From the beer-swilling, face-painted, die-hard minor league fan in the nosebleed section to heartbreak to begging for a lie to borderline stalking, with a little Big Bird thrown in, Randy Sharp has written about 'em all. His songs span the genres of pop, country, rock, and Sesame Street. And he's not afraid to tell the tales.
Randy Sharp: Well, it was a writing session with my friend John Vezner, he co-wrote it with me. And John and I at that time were getting together every few months in my trips to Nashville, which I've been doing regularly since the early ‘80s, and we always have written what is a little outside of the predictable for the Nashville scene. And that's been a good thing, often, like in the case of “Then What?”, but many times I think because of our indulgence in trying to write things that are a little bit odd, it's probably kept us from getting more of our co-writes cut. But Clay Walker was someone that he knew, and he was able to actually get on his bus and play it for him in a rough guitar/vocal form, and got him excited about it just with that. So that was a real unusual story as far as how it got cut as well. As far as where the premise came from, it's probably not as interesting as you would hope, because John and I both are pretty much hard-core songwriters. I mean, we sit down and just start digging, and going into scenarios. I'm guessing that we were talking about a mutual friend - and there's plenty of them that have had this experience - who stepped over that line, and all the trouble he got into for not thinking ahead, and going ahead and having that affair, and thinking he could pull it off, and thinking it wouldn't destroy everything. I'm sure that's where the conversation started. A lot of my songs - and John's songs, I think, too - have come from something said in casual conversation. So it's real easy to remember it this way - whether it's true or not - that we were telling these stories about our friend, and one of us, after a pause, just said, “Well, then what do you do?” Once you've taken that step, and there's no going back over that bridge, then what happens? And of course when one of those little jewels pop out of a conversation, everybody's eyes get big, and it's like, all right, we know what we want to write now. And that was basically it. Him and I both also are real fans of playing with the language. And in that song there's a lot of that rapid-fire lyric, there's a lot of words in that song, which is always a challenge to make up. And the subject's pretty serious, but the delivery of it and the lyric, I think, there's a lightness to it, kind of a fun-ness to it, and we kept that in. And a lot of it has to do with just the way the words are working together and there's a lot of little tricky things we did in there purposefully just to take some of the darkness out of the theme.
Songfacts: It's got that kind of calypso…
Randy: Yeah, it has an island theme to it, which can't help but lighten it a little bit.
Songfacts: Was that you guys, or was that somebody in Clay's camp that did that?
Randy: Well, the steel drum was his. We hadn't put a steel drum on the demo. In fact, when he said he was going to do the song we hadn't even demoed it yet. That was just John getting on his bus out somewhere in the middle of the country where he ran into him and saying, “Here's something I'm working on,” played it on a guitar, and he just went for it.
Songfacts: That must have been an interesting meeting.
Randy: Very interesting. And actually a complete anomaly for me, because pretty much it's 5-7 years before my stuff gets cut after I write it. It gets pitched over and over. Because I don't tend to write for what's going on right now, I try to write a little bit outside of that, and kind of quirky. So it takes longer to find a home for these things. So the fact that John and I wrote this strange little song, and it found a home almost immediately, was really unusual. And without a real polished demo.
Songfacts: And then it was such a huge hit, too.
Randy: Yeah, it was a huge hit with the steel drum in a country format. I mean, that's really surprising. I'm glad he did it that way. If I'd have not felt like he had to groom it a little bit for the market, that was an obvious place to go, and he took that, and I'm really glad that he did. He did a real good job on it.
Songfacts: That was something very unusual that I was surprised to hear. But it turned out so great.
Randy: Yeah, I was real happy.
Songfacts: Going by what you were saying, that it takes several years for your songs to get cut, and you've been around the music scene for quite a few years, what was your first song that found an artist?
