Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reconnecting with my songwriting roots

Enjoyed a trip back to the ol' stomping grounds of Chattanooga last weekend. I attended a songwriting seminar presented by the NSAI Chattanooga workshop, featuring pro writers Rodney Clawson ("Amarillo Sky," "Sweet Southern Comfort") and Brian White ("Rough And Ready," various songs by top CCM artists). The event was held at the church building the NSAI group uses for meetings. I led music there for a couple of years and was the "hookup" for the meeting space for the group, of which I was co-coordinator. I'm really happy to know my "legacy" of sorts endures.

I was interested--and pleased--to see the upgrades in the building, now that the former church has become a "satellite" of a larger church in Chickamauga (led by a former youth director and pastor of mine...these connections never end).

The format of the seminar was very close to what I did in Cape Town: all-day seminar (10 - 4), with expert advice and a songwriting exercise, and then a 7 pm coffeehouse concert featuring the guest writers plus "selected" attendees (the picture shows Rodney and Brian at Mocha Joe's in St. Elmo).

I chose to pretend I didn't know everything about songwriting already (as if I had to) and participate as a student. It was good for me. The group co-write (they split us up into knots of 3 or 4 with a short list of titles to choose from & one hour to write) went OK and it was fun to see how the 4 our group worked together. I didn't feel like we were always on the same page on the process, and it seemed to me the group had a hard time committing to an approach (or even a title), so my control-freak nature was a little frustrated while my laid-back nature kind of enjoyed the unpredictability of the whole thing. The results were OK given the circumstances (strangers trying to come up with something brilliant in a short time); the point was the educational value, and there was plenty of that.

I had the pro's critique "Texas Hold 'Em." One of those I thought I was done with. I was still open to their input but as we all do in these situations, I was actually hoping they'd say "I have to have a copy of that for so-and-so" and that would launch me into a writing career with a 10am-3pm workday (when I felt like working that hard). No such luck on that so far, but they did make some valid points and got my wheels going on a re-write, which I've done (though I'm still open to improving it).

The night before the seminar I dropped into American Pie on Hixson Pike to witness songwriter Roger Alan Wade in action. Like Ben Folds, Roger's got some stuff I wouldn't recommend (being a Baptist and all) but I admire his genius as a lyricist, regardless. I think that has to do with redemption, but I couldn't argue the point very well for very long. His "Country State of Mind" was a Hank Wms. Jr. co-write and hit, and his "If You're Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough" is, appropriately, in the Jackass movie (cousin Johnny Knoxville was the hookup on that). But what struck me was how Roger has poured his heart and soul and talent into songs about things and places that only a relatively small group of folks could really appreciate, such as in "Down Brainerd Road." Not the formula for radio hits, but what a gift to hear your own life experiences in these songs--and brilliant ones at that. It makes them more valuable, not less. Roger sheepishly apologized for the problems he was having with the sound system when I spoke to him after his set, but it really only seemed a natural match of a raunchy sound for raunchy songs.

Overall, the weekend was a nice reminder of how far I've come, but also how far I have yet to go, musically and otherwise.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

But how's her casserole?

Since my degree from UT is in broadcasting, what most people call "watching the tube," I call "post-graduate work." There are a couple of programs that are "must-see TV": "30 Rock," a sitcom, and the endangered comedy-drama "Studio 60" (almost no one uses the full title "Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip"). Both are on NBC, both started the same season and each is about the backstage (and some onstage) goings-on around a fictional sketch show like "Saturday Night Live." Very odd already. The show-about-a-show thing has been hot since Shakespeare (when it was "play-within-a-play"), and still results in fun twists but also confusing conversation when talking about them, so try to keep up.

I've been a fan of SNL since the 70's, not counting several seasons in the 80's where I didn't watch much and have found via reruns how little I was missing. I also like behind-the-scenes stuff in general, as well as well-written dialogue. So both of these shows are made for me.

"Studio 60" is written by Aaron Sorkin of "West Wing" fame (or as much fame as a writer gets). The dialogue in this show meets the "well-written" standard, other than being a little manic and self-consciously clever to the point of being cute (think "Gilmore Girls").

