Learning Songwriting at the Feet of Steve Earle
Steve Earle has his eye on the history books. Not for himself, necessarily – though I doubt he’d object – but for his art form, “songwriting as literature.” With Camp Copperhead, Steve seemed to be trying to secure this form a place in history. “Four days of singing and songwriting,” the marketing materials promised. “Hard core.”
I’m a non-professional songwriter. If you were to insist it was a hobby, I’d be hard pressed to argue, but it always felt more like a calling to me, and Steve Earle has been one of my songwriting heroes since I first stumbled upon El Corazon in the mid-1990s. I follow him on Twitter, and when an announcement popped up last December that he was hosting a songwriting camp at a small resort in the Catskills, I couldn’t resist. After clearing it with my wife, naturally, I registered that very day. (It wasn’t cheap. I had to swallow hard before I signed on. The fee, which included a double-occupancy room, was $1,695.)
Photo: Courtesy of Music Masters Camp and Michael Bloom Photography
Ultimately, there would be 115 others, ranging from complete songwriting novices (there was even a woman there who did not play music nor have any intention of ever writing a song; she was there escorting her husband) to serious professionals. If I had to guess, I’d say about a quarter of the attendees fell into the novice category, with a dozen or so pros, and the rest of us ranging between those poles.
There was a meet-and-greet on Monday afternoon (“Hi, I’m Steve.” Indeed. And I’m flummoxed.) This was followed by dinner, a Q&A “to get the stupid questions out of the way,” and the first of four open mic sessions.
For the next three days, the program went more or less like this: After breakfast, Steve lectured for two hours. After lunch, he went for another hour, winding up with a Q&A about the day’s topic. Then there were breakout sessions in small groups, and a more intimate hour of Q&A with Steve in a medium-sized group. Following dinner were open mic sessions, where, over the course of three nights, everyone who wanted to perform got one song.
On the last evening, Steve gave a full-length concert for us in the dining tent. He also took every meal with us and was approachable around the camp, though naturally he was often on the way to his next activity.
Was it awesome? Yes, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think – or that I expected. Steve Earle is a formidable artist, and my appreciation for his bone-deep commitment to his art was only strengthened by hearing him talk and seeing him operate for hours every day, for four straight days. That was incredibly inspirational, make no mistake. But I and many of the other songwriters that I got to know had harbored an expectation that we would be learning songwriting techniques from Steve Earle. For the most part that didn’t happen. Mind you, the advance materials did not specifically say that we would learn songwriting techniques from Steve Earle. They didn’t really say much at all, and Steve copped to working out a lot of things on the fly. I’ll just say that was evident, and leave it at that.
This doesn’t diminish the main thrust of the program. The idea that songwriting should be treated seriously and practiced at the level of literature can be traced, of course, to Bob Dylan. But, the idea that “songwriting as literature” needs to self-consciously carve out its own cultural niche — both the commercial and academic worlds — is, as far as I know, a new one, and this seems to have been Steve’s ultimate aim in putting on this camp.
He likens “songwriting as literature” to bluegrass and jazz — an important American musical genre whose commercial heyday has passed, which requires a deliberate effort to make sure it’s preserved. Steve mentioned more than once that this camp was a trial run for what he eventually hoped would turn into a college course.
Aside from the inspiration and overall context provided by Steve, there were unexpected boons that made the whole thing more than worthwhile. Those were provided by fellow campers.
The first day or so, I was meeting mostly middle-aged men (note: I am a middle-aged man), Steve Earle fans but not songwriters, and I didn’t always get a whole lot out of those interactions. I was hungry to talk songwriting. Soon enough, though, at meals and between scheduled activities, I started meeting other songwriters (not all middle-aged, not all men). There was Berné, a professional musician from Atlanta who performs in a “cowgirl band,” Ben, a young, intense rock’n’roller from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and many others. By the second day, as people began to relax, a kind of buoyant, quiet joy emerged, from being in the same space as a bunch of other people who cared deeply about songwriting. I remember wandering the grounds the afternoon of the second day and seeing, scattered all about the camp, people with a guitar and a writing pad. It satisfied my soul. This was my tribe.
This was perhaps nowhere more evident than the open mic sessions. The skill levels of the performers ranged from the barely competent to How in the hell are you not a star? Regardless, almost without exception everyone brought something unique to the stage. The performers faced a highly sympathetic audience, one that knows how damn hard it is to make a song and sing it for other people. I had an epiphany at one point: no matter how deep a conversation I may have had with that person over dinner, watching him sing his song showed me something essential about him that I’d never see any other way.
As far as competence, I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. I certainly tend to get plenty nervous before going onstage. Luckily, my name was the first one called on the second night. I simply didn’t have time to sit there getting more and more uptight. As soon as they called me, I got “go-get-em’s” from the folks around me. I grabbed my guitar, walked onstage, and introduced myself, to more cheers. Then I played my song “Muscle Car,” and every ear in that room was tuned in to every note I sang. When it was over, the place erupted in cheers.
