The Nashville Weaklings

By

A few days ago, we had our first Weaklings meeting in more than a year. If you’re not familiar with the Nashville Weaklings, it’s a collective of songwriters not much less diverse than the group of contributors here in the Rabbit Room. Randall Goodgame and I decided a few years back to try and emulate the Oxford Inklings by meeting with other singer/songwriters for the purpose of…what?

Well, for one thing, for the purpose of getting off of our rear ends and really working. There were other considerations, like community, encouragement, critique and the like, but for me at least, having some kind of accountability on a regular basis was a big plus. Knowing that a Weaklings meeting loomed on the calendar meant that I’d better stay up that extra hour or two to make sure I had my newest song in the best shape possible before I sat in a circle with these formidable songwriters and laid it out for inspection.

One of the fun aspects of the meetings is the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader writing assignment. We open a Bathroom Reader to a random page and read it aloud. Then we all have until the next meeting to write a song tied some way, however tenuous, to the article. I wrote a song called “Love is Blind” in response to a Bathroom Reader article about the infamous Maginot Line (if you’re wondering what it is, Google it. It’s a pretty interesting story). Eric Peters wrote a song inspired by the same article, and it ended up on his record Miracle of Forgetting. (You can buy the song here, at iTunes.)

Our next assignment was on the Legend of Pope Joan (again, Google it). I wrote a song called “Over My Head” (a live version is on Appendix M), Ben Shive wrote a fun Lyle Lovett-like song called “I’m Your Man”, and Randall Goodgame wrote, of course, “The Legend of Pope Joan”.

There were others, but you get the idea.

So a few days ago when our friend David Wilcox was in town, we arranged a Weaklings meeting so he could take part in our little community. The call went out. The call was answered by myself, Eric Peters, Andrew Osenga, Randall Goodgame, Ron Block, Andy Gullahorn, and David.

The article from the Bathroom Reader was about a telephone repair man who on a random house call discovered a valuable piece of furniture underneath piles of newspapers and dishes. He called the landlady and asked her to sell it to him, but she declined, saying that she needed the furniture for the tenants. Ten years later, the phone man (an antique hobbyist) finally convinced her to sell it, and the furniture fetched a million bucks.

Eric, Randall and I all made attempts at writing a song about it, and while none of them were really finished (or very good–yet), they all were the result of our talent and time being put to good use. I was up until 4 am working on mine, and had the distinct and horrible honor of playing first. It was kind of a nightmare, given the company I was in.

When I was writing the song I thought about Jesus’ offer of abundant life, and how we balk and make excuses, unable (or unwilling) to believe that he’s as good as his word. I remembered the C.S. Lewis quote about our desires and how they aren’t too strong but are too weak. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Then I thought about the famous Walt Wangerin, Jr. story called Ragman. In it, Jesus walks through the streets trading his fine clothes for the rags of the homeless, trading his health for sickness, his joy for tears and so on until he’s so ragged and wounded and broken that he dies. I thought about the way I cling to worthless junk, refusing to believe that Jesus’ offer of his love in exchange for our broken lives actually yields new life.

Here are the words that came out:

Get out of my kitchen
Get out of my life
I don’t want to sell what you’re buying no more
I don’t want to listen
Don’t care if you’re right
Just what kind of fool do you take me for?

(I don’t want to let go)
Oh Ragman, how can you come here
Telling me things too good to be true?
Oh Ragman, how can you come here
And make me an offer that I can’t refuse?

I know it ain’t pretty
It’s charming at best
But the spell that I’m under is appealing to me
So spare me your pity
I know it’s a mess
But it’s mine from the floor to the ceiling, you see

(And I don’t want to let go)
Ragman, how can you come here
Telling me things too good to be true?
Oh Ragman, how can you come here
And make me an offer than I can’t refuse?

Your love is a loaded gun
So hard to deny
I’ll give you what you want
But please, I don’t want to die

So take all the chaos
All the clutter and crap
Take all that’s left of the life I have
Even if you have to pry it from my cold dead hands

(I don’t want to let go)
Ragman, how can you come here
Telling me things too good to be true?
Oh Ragman, how can you come here
And make me an offer than I can’t refuse?