One character that is especially interesting is Harriet, the overtly Christian (Southern Baptist, even) player on the show-within-the-show. She has a romantic "history" with Matt, the head writer. The fact that he's Jewish has been a point of contention for obvious reasons, and now that he's her boss makes for even more potential for conflict (the basis of good storytelling).

Though I appreciate that hers has been more true-to-life than most portrayals of Christians on network TV, I've felt the references are clunky and obvious; kind of like someone using "cowboy boots" in a song title and thinking that makes it country.

I found out via a talk show she was on that actress/singer Kristin Chenoweth is the original role model for Harriet. She and Sorkin had a romance in real life, so there's a foundation of reality for the show. I always figured it was at least partially based on Victoria Jackson from the 80's SNL, and was happy to be proven right in this article:

It's an interview by The Door (a Christian satire magazine that cracks me up and offends me, alternately and occasionally at the same time) with Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 partner in success Thomas Schlamme, and with Sarah Paulson who plays the above-mentioned Harriet.

One thing the interview made me realize is that, instead of her portrayal of a Christian that is clunky, it may be the attitude that the character Matt has toward her on the show--which is apparently by design of the writers (Sorkin et al). Most of the cliches are in what he says, not in what she does or says.

Like most Christians, it bothers me even to see anyone, fictional or real, familiar or stranger, who professes to be a Christian but does not meet what I would consider the minimum standards of Christian thought and behavior (not that I'm even close to perfect myself, but we all apply standards to ourselves and others whether consciously or not); it's hard enough to find one that isn't portrayed as an idiot or a jerk. This is partly a genuine concern for other people--that they will make real-life bad decisions based on the images they see on screen. And there's the "p.r." concern; what will they think of us, is it accurate, etc. I'm also concerned about what they think of ME. On the one hand, I'm offended when Christians are slighted en masse; on the other hand, I can see why someone would want to slam Christianity if Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or the purple-haired ditz on TBN are all they have to go by. To the credit of Sorkin and crew, they try harder than most, with better results than most.

The show challenges me to reconsider whether all my standards are really as essential as I tend to believe, or are they too surface to matter anyway, compared to the one Essential himself. And it's debatable as to whether it really matters what is said on TV about Christians or anyone else. It doesn't change the facts, and at its worst it's keeping a very important issue in the viewer's mind, as well as confirming what the Bible says about the ongoing spiritual conflict we're all involved in, despite our tendency to ignore it (partially thanks to TV).

The weak point of "Studio 60," especially compared with a topic like the international politics of a "West Wing," is that it's hard not to want to say "lighten up, people, it's just a TV show." Well, maybe it is...and maybe it ain't.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tips from the piano man: Billy Joel

Billy Joel has some really insightful and potentially helpful things to say in this article about writing songs.

Too bad I didn't get to see him tonight at the Gaylord.

I worked with a guy once who had been a waiter in NYC (he actually used the phrase "fuhgeddaboddit" with no irony intended). He said Billy Joel was a great guy to wait on. That's nice to hear. He also said Bill Murray was kind of rude. That's no surprise. I won't hold it against Mr. Murray; in fact, many of his roles call for that image anyway ("Groundhog Day," for example).

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Dear Anna"

(by Mark Kelly Hall)

Dear Anna
I'm sorry for the way you had to leave us
I saw your dazed expression on the news
The imitation hero to the end
I wonder if you knew your time was near
In many ways you'd checked out long ago

You offered up your dignity to strangers
Tabloid headline readers, channel changers
They made an idol of your golden image
And reality was history for you

Dear Anna
I'm sorry for the ones who would admire you
For all the twisted dreams they would aspire to
And trade their very souls to find a name
With no one but their empty selves to blame
We are all so easily deceived

You told your story like a dirty joke
Your pain became a punchline, and when the laughter
You couldn't hide from all those hungry eyes
That seldom saw beneath your veil of skin

Dear Anna
I'm sorry for the things I said about you
It's too easy to be cynical these days
But the hope I cling to tells a higher truth
So neither of us has a good excuse
Both victims of our choices and the sin that weighs us