Randy: There were several songs in the early ‘70s that made it on records. And they were all big victories for me at the time. But a lot of it was in the pop world. Blood, Sweat and Tears cut one of my songs, and Delaney Bramlett from Delaney and Bonnie cut a lot of my songs. Jennifer Warnes cut one of my songs, it was a pretty big pop hit. But at the same time, people like Ray Stevens and Marty Robbins and Jerry Reed were cutting my songs out of Nashville. And none of them were big hits. But the song that really found a home and introduced me to a much bigger world was a song called “New Way Out” that Karen Brooks recorded. And Karen, in the early ‘80s, was the ACM Horizon Award winner in country music for that song. And I was out here in L.A., she was living in Nashville, and a friend played her a bunch of my stuff, and she was about to record a record for Warner Brothers, picked one of my songs, and asked me to join her in working on it out here in L.A. with Brian Hern, who was Emmylou Harris' producer at the time. So I came in and started working with her quite a bit. But that song, even though it wasn't a big hit all over the country, it was a real big hit in Nashville, in that small circle of the hard core country folks. That got me an invitation to write for Warner Brothers and to start traveling back and forth to Nashville. And that started me doing that, which I continued to do all these years. But it brought me to the attention of a lot of the old guard country people, because it has that kind of sound. Sounds like something probably written in the ‘50s, which is an era of music I really like. The crazy Willie Nelson part of the catalogue. That old-style Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves kind of stuff. And this song sort of had that. So it got the attention of a lot of those people, and so I was introduced to that crowd pretty quickly, and made to feel very welcome, and continued to work with a lot of those people for a lot years.
Songfacts: You have worked with country music all the way to Edgar Winter. Can you tell me what the difference is in writing songs for different genres?
Randy: I rarely set out to write a particular song. I'm always selfishly trying to write something that I'm going to be proud of when it's over, and that can go into any genre. I still write stuff purposefully in genres that I'm not comfortable in just to keep kind of fine-tuning the craft. I've written several things in a country swing genre, which very few people are even playing, but it's really a wonderful musical form. And it's that strange period in time when the jazz players were playing in country bands, so that stuff has a very basic lyric core that's very country, but a very sophisticated musical background. That kind of stuff really intrigues me. And when I sit down to write with someone, unless it's a very specific artist with a very specific project in mind, I'd like to not even worry about those things. You marry your taste to theirs, and somewhere in the common area you find something you both are going to enjoy working on. And you write the song that comes from that. I've been with co-writers who will push for a certain style, and that's all right, I can follow. But typically I don't even want to think about it. If we get an idea, what best addresses this idea? What's the best package to wrap this in that makes it effective and emotionally connecting to the audience? So really that's the way I go about it. And consequently, I have a lot of songs that can't find a home, there is no immediate genre where they're gonna be taken in. But it's the only way after all these years that I can stay excited about being a songwriter. Instead of trying to write the same song in the same format over and over again, which I've never done, and the times I've tried it just takes all the fun out of it.
Songfacts: If you write a song, and you're thinking, Okay this is a rock and roll format, but somebody else sees something else in it, it can be tweaked to go to any different format, correct?
Randy: Sure.That happens a lot. “A Tender Lie,” by Restless Heart that I wrote was cut by Beres Hammond, who's a reggae artist. And I never saw that coming. Ever. With his taste and sensibilities, he heard it as a reggae tune, and made a great record. Not one that I was expecting. I always heard it as just a straight-ahead country ballad. So you never know. Dolly Parton cut that song a couple of years ago as a bluegrass song. And in all three cases the Restless Heart version's the one that was closest to the original and to the demo. But people hear them different ways, and that's exciting, if they can take your original intent and make it still an interesting project, and interesting sounding song, but move to their genre.
Songfacts: And you have never dug in your heels and said, “No, no, no, you can't do that!” with any of your songs?
Randy: No, I haven't. In fact, to some degree you can't, once it's been recorded. I mean, the way it works is the first license can be withheld. But beyond that, if somebody cuts it, really anyone can cut it as long as they agree to the licensing. But you can't say, “You can't cut the song.” Unless they alter it a lot, or do something to it that's offensive, or change a lyric, or something like that, then you can step in. But once it's been recorded you can't really stop anyone.
Songfacts: Okay. Talk to me about “A Tender Lie,” then. Since you brought it up, is there any kind of a story behind that?
