, or one of the greats. But I love pure rhyme. That’s where that started.
The concept of that when you started feeling, a few years ago, this accelerated feeling of everything spinning out of control. And all of a sudden, a phrase just pops in your mind like words written across the windshield. So, all of a sudden, I just saw that. So just go ahead and admit that and let everybody say they feel different. They feel crazy, don’t they? Rather than pretending everything’s just fine. Somehow, the nuttiness, the loneliness, the depression, you know, the anxiety, all that lessens its power on us if we just go ahead and acknowledge that it’s there.
But then at the end of the song, you find the antidote. “Love is the only hammer strong enough to scatter the sadness, shatter the madness.” I asked Allen, “Doesn’t that sound like a couple songwriters who had to find redemption at the end of a lot of terrible things? Can you defend that line? ”
Allen: All I could say was, “You don’t have to defend love.” I mean, we can’t defend love. Love can defend itself. Love’s big enough to defend itself.
That’s another whole song right there.
Allen: Yeah, we weren’t intellectualizing when we wrote it, so it’s hard to go back and crack it open as if we were really smart enough to write it. Just like we always do, we follow the laughter, we follow the tears. We follow the beat that makes us want to move. It’s all about the next thing that moves us the most deeply and the next line that’s the truest. And that’s kind of how we wrote it. But looking back, I was thinking, oh my gosh, I can’t really intellectualize it or unpack it that way. All I know is I do know that love’s big enough to defend itself.
To set up the title also with that line, that only love is a hammer strong enough, that’s such a solid way of expressing that. It’s an image and an abstraction both.
Tom: It’s the paradox that we love, it’s the irony, the yin and the yang. And I think that as wordsmiths, that’s what we just love. Seeing words that have a sudden traction when you put them on paper in the right order. And “love is the hammer to shatter the madness” just felt good to sing and looks great on paper. Shatter is such a great word. It’s one of the words that sound like themselves? Onomatopoeia. And you want to come up with symbols. Allen and I love metaphor. I think the power of metaphor is unlimited. Though when you start looking for metaphor, you almost do go mad because you see metaphor everywhere.
Yes. Your use of physical symbols is strong in all your songs. We spoke back in 2010 about if you make something really specific, it’s even more universal. And this song has the paint peeling and all these really beautiful specific images that add so much richness to the songs.
Allen: Yes, since I was a kid, I was always drawn to a song that I could see while I was hearing it.
Yeah. Yeah, you mentioned Jimmy Webb, and he sure does that, you know?
Tom: Yes, yes, yes.
Allen: Yeah, oh my gosh. Yes.
Tom: There is sense-bound songwriting. With the taste, the touch, the smell, the sight, the sound, and the motion of the body. I taught lyric writing at Belmont for five years, and that was a great concept. We just literally write that on the top of your page when you start a song and then just try to incorporate those elements in it, it really does beef up your lyrics.
It’s interesting when you both said you don’t intellectualize the thing while you’re doing it. So part of the process is not thinking too much about it, but letting it happen and see where it goes.
Allen: Yeah. The inner critic needs to be shrunk down smaller. It can be in the room, but it has to be very small. And the critic, after the song’s written, is allowed to grow. To enlarge itself a little bit to really look over the song. But there’s me and Tom in the room, and there’s just not enough room for a big critic to sit there with you.
Because if you criticize it too early on, you just destroy the thing, right?
Allen: Yeah, you strangle it. You strangle it. I really think the beautiful mistakes is where the passion is. Saying things. And Tom and I have this unspoken agreement, and I don’t think we’ve ever just said, let’s agree on this, but it’s just the way it is, where we allow each other to say the most off-the-wall, crazy, ridiculous line that you could ever think of. And there’d be no critical response. There might be silence, or they might go, wow, well, what about this? But there’s never, oh, I hate that, or you know, why would you ever think of that?
It’s a complete freedom to be vulnerable, transparent, and as real as possible. When you get that permission, it means everything. Tom gives me permission to be myself, flaws and all. And I hope I do the same for him. That’s what we try to do. It’s like, man, if you feel it enough, just say it. Keep your heart open and windows open. And sooner or later, something’s going to come through.
Tom: I think what we’ve found over the years is songwriting is really not about songs. The songs are a byproduct. And we give the songs so much importance. But really songwriting is about self-revelation. It’s therapy. Ultimately, you know, songwriting everything about you, your strengths, your weaknesses, your vulnerabilities, your fears, and it allows you to face all those things.
It leads Allen and me both really back to God, you know? We can’t do it ourselves, you know? We don’t even have the faith to believe, God has to give us the faith to believe. And ultimately, that’s why most of these songs end with some type of redemption. I think selfishly, cathartically, we put ourselves really in the middle of these songs, put the characters in all these vulnerable, treacherous situations, but we ultimately have to redeem them before the last note is struck. Because it’s that’s really what Allen and I experience daily. God’s redeeming us from ourselves.
