As I mentioned the other day, it was amidst the heavy turbulence above JFK that I got the idea to write an article about what I believe to be the most important components in crafting a country song. As I considered it some more, I realized that this really needed to be broken down into two separate posts -- up-tempo and ballad -- as both genres of song require separate building blocks. Today I'm going to tackle the up-tempo, classic rocking single, concert-style song -- the go-to song for an artist to close out a show or open an album. Early next week, we'll take a look at the ballad. Let's start from the beginning...
1) If the song is going to begin with a musical intro (as most do) it needs to be one of either two things: loud enough to bring everyone to their feet right from the first chord or slow enough that it tricks the audience (or listener) into thinking they're about to hear a slow song. Both can be effective, but there really isn't any middle ground -- making a choice is important here. It's easy to tell when a song lacks direction from the start.
2) The beginning of the song should set the scene, and while it's important that the entire song be intriguing and lyrically well-crafted, it's of the utmost importance that the first verse be the strongest. Like any great novel, this is your change to draw your audience in -- don't waste it. A little humor here goes a long way. No one wants to here a country-rock song about something depressing, the point is to make the audience feel like they want to dance, so get it going from the beginning.
3) When it comes to instruments, less is more. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, overproduction is plaguing country music recently. If an instrument isn't lending something unique or essential to the song, then it shouldn't be there. Too much background takes away from the vocals, and makes a song sound too busy. The audience knows it, and the singer will know it to. After all, every country singer is, first and foremost, a singer -- so that should be the focus right?
4) On that note -- if the singer can pull it off, the greater the vocal range of a song, the better. Even if the listener doesn't realize it, when a song showcases a singer's range, it makes everything feel more dynamic. The song doesn't drag, doesn't get boring, and the artist can do more with what's written on the page. Vocal runs can be more exciting in a song that showcases more of a singer's talent, and a greater range allows for this increased freedom. If you've got it, rip it.
5) The basic structure for must country songs is: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. For the most part this tried and true method is satisfactory, but the bridge is important. If you don't have anything meaningful to say in the bridge, don't say it!!! I can't stress this enough. A lot of the time artists (and songwriters) feel like they need to fill the space between the second and third chorus' with lyrics, but all too often this backfires. All you have to do is listen to Tim McGraw's "Southern Voice" to get my point. The bridge is ridiculous -- it doesn't fit the song at all, and it becomes abundantly clear that the songwriter just didn't have anything left to write, so he/she filled the space with the most generic lyrics they could think of. The point of all this? If you don't have something that adds to the song, let the instruments take over. If you've got a sick guitar player in the live (or studio) band, let them showcase their talent here. An awesome guitar run can be just as effective as a lyric-based bridge.
6) Make the last chorus stand out. By now, the audience has heard the chorus twice and if you're going to close your album or show with this song, you better make it memorable. Cut the background instruments and let the author go a capella before bringing everything back in if you want. This will often make the audience feel like they've been bowled over by sound -- it heightens the effect and that's what any artist wants right? Not always an option that should be pursued, but one of many that can achieve the desired result.
7) A quality musical outro is a must. The song has to end with some sort of instrumental run that can be extended during a live show (when the artist is saying his goodbyes, signing autographs etc.), but is also intriguing to the listener listening on their ipod. About 15-20 seconds after the last chorus should do. Let the band do their thing here and if the artist wants to come in with some kind of riff at the end, perfect. Even a speaking section during the last few bars -- to cap the song, and perhaps add a little humor, works perfectly here.
Well there you have it. The how-to guide to craft your own country-rock song. Get to it -- the industry needs songwriters/producers who know what good music sounds like.