Randy: That's one I wrote by myself. Every night I would come in the living room, and I would work on that song. And that's the only song I can remember that was virtually written with everything but the title. The last thing I wrote on that song was the title, which is the whole song. I had a visual of the character standing there in his doorway, and the love interest, the woman in the story, leaving. And him just needing from her, “I need you to do anything to make this hurt less.” Which basically is what I was working around. And the musical theme I'd had for a while. And finally one night I just said, No, I can't find it. I'm just going to put this away. I'm not going to finish this song. And I walked into the other room, and my wife Sharon asked me what I was doing. And I said, “I'm hanging it up. This thing is just beating me up. I can't find the answer to this.” And she basically said, “No, you're not.” (laughs) “I've had to listen to you every night banging on that thing now for I don't know how long, and you can't give it up. We're all too invested in this thing.” And she really liked the music and what I had so far. So with her prodding, I went back in there and it tumbled out finally. That thing all of a sudden snapped together, and “a tender lie” was the solution to it.
Songfacts: So was this just a story that you were thinking of? It wasn't something that you were going through?
Randy: Well, the process for most songwriters is that you can put yourself in a scenario, and you can borrow from a mix of your own experiences. Certainly I have felt that more than once where something has not worked, and you're so desperate for some good news, for any sort of band-aid that it's like... even lie to me. Just give me something. This is just too painful. This is too hard. I don't know if I can get through this without something. And it's one of those snapshots, the whole art of a relationship, and it may be a feeling you only have for a few minutes, but it's a real genuine feeling for those few minutes. And an hour later you may realize that that's a real stupid thing to want, and it wouldn't have done any good anyway. But for those few minutes, even if it's a lie, just tell me something that makes me feel better about myself, better about the whole thing. And even though I know you're leaving, it's over… and I have lots of experiences that are easy to tap into that state of mind. But there was not a specific relationship or breakup that I was referring to.
Songfacts: Just kind of a universal feeling.
Randy: As a songwriter, if you really are only writing about your own experiences, you'll run out pretty fast. You have to be a kind of a voyeur, really, and listening to your friends. I'm a good listener and a lot of friends kind of come to me with their aches and pains, and their heartaches. And I don't necessarily tell their stories, but I do carry those scenarios around in my head, and I carry my impressions of their feelings, and my own associated feelings from similar experiences. I catalogue that stuff, so when I want to go that place, it's really easy to become that actor in that storyline, and then try to imagine the words that come out of that person's mouth.
Songfacts: That really would be like acting.
Randy: Well, it's very much like acting. Very much. I've written songs for the character standpoint, from a real sort of country boy sh*t-kickin' sort of position, which I'm familiar with. I've a lot of friends like that. That isn't me. But it's easy to put that in your head, put those cowboy boots on and that hat, and put yourself in that scenario, and be that guy, and then remember from real experiences what that guy sounds like. And what his language is, and his nuances, and his concerns. So it's very much like acting.
Songfacts: Absolutely. Let's go to one that kind of cracks me up, actually, quite a bit. “The Cheap Seats.”
Randy: Oh yeah, that's a good one. I wrote that with Marcus Hummon, and Marcus lives in Nashville, and he is that guy. That's the only time we've ever written together. Unfortunately we just haven't been able to align our schedules. But we spent that morning just getting to know each other and talking about what we did, and our hobbies, and he started to tell me about what a huge Nashville Sounds fan he was, which was their Triple A ball club. He talked about going out there sometimes alone, being the only guy out there cheering, because he was such a fan. So we were laughing about the visual of this: two guys out there doing the wave by themselves, and yelling at the umpire, and the visual is so funny we just started jotting this stuff down. And the concept of the cheap seats - we weren't the first ones to come up with that - but it put our characters, these guys that never missed a game, in an appropriate kind of every-guy role, you know, in those seats. And the fact that there's a bunch of people that are so supportive of the local boys that even if it's just a tie, they'll act like it was a win, and they'll go buy them pizza and beer. And it's a real place, and a real attitude out there. And Marcus brought that to the table, and we just sort of took off. That was written in one sitting, which is rare for me. It usually takes me several get-togethers to finish a song.