Allen: I feel like we’re trying to work out our brokenness.
Tom: Yeah, right.
Allen: Through music and words. And, at the end, we’re writing songs we need to hear and then hopefully, at the end of the day, we’re really hoping that people outside of the room will find the songs useful? Because we draw back from preachy songs, where somebody’s wagging a finger.
We’re trying to come up from the Valley of Hard Knocks, and getting wounded and getting back up. As opposed to coming off the top of the mountain to tell everybody how to live. We’re just trying to work our brokenness out through music.
“Valley of Hard Knocks.” That’s a good song title.
Allen: [Laughs] It’s the first time it ever rolled off my tongue.
That’s a good one. It’s beautiful that you talk about redemption and God. Of all the songwriters I’ve talked to, a lot of them say that songs come to them, and they don’t question it, they get out of the way. It’s a form of faith. So what do you do what it’s not coming through?
Tom: I like the process [of writing songs] more than I like the songs, themselves. I know this will sound strange, and I have to almost look at the song, once the song is finished, as the enemy. I have to quickly run from the song or the song controls me. It’s like it starts talking back to me. Is it any good? Is anybody going to record it? Why did you do that? Couldn’t the second verse be any better? I have to jettison the song. The song is now an orphan, and I’ve got to move on. So I think what I love about it, I love the doing it. You know, once it’s done, that’s where the heartache starts for me.
Allen: I believe the inspiration is always there, but the most difficult thing for me is getting out of my own way. So that’s the struggle I’ve had my entire career. Because I believe if I get out of the way enough, that the song will come through, the words will come through, the music – if I listen will come through.
Allen: That’s kind of how I learned it. By just charging in there like I’m going to write a song and realizing that, hey, this is a sacred gift. This is a sacred gift not to be trifled with. But at the same time, not to be so precious that you make an idol out of it, you know? Then it controls you that way.
You mentioned how you guys liked pure rhyme. And there’s such a beauty to using pure rhymes in songs. Why is that? Why does pure rhyme work so well? And why is rhyme important in songs?
Allen: I think part of the mystical, magical part of creativity is that when you use pure rhyme, it changes the content of the song. Not only does it sound better, but it adds a completion, a depth, to a thought. And you let the rhymes lead you. You see a rhyme scheme form, say it’s a-b-a-b. You have a line ending with ‘phone.’ All of a sudden, putting phone in your list of pure rhymes, all of a sudden it opens up a whole new level of content that is different than others.
Tom: I heard Rodney Crowell say that a perfect line causes you to be more creative. And I really believe that. And I also believe that you know, in furniture, woodworking, a perfect rhyme is more like a perfect dovetail joint.
Allen: But a loose rhyme is more like Elmer’s glue. I mean, it can work sometimes, but over the long haul, it’s those dovetail joints that I believe make songs classic.
Yes. Because you don’t want the thing to fall apart two years from now, you want it to hold together forever.
Allen: Exactly. That’s right.
And although you allow the song to come through you, you are also consciously crafting it with rhymes, which are contrivances. Yes you learn how to contrive them to seem organic, and uncontrived.
Allen: Exactly. But it becomes part of you, that ability. It’s like a hitter in baseball. When you’re learning the fundamentals, you’re focused on how to keep your arms away from your body, watch the ball leave the pitcher’s hand. You’re thinking of all those things, but after 10,000 swings at the plate, you’re – you’re thinking about nothing. You’re just in the moment.
I know I’ve done my fair share of intellectualizing and all of that. All this stuff we’re talking about, it’s just come from years and years of doing the wrong things, you know? And learning from your mistakes.
We’ve talked so much about words, but I none of these would be as powerful if the melodies weren’t great. All of these songs have strong and poignant melodies. I know it’s a tough question to answer, but what is the key to a great melody?
Allen: I think there is mystery to it. Sometimes a melody comes about that feels like it was looking for the words, and the words come around like they are looking for the melody, and now they’re married. And when they come together that way, that’s what we’re always trying to do. And honestly, I don’t know how to do that other than just sing all kinds of stuff and go a lot of different directions. I think Tom has more of a sense of how to get those places.
Tom: I think melodically, we are connected to a legacy. Which is the legacy of Jimmy Rodgers to Hank Williams, Hank Williams to Woody Guthrie, Woody Guthrie to Dylan, Dylan to Springsteen, Springsteen to Jackson Browne. And beyond. It’s from the legacy of the rich trove of the singer songwriters that have come before us. Everything we do is an homage to Springsteen, Dylan, Jackson Brown, Tom Petty –
Allen: Van Morrison. Hank Williams, Johnny Cash. In some sense our songs are very derivative when it comes to the music. And I think poetry has music to it. When you read it. When we start with lyrics, we’re listening for the melody in the words. Where does it need to rise? Where does it need to fall? Where does it need to feel sad with a minor? Depending on what the word says.
End of Part One.