Notes on the Song School

The songwriters attending Mary Gauthier's class pulled up a folding chair or found a patch of lawn, to hear her inveigh against the forces that block writers' best effort.

"Let's talk about obstacles, the crap we tell ourselves. 'I'm not worthy. I'm fat, I'm gay, I'm old. My mama said I couldn't sing. My fourth-grade teacher said I couldn't write,' " Gauthier said. "Help me out here."

A student jumped in: "Someone's already said it better than I could."

"You're a privileged white chick. What the hell do you have to say?"

The voices came faster and faster: "I only know a few chords." "My job sucks my soul away." Unsupportive friends. Real men don't sing sad songs.

"I didn't want to write 'cause Bob Dylan did," Gauthier said. "It's damn hard. And Dylan wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' in a taxicab on the way to the studio. If I was supposed to be doing this, it'd be easy."

The group got quiet. "Let's identify this monster voice," Gauthier said. " 'Cause let me tell you, Dylan has it. Willie Nelson has it. Leonard Cohen has it. The difference between them and us is, they've learned how to talk back to it."

For 14 years, the Song School here has been inspiring songwriters to talk back, shout back -- whatever it takes to write great songs. Every August, devotees come to Lyons, an hour northwest of Denver, and set up camp just before the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest. Both the school and the festival are run by Planet Bluegrass.

The Song School costs $450, a month's rent for most struggling musicians, but the 160 spots sell out in a few weeks. Students pitch tents on the sprawling lawns of a former ranch, rising at 9 a.m. for yoga and coffee before a full day of workshops outdoors. Each evening, there's an open-mike session, followed by song circles where the students pass guitars and often a whiskey bottle around campfires, trading songs into the night.

Teachers come from New York, Los Angeles, Boston's Berklee College of Music. They've taught John Mayer and Gillian Welch, among others, and have earned Grammy and Emmy nominations.

But that's not what keeps people coming back. At heart, songwriting is a solitary pursuit. The Song School is a rare chance for people to come together and find solace in their collective struggle.

Finding one's voice

Melody, story, voice, rhyme -- there are a dozen ways to break down a great song, and the Song School has workshops devoted to them all.

Across the lawn, rocker Peter Himmelman throws out a title and gives his students 20 minutes to come back with a song. "Stop thinking. Thinking is the worst thing," he says. Students strum under trees, wander from tent to tent, staring at a red rock cliff or strolling by the river for inspiration.

Vance Gilbert, who'll play any Michael Jackson or Otis Redding song on request, shows students how to own the stage. Pat Pattison, a poet and linguist, makes students sing a line 10 ways until they understand the nuances of how words convey emotions.

But for Gauthier, the classic country-folk troubadour, it starts with the willingness to go the distance to find your own voice.

"On the count of three," she instructs.

"I AM AN ARTIST. I AM A SONGWRITER," comes booming across the lawn.

"We give people the opportunity to connect with something higher," Gauthier says. "This is a crazy belief, but I believe it: Artists are healers. The highest place to write from is a place of generosity."

A writer's journey

Gauthier believes music saves souls because it saved hers. Growing up in Baton Rouge, La., she spent years grappling with alcoholism and issues stemming from her adoption. She was in and out of rehab and jail before getting clean and trying her hand at songwriting at 35.

Within a few years, she'd released the album "Drag Queens in Limousines." Tim McGraw took a liking to her song "I Drink" and recorded it. Jimmy Buffett and Candi Stanton also have covered her songs, helping to establish Gauthier in Nashville. She's often likened to Lucinda Williams for her ability to capture the grittier side of life.

But how does she teach the skill of taking experience and transforming it into song?

Gauthier picks up her guitar and plays one of the first songs she felt was truly hers. It was 1997; Gauthier was driving and saw a billboard that read, "AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuals." Gauthier, a lesbian, had plenty of gay friends.

In her Southern twang, she sings,

My name is Michael Joe Alexander.

I been a queer since the day I was born.

My friends have been dying.

All my best friends are dead.

I don't know what's happening to me.

Goddamn HIV

It's loneliness laid bare, one of Gauthier's trademarks. "You don't know who you're gonna help in this game. But trust you're gonna."

A student from the Central California coast explains why the song moves her. "I write nice songs," she says. But for years she was married to a fundamentalist preacher who slept with prostitutes. He was terrified he'd infected himself -- and her -- with the virus.

"I'm sitting here shaking," the woman says.

"With a story to tell," adds Gauthier.

"Hey, that sounds like a first line," a student chimes in.

"Hell rhymes with tell," Gauthier says.

Shared thoughts

Soon, others are throwing out ideas of how to write the song. Do it from the husband's perspective, or the prostitute's. Write for all the women still stuck in bad marriages.

"I asked Willie [Nelson] once why people like sad songs," Gauthier says. Nelson said, " 'They think if it can happen to me, it can't be so bad when it's happening to them.' "

There's a reason former President Nixon tried to get John Lennon deported, she says. Songs are powerful.

But they can be torture to write. She offered some hints: Take your three favorite songwriters and buy their collection. Don't keep track of how long it takes to finish a song. Go for walks. Be eccentric.

"Eventually, your songs stop sounding like Lucinda songs, or Hank [Williams] songs. They start to sound like your songs."

She urged persistence. "Most people give up before the miracle happens. Our job is to go into the dark tunnel -- the unknown place where no one is -- and light a match," Gauthier told her students. "How do you know when you get there? You just know. The truth never changes."


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World