Songfacts: Was this one that took several years to find a band?
Randy: That took about a year, because it was first held and recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys, and not released. That's why some songs take a long time, because people will ask that you hold the song so that they can do what they're going to do with it. And often times if there's a label change, or just another song that comes along late in the project, your song gets bumped, or they don't like the way it came out, or there's a hundred reasons why songs don't make records. Well, in the meantime, a year's gone by, and you haven't played it for anyone because you were holding it for them. Bette Midler held “Some Walls” for three years and didn't release it. So that was real tough to not pitch that song, which has since been cut about ten times, but not until after three years of waiting for her to do something with it.
Songfacts: That has got to be aggravating.
Randy: Yeah, it's real hard. And a lot of times you go ahead and play it for people - which is what we did - you play it with the caveat that, "Bette has this, and she has first dibs, but if you're excited I'll call you as soon as she passes on it" or whatever. So, yeah, you still try to work around it, but you have to respect their claim on the song, if you think they may cut it. Especially the big artists.
Songfacts: I don't know that I would have the patience for that.
Randy: It's pretty hard. It's a real touchy thing with a lot of writers, because there's no payment, there's nothing. It's just a favor. “Don't play this for anybody because I'm gonna cut it.” And a year later when they finally record it, and they package the record to release the record, a lot of times it's that long before you know that you didn't get a cut. It can be very frustrating.
Songfacts: “Yet,” by Exile. Take me through that one.
Randy: Well, the whole Exile experience, “Yet” being one of the primary examples of it, was very interesting. My friend Tim DuBois, who was a writer at Warner Brothers when I was writing there in the early ‘80s, started Arista Records in Nashville, and had always been a big fan of Exile. And he decided to sign me. He had been a fan of my production work from my songwriters demos, and had promised to bring me in if he found the right project. So Exile, minus their lead singer that had done a lot of their work prior to that, shut them up in a room with me, and I met them for the first time, and Doug said, “We'll sign you. Randy's going to produce. And Randy, you and Sonny LeMaire” - who was one of their guys - “You go write the songs.” So Sonny and I went off as strangers and started writing furiously for Exile. And “Yet” was one of the early things that we came up with, which was not like Exile at all, back to my point which was you've got to write songs that you're going to be proud of. That didn't sound like anything Exile had ever done. But for that reason, everybody liked it and got excited about it. And that really came from Sonny and I just diddling around on guitars. And the cool trick, if you can pull it off, is making the whole song mean something else just by adding one word to it. And if you read that song, the story changes completely when you hear the word “yet.” And that was what we were so proud of, that we were able to do it. And we worked on it a lot. And that song we went back to several times. And because of the writing and the production were kind of all wrapped up together, we were also really proud of the fact that in that country market at that time, to release a song that was basically an acoustic guitar, bass, and organ, was unheard of. There was nothing like that on the radio. It was very simple, and using an organ instead of a steel, or something more traditionally country, was kind of a rule breaker. And we did it knowing this would probably just be an album cut, but it would be something artistically that would stand out on the record, and we might get some interest from a different camp with it. And mostly we were just proud of the song. For it to turn out to be a #1 single was really a shocker for Sonny and I both.
But I know the underlying question was, was there something going on in my life or Sonny's life that this reflected. Not so much, except that we had both had the experience of knowing that there was something there, someone that you really want to be close to that was not going along. And it was all about that persistence, that "I'm just determined to get them to love me, get them to respond. They don't know it yet, but they're going to for this." And it was a little tricky (laughing) because you've got to be really careful, because it was borderline stalker.
Songfacts: (laughing) That's the word that was going through my head just now when you were saying that.
Randy: (laughing) Really. It is that, though. We kept having to finesse that song. It was so easy to get scary with this character that's kind of like the Sting song, “Every Breath You Take." It's got that dark sort of, “Man, leave me alone,” kind of going on. So we were really, really careful to keep it a sweet song, even though the guy clearly was borderline. (laughing)
Songfacts: With the Sting song, people play that at their weddings. They think that's just the ultimate love song.
