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.”

Concert Reviews

Griffin House, Matthew Perryman Jones Impress at Sold-Out NYC Show

Nashville came to City Winery last night when singer-songwriters Griffin House and Matthew Perryman Jones performed to a sold-out crowd. Weaving poignant tales of heartbreak, love and loss alongside solid covers by Patty Griffin, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, the duo captivated.

Matthew Perryman Jones kicked off the night onstage alone with acoustic guitar for the haunting “Hole In My Heart.” The emotional number saw his whispered vocals rise and fall impeccably with a striking crescendo mid-track, further exhibiting his prowess.

“While I’m here in New York City I’d like to invite New York’s own Rosie Golan to the stage,” Jones said before the duo performed the beautiful fast-paced “Rain or Shine” with spot-on harmonies.

“That song was pretty much the only uptempo song I have for the whole night so drink up,” Jones quipped.

He wasn’t lying. The remainder of the set included powerful ballads like the slowed “O, Virginia,” positive love song “Until the Last Falling Star” previously featured in “Grey’s Anatomy,” and a striking performance of “Save You” by Jones and New York-based singer Katie Costello.

Jones prefaced his cover of Patty Griffin’s “Top of the World,” by explaining how he got involved with The Voice Project, a non-profit created to raise awareness for children forced to serve as soldiers in Central Africa. After he found out Costello covered his song, “Save You,” he decided to lend his voice to the cause.

Matthew Perryman Jones » Patty Griffin from The Voice Project on Vimeo.

Jones ended his set with an impressive cover of Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me.” Confessing that it took years before he appreciated Waits as a musician, he comically compared Waits’ music to drinking a really good scotch for the first time.

Friend and fellow Nashville musician Griffin House took the stage next with guitar and harmonica in hand. With delicate strumming on acoustic guitar and smooth vocals, House captivated the audience with his first song of the night, “Native.” He segued quickly into the more upbeat “River City Lights” before garnering screams from the audience for fan favorite “Waiting for the Rain to Come.”

Before the poignant “I Remember (It’s Happening Again),” House told City Winery that this past summer was the end of an era for him when his grandfather died. Reminiscing about the stories his grandpa used to tell him and how they flew to New York to make a music video for the song, House told a moving tale with wailing harmonica accompaniment and striking lyrics.

“Better Than Love,” a song that means more to him now than when first written, followed suit as the audience sang along word for word. Having just had a daughter 12 weeks ago, House said the track has taken on new meaning.

“I sing that to her sometimes. She also likes “Polk Salad Annie” by Elvis and all Johnny Cash so she’s definitely mine,” he joked.

The rest of his set included standout covers by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash as well as older fan favorites that had the entire room singing and laughing along to the stories behind each track. House told the room that the comical “Colleen” was written for his sister’s roommate that “I thought was really hot.” The best kiss of death song because it embarrassed everyone involved, he had the venue laughing along at his quirky, yet relatable lyrics.

The beautiful “The Guy Who Says Goodbye to You Is Out of His Mind” continued to mesmerize as the room fell silent before House exited the stage. Not for too long, though as he ended his set with a solid five-song encore.

For more on each artist, visit their Websites. Matthew Perryman Jones performs tonight at Rockwood Music Hall at 8:30 p.m. Catch Griffin House Wednesday at The Living Room at 10 p.m.

Related Links:
Artist of the Week: Matthew Perryman Jones
Q&A with Griffin House
Q&A with Matthew Perryman Jones
Matthew Perryman Jones’ Intimate Performance at New York’s Living Room