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3/28/2014 6:00:00 AM
Songwriting 102: Making It Personal
(Photo by Matt Hinshaw)
The CheekTones perform Friday night at Hooligan’s Pub on Whiskey Row in downtown Prescott.
(Photo by Matt Hinshaw)
The CheekTones perform Friday night at Hooligan’s Pub on Whiskey Row in downtown Prescott.
by Don Cheek

Guy Clark finally received a Grammy. The dean of Nashville songwriters, Clark's latest, "My Favorite Picture Of You," got the 2014 prize for Best Folk Album. And the title track is a song he wrote to/for his wife of 40 years, Susanna Clark, who died in 2012. It's a song about a Polaroid taken one day when she was irritated with him. He's done that lots of times in his career - injected his own story, some part of his life, into a song. And he has plenty of company in that, with countless examples out there: Joni Mitchell's album "Blue" is famous for exploring the ebb and flow of her relationship with James Taylor; both of Adele's albums were based on her breakups; Amy Winehouse wrote about her drug problems in "Rehab"; and Jackson Browne's "In The Shape Of A Heart" is about his wife Phyllis, who died a few years before. Perhaps your own life is the most obvious place to start when you write a song.

A musician since my teens, I wanted to write songs, but I couldn't figure it out, until in my 40s I wrote one, called "Portales," which was totally fiction. I've never even been to Portales, never spent three days with that woman. The next one, "No Time At All," also was fiction. But as my skills developed, and I searched for more subject matter, parts of my own life started showing up. I wrote a song about a few times I got a little too close to death and made it back. It's called "I'm Back," and there's a verse in there about the day I got shot through the elbows in Vietnam. I changed the bullet into light - poetic license, I guess: "The light went through your elbows, and it almost set you free." You'll have to figure out the other two verses - I'm not telling. But it's possibly the only song with the word "alveoli" in it.

Loss of a loved one comes up frequently in songs, as noted above with Guy Clark and Jackson Browne. And it played into one of my songs, too. When cancer took my wife Charlotte in '96, I wrote lyrics about it, which I still haven't found a way to put to music. But about 10 years later, I wrote another song about her, "Weight Of The Divine," which ended up on the CheekTones CD, Razorburn. In this song I never refer directly to her or her death, but you would know it if you knew the story. Jackson did the same thing - no specific reference to his wife in "Shape Of The Heart."

While tragedy and breakups make good fodder for personal songs, they aren't the only way to put your life into your lyrics. Chicago songwriter Steve Goodman turned his lament about the healthy diet his wife was pushing on him into the amusing "Chicken Cordon Blues," a song you might want to check out. One of my own songs, "Velvet Hammer," tells the more humorous side of playing in a Phoenix bar called the Velvet Hammer.

Love stories are possibly the most common way to make a song personal - nothing inspires a poet like falling in love, they say. Think "I Will Always Love You," Dolly Parton's song for Porter Wagoner, or "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," written by Ewan MacColl for his lover, Peggy Seeger. A few years ago, I wrote a song for my wife Jane, for Valentine's Day, a song called "We've Got This Love," which tells the story of us. It's kind of personal, so I don't play it often in public. That's one of the drawbacks of putting your story in a song: if you're spelling it all out, your privacy goes out the window. Writers like Dylan and Browne are so good they can tell the story without the listener knowing for sure what it's about.

So, for those of you who listen to the lyrics, you may want to think about how much of the story comes right out of the songwriter's own life. I figure some writers put their personal stuff in a song because they can't say it aloud. Maybe Jim Croce tells that story best, right there in a song he wrote to his wife: "Every time I tried to tell you, the words just came out wrong. So I'll have to say I Love You in a song."

Don Cheek is a singer/songwriter who also serves as wrangler to local band The CheekTones. You can stream some of their songs at, or email him at

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