Randy: I know. But man, that guy's creepy. It's a wonderful song, I love the song. I like that about it, I like that he snuck that in, where people actually think it's a love song but it can also be read the other way. That takes some real craft.
Songfacts: You mentioned that this song was a very simple one, and another song that you did that I think is just beautiful, and "simple" is “A Home.” Did you co-write that with your daughter?
Randy: Yeah, Maia and I wrote that song. The premise of it, again, came out of conversation. And we weren't writing that for the Dixie Chicks, we weren't writing for anyone. In fact, there was nothing on the radio that suggested that was a smart thing to write, because it was very acoustic and very simple, and no one even knew the Dixie Chicks were going to do that acoustic record. So we were just writing selfishly. It's a very simple song, but chordally it isn't. If you tear it apart there's some real kind of odd harmonic structure to that song, and Maia and I both like that stuff. We were getting off on that part of it and the kind of harmonies we could build just in the melodic structure, which was still forming. And the mood of the music suggested the story. There's melancholy in that music, there is regret in that music. So as we talked, as we formulated it, we started to see this character that had made the wrong call, that had taken a life road that he now couldn't help but ponder what it would be like had he chosen the other way, had he made it home, had he had the nerve to tell all of his friends and all of the people talking and whispering in his ear to leave him alone, that he was gonna listen to his heart. And we didn't do the back-story, which I kind of liked that people could plug in their own scenario. But maybe the other person was the wrong color, or the wrong gender, or the wrong whatever. But people essentially pressured him, he gave into it - or her, however you're hearing the story - to abandon what his heart was telling him. So here he is years later thinking, I really screwed up. I had a chance at it and I chose to be safe and careful. And I blew it.
So the music was telling that story emotionally. And Maia and I looked around quite a few get-togethers to find what matched that emotion, what story are we matching? And that's what came out of it. And then it sort of evolved and shifted to allow for the storyline, as it evolved and shifted. A lot of times, especially when I write a bit of music and a bit of lyric, sort of kick it off, and then both of them mould to each other as the process carries on.
Songfacts: I saw a YouTube clip of you and your daughter singing this song, and it's very stripped down and very, very simple, the way that you guys do it. And I know the Dixie Chicks' version of it as well, and it's still somehow very simple.
Randy: It's almost exactly the demo, what they recorded.
Songfacts: So you guys are obviously real happy with the outcome of that.
Randy: Oh yeah, that was a great thing. There's a version of them doing it with James Taylor. It was on Crossroads, I believe it's a Nashville music thing, which was way cool. I was real pleased to hear him singing one of my songs.
And when he gave monogamy a poke in the eye by asking "why does it have to be wrong or right?" his worries of his song never being heard were loudly ignored when country crossover band Restless Heart made it a huge hit.
Randy: Well, I saw Ray the other day. I was in Nashville last week and went by his place just to visit. When I worked with him, I was in California, as I am now, and he would come out and visit his friend Doug Gilmore. This was in the ‘70s. And Doug had an operation set up in his guesthouse where I was working, and that's where I first met Ray. I would play him a bunch of songs, and he would take tapes of those songs, and he wound up cutting five or six of my things over the years. So once, beyond the exchange of just becoming friends and me playing things for him, it was pretty much in his hands as far as production and all that. I wasn't involved in the recording of those things.
Songfacts: Is he a crazy character?
Randy: No. (laughing) He's not, really. He gets on stage and he is, but when you meet him he's just a regular guy. He's a nice guy, and he's not telling jokes, he's not making funny sounds, he's just a normal guy. It's pretty interesting.
Songfacts: Can you tell me “Where The Sun Don't Shine” came from?
Randy: Oh, man. You're digging. (laughing) I gotta reach way back for that one. That came from a third writer. Doug Gilmore and I are on that, I believe with Joe Nixon, or maybe his wife is credited for that. There was something kind of unusual about that song. Anyway, it was Joe's idea. And it was just going around, that phrase was going around. He brought it to us, and everyone was feeling goofy that day, and it's like, “If we don't write this somebody else is going to.” So, it was one of those days, we were just hanging out and laughing. And you look up and the day is gone, and you look down and you've got a whole song written. So we demoed it and sent it around, and that's really the whole story. It was just about being silly. And figuring out ways to use that phrase that were entertaining.