You lost a husband, and then a son
You fought for fame and fortune and you almost won
I guess you never found what you were missing
The father to the child you always were

Dear Anna
I'm sorry

© 2007 Mark Kelly Hall

"Dear Anna"; the overclarification

I have found I have a sizable capacity for offering both empathy and criticism, though not usually at the same time. My understanding of the truth and my faith tells me there is a place for both if applied in the right spirit. I fail often on getting the timing and spirit right. Sometimes I hold certain issues or people up to scrutiny and comment, often to clarify the truth (hence this blog), but as often when a show of compassion would be more appropriate. Sometimes I remember we are all "merely dust" and choose a conciliatory stance, or hesitate to say what I really think for fear of hurting feelings or fear of rejection. My tendency is to find the sliver of truth in the opposite of whatever view is being presented, and champion that. Makes me appear insightful, if not obstinate. "Speaking the truth in love" is a skill in which we could all probably use some improvement.

I think maybe this piece (scroll up or click here to see it) falls into both categories, critique and compassion. A new female acquaintance declared a casual admiration for Anna Nicole Smith. This made me realize that 1) our values and perspectives must be farther apart than I thought and 2) maybe she saw something I didn't and should have (the compassion thing; women seem to rule this area) OR maybe she’s in the same fog as Anna Nicole was, just not as thick. And maybe we all are. Since it's the story we habitual media consumers/critics can't (won't?) escape, I felt like responding to what I've seen and heard.

I'm still not sure what to think of “Dear Anna”…whether it’s a lyric or a poem or neither…whether it’s finished…whether it’s just another drop in an overfull ocean of commentary…but given the (hopefully) short shelf life of the subject, I'm posting it here in case someone might find it worthwhile. Or at least to help me justify the time I spent on it as more than just a writing exercise.

I should make it clear that my portrayal of Smith's fans is an exaggeration to make a point about the human condition, not a direct reference to my "acquaintance"; she just provided the spark that started the creative flame. Still, I doubt this will put me into her "top 8" on the slim chance she ever sees it.

And, yes, I do realize the fact that, in writing this ambivalent and possibly melodramatic ode to Anna Nicole Smith that portrays her as a Marilyn Monroe wannabe who was a willing victim of her own fame, I may seem like an Elton John wannabe without the glitter or piano...but I promise, I admire his talent and success, but I definitely don't want to be him. And who wants to live in Atlanta, anyway?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sometimes funny...sometimes not so much

You never know what's going on behind the scenes...and behind the eyes. I ran across a blog by comic actress Sherri Shepherd ("Less Than Perfect", and recently "30 Rock") about her friend Andy Dick (both pictured here in an ABC/Disney parade):

My Love...My Heart...My Tears are for Andy

I saw Sherri at a Christian Comedy Association (really!) convention in Murfreesboro, TN, two or three years ago. I was there to visit with another couple of comic friends of mine. Sherri was as hilarious onstage as you would imagine. Her own "sadness behind the laughter" apparently involves divorce, if her comedy routine then and her myspace page now are to be believed. Must be tough to be a comic when you don't feel like being funny.

In case you don't know what Sherri's talking about, according to Jimmy Kimmel something Andy Dick took or drank (or both) backstage began to kick in once his own interview was done and Ivanka Trump was next to him. Here's the video.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Brilliant! (all things considered)

I just got home from the sneak preview (or simply "sneak" in movie-people lingo) of "Music and Lyrics" and I'm trying to resist overstating things, but it may be tough. Guess this is where the term "feel-good movie" came from.

Hugh Grant portrays a former 80's pop star (think George Michael) given a chance to write a new hit song for current chart-topper Cora (think Shakira meets Dido) and discovers that his temporary plant-care assistant (played by Drew Barrymore) may have just the untapped lyrical expertise to do the job.

Yes, it's a bit of a chick flick (that sounds more appropriate with a British accent...try it...see?); yes, it's fairly predictable once it gets going; yes, there's an apparently-obligatory plot element that I object to on moral grounds, not to mention a flaw in versimilitude and the previously-mentioned predictability factor (it won't spoil the plot if I tell you, yes, they sleep together; gee, who would'a thought), and some might find it a little long.

