Craig Bickhardt on Songwriting, Artistic Integrity & Single Malt Scotch
Part 2 of 2 on award winning singer/songwriter Craig Bickhardt
The song was pitched to Johnny Cash, and he loved it. Recorded the song with The Highwaymen, but the cut didn’t make 1995’s The Road Goes on Forever. Could be that the song hit a little too close to home for the record label.
The story of a down-and-out entertainer addicted to drink and drugs, the lyrics parallel Cash’s own history of self-destructive behavior and public adulation. Like many of Craig Bickhardt’s songs, this one describes a reality common to many; some believe the song was written about Hank Williams. Co-written with Barry Alfonso, “If He Came Back Again” would later be included as a bonus track on the 10th anniversary edition of The Road Goes on Forever, earning special note from several reviewers.
Craig’s songwriting credits also include the touching and melodic “You Are What Love Means to Me” from the Tender Mercies soundtrack. His songs have been recorded by B.B. King, Ray Charles, the Judds, Tony Rice and Alison Krauss, among others. During his more than two decades in Nashville, Bickhardt penned several number one hits. In 2008 he earned first prize at the International Acoustic Music Awards for his song “Sugarcane Street”.
The master writer continues to pen new songs, to mentor younger singer/songwriters, and to perform his original music for audiences across the United States. Craig graciously agreed to take time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about the art and business of songwriting in Nashville.
What are the key elements shared by every good song?
Well, to me, good songs just seem to be more inspired. A really good song appears to have a motive, as if the writer really needed to write it. There’s an emotional communication, too, something the writer actually felt and made me feel. It just connects. My friend John Mock refers to a good song as being like “an opened window”, which I think is accurate.
As far as what comes out of Nashville, I liked it better when there was more diversity. There are still a few good songs, probably more not-so-good ones. But radio is partly to blame. Clear Channel monopolizes the airwaves and they will only play about 20 current singles, so how much diversity are you going to get? Today if a good song runs 30 seconds too long, or if it doesn’t have one of those big repeating hooks with the “radio sound”, or if it’s a bit too intellectual, or if it’s about the war or politics or some other dicey topic it won’t get played. It’s too bad and I don’t like it, but I think that’s how it is.
You have had a long and successful career, and so have a perspective on the songwriting profession that many do not. In your 20+ years in Nashville, what changes have you seen?
Nashville songwriters used to get three-year publishing deals and royalty advances that enabled them to feed their families like every other American worker. It gave them time and a little security to experiment, which resulted in some exceptional songs. Writers don’t get that kind of deal anymore. The music industry has been hit pretty hard. There’s some desperation in it. The creative environment feels more like a sinking ship and I think that makes it harder for writers to innovate sometimes. I went back to performing and recording my own music so I could control my own creative environment.
Are there changes in expectations from the industry? Yes, definitely. Writers are expected to write only for the radio now. I used to get some really nice “album cuts” before. They were artistic songs Like “Donald and June” that got recorded without any expectation that they would be hits- everybody just loved the song and that was good enough. Now artists cut 12 singles and almost nothing gets recorded unless it could potentially be a smash. It’s risk averse. That leaves a lot of very unique and inventive songs out in the cold, I think. A lot of good music has kind of gone underground. The Indie labels seem to have the lion share of unique talent. The up side is that there are more good artists than ever out there to be discovered.
What traits do you value in a co-writer?
I write mostly alone. I’ll co-write sometimes but I co-write alone, too, meaning I rarely sit down in the same room with somebody. Nose to nose collaboration is uncomfortable for me. I did it for years in Nashville but I guess I’m more of a Type B personality. I work quietly, take my time, wait for inspiration. Or I might spend an hour on one acoustic guitar lick because I also arrange while I write. That isn’t how all songwriters work. Songs can be ruined by impatience, so I’m careful.
The traits I value in a co-writer…that would be intelligence, patience, a lot of heart, a great sense of humor, and maybe a preference for single malt scotch.