It completely blew me away. It was one of the finest feelings I’d ever had. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I am no Steve Earle. Nonetheless, for the rest of the evening, on into the next day, people were giving me knucks, high-fives, and compliments.
That audience was such an excellent mirror; I had a moment, sitting in my chair again afterward when, for a brief flash, I saw myself as they must have seen me. I saw that unique thing that I bring to the party, that peculiar gift only I can give (this sounds like ego at first glance; it is not.) That was invaluable. Every artist needs to be able to discover that and tap into it. Now I have a picture of it — something I can flesh out and extend through the practice of my art.
One more thing was memorable about the extracurricular activities: the nightly jams. Since I’m a middle-aged dad of small children, I revere sleep, so I turned in early the first couple nights. But on the last night, I couldn’t help myself, and stayed up until 3am trading songs with some of the most talented people I’ve ever had the privilege of playing with.
These experiences solidified a bond with the other attendees that will last far beyond the bounds of Camp Copperhead.
Photo courtesty of Music Masters Camp and Michael Bloom Photography
Broadly, the first day’s lecture consisted of setting the commercial context for songwriting. That more or less boiled down to “Good luck.”
As Steve noted, for a brief heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which slowly petered out by the 90s, it was possible to be a “serious” singer-songwriter and stand a reasonable chance of making a decent living at it. Now it’s not. Yes, the occasional killer lyric slips through the cracks and becomes a hit, but there’s no longer a well-established place for that kind of songwriting in commercial music. (He did, however, have high praise for Taylor Swift and, for what it’s worth, I agree.)
The commercial heyday may be over, but “you can do it in a way that will make your life better, and will make other people’s lives better,” he told us. In other words, practice songwriting as an art form for its own sake. This found a strong resonance with me, as that’s long been the angle I’ve approached it from. He also made it a point to say, “There’s a reason they call it a discipline.” Though that’s not exactly a surprise to me at this point, I wish I’d figured it out decades ago.
The second day’s lecture was specifically about “Songwriting as Literature.” Steve laid the responsibility for this notion squarely at the feet of Bob Dylan, where it doubtlessly belongs, saying, “I’m famous for saying that Townes was the best songwriter in the world, and that I’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that. Do I believe that? No. Did I ever believe it? Fuck no. Somebody asked me for a quote for a sticker, and Bob has never had a problem with self-promotion, but Townes shot himself in the foot every chance he got.” (He was a lot of fun to listen to.)
Steve talked a lot about Shakespeare, believe it or not. He held up Shakespeare as the exemplar of working in a popular form but doing it at the highest level, of managing to take a language as clunky as English and turn it into art. Here, he shared a useful songwriting technique: using the exact form of an existing work, but replacing the words with your own. He showed how he’d done this with a Shakespeare soliloquy — the prologue to Henry V — which he had turned into “Warrior.” He also pointed out that this technique could be equally applied to a song, that it’s a valid and useful one.
On the third day, playfully titled “Cool Shit to Steal,” Steve delved into the history of folk music. He noted that Woody Guthrie never wrote a melody. That A.P. Carter, from whom Guthrie got many of his melodies, likewise did not write any. That Dylan, for his first few albums, didn’t write any. But, Steve also noted that both laws and mores have changed, and “the folk process” is harder to get away with these days.
He used his own “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” as an example. Noting that Paul Westerberg (former frontman for the Replacements, for whom Steve opened on a few dates early in his career) suggested in an interview that the song was based on the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied.” Steve flatly denied it, and pulled out his guitar to prove his case. “So, as you can hear,” he said, “it’s not a ripoff of ‘Unsatisfied’. It’s a ripoff of ‘Walls Came Down’ by the Call, and ‘She Don’t Love Nobody’ by John Hiatt.”
He wrapped up the final lecture by repeating his main point: “Now we’re faced with continuing songwriting as an art form after its period in the the commercial mainstream is over. And the way we do it is to wean ourselves from the music business.”
There’s really not a hell of a lot I can say about the concert Steve played for us on the final night, except he’s simply a master. He showed us all exactly what that means. Every aspect of his game is as good as or better than it’s ever been. It was a jaw-dropping performance.
Steve was a digressive lecturer, and sometimes it felt like he was winging it. I believe I understood his main points, but I think he could have gotten them across more succinctly. I’d have appreciated more advance notice that we’d be getting a class in “The Art of Songwriting: An Overview”, rather than what I arrived expecting, a “Songwriting Master Class” from the master.
On the other hand, Steve’s digressions ranged from amusing to enlightening, and overall they served to convey a broader message — one that turned out to be vital. Steve Earle takes his art seriously, and he is committed to structuring his life to support his artistic practice. This makes for a rich life, one in which he has a deep engagement with others (“Songwriting is empathy,” he often said), with his own soul, and with long, noble traditions. As he said of Townes: “I knew I had met a man who had decided to make art.” Clearly he believes that you and I can, too.