HOWEVER, I've got a high threshold for the chick flick as long as it's well-done, and especially if the female characters are appealing (who couldn't love E.T.'s lil' pal Drew? And no further comment on the actress playing Cora the dance-pop star; I'll leave it at "appealing"). And the storyline is familiar but in a satisfying way (I order the same thing at each fast-food joint I go to). And I don't expect Hollywood to rise far above their own moral standards, though it would be refreshing. And I was enjoying it so much I didn't get bored with the length.

It's no "Citizen Kane," but the positives are many, and will be especially appreciated by anyone who has ever written or tried to write or thought about writing a song, or been hesitant to try to do anything out of fear of failure or resignation to lowered expectations or "the way things are." This should be a very popular film for the Nashville crowd. And, if you're an 80's music fan and/or you've ever cowered in a restaurant bathroom (or similar awkward location) to hide from a former flame, you'll relate even better.

I especially like the comparison Barrymore's character makes between music and romance; the music is the physical, chemical attraction and excitement that generally comes first, and the lyrics correspond to really getting to know the person, communication...the substance of a relationship. But both "need" each other to be complete. Being stronger on the lyrical side than the music, I approve. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've made that comparison myself at some point. Of course I may have been borrowing from ultraconservative teacher Bill Gothard, who claimed that from a biblical point of view the rhythm corresponded to the sensual, the harmony to the emotional, and the melody to the spiritual. Not a bad analagy (but not biblical, in my humble and correct opinion) but the trouble was he was trying to use it to prove why rock music was bad for you, being based on the sensual. Nice try, Bill, wherever you are. I didn't buy it in college and I don't buy it now.

As an extra bonus for my experience of the film, I was proud of myself for identifying the band performing the closing-credits song. I'll leave that one for the truly dedicated music showoffs.

The Thing Called Love (1993) Aspiring songwriters in Nashville try to break into the biz via the Bluebird Cafe (Sandra Bullock!)
Ishtar (1987) Excruciatingly bad-on-purpose songs by Paul Williams ("Rainbow Connection, " "We've Only Just Begun") Hilarious!
Songcatcher (2000)
Songwriter (1984)

The occasional difference between "the right" and the truth

Apparently the sketches on Saturday Night Live are more truthful than some folks realize.

I ran across these behind-the-scenes glimpses at what some of my friends consider a healthy alternative to the "liberal media." I should clarify that most of my friends are, like me, white Southern American Christians who are traditional and conservative in lifestyle and outlook, but few of any of us easily fit the stereotype those terms evoke.

These anecdotes should affirm what I've said for a long time: that the best way to view ANYTHING on TV, the radio, in the press--pretty much anywhere on a screen or in print--is with a healthy skepticism, remembering that the info is presented by fallible humans (some more fallible than others), many of whom are easily (even eagerly) biased by various political, financial and ego-based influences. Of course these articles are best read with that in mind as well. Sola scriptura, y'all.

From The Nation:
"My First (and Last) Time With Bill O'Reilly" by David Cole


Excerpted from Ben Witherington's blog post titled:
The Virginal Conception and Political Deception
(a very reasonable guy in my limited view).

My experience with the old non-cable networks, including working with Bob Simon and Miguel Sancho at CBS, Stone Phillips at NBC and Peter Jennings and Liz Vargas at ABC has been at the other end of the spectrum from my experience with working with one particular Fox show---the O Reilly show.

For an hour before an interview I was to do on O'Reilly at Easter time a couple of years ago, I was drilled by the producer on the cell phone about not quoting the Bible, not saying anything theological, and only answering the direct questions of O' Reilly succinctly. After listening to this lecture politely I finally asked the producer wasn't he concerned about offending his conservative Christian audience by stifling me and not really allowing me to share what I was there on the show to share about Jesus' bodily resurrection. His response was chilling-- "we are more worried about offending our secular conservative audience." I guess he assumed that conservative Christians have no other channel or programs to turn to for their information so he was less worried about offending them.

