There are fewer professional songwriters working today than professional football players, says Casey Dugan of the Songwriters’ Association of Washington. So Dugan organized a “Pitch-a-thon” to give prospective Carol Kings and Cole Porters the chance to have their unpublished tunes heard by a music publisher. Last Sunday, several dozen folks sat in a classroom at the George Mason Law School in Arlington, while Cynthia French, partner in the recently formed Harry Max Music, a two-woman Nashville firm named after the founders’ dogs, patiently listened without prejudice for more than four hours.
Songs were submitted on cassette and played for all to hear. The Gong Show aspect of the process was kept in check by French’s friendly, professional demeanor. Though she was supposed to just say “pass” or “hold” to each submission, she couldn’t resist offering helpful critiques of most songs. “Don’t take it personally,” she explained beforehand. “Just because I say ‘pass’ doesn’t mean anything.” Even songs that will never make Garth Brooks’ set list rate a cheery “that’s cool, that’s neat.”
Admitting that “in Nashville there’s such a formula,” French, a singer/songwriter herself, tried to dispense the secrets of country tunesmithing. A song about 7-year-old pilot Jessica Dubrof was judged “too specific.” “Ram the hook down their throat,” French advised repeatedly, stressing the importance of the chorus. And to be commercial, writers should “pull a little bit of yourself out of” the song. To the writer of a tune that was lyrically appealing she suggested to “re-demo with a more generic singer.”
After a song called “The Wrong Mr. Right” was heard, French revealed that there are already two songs with that title in the Harry Max vaults, but stopped short of saying give it up.
There was even a kind word for what I call the “Stalker Song”—angry, jangling guitar and strained recitation of such lyrics as “Why are you afraid of me?” and “Once I get out of here, I’ll be all right,” and “I’ve got to leave!” I spot two likely authors, haunted-looking men. They both leave shortly after the song is, politely, passed over—which might not have been a good decision.
Most songs are lovesick ballads, and the demos are uniformly professional-sounding, a testament to home recording technology. It was hard to detect a difference between the songs on the charts and the ones on the tapes (whichever this reflects better on is your call). Some writers had availed themselves of those “Your Poems Made Into Songs” services that are advertised in the back of Song Hits magazine and comic books. Several seemed to have gotten the same singer to record their words. Later, French said she recognized one of her Nashville friends vocalizing a local’s verbiage.
Of nearly 80 songs submitted, French held 20 for further appraisal, delightedly surprised by the quality of the material.
And then there was my modest effort. In the spirit of participatory journalism, I spent $13 and entered a novelty number, “Savin’ My Heart for Parts,” which I considered an obvious spoof of country heartbreak. As hours of sincere metaphors about the “Highway of Life” filled the room, I worried that subtle satire might be taken seriously. Maybe it was. “Cool concept,” said French with a smile. “That’s so cute.” Into the “hold” pile, Nashville bound. Have I mentioned Ms. French’s movie-star beauty? The long blonde hair and lithe figure that demand comparisons with Michelle Pfeiffer—only more glamorous? It’s true.
See you at the Opry.—Dave Nuttycombe