When a song is only a few hours old it’s hard to know what to think about it. I played it (shaking like a leaf) and the reaction was…silence. Maybe it was because it was the first song and folks hadn’t loosened up enough to feel comfortable offering any critique. Or maybe it was because I played the song so badly they couldn’t really listen to it. It is what it is.

But my point is, whether or not the song will grow into anything I’d ever perform, I learned a lot in the process. I was forced to think about grace. I was forced to exercise my imagination. I wrote a song that I never would’ve written otherwise. And hopefully, I’m a better writer because of it. Later, Eric and Randall played their songs about the article, coming at it from two other angles. Wilcox didn’t write anything new for the topic but played a cool version of “A Touch of the Master’s Hand” because it fit so well.

Osenga and I talked about it on the phone tonight, laughing at how horrifying it is to play something new for someone, especially when that performance exposes the glaring problems with the song. But that’s the most valuable part of the experience. He played a new one and after our comments went home and rewrote the whole thing.

So if you’re a creative type, I’d highly recommend tracking down a bunch of artists who are better than you, meeting with them as often as you can, and welcoming their criticism. It has to be people you respect, otherwise you’ll ignore their advice.

Of course, sometimes you ignore their advice even then.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


18 Comments

  1. Nate

    “Of course, sometimes you ignore their advice even then.”

    “I don’t want to listen
    Don’t care if you’re right…

    I know its a mess
    But it’s mine from the floor to the ceiling, you see.”

    I know the meanings aren’t exactly the same. But they’re certainly reminiscent.

    I think the song makes a good point and I appreciate your sharing it. I see these things in my own life. I think they are a worthy comment on the human condition (of sin) and the need, but discomfort, of redemption.

    Things are different once you are redeemed and we, as people, tend to move toward the old life, the life of oppression. We want the easy life we can see over the good life that is unknown. Just look at the children of Israel after they were lead out of Egypt. Thats a picture of us too, our own sinful nature, our own redemption.

    I remember the guy in the Great Divorce with the lizard (maybe it was a lizard) on his back and the other guy with the ogre on the chain (Its been a while since I read it). But those are pictures of us, pictures of how we want to hang on to our sin.

    I like it Andrew.

    Plus you used the word “crap.”

  2. Janna

    my son has three or four volumes of uncle john’s readers for kids. i’m not sure if all the stuff he shares w/ me from it is true or not. i never could’ve imagined getting inspiration from it. i think this is smart of you guys to do. so, where’s the city of writers (not musically gifted) where i can meet for coffee on someone’s porch? not long ago, i looked up the knoxville writer’s guild online, but was pretty intimidated by it. anyone out there have experience w/ this kinda thing?

  3. Jonah G.

    How cool! I love the lyrics . . . I am always intrigued by the inspiration process. I find it amazing how one creative work can inspire another. The Nashville Weaklings group is something similar to what I’ve been longing for and concepts I’ve had floating around in my head for many years now (I even tried to create a blog-like atmosphere at one point that presented a creative work so others could create their own work based on it . . . but most people didn’t want to take the time). There are so many ways to take the concepts of a group like that and use them in different ways . . . to push those involved, to inspire those on the sidelines, to use as a means of worship or prayer, bring more personal meaning and growth as a result of critical examination of someone else’s work, etc . . . Creatives need community, much like us Christians need fellowship! It forces us to reach out and push our limits and evolve our talents! Thanks for sharing this experience! It helps to reignite my ideas on similar endeavors!

  4. Chris R

    “Your love is a loaded gun
    So hard to deny
    I’ll give you what you want
    But please, I don’t want to die”

    I love it. This is faith, the life that Christ calls us too… the opportunity to live in his love, the demand to die to self and this world. One is full of blessing, the other is impossible to do without his help. Guaranteed to have trouble in this world, we can take heart that He has overcome.

  5. whipple

    An exercise that my friend Ethan suggested that he and I do was to watch a movie and then write an entire soundtrack for that movie (no matter if it already had a soundtrack to begin with).

    Haven’t done it yet, but I think we might soon. We just watched “Into the Wild”, and I’ll have to get Eric Peters’ “Bus 152” out of my head before I do any writing.

  6. whipple

    Oh, and by the way, Andy, it’s good to know that you write songs that you find to be terrible. That destroys the hope-sucking illusion that I have of you sitting at home and birthing out fantastic and mind-blowing material like a musical Pez dispenser.