Songfacts: The Restless Heart song that I wanted to ask you about… “Why Does It Have To Be Wrong Or Right”? Beautiful, beautiful song.
Randy: Well, thanks. And that was another real surprise to me. It was one of the first co-writes of mine. I had never co-written before coming out to Nashville on the Warner Brothers deal, and they put me with Donny Lowery, who is still a real good friend. We hit it off right away, and started writing, and that was one of our first songs. Again, there was no expectation of that getting cut. That was so against the rules in almost every respect. And there was no Restless Heart yet when we wrote that. No pop side of country yet - it was a very straight country market. So him and I were just writing to entertain each other. I think we might have chordally started it to set the groove on the guitar. And the storyline was really contrary to that very conservative country mentality. We're talking about basically, Why am I limited to one? Why do I have to just be in love with one person at a time? I had no expectation of that storyline making on it country radio. We were just being really indulgent and creating something that we were entertained by. And of course, being young men at that time, we both had asked ourselves that question more than once. And it was a legitimate question and a legitimate song. Just the idea of getting it cut in the country world… we didn't see it happening.
But we turned it in, and it just happened that Restless Heart was being put together by our friend Ted Dubois, the same guy that started Arista later. And he was looking to do a pop/country band with the best players in town. They were looking for something that was really elaborate vocally, and was a little outside of the expected storylines. We sent him that song, and the band got really excited and cut it, and it was actually a bit pop, too. Both country and pop, it's one of the 100 Most Played Songs. A lot of people I've talked to, they only know it as a pop song. Restless Heart really were one of the original cross-over bands, because their stuff got played on both formats a lot. They really weren't country by any traditional definition, they were young hotshot musicians. They were the cream of the session players in Nashville. And they were put together specifically to do something different, and a little bit more pop-ish.
Songfacts: When you're saying they were put together, it's not a boy band thing, is it?
Randy: Well, they were all friends, and they were all working together all the time anyway. But Tim got the idea that these young sessions players that he was seeing at all the recording dates really should think about being their own band. So in that respect it was put together. But it wasn't like the Monkees or something, with all the different characters or anything. These guys were already a working ensemble.
Songfacts: And I know that Exile was another one of those crossover bands, and the first place that I heard them was on a pop station.
Randy: Well, they've been around for almost 30 years. And have been mostly a pop/rock band, R&B band, and didn't really switch into country until the ‘80s. I worked with them in the ‘90s, when they were pretty much all the way country, but we were still sneaking in as much R&B as the market would allow, because we were all fans of that.
Songfacts: And they've had a lot more success now that they've gone country, have they not?
Randy: Well, I worked on two records with them. The last I heard they were kind of out doing the fair circuit and the big country stadium shows and stuff. Their original singer came back, so they were able to do a lot of their early hits, and their early rock hits, too. That's how most people know them.
Songfacts: And you co-wrote another song with Sonny LeMaire - “Nobody's Talking.”
Randy: I'm real proud of that song, too, for a lot of reasons. I really like the song, and it was sort of in that pop/country vein.
Songfacts: Very ominous.
Randy: Yeah, and what I liked about it is kind of the inside-out logic. He wants to know what nobody's talking about. There's a neat little brain teaser in that. He wants to hear what's not being said. And there's also a little cool thing, just for writers - kind of bragging corner here - a whole thing about “everybody hesitates,” the word “hesitate” is in there, and as it's said, there's a hesitation - So it's like just a little cool inside trick where we actually act out the word when it's being used. Listen to it closely, and when the word “hesitate” comes up, it comes up a beat later than you'd expect it to, because we wrote the hesitation in the lyric.
Songfacts: That's interesting.
Randy: That was a cool thing. And it was easy talking to the Exile guys to find lots of stories where they come off the road and come home thinking life's going to be a certain way, and they get home and there's nobody there. The girlfriend's moved out, but none of the friends will talk about it or tell him what happened. There were lots of examples of that story.
Songfacts: True life examples?
