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Ten Questions With Mike Reid

July 06 2008

Grammy winning songwriter, Mike Reid, discusses the ups and downs of writing, what makes a good song, and the importance of hard work.

Grammy winner and former four-time, All-Pro CincinnatiBengal Mike Reid, was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 2005. Since moving to Nashville in 1980, he's written hits for such mega-stars as Willie Nelson, Ronnie Milsap, Tim McGraw, Wynona and Bonnie Raitt, whose "I Can't Make You Love Me" sold more than six million copies. In 1991, he wrote and sang his way to his own #1 hit with "Walk on Faith."

In addition to songwriting, Mr. Reid writes musical theater and has had productions of his plays, chambers and even operas performed throughout the world. Currently, he's writing a four-character piece that was recently performed in San Francisco.

Q: What does it mean to you to be in the Songwriters Hall of Fame?
Mike Reid: I'LL TELL YOU WHAT. IT MEANS— A LOT MORE THAN I THOUGHT IT WOULD! The night they announced my name and Don Schlitz did the introduction speech, beside the birth of my kids, it really genuinely was one of the best nights of my life. It surprised me that it hit me like it did. I got very emotional.

Receiving an honor like this is something that in the songwriter's heart is deeply appreciated, but not necessarily something aspired to. The life of a songwriter is measured across the arc of decades, not the handful of years. There are times when everything you write is recorded and times when absolutely nothing you write gets recorded. You have to bring as much truthfulness to what you do as you know how. I've always told young songwriters that discipline and commitment are not quite enough. That one must be sufficiently compelled to do this. And if you are sufficiently compelled against all common sense, you will simply do this all the time. And over the arc of years and years, if an organization says "Hey, we appreciate what you did" and they give you a night— and in this case a beautiful sculpture—it's really neat.

Q: So how did you get started writing songs?
MR: I started writing when I was a kid. I used to make up ragtime, boogie-woogie pieces in the 5th and 6th grade talent shows and rock out on the piano. But really it goes back to when I was still playing professional football in my early 20s. I don't know why I started writing. I think generally writers write because there's a disturbance inside and you're trying to get at something— an itch that needs to be scratched. But it took me a very long time to realize that what I wanted to be was a songwriter. And more than that, I desired to be a songwriter who was understood.

Q: Where does the inspiration from your songs come from?
MR: From my own existence, my literal life itself. Nothing comes out of a vacuum. We are all in this mess together. We are all saying things, falling in and out of love, loving one another and hurting one another, and trying not to be lonely as we go through this world. I think setting experiences people have to this strange and unique language called music. I don't think that my inspiration is unique nor is anyone's. It's a degree to which you are willing to look at yourself or observe the emotional contours of your life. I think that's where it comes from for pretty much everyone.

Q: What is one lesson that you have learned from songwriting that you will never forget?
MR: By nature I'm a complainer and a whiner. I hear a Don Schlitz song or a Troy Seals song and think, "I wish I could write like that." There's an Adam Mitchell song called "Out Among The Stars." Some people know it and some don't. I, in a very curmudgeonly, cranky stance, believe that the whole world should know that song. I think it is an absolutely breathtakingly, brilliant piece of work. When I hear that song or the Hugh Prestwood song "A Song Remembers When," and I think 'I would give a limb to be able to write like that.' But the thing is, it doesn't stop me. I tell my son, who is a songwriter, before any judgments of good or bad, interesting or not, are passed on your work, you must do one thing. One thing must come first, you must show up! You must show up and you must do it relentlessly. Again, it ties back to the idea that if you are sufficiently compelled to do this work, you will do it against all common sense. That is what I've learned. It's not about divine inspiration. Very often your own ego gets in the way of the idea that God or the world or nature has given you. But you have to get your ego out of the way. There is a part of you that's unlike anyone else in the world. It is what makes you unique, and it will wait a lifetime if necessary—but it is waiting for you to show up.

Q: You may have already answered this question, but is there one song that you wished you had written and why?
MR: There are just too many, I wished I had written. There are several Patti Griffin songs. As I mentioned earlier, the Adam Mitchell song,"Out Among the Stars" is brilliant. I wish I had written "The Gambler." Tom Schuyler's song "Years after You." Hugh Prestwood's, "Ghost in this House." Peter Gabriel's song, "Don't Give Up." I wish I had written something simple and direct and as meaningful as "Amazing Grace." I think it's extraordinary the way it's traversed the centuries. But I don't feel a trace of jealously for these people or their work. There is no place for jealousy and cynicism in the life of a songwriter. As Oscar Wilde said, "the cynic understands the cost of everything and the value of nothing."

Q: How do you tell a good song from a great one?
MR: Oh, what a wonderful question! I don't know, contours of the melody? Does the melody haul? I find that lacking a little in songwriting today given the higher syllable count in a particular melodic line—that keeps the melody line from doing any kind of heavy work. The relationship of the melody to the chord structure, harmonic structures of the song, however simple, can make the song. To me, "Let It Be" is a great example. [Sings, "I bless the day I found you…."]) It's a beautiful perfectly rendered song, the right words bridged with the right melody. I find the use of the language extraordinarily interesting. Especially using rhyme for a point, not rhyming for the sake of rhyme itself, Writers whose rhyme scheme drives a point- deeply into your heart or deeply into your experience—I admire that. It's hard to do. It's really a gift. We don't have to plunge into the depths of our tortured psyche to make a great song. I think any one of a dozen Motown songs are among the greatest songs ever written. "My Girl," "Tracks of My Tears." "Tracks of My Tears," are you kidding me? "Save the Last Dance for Me" may be, in my lifetime, as close to a perfect song as there is. "Yesterday," or any early Beatles songs, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or "I Saw Her Standing There" are beautiful, simple, direct stuff. I also love "Vincent." I wish I'd written "Vincent." That song means as much to me, as any song every has, maybe more, because of what that song says. But a song doesn't have to be "Vincent" to be transcendently brilliant.

Q: How did you get your first song recorded?
MR: It was in the 70s, and I was playing the road in little listening joints. I ended up after hours at a place called The Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta. I had drinks one night with the owner, Jack Tarver, and James Talley, who was an absolutely first rate, wonderful songwriter named James Talley. I don't know what we drank, but we had way to much of it. [laughs]They had a little recording studio there and we started playing songs. Next thing you know, they started recording me. I had written a song called "Eastern Avenue," and it ended up on that tape. Somehow, through James Talley, in a circuitous root, it ended up in the hands of Jerry Jeff Walker, who was this legendary Texas crazy man, and he recorded it. That was in 1978. That was the first time I picked up a record album and saw my name on it.

Q: Where were you when you heard your first song on the radio?
MR: I was where I generally am when I hear music—in the car. I was driving down 16th Avenue on Music Row. It was 1983, and the song was called "Inside" by Ronnie Millsap. In those days, I tended to listen to the radio a little more. I was in my brown dodge pick-up truck.

Q: You touched on this earlier, but what advice would you give someone who wanted to become a professional songwriter?
MR: I'll tell you a little story. Kyle Lenning, a wonderful record producer in town, and I went down to the Southern Festival of Books several years ago. There we met a man named Reynolds Price, a great writer who happens to be from the South. I say it that way because I have heard he takes issues being called a Southern writer. He is a large man in a wheelchair due to a spinal cancer, which happily didn't kill him, but put him in this wheelchair. He was the most eloquent speaker that I have ever heard. He just opened his mouth and the whole world stopped. You wanted him to just keep talking. They had a little panel, and it came to the question and answer period. A woman came out of the audience and went to the microphone and said "Mr. Price, my granddaughter has just quit in the fourth year of her medical school to be a writer. Do you have any advice for her?" He moved around in his chair and said, "Yes, ma'am, I do. I would tell your granddaughter to quit if she can." There was a great silence. The implication was wonderful. If you can quit, if you can have a good happy life without doing this, then get on with that. But if you can't quit, then shut up and get to work. You might as well accept your plight and go to work. That's what I would tell a writer. I would tell a writer one needs to know oneself. Can you have a wonderful life without this? Well, get on with it. If you can't, then go to work.

Q: Looking back on all it took for you to become a successful songwriter, would you do it all over again?
MR: I will take one issue with your question. I don't feel like a successful songwriter. I can name you half a dozen guys I consider successful songwriters. It could be because it comes so difficult for me. It's so hard for me to address an idea that I believe in. I write all the time. If I begin to think about the amount of what the world has heard from me in relation to what I have written it seems kind of small. Maybe that keeps one in check. I won't tell you my age, but I'm in the full throws of adulthood. For all my complaining and grumpiness, I write everyday, I work at it every day. At the end of the day, if I've worked extremely hard at it, I feel good. It is a nice feeling. I've earned that evening glass of wine. Absolutely, I would do it again. I wouldn't give it a second thought.

I try not to dwell on the fact that I have had an inordinate amount of luck with people like Ronnie Millsap and Bonnie Raitt. The cards have fallen my way in a very big way, a few times. I wouldn't know how to tell a new writer to look for that. Songwriting has caused me a great deal of stress and provided a great deal of exhilaration, all at the same time. Right now, I am working on a play. It's about the relationship between an older man that just hit seventy and a young man in his late twenties. They are forced, with their wives, to spend New Years Eve in this abandoned house. As the evening progresses there's trouble between the young couple, and they have an intense fight. The two men go out and sit in the snow with a drink of whiskey and a cigar. The young man says to the old man "Henry, why did I think getting married would make me happy?" I wrote this next line and I don't know if it will stay in the play but I love it. Henry, the old man says, "Kid, if you want to be happy, go buy an ice cream cone. But if you want to live, that's going to involve other people, and there's your trouble." A songwriter's life is the most stressful life of ease you could ever imagine. I'm at a stage in my life when I'm writing better now than I ever have. It's just not being heard. But you know, that's a wonderful clarifying question. I absolutely would do it again. Considering all the stresses and exhilaration, and the mess of it all, it's been a wonderful life.