You know that feeling when you can hear an entire song playing in your head—every single note and lyric—but you can’t remember what you needed from the grocery store?
Songs are time travel—a moment locked in forever you can visit at will. Some are so good, you can’t just put ’em on in the background ’cause they demand the full attention of your heart and soul. I’ve been at parties, and a line or melody so good comes out of the speakers that I can barely pay attention to what someone is telling me. Not a great way to make new friends, I realize, but thank God for what Leonard Cohen calls “the tower of song.”
Some tunes are put together so well, so seamlessly, you can no longer identify everything that makes it magic. The sum of its parts makes something monolithic. You can’t tear it apart, can’t deconstruct or analyze it in any way that does it justice. It’s more fun to just stand at the altar, profess your love, and embarrass yourself with idol worship, which is happily what I’m gonna do today. 🙂 (and join me in the comments, please)
The following writers have pulled the rabbit out of the hat consistently and marvelously for years.
One last note before we rock ’n’ roll. This is a list of MY faves, my influences. It’s not me saying these are the only great writers. Get your fingers off the keys, trolls, and get your own list, honey. 🙂 Of course, Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards are gimmes for almost anyone playing this game, but I don’t listen to the Beatles or the Stones at the same clip I listen to the others on this list, and for better or probably worse, they didn’t inform me like the others did.
There is no real order here, either, except that Dylan has written so many strong lines, he can make you doubt your own existence, so we have to lead off with Mr. Zimmerman from the Iron Range.
1. Bob Dylan
Dylan’s early songs have steel cables running through them. They can jump down and do push-ups. They can coddle you, make you laugh, and frighten you, all inside the same song.
I didn’t understand Dylan for the longest time because, of course, in his middle years his voice was a bit out to lunch. I also heard he turned his back to his audience on several tours—insane. But if the word genius every applies… Good God. There are lyrics on his early records that make you want to scream for joy, weep, grab a bottle of whiskey, and go protest the inhumanity of the world. There is a reason people were going through his trash in the ’60s and trying to break into his windows to get the “answer.”
There are the great books of religion, there is Shakespeare, then there is Bob Dylan’s collected lyrics.
It’s the holidays. Get this sucker for a gift for any writer you know—doesn’t matter what genre. If you are human, maybe even a raccoon, just get it. It will change the way you see the world.
2. Willie Nelson
I know I mention Willie so much in every blog and interview and conversation with the postman that y’all are probably ready to scroll down as it is. There is just no one better. I’ll leave my love for the man himself to the other 50 posts, but here are some songs to remind you what a BEAST this man is. The day Willie passes on to the great gig in the sky, I’m crawling into a hole for about a week.
Willie forces nothing. Everything feels effortless. The melodies and the chords are dug from so deep in the ground, you feel you know where he is going before he is halfway through the line. The DNA of American music that he took from Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Django, Sinatra, it’s all there and living on hopefully forever.
People, “Crazy” (made famous by Patsy Cline) has 13 chords in it. Thirteen chords in a country song he wrote in his 20s. So much for three chords and the truth. This man hung the songwriting moon in my book.
Check out the LP Red Headed Stranger. A perfect record, top to bottom. It was rejected by the label as sounding like a demo. What it sounds like is some of the most comfortable and peaceful music ever made.
3. Dolly Parton
This might be because I watched 9 to 5 on a loop as a child, but Dolly is epic in every way. “Joleen”—are you kidding me? People forget she wrote “I Will Always Love You,” not Whitney. “Coat of Many Colors” she wrote when she was in freaking diapers.
Dolly is a national treasure. Who wants to go to Dollywood?
4. Tom Waits
“Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends”
“The piano has been drinking, not me”
“She was sharp as a razor and soft as a prayer”
When Willie Nelson covers you, that pretty much says it all. Tom and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, have added a ton to the great American songbook. Check out the record Mule Variations, another perfect LP. Jesse and I listened to this in a loop for the Soldiermaking tour up in North Cali back in the day.
5. Leonard Cohen
“Hallelujah” is hands down one of the most magical songs ever written. The way the melody and words snake up to the heavens together makes you grateful to be alive.
Cohen was a master. He gave his whole life to the craft, grappled with religion, sex, our relationships to one another, never swimming in the shallow end for a second.
6. Tom Petty
As a dumb kid obsessed with drummers and guitar players who played 10,000 notes like buzzing bees, I would say, “Petty is cool, but the songs seem so simple … blah blah (insert idiotic cocky dumb kid stuff).” Well, that’s ’cause it takes genius to make things feel simple and TRANSLATE. You try writing something so simple that everyone LOVES it and wants to sing along with it at the Super Bowl. That’s why he played the Super Bowl and you (and I) played your momma’s Tupperware party.