Randy: Yeah, from Exile, the band that's been on the road forever, they've all been married two or three times, and so there was a lot of examples of that basic scenario. And then we just pieced it together as a new event. But there's a lot of it out there.
Songfacts: The price you pay for fame, I guess.
Randy: Yeah, it's a tough life. Those guys have been doing it for so long, too. In fact, the lead singer when I was there, Paul Martin, was younger than the band. That's how long the band had been together.
Songfacts: I've never talked to anybody who's written anything for Sesame Street.
Randy: Oh, yeah. (laughs) My song is called “I'm So Blue.” It's from the soundtrack of Follow That Bird, The Movie.
Songfacts: And what was it like? Did they hand you a script?
Randy: Warner Brothers Films did the movie, and they sent a request to the Nashville publishing office, where I was writing, to supply the songs. And they sent a script. The head of Warner Publishing in Nashville divvied up the songs that were just sketched out in the script, what kind of song they were looking for. And he gave that song to Karen Brooks and I, who were both on staff, and we wrote it for that slot in the movie. It's a scene where Big Bird is in a cage, and he's crying and wishing he could go home, and he's singing to a little music box. Karen and I wrote that one.
Songfacts: How do you feel about Big Bird singing your song? Your words?
Randy: I like it. In fact, it made me more popular amongst all the cousins and the nephews than anything I've ever done, actually.
Songfacts: Are there any songs that are terribly personal to you that I haven't gone over that you would like to talk about?
Randy: Well, last year Emmylou Harris won a Grammy for singing a song I wrote with Jack Routh, called “The Connection.” That song was 13 years old when she cut it. That's one that had been around at the time, and everybody had heard it, and it's just a very unusual song, longer than most songs. It doesn't rhyme except in the choruses. It's just one of those rule-breaking songs that I'm really proud of, and Jack's really proud of. We'd known Emmylou a long time and had taken this song to her very early on, and she always liked it, but it never fit her records. And then she finally put it on a record 13 years later. But it's a real interesting song. It's peculiar, I think, in all the right ways.
Imagine a thread, a connection, between this guy who's alone in his room, leaning his chair against the wall. His boot is on the leg of his chair, his chair is laying back, touches the wall, the wall runs the length to the door, the door reaches down to the sidewalk, and the sidewalk leads to the edge of the street. That street takes you out to the old highway, and the highway ends at the county line bridge, and the bridge takes you up to the freeway. And the freeway, then, takes you out to the city where she's moved to. And then once you get to the city, then it reaches the sidewalk, and goes up the building, and goes to the floor that feels her step, and she walks to the rail of the balcony and looks out on the freeway, and the freeway then takes you back to the guy. So it's all about that thread, that connection that he's imagining in his missing her, and in his refusal to let go of her. He's describing what's left of the connection.
Songfacts: What caused you to come up with an idea like that?
Randy: That's a real good question. We tried to write that for over a year, Jack and I kept re-writing it. It was just way too long for a while, and we had to figure out how to get there and back more quickly. It was in different tempos. Early on, we got this concept of this connection, this stream, this desperate person just wouldn't let go. And the state of mind that they would go to. It probably came out of some old romance or something that he was relaying, or I was, or some book we read or movie we saw. I don't even remember what triggered it. But the concept of just refusing to let go, even when there really was nothing there. He's so desperate that he's conjuring up a connection of any kind just to keep from letting go. That's what we were going after. It's kind of a travel log, getting to where she is and back, which is kind of the whole idea.
Songfacts: Wonderful. Any others that you want to cover?
Randy: Linda Ronstadt recorded a song called “Dreams Of The San Joaquin,” that is definitely a story song about my family that all came out to California from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl.
Songfacts: Oh, a biography?
Randy: Of the Sharp family, two generations ago. But there's remnants of that mentality, and there's a lot of Sharps still in California that are descendants of those people. And my parents still talk about it, they were children during a lot of that. We tried to tell a story of both how desperate it was, and how these people lost everything and tried to get to California because there was supposed to be work here. They got here and discovered that there were already thousands of families needing work. And at the same time they were drawn out here by the attraction of the place, how beautiful it was, the snow capped Sierra Nevadas, and the big lush San Joaquin Valley, which is the central valley in California, and all of the green and the alfalfa and the citrus farmland. It was kind of a paradise. It's slipped a lot since then, but in those days it was. So Jack and I spent a long time trying to tell both those stories: the paradise, and the fact that it was an incredibly difficult life once they got here.