The writers I most enjoy working with now are Thom Schuyler, Jack Sundrud, Nathan Bell, and Barry Alfonso. They feel the same way I do about songs. They have a level of artistic integrity and they won’t quit until the song is as good as it can be.
What is your process for songwriting?
Usually there’s a feeling first. For example when I wrote “Men and Rivers” it was the day of the Nashville flood. I was in Pennsylvania and I was very concerned for the safety of my daughter and granddaughter who still live down there in one of the worst hit areas of town. I was also worried about old friends who might be losing their homes. There was nothing I could do; the phones were out and news was hard to get. It stirred up a lot of feelings. Suddenly all these lines started popping into my mind about the ways in which rivers have affected human lives throughout history. I wrote down a verse. Then I heard a melody in my head and the next thing I knew I’d written a song. I don’t know where a song comes from but I can feel it about to emerge, like a premonition. Sometimes I hear the music first, sometimes I’ll hear a little piece of a melody and a lyric simultaneously. I never know how the song will present itself to me but there’s always some nudge from within, then the ball just starts rolling. Sometimes I finish them quickly and sometimes they incubate for months before I get it right. Sometimes they don’t get finished at all.
I only finish a song every couple of months now because I’m on the road performing 75 shows a year. In Nashville I wrote 35-40 songs a year because that’s pretty much all I did. But I’ve tucked away a lot of stuff in my skull over five decades of living. There’s no shortage of material when you get to be my age, just a shortage of time.
How does the songwriter get paid; has the mechanism of payment changed over the years?
Without going into too much boring math, writers have always been and always will be underpaid. It comes with the territory. When I broke into the business a song royalty was only about three cents per record sold, which was only a penny more than what Stephen Foster earned for selling a piece of sheet music over 100 years ago. Now the rate has “skyrocketed” to about nine cents per CD or download, but we’re getting gouged more by piracy, so it’s probably almost a zero net gain. Ok, that’s just how it is. Nobody I know is in this business to get rich. But just to give you a real life example, I had a song recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson collectively as The Highwaymen. It wasn’t released until 2006 . I was thrilled, of course, but I’ve made less than a thousand dollars from it. I’d rather have the cut than the money, but I have to explain to a lot of people why I’m not a millionaire when they say “Wow, that must’ve been a big one”.
Payment now includes other sources like streaming music websites, but again reality bites back. Somebody calculated than it would take over a million streams per month to earn minimum wage on Spotify. Look, I’m not complaining, I’m just saying this is how the business is right now. You really have to be driven by a deep passion to do this. I’d rather focus on the good stuff- the advances in digital recording technology, the growth of the small singer-songwriter venues, the ability to reach more fans through social media, and maybe hope that things get better as far as the money goes.
Of the current crop of Nashville songwriters, whose work pleases you? Of songs playing on the radio right now, are there any that you consider particularly well written?
I left Nashville six years ago and I’m recording my own music now, touring and listening to the other artists that I perform with. I don’t listen to as much Nashville music anymore, but I liked “The House That Built Me” and a couple other recent country records. I think Taylor Swift is a good emissary for Nashville to have right now. I respect any writer or artist who doesn’t take the easy road. You have to maintain a little dignity and not put yourself on the dollar store shelf. I think it’s better to be too good for the money than it is to be too cheap for the integrity.
What advice would you give to a young songwriter planning a move to Nashville today?
Cowboy up and carry extra provisions, it’s gonna be long ride. You’ll have to live with your reputation, so write what you love and try to write for posterity. Trends pass. Most of what’s out there today will be forgotten in five years. You are the custodian of your dreams and your talent. Take good care of them.
The following video of “If He Came Back Again” performed by The Highwaymen, written by Barry Alfonso and Craig Bickhardt, is included in the 10th anniversary edition DVD from The Road Goes on Forever.
I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Mr. Bickhardt for sharing his time, talent and experience for this series.