7. Bono and the Edge (U2)
I’m skewed by my feeling that U2’s live shows are the closest things to what I wish all churches felt like—bringing people together and helping one another. They have always CARED about the world and the people in it. Cared about the “least among us.”
You knew you weren’t getting through this without a rant, so here we go, kids. We lack real heroes in rock and hip-hop right now, people brave enough to call down all the evil in this world, people offering paths to remind us to get along with one another and stop destroying the planet. Marvin Gaye did this. Stevie Wonder does this. U2 and Springsteen do this. We need lofty goals, we need to KILL cynicism, and we need to raise the bar.
Fave LPs: Achtung Baby/Joshua Tree
8. Questove/Black Thought (The Roots), also Dice Raw and several brilliant guests
I listen to the Roots on repeat while I throw weights around the backyard. There are beats, chords, and lyrics in these songs that ache to crack the planet in two. Many people first heard of them as Jimmy Fallon’s late night band, but please don’t get it twisted, folks. They have written as much music staking a claim for justice, for a cultural shift, as anyone in the books. They show up over and over and shine a light on every messed up thing in this country, and they do it beautifully, fearlessly, and with funk, soul, and blues oozing from the core of every track. And the CONTENT. It’s all in there: income inequality, police brutality, the drug trade, the search for self, institutional racism, the justice system, climate change—all of it.
Fave LPs: Undun/Rising Down/Game Theory
9. Ani DiFranco
Besides the fact that she was Prince’s fave guitar player and that alone makes you cool, she is a lyricist of the finest order—and she somehow did all of it without a major label, baring her soul and treating her fans like gold.
What makes you so lavish that you can afford
To spend every sober moment feeling angry and bored
—“Come Away from It”
Thanks to Lisa Walsh and KC Crosby for taking us to Righteous Babe Records when we last played Buffalo. I was like a kid in a candy store. Magic.
10. The Purple One
Best live show I’ve ever seen by a landslide. (Some Prince stories HERE: https://goodingmusic.com/blog/prince-stories-and-why-he-is-the-greatest/.)
Besides him showing up the entire planet on how to play 20 instruments, entertain, dance, be hysterically funny, and sing in five octaves, you also start to notice he hasn’t played anything but hits for two damn hours. Him on just an acoustic guitar and a vocal mic is breathtaking and timeless.
Fave LPs: 1999/Purple Rain/Sign Of The Times
11. Page and Plant (Zeppelin)
Everyone asks, “Who’s the most influential band ever? Stones or Beatles?” Buddy, throw Zepp in there, and then go find all the blues bands Stones and Zepp stole their first licks from. 🙂
Zepp kept the same line up till Bonham (one of the greatest rock drummers of all time and the engine for their sound) passed away. They toured more than the Beatles, fought less than the Stones, and their first four records are masterpieces of songwriting, performance, and production. You can hear Pagey’s roots as a composer in the brilliant stacked guitars and strange tunings that he made into a signature sound. You know it’s them a millisecond into any mix.
There would be no heavy metal without this band. None. And they played like a BAND the whole way through. They stole the blues (like every other British band that had to remind America of its greatest resource).
12. Robert Johnson
I learned about him from the movie Crossroads as a 12-year-old wearing out the Ralph Macchio movie back in Wichita, Kansas. At first, I just wanted to play fast like Steve Vai, then I found the Oasis, the backbone of all rock music, THE BLUES.
I imagine my fascination with our Lil Red devil and lines like “Play so good you make the devil cry” all come from the oldest musical story in the book—going down to make a deal with the devil for talent and fame. One is worth sacrificing almost everything for—to hone a gift you have been given—the latter is waiting to eat you up and must be dealt with in small sips, not big gulps. Robert only gave us 29 songs, but we have been chasing his dream ever since.
For Nebraska alone.
The White Duke. Perfect. So many hits and tours. So many personas and so much mystery. And a young Stevie Ray Vaughn setting the room on fire on the album Let’s Dance.
15. Peter Gabriel/Sting
A tie here (and how did I miss this tour???). These cats were the soundtrack of my childhood. Some beautiful songs (Sting with Alison Krauss “End Of The Game” gives me chills; Peter Gabriel’s The Last Temptation of Christ score is a perfect record), and both songwriters have humanitarian hearts and have put their time and money where their hearts are.