And then the interview happened. O' Reilly asked me if I had seen the Shroud of Turin. I simply said no as did the other guest, John Dominic Crossan. He then went on about having seen it. It seemed to me like the lecture I got was all about not showing up O'Reilly, and about stroking his ego, as apparently he doesn't know much of the Bible or the history of the study of the resurrection, but he had seen the Shroud in Turin.

In the old sense of the word 'liberal' as in open-minded and trying to be fair I would much prefer the 'liberal' networks to this, as they allow you to have your say. Yes, I often disagree with some of the politics and viewpoints I hear from those folks, but frankly I want a 'free' press to be 'free'-- not pre-censored like that Fox show. I want to hear a variety of points of view, and I want to make up my own mind. I frankly don't trust folks who are prepared to report false facts for the sake of their own opinions, regardless of whether I agree with some of their other views or not.

Kinda makes me wonder if what ol' Bill saw was really the Shroud of Turin or just some bedsheet someone didn't change for a long time. Unfortunately it seems to be a pattern that a lack of humility and a lack of knowledge often lead to successful stupidity.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Been thinking a lot about boundaries lately. As the Colts proved twice during the Super Bowl (this is a contest between two sports teams; perhaps you've heard of it?), it can be a tough call to make, even after the flag is thrown, as to whether someone has crossed a line. This is true for relationships as well as football (and now we've hooked the men AND the women in our introduction; that's good writin', y'all! Now if I could just find a picture of Kelvin Hayden's foot nearly touching that white line....).

So think: have you found yourself on the wrong side of someone's boundaries recently? Or found them crossing yours?

I'll share my answer to the 2nd question here; the 1st one may require more probing on your part (possibly over dinner, on your tab).

I participate in a Yahoo group that came about when a message board was being shut down by the Christian magazine that hosted it, and one of the regulars started this "lifeboat" so those interested could continue the discussion. We're kind of like the survivors on "Lost," only we have easier access to shower facilities.

Anyway, one very eager participant in the message board who followed the faithful few to Yahoo has now been shut out of our small "club." His offense was that he tended to use any statement as a takeoff point to hammer his favorite one-point cautionary sermon on a very personal subject (you guessed it--sex; specifically sex outside of marriage). No matter how many times he was rebuked by the other participants for his inappropriate finger-wagging to people who already agreed with his stance (many of whom probably knew more than him about the subject), he never seemed to understand how he was not only preaching to the choir, he was interrupting choir practice to do so. His behavior seemed to go beyond being socially clumsy to being downright nuts at times. Plus his spelling and grammar were atrocious, which makes a bigger difference if writing is the basis of your interaction with someone.

Since he insisted on bringing his ranting into the Yahoo group even after being warned, the person who had started the group--a very sensitive woman--finally did the unpleasant task of ejecting him from the discussion. Most of us were supportive though some were less so, with some cyber-drama ensuing.

This "recent unpleasantness" (as the genteel diehard Confederate sympathizer referred to the Civil War) made me think of a book called "Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life" by Dr. Henry Cloud.

Here's an article by the same name by the author and his business partner that covers the basic points of the topic.

The article's authors make some very insightful comparisons between proper and improper behavior regarding various lines of demarcation between an individual and other people. "Boundaries give us a sense of what is part of us and what is not part of us, what we will allow and what we won’t, what we will choose to do and what we will choose not to do."

I heard from either these guys or elsewhere that people who were spoiled are aware when they're being selfish or rude, while people who were deprived or mistreated are not aware, because they haven't been taught (by the way they were treated) proper boundaries. This helps me understand when others offend me, and to keep my own feet on the right side of the chalk lines.

There could be a very humanistic application of the principles in this article--"don't let anyone treat you as if you're anything less than #1!" This would preclude voluntary self-sacrifice, including that of Jesus. But self-sacrifice is not spiritual if we are unable to do anything else (that's codependency), so it's a worthy topic.