  7. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    AP,

    Meeting with a bunch of real songwriters was great for me. I sat there after hearing your song written on such a random topic and was amazed. I write by chance, by hope, and sometimes I come out with a decent song. Your songs sound like you – even though they are all different, with various subjects, feels, chord progressions, they’re stamped with your unique identity as a writer and a person. You not only have the Muse, but you’ve got a solid handle on the craft as well. It was incredibly enlightening to sit there and listen to everyone’s songs and critiques.

    And I always like anyone who can work the word “crap” in there somehow.

  8. Peter B

    Nate, I just finished reading The Great Divorce last night; I put it on my Amazon wish list after the excellent comments in the RR, and I was not disappointed… though I had to come at it from the right angle, which was not necessarily mine.

    The lizard guy was the most joyful scene for me, the dwarf the most tragic. Lewis’ had a fascinatinly insightful take on the dual nature of our desires and the merits (or demerits) therein.

    AP, way to step outside your comfort zone; these words resound. Now if I could just keep those vibrations from being dampened by all the other junk — dare I say, crap — in my heart…

  9. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Peter,

    In Divorce I love how Lewis brings out that “no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” Human attributes, talents, emotions, propensities, are neither good nor evil; they are neutral, and manifest good or evil based on the Spirit (or spirit) that drives them. The beauty and power of the lizard after it is sacrificed is the power our humanity has when indwelt and operated by Christ. His perfection in us is static, a one-time event that lasts forever – and yet the outworking of that is a process, one that can be sped up greatly by saying, “Lord, work Your will in my life no matter what the cost.” Otherwise we can live even our Christian lives in this way: “There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery.”

    Divorce is one of my favorite books, along with Screwtape.

  10. Chris Slaten

    I second Aaron Roughton’s suggestion; I think Rabbit Room readers would eat it up if we were given an assignment and a deadline where we could do a Weaklings-esque exchange over the internet, perhaps utilizing home recording and myspace pages or something like that. Unless you are in Nashville or another big city like that it can be hard to find a group of local artists who are all equally as serious about songwriting. After visiting with you guys in Nashville a couple of years ago I’ve tried with a couple of different groups locally to do something similar and most people who seem serious about it don’t have the time to put much effort into an assignment. The Chattanooga music scene isn’t dead but it has never quite thrived.

    Jonah, I like your idea.

    Your entry reminds me of another great use of the word ‘crap’ in a song. From a Vigilantes of Love tune:
    “I bought a crap detector
    Emptied all my savings
    It has a hair-trigger feel
    For the slightest provocation.”

    I think that is from ‘earth has no sorrows, heaven can’t heal.’

  11. Nate

    I have to agree with Chris about being far from Nashville and hard to find musicians. The Nashville music scene is so influential in the area. I guess there are good aspects of that and bad. I moved to Louisville and there is just a world of difference. I cant find a base player for my worship band at church. Its a sad state of affairs.

  12. Stacy Grubb

    Everything about this post is appealing to me, from the idea behind the Nashville Weaklings, to the assignments within the group, to the lyrics you posted. I particularly love the rhyme of, “….appealing to me,” with, “….ceiling, you see.” I love witty rhymes. Some of the better writings from my youth came as a result of being made to do them for some class and I actually miss the motivation that an assignment with a deadline created. I also miss the feedback that I got by way of a grade. Paint me dorky, but there were times when I was hyper for days with anticipation after turning in an assignment and was waiting on getting it back. The feedback that I mostly receive these days sounds a bit like, “Can you stop playing for a sec? Gladiator’s back on. You can pick it back up at the next commercial.”

    Anyway, I’m jumping on that bandwagon of respecting the way you worked crap into a song. Take a bow for that one, my friend.

    Stacy

  13. Your Most Emphatic Fans

    What an interesting and hilarious compilation album that would make:

    Appendix BR (aka Bathroom Reader)

    Perhaps Uncle John would consider a 2-fer-less book & CD combo set… what innovation that would be, to combine such literary and musical talents in such a clever montage of humanity and godliness!

  14. Peter B

    Ron, YES. Lewis, as always, provides such sharp insight into what makes us human, and how it can help (or hinder) our transformation.

    Fans, I’m still holding out for Appendix BM. Come on, AP; we know you have it in you.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *