I love the use of “place names” in songs, like Emmylou Harris’ use of the city name, “Meridian”, (Meridian, MS), in her achingly haunting and heart-breaking masterpiece, Red Dirt Girl. Here’s the first verse:
Me, an’ my best friend, Lillian…an’ her blue-tick hound-dog Gideon,
Sittin’ on the front porch…coolin’ in the shade…singin’ ev’ry song…the radio played,
Waitin’ for the Alabama sun to go down…two red-dirt girls in a red-dirt town…me an’ Lillian,
Just across the line…an’ a little southeast of Meridian.
Since songwriting, like poetry, is partly an exercise in conveying emotions and stories with brevity, the selective use of place-names in songs, in concert with other songwriting elements, has the ability to instantly immerse the listener in a specific place, drawing with it all of the listener’s own images, references and impressions of that place, real or imagined, without ever having to go into a description. Place-names can instantly personalize a song. If done right, the songwriter simply places the listener right there, inside the songwriter’s story…without the listener even realizing it. It’s a bit of a magic trick.
I’ve never been to or through Meridian, until now. I am only passing through…spending the night…and have no plans, except for maybe dinner at Weidmann’s, a local landmark I found online. But in planning this trip, I thought of Emmylou’s song, and decided I just wanted to at least pass through Meridian…despite “Red Dirt Girl” taking place “Just across the line…an’ a little southeast of Meridian…”, if by chance that experience might get me a little closer to Emmylou’s inspiration for the song, as well as to be able…in the future…to sort of own the use of this place-name, or nearby place-names that I’ll also be passing through, in my own songwriting. Meridian is only one of many cities and towns I’ll intentionally either be passing through or spending time in, on this trip, for exactly this reason.
I’m just this ordinary guy who happens to love playing with words, rhymes, chords and melodies, and happens to seriously-enjoy attempting to write songs…the best songs I possibly can…mostly for my own enjoyment…but, typically with the hope that others might like them, too. I have no right to even be talking about songwriting, really. But, I am pretty much obsessed with this, and do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about lyrics, working on songwriting, reading interviews with my favorite songwriters, gleaning insights into their process, watching my favorite songwriters up close in intimate concerts, and dissecting some of their songs to try to figure out how and why they work.
That said, this is one of the crazy ways that the divergently-thinking part of my mind works…drawing on the sound of a place-name…a place where I’ve actually been…its rhyming and rhythmic potential, the images a place conjures and my personal experiences in the place, itself.
There is a common saying about Country music: Country music is “three chords and the truth”. Simplicity and honesty are the bedrock of any “Roots” music, I think. They are what draw the listener in…this very plain, transparent, subtle or raw honesty that is so instantly relatable and universal.
I live in Connecticut…New England. And as beautiful as it is here, I find it virtually impossible to draw any musical inspiration from this place, where I have lived my entire life. I have no idea why that is. For example, we have “Meriden” Connecticut. Why not use “Meriden” in a song? Sadly, Meriden connotes nothing to me, emotionally or musically. I wish it did. It would save me driving thousands of miles through the South and Texas to find inspiration (Who am I kidding? I love these drives and these places.).
But, despite the spelling of “Meriden” being so close to “Meridian”, that they could have been twin cities separated at birth…musically and artistically for me, anyway…they are on different planets. I have absolutely nothing against the city of Meriden. I’m sorry, Meriden. I guess I owe you a beer.
But, this is how my mind works. For whatever reasons, for many years, I have been subconsciously drawn to my musical heroes’ use of place-names in their songs. And now that I have some opportunities to go to some of these places, and many others (that for now, happen to be in the South and Texas)…I’ve decided to go…in order to see and feel these places…whether only passing through, or spending more time in them.
I am finding that, in this way, I at least feel like I’m getting closer to things that may have inspired some of my favorite singer-songwriters…whether that’s true or not…and am filling my own songwriting reservoirs with truthful experiences and memories to draw on, down the road.
I don’t know if this explanation makes any sense…but, this is one of the myriad ways this mysterious process of songwriting seems to work best for me. Crazy, I know.