Features Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session: Americana Edition

Don Henley

(Credit: Danny Clinch)

Songwriting Session is a new weekly column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, several artists showcased at the Americana Music Festival share what they have learned as songwriters.


This week, Americana music fans and artists flocked to Nashville for the Americana Music Festival and Conference. Six days of industry panels and artist showcases ensued, many of which the topic of songwriting was addressed. Below are some highlights from Don Henley, the founding member of the Eagles, songwriter Mary Gauthier (Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw), Patty Griffin and Whitehorse.

During his Keynote interview, Don Henley discussed co-writing with his friend and frequent collaborator Stan Lynch, who he met in the late 80s.

“When I write songs, part of it is just hanging out. When you write songs with somebody you have to develop a closeness and a musical understanding. We just have to hang out and laugh.”

Later, he said that it often helps him to imagine an artist singing a song he is writing to help with the writing process. Another thing he does before working on a new album: read.

“When I was doing Cass County I went back and read Thomas Wolfe’s book You Can’t Go Home Again and I found a lot of familiarity and wisdom in that book,” he said before he began to quote Henry David Thoreau.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

“That’s why I maintain a little farm in my hometown so I can go back to the land to the country when I need to get out of the city,” he explained. “It’s really good for songwriting and for thinking. When I get on those two lane blacktop highways and I get out of the urban environment my mind opens up and I can think and I can dream. To be successful in the music business I had to leave my hometown. But oddly enough I find myself going back there to write.”

While Don Henley goes back to his hometown to write, Mary Gauthier relies on her emotions to see if a song is done.

“If I don’t give myself the chills, if I don’t cry when I write, then I’m not there yet,” she said. “Songs are the great human connectors of our time. Songs are how people connect with each other. A song is the vehical of the heart.”

As difficult as writing songs might be, Patty Griffin said it’s most important to write from the heart.

“When you get to a more honest place with your heart, it may hurt but it feels better. When there’s a deep hurt in your soul, write it down and let it go.”

Meanwhile, Luke Doucet of Canadian duo Whitehorse said he doesn’t always write from personal experience. Instead, he tries to embellish within his songs.

“I ran out of pages from my diary I could exploit,” he joked. “You have to decide how to embellish things. The truth is overrated. There’s different ways to be honest. You’re allowed to embellish things. Anybody can be a memoir writer, it takes a creative writer to write a novel. Think outside the parameters put on yourself.”