Probably blasphemous for you hardcore songwriters out there to see an “electronic” musician on this list, but Moby taught me one of the most freeing and dangerous things to a career ever—not to care about genre. Ohhh boy. His records Everything Is Wrong and Play show just how fluid and creatively worthless genre and labels really are. Stunning. Thankfully, kids don’t have bins at stores trying to separate everything into five styles. Moby also helped give me the confidence to use whatever gear—nice or crap-o-la/vintage or cheap and new—in my recording studio. He did his first few records on the same gear he had from high school, recorded with one mic (an SM57) in a tiny New York apartment. I was able to stop eyeing all the expensive gear and just GET BACK TO WORK. He made me proud of the off-brand digital sampler that I bought by selling off my baseball and basketball cards back in Kansas when I was around 17. I actually put out a record called 3x, right before his record Play came out, that was full of kids from a playground in Detroit doing snippets edited as hooks, similar to his use of Alan Lomax old blues recordings. Play went on to sell 20 million copies and 3x is still setting in some dustbins in the Midwest. But interesting thing about this is in reading his brilliant bio Porcelain, he was actually considering Play as his swan song and his career over before it came out and took over the world. I have never felt like stopping recording, and it just reminds you—people you think have the world wrapped around their finger suffer like the rest of us. Sometimes more.
17. Johnny Cash
I have probably listened to Cash as much as anyone in the world. His voice was commanding, disarming, and so full of authority, it was almost otherworldly to me in its final days on Rick Rubin’s box set. Just writing When The Man Comes Around in his late 60s? Are you kidding me??
I truly believe he was at height of his powers at the very end of his life. His beloved June passed away, he said he had a few songs left to record, and then he went soon after. The man in black’s sense of duty, his morality, his sense of family, his not taking his demons out on the rest of the world, was much like Willie. Not a bad model for how to conduct yourself. A stoic right to the bitter end.
These last three folks on the list are indie musicians, somewhat unsung heroes of mine. Two folks are close friends that I have produced and the last one is a songwriter from down in Austin who writes without fail at least one song every week.
18. Carter Hulsey
Carter and I (and the wonderful Reminders) all put on shows for a charity I helped found called Funding The Future.
Carter can take a room full of loud, obnoxious drunks that have never heard of him and get them eating out of his hand and ready to weep like li’l babies. Check out “Heart Still Broke” and “Haunt Me” here: https://open.spotify.com/album/66rk9Nz3uKygVnPfRi5iYF.
I expect a call from Carter if he reads this, screaming through the phone, “You put ME in a list and not Randy Newman and John Prine!!! Goobie, what is wrong with you!?” And then I’ll just sing a Prince song loud and he will hang up ’cause somehow he never got the memo that Prince is an avatar.
19. Terry Quiett
Another local hero of mine who, with any justice in this world, will have his songs being cut by folks around the planet. I produced TQ back in the folk/rock days before he became an insane lead guitarist and joined the blues circuit. This man on an acoustic and his voice can bring light to the most coal-black heart. A few of his early songs from a record called Paper Doll Spokesman were my soundtrack for life for a bit as I backed him up on the coffee shop circuit in Wichita. If you see TQ, ask him to play “Without Her” and bring a box of Kleenex. And for God’s sake, buy something.
20. Bob Schneider
I have hung with Bob a couple times. Once in his backyard, while he was watering plants, I asked him what he thought of Charles Bukowski, one of my faves, and he said something like, “It takes a lot of confidence to do this work. You read a guy that good, and you’re like … dammit … it almost scares you out of getting back to work.”
I would venture to say if you are a songwriter who hasn’t heard Bob, dig into his tunes and lyrics and get ready to feel the same way.
He will write about anything—sometimes utterly silly and X-rated—but when he feels like it, he will grab you by the jugular and make you weep like a li’l baby.
Check out “Changing Your Mind” with Patti Griffith—devastating and perfect. If you write something this good, you should get to go to Hawaii for a month, minimum: https://open.spotify.com/album/3DPmzl6I0l8YoRBnOihs5h.
Check out his podcast, too. He is a writer and musician of the finest order and a hell of a bandleader. He plays every week down in Austin with a killer band, and the shows are just incredible: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/bob-schneiders-song-club/id1228699663?mt=2.
All right, we did it. Hit me with some of your faves. A ton of others should have been here (Townes, Elton John, Van Morrison, Billy Joe Shaver, Hank Williams, Paul Simon), but we don’t have all day, folks. Sadly, ’cause it’s been a joy to revisit some of these catalogs. Thank God for music and thank God for the songwriters. When you see one up and coming, throw some money in the guitar case. Love is nice, but it don’t pay the rent.
See you next Wednesday!
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