Also, I think a couple of statements in the article could use some clarification, such as under "Thoughts" when they say "We need to give people the right to their own thoughts and interpretations and not try to change them." I think it's safe to assume they are referring to a situation where you refuse to accept that someone disagrees with you even after you've presented your views and discussed it. Otherwise this would have to rule out pretty much all communication, since it is made up of attempting to impart knowledge (every bit of which "changes" our view of the world if only in a small way) or persuade opinion, including everything from sermons to friendly arguments (and including this blog). So I'm sure that's not what they meant. Similarly, a songwriting hero of mine, Pierce Pettis ("You Move Me") says emphatically we shouldn' t "preach" in a song, but rather affirm the truths people are already aware of; but this would make Bob Dylan a bad writer, as well as Pierce himself, and that's definitely not true in either case.

The other point that might need to be clarified is under "Body." The authors do not bother to mention that there are certain times when "crossing over boundaries" in that arena is voluntary and quite welcome (sometimes darn exciting) and therefore a good and blessed thing. I'll trust I don't need to be any more specific on this.

So, again, how's YOUR game? Seen any yellow hankies at your feet lately? Or been the cause of any? Either way, thank God for grace when it's your offenses under the scrutiny of the instant replay. Penalties can be hell. (Guess that's 5 yards for roughing the metaphor).

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Cape Town Meets Music City

Had a good time at Lyrix on Wed. night (Jan. 31), doing the writers round I put together (I've given up figuring out whether there should be an apostrophe--it's just easier to consider it a non-possessive adjective). Joni Bishop has such an inviting, easy style; when she starts playing you tend to say "Ah, THIS is what I wanted to hear, and didn't even realize it." And Matt Allison was as much the polished pro as ever as he performed his obliquely spiritual and mesmerizing tunes. You would never have known (if I hadn't shared it with everyone) that he had been stressed out earlier by an incident with a non-cooperative gas pump, made more frustrating by his limited experience with pumping his own gas--they leave this to the professionals in Africa. He was under the impression that pressing the service button would actually produce...service. Live and learn, Matt!

Heather's next step toward stardom

I first met Heather Morgan during my stint as membership assistant at the Nashville Songwriters Assn. Int'nat'l (NSAI). There is a regular flow of songwriters through that office, incl. the up and coming, the down and out, and the don't-have-a-clue-that-they-don't-have-a-chance. Heather displayed more signs of "success in progress" than most; she had established a base in Dallas and was making the next logical step. I was glad to be witness to it, and maybe give it a nudge here and there on its way--not that she needed me, of course. It wasn't long before she was signed to a publishing deal with Warner-Chappell, which was an achievement in itself, but I didn't doubt she/they had an eye on even bigger things for her as a artist. The publishers like to get the most for their money and effort, and they've found it's easier to get their songs recorded if their own writers are doing the recording and performing.

Last Tuesday (Jan. 30) I got to see the next step as Heather performed with a band for some industry folks (including Tracy Gershon of Sony Music and former judge for Nashville Star, one of the few luminaries I actually recognize at these things).

Because I was uncharacteristically on time, I managed to get a seat, and had the pleasure of sharing a table with Angelique and Devon of Crowded House Entertainment. "Professional music fan" (read his blog, you'll see what I mean) John A. joined us later. Not only did I have a great vantage point for photos but I felt like I was really part of the "in crowd."

Heather seemed very comfortable on stage, and meshed well with the band. She managed to display the silly side of her charm when she confessed she realized halfway into a song she had not gotten rid of all her gum, and was afraid it might be projected into the audience, but managed to swallow it thereby averting disaster. Her performance was proof to me that, although her style is left of center of pop-country, it is as accessible as anything on the radio, and I'd say it's ahead of the curve in many ways.

I finally got to meet Heather's mom, who was well aware of me via my e-mails to Heather (as part of Heather's aforementioned home base of support), and I'm pretty sure she's seen the lyrics to a song of mine about a songwriter named Heather who arrives at her mother's deathbed "just in time." That last part is pure fiction...though I did read an article after I wrote the song where another musician in town found herself in a similar situation...strange. But Mom looked perfectly healthy, and was very kind, and of course proud as a peacock to be there for Heather's "coming up" performance. I told her I look forward to being part of the "entourage"--preferably with my own vehicle. I don't see me doing the bus thing. I'm sure Heather will be able to afford it.