The big chorus is a similar device, which is especially evident on “What You Don’t Say,” from the ballad record, The Reason Why.
It’s pretty commonplace for bridges and choruses to explode. It’s funny because you go out there and you play live, and nobody knows the second verses to any of your songs. They can kind of remember the first verse, and they all know that big chorus. Then they get to the second verse and you watch their lips, and they don’t really know the words. That’s our pop culture. We just keep hitting them over the head with that same memorable thing, the hook or whatever you want to call it. That’s pretty traditional. That one is a David Campbell string arrangement. What I think is unique about that particular song is how it gets back to the original key. It modulates a step up at the last chorus, but to me it was pretty musical how it got there.
The song you did with Diana Krall, “Faint of Heart,” is unlike anything else in this collection. It follows a jazz ballad model, with thicker chords and a lyric that’s a lot steamier than you usually do.
I love Diana’s music, to begin with. Part of my dream was to hear her sing a pretty sexy song. It sounds, to me, like a song that could have been written in the ‘40s. It was like, “Let’s write a jazz tune. Who cares? Nobody’s going to lose any sleep over it.” And it’s authentic. The changes are legitimate. That’s the most important thing to me, to not look like a rube-a country guy trying to be a jazz singer. Pul-leeze! I think I’ve got enough musician in me to tell me what’s authentic.
Her first line, which includes the words “on the rocks,” makes it clear from the get-go that this isn’t a country song.
Heck no [laughs]! You’re thinking, “I’m in a really cool martini bar.” It’s sultry, man. That’s a song that, from day one when I wrote it, I wanted to get it to Diana. I didn’t give in. I could have recorded it any number of ways with any number of people, but that was my focus in writing that song.
These albums touch just about every musical base. Yet something-I would call it “heart”-ties this all together. This harks back to old-school country writing, where modern songs often seem instead to celebrate the affectations of a lifestyle.
I’ve always seen myself as a simple man. My songs are not going to be as adventurous or as deep as Rodney [Crowell] or Guy [Clark]-people that I admire-would write. But I’m enough of a musician that I can make things melodically interesting and challenging. That’s what made Roy Orbison great; he could tailor-make those melodies for his voice. Lyrically, we’d have to go down song-by-song to see which ones I was the lyrical guy on and which ones I was the musician-the melody writer.
Yet you’re the common denominator on each track. A song like “Molly Brown,” for instance, from Little Brother, stands out because of its narrative quality. How do you feel about writing story-oriented songs?
I like doing that. In a way, they’re some of my best songs. That’s where I find myself feeling more like a songwriter…with songs like “Key to Life” [from The Key], which I wrote about my dad. “Go Rest High on That Mountain” [from When Love Finds You] was somewhat the same, but not too much…I really like stories. I like painting pictures. Unfortunately, with the way I wound up in the big picture, I try to be an artist and try to get on the radio and get hit songs, and some of those things can limit what I can do. So I don’t have as many opportunities to write as many story songs as I would like. That’s what I’m drawn to the most, those kinds of songs. With this collection, especially on the acoustic record, I get several opportunities: “Almost Home,” “Molly Brown,” “Ace up Your Pretty Sleeve” and a song called “Little Brother.” I’ve been afforded the luxury of so many more slots to fit songs. I don’t know how I’m ever going to develop a great legacy as a songwriter by just getting to do 10 or 11 songs every two or three years. For me, it was a chance to hopefully show more versatility than maybe I could on just one record. There were no handcuffs on me at any point on this record. I never felt like, “You can’t do that. That’s going too far.” It was an amazingly creative and fleeting year that I spent on this.