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There’s a song there

Arkansas members of Nashville songwriters group meet regularly to pick out some jewels

By Frank Fellone

This article was published December 4, 2011 at 4:15 a.m.


Charlie Crow (left) of Little Rock is the regional workshop coordinator of the local chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. He’s also a singer and songwriter with a recently released album, Angela’s Asleep: Songs of Life and Living. Crow leads a monthly workshop at which songwriters’ work is performed and critiqued. Songwriter Jim Pollock of Conway is at right.

— It’s the first Monday night in November, and the lyrics fly fast and furiously at Khalil’s Pub & Grill on Shackleford Road in Little Rock. For about four hours a rotating roster of songwriters pick guitars and ruminate on life as they know it.

Life can be tough sometimes. Or as Jerry Clay sang: “He broke her heart and she broke his jaw. She had the best left hook he never saw.”

Ouch. No doubt here: This is country music, with some folk, a side order of bluegrass and a splash of rock ’n’ roll.

But mostly country, which would be natural for people associated with the local chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International.

More about that later. Back to the lyrics.

There were dogs — “I lead a dog’s life,” which turned out to be not so bad, given the life most dogs lead.

There were woodland dreams — “I wanna go swimming with a bunch of naked women in a creek down low.”

There was love — “I sure do love me some you.”

There was more love — “Love makes Monday morning seem like Friday afternoon.”

Since there was love, there was pain — “Hurts, don’t it, when someone breaks your heart?”

More pain — “You say you love me, but then you walk away.”

Walking away from the music won’t happen for Joe Sorrels of Pottsville. He’s 64, and describes himself as semiretired from Entergy and the National Guard.

Twice in his life he’s had, to use a baseball expression, a cup of coffee with Nashville, the big leagues of country music. Neither time did it work out.

The first time was in 1971. Bonnie Brown of The Browns — Bonnie, Maxine and Jim Ed — had a home in Dardanelle. She also had one of Sorrels’ songs, and it wound up in good hands. As she told Sorrels: “Chet Atkins has your song.” And Sorrels had a single-song contract with a publishing company.

Atkins never recorded the song, “Papa John and Anna Lee,” which Sorrels sang that night at Khalil’s.

The second cup of coffee was in 1982, again a singlesong contract with a music publisher. Sorrels wrote the lyrics and his wife, Linda, wrote the music. The song was “Love Makes Monday Morning Seem Like Friday Afternoon.”

Linda Sorrels died in 2009. Joe Sorrels keeps writing and singing.

“I can’t quit,” he says. “It’s a compulsion.”

Songwriting is a hobby for Jerry Clay, 59, “but I play almost every day.” His day job is math teacher at Lake Hamilton High School in Hot Springs. That’s what he says first. Then he ’fessed up. He’s the head football coach, too. As a matter of fact, the team was 9-1 at the time and headed for the playoffs. (The team subsequently advanced to the Class 6A championship game.) Clay doesn’t see songwriting as contradictory to football. “Everybody loves music, don’t they?”

Clay got hooked on music in college. Five years ago he got a guitar for Christmas and took to songwriting.

Songs come from everywhere, he says. A phrase will start an idea. His song about left hooks and broken jaws was inspired by a friend who’s a retired orthodontist.

“I love it,” Clay says. “Every songwriter dreams of getting his songs heard.”

Enter Charlie Crow, the host for the evening and regional workshop coordinator for the songwriters association.

Crow has written music for 30 years. He has a 2010 CD, self-produced at a studio in Cherokee Village, that features 16 of his original compositions. Angela’s Asleep: Songs of Life and Living is available at online music sites, but Crow hasn’t exactly become rich off the sales.

“There’s more than one box in my closet,” he says. “I didn’t do it for the money — thank God.”

He’s 71 and retired from work in business, government and nonprofit. He learned a little piano in the eighth grade, has always sung, has done some background singing in Nashville and currently sings in church choirs and with the Arkansas Chamber Singers.

About 150 people are involved in the central Arkansas chapter of the songwriters association, Crow says. That includes songwriters he describes as “current, past, lapsed members and future members.”

First Mondays at Khalil’s are patterned after the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, “a place where people come to listen to the song and not each other.”

A dozen to 20 people typically come to workshops every second Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church in west Little Rock. Sometimes there are only a handful.

“We have a core group who always come. The rest of them float in and out.”

“The only requirement is they want to be a songwriter. Our job is to help people get better, and as a group provide mutual support. It’s comforting to know it’s not just you who hears those voices.”

Members learn about the music business, hone their craft, and make acquaintances who may someday open doors.

“You have to understand the territory, make friends and associations,” Crow says. “It’s a complex thing. Lightning doesn’t strike very often.”

At the workshops, he says, songwriters “have to be willing to hear objective criticism without getting defensive.”

Regional chapters generate enthusiasm for songwriters while keeping them realistic, he says. “Songwriting is satisfying personally, but you may never make a dime.”

Given the Nashville origin, it’s not a surprise that 50 percent of the songwriters write country. But there are also gospel, folk, Christian and standards. “One guy did a country-rap song,” Crow says.

Whatever the genre, there’s a process. What comes first, music, or lyrics?

For Crow, it’s the lyrics. For guitar players, “they noodle around, find a phrase they like and go from there.”

Some songwriters tackle music and lyrics. Others are encouraged to find a partner whose strengths complement theirs.

Whatever the path, “there’s an element of mystery that’s not explainable,” Crow says. “No one really knows the well this is drawn from.”

Neither is songwriting romantic. “Like any other creative process, it’s a lot of hard work.” Beware the second verse wall. “Everyone has a notebook full of partially written songs.”

“You have to go to a private imaginary place to create a frame of mind to write the song,” he adds. “It’s almost inexplicable, and it’s very personal.”

It’s the second Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church, and seven songwriters are on hand to discuss the month’s topic: “Hooks, Lines and Stinkers.”

A hook is what catches the ear, and stays there. It’s something repeated in a song, or something memorable, either lyrical or musical. Country music has plenty of hooks — “He stopped loving her today.” “Hello, walls.” “If you’ve got the money, honey.” But so do rock and pop. After all, she loves you. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Crow leads the discussion and plays selections from country songwriters who’ve scaled the Nashville mountain: Delbert McClinton and Gary Nicholson (“Squeeze Me In”), Craig Carothers and Randy Sharp (“Surprise, Surprise”) and Paul Anka.

Paul Anka?

Yes, emphatically, for his 1958 song, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” made famous by Buddy Holly and rejuvenated by Linda Ronstadt.

“And you won’t matter anymore ...” — a lyrical hook for the ages.

“The most successful songs,” Crow points out to the group, “have a universal message.”

The seven songwriters are regular folks. A construction worker. A student. A retiree. They are Danny Powell of Bryant, John Dison of Hampton, Betty Walker of Benton, Ferrel James of Toad Suck, Jim Pollock of Conway, Matthew Karpoff of Roland and Charley Sandage of Mountain View.

Pollock has a song written and ready to sing. As fits a man with a wife and three daughters, it’s about how little girls and women always get their way.

“Our lives are in songs,” Crow says. “We just have to be alert to the possibilities.”

Pollock shares copies of the lyrics, sings, and the group gives him feedback. Songwriters shouldn’t have thin skins.

Pollock was an active member of the songwriters association in another state some years ago. This is his first meeting in Little Rock. Marriage and family sidetracked his music but he’s back.

“You never lose the love or the passion for writing songs,” he says.

Style, Pages 51 on 12/04/2011

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