Songfacts: And these are stories that have been passed down from generation to generation? Or did you do research?
Randy: I know the stories, because I've heard it from family. But also the John Steinbeck Grapes Of Wrath, writing that same story. It's a known story in Americana. But we were just trying to paint a picture of these two things; the beauty of the place coupled with the difficulty of the work.
Songfacts: You said you're with the Songwriter's Guild?
Randy: I'm on the board, I'm actually Executive Vice President of the Guild. I've been there for a long time. And before that I was president of the National Academy of Songwriters. This is all in the fight to get a living wage and try to come up with some plan to deal with the piracy and all the abuse of the songwriters right now. It's getting really, really hard to make a living.
Songfacts: You're talking about the Internet stuff?
Randy: Yeah, mostly that. But all kinds of things. I mean, the Guild sends people to Congress to lobby for songwriters, and we're fighting in the copyright office and everywhere else to try to get a living situation for songwriters, which has gotten very difficult.
Songfacts: Here's another question that's kind of off the wall. I want to know what it's like to co-write a song with your daughter, as opposed to co-writing it with a friend, like another guy. Because I'd think with your daughter you'd hold back a little more somehow.
Randy: Actually, it's the opposite. Maia's in her 30s, and we have been working together and hanging together her whole life. And especially in the musical forum, there's a lot of understood common information, where if I'm with another writer, especially one I haven't worked with very often, it's kind of a delicate thing. It's like being on a date with somebody; you don't want to push too hard to be too submissive, or you don't know them yet politically, or where their sensibilities are as far as what kind of music they like. So it's a discovery thing for you to find out who you're working with a lot. And that clears after a few sessions. With Maia and I, we know each other, and we know our tastes. A lot of stuff is conveyed just with a look. It's much more direct and clear when her and I work. And also you don't have to be careful. If I throw out an idea and she thinks it's lame, she'll say so. And vice versa. And you don't have to dance around it, because we both totally respect each other's talent. There's no ego to massage. It's just like, “No, it's not gonna work. What about this?” Whereas with somebody else you have to be much more delicate because you don't know them well enough to know that they're comfortable with that kind of communication. And we are, because we know each other so well.
Songfacts: That makes a lot of sense. I was thinking with the really intense love songs it would be weird talking to your daughter about the experiences that you've been through.
Randy: Well, so many of the places you go can be in third person, and that's how I tend to write anyway. Even if I am borrowing for my own contribution, I am borrowing from my experiences: here's the singer, he walks into the room, and this happens. It's easy to talk about it once-removed, so you're not trying to tell a personal real-life story. That also backs you up so in your own mind, you're opened up to include other people's stories, and variations on the story. If you try to hold to your own story too closely you get really limited where the song can go. So I almost always talk that way when I'm writing. That's not really an issue with her.
Songfacts: That makes for a very comfortable atmosphere, too.
Randy: I think so, yeah.
Songfacts: Maia wrote her first song at 5 years old?
Randy: Yeah, and it's on one of her albums. We dug it out. A friend found it; we had recorded it in the studio at that time, and I had forgotten about it. He had saved it on a cassette, and he found it when he was cleaning out some stuff. So he gave me the tape and I spent a day or two cleaning it up and making it presentable. And she added it to one of her CDs. It became a favorite of a lot of her fans. In fact, you can hear Sharon, her mom, asking her how old she is before she starts singing. It's pretty cute.
Songfacts: Is the album cut actually the cut from when she was 5?
Randy: It's the actual cut. It was on an old cassette that had been in the bottom of a box for all that time. We didn't change it at all. It's the real deal. The song is called “Ghosts.”
We spoke with Randy on October 1, 2008. His Web site is randysharp.ws. To learn more about the Songwriters Guild of America, visit songwritersguild.com
More Songwriter Interviews