Good music has a way of fostering community, and sometimes that community begets more good music. A collaborative album between Ron Block and Jeff Taylor has seemed like a natural for years now, and the occasions the two gifted players have shared the stage have built steady anticipation. The result is Trouble Go Down, an album of sweet hymns and songs that warm the spirit. The collaboration was made richer when the pair turned to Rebecca Reynolds for lyrics to several of the melodies.
I spoke with Ron and Rebecca at Hutchmoot 2017 and learned about their approach to songcraft, the subtle distinctions between poetry and lyrics, and the difference between a fine port wine and a beer-can helmet.
Tell me about your songwriting process. Does it stay fairly regimented as to who writes the music and who writes the lyrics?
Rebecca Reynolds: Generally, I’m lyrics and they’re music.
Ron Block: There might be a little adjustment. She’ll say, “The melody goes down here but I’d like it to go up.” Or I’ll say, “This word reads well and sounds good but it doesn’t sing well. Can we change it?” We’ll modify little things here and there.
The process is fascinating to someone who is not a songwriter. To read words and then hear a melody in your head, or to hear notes and imagine words to match, is a bit mystical to me.
RB: Art is evocative. When she sends lyrics, I read them and I think, how does that make me feel? Then I get out a guitar, and I don’t have a left-brain analytical thing going on. It’s very right-brained for me.
RR: A lot of times the words are already in there. For a couple of songs, I listen two or three times and think, There’s something that melody is trying to sing. Oh, it sounds like that. Then you send it back and ask if that’s what they intended the song to mean.
What’s an example of a tune that was trying to sing words?
RR: The words were definitely in “Trouble Go Down.”
RB: I remember she said it feels like a mixture of King James English and Kentucky back woods.
RR: It reminded me of these Kentucky Music Weekend fesitvals I’d go to growing up. I thought, there’s one of those songs that I used to hear growing up. So it was easy to find that feeling in it.
What are some of the differences in writing poetry—even rhyming poetry—versus song lyrics?
RR: A lot of the principles transfer. The main thing is, especially when I was first writing songs (and I’m still making this mistake), that there’s a density to written poetry, but in song poetry or lryics, Ron reminds me, if it’s too dense, people will have trouble unpacking it. It needs to be simpler when it’s musical. So, in terms of the meter, even if you’re looking at enjambment or the line breaks or the movement, and little quirky things like where you’re going to ask a question and answer the question, or—you know how a sonnet works, where you have 14 lines but then on line 9 you’re going to have the volta, or like a haiku when you’re trying to create tension and then answer it—a lot of those elemental things you can have in a song, but you can’t have those super-dense, academic images or words or people get lost.
RB: Poetry is like when you sip port. You don’t chug port. You sip it, and it explodes, and it gives a burst of revelation. And then after that you sip again. That’s what poetry’s like. If you go to the other end of the spectrum, some brands of popular music are like the helmet with the two beer cans and the straws, and you flip a switch and it all goes down your gullet. That’s all you’re going to get out of that song—that one little shot of high, and you’re never going to get anything else out of that song. There’s nothing there. There’s a spectrum between port and this immediate experience. And somewhere in between are guys like Paul Simon. You get something out of it on the first listen but as you listen more and more it deepens.
In poetry, sometimes you don’t get anything on the first reading, but then slowly you start to see something. In music you can’t do that to too great a degree because the listener generally is not going to be as patient as a literary reader of poetry. The listener is just going to skip to the next song, and then they’re never going to listen to it again. That’s what we’ve had to do. She can write very dense poetry, and less dense poetry. Instead of a series of images in each line, I’ve got to have a central image to the whole song, and then speak to that image in each verse. “Gather Ye” is that, it’s a nature image, and it shows who God is in all these aspects of nature.
RR: One of the things I’ve started doing—it won’t show up much on this record but if we get to do another one it will—I’ve been listening to opera (because my literary agent really likes opera). One of the things that’s different is the pace. It’s good for me to see that musical poetry works differently than written poetry. You have to let people have time.
I was talking here at Hutchmoot with a friend about how I write album reviews, how I let it play in the background for a while before my first dedicated listen. I mentioned that the really great song reaches out of the background and grabs me. I think that’s the middle you’re talking about—a song commands attention but is not bewildering or overwhelming.
RB: There’s a wide middle ground. I really do think that some forms of popular music try to push to be almost too simplistic. Sometimes that happens. To me the best ground for lyrics is the wide middle ground. Even on one record. Here’s a little bit more dense one for people to chew on, and here’s one that’s simple for everybody.
And then you sequence them carefully.
RB: Yes, then you choose what goes where on the record.
RR: And we dropped one that I loved but it was too dense. “Hail Thou.” The meaning was beautiful.
RB: The poetry was beautiful. And I’ll probably put it out eventually as a demo or something, ’cause it’s a cool track.
RR: You could pick it apart and see what matches with what and unpack it…
RB: …but most listeners aren’t going to do that.
Regarding density, I think there’s a place in bluegrass that is different on that scale than maybe other genres.
RB: Yes, again in pop-influenced music—and this is not a slam, it’s just the way things are—in pop-influenced music there’s an instrumental hook, some theme that happens. In bluegrass there might be that theme, but it tends to be more varied. Popular forms of music tend to be more static.
In my musical sense, which is foundationally the bluegrass kind of sense, I tend toward that. I think Jeff does too. But, for instance, “Gather Ye” has that theme that he plays—it’s the same theme. We access some of that, but it’s a little more complex—kind of Irishy-classical.
I’m going to speak out of my league in music theory here, but you have a few parts both lyrically and musically in a couple of the songs that are almost like a fugue, with repetition of phrase, either musical or lyrical, and that’s not trivial. You don’t hear that a lot in. Does that come from a random set of ideas that are working at the time, or some deeper influences?
RB: I think it’s both. Speaking instrumentally, when we’re sitting there arranging something, it has to ring true inside me or inside Jeff. Sometimes there’s something missing, and I can’t identify it. The only way to remedy it is experimentation. Let me try this—can you try this? Then you kinda find it. Sometimes it’s experimentation that helps you find those things that are repetitive but not mindlessly so. Even in that repetition there is variation. It maintains an interest.
One of the things you have to do as a musician, whether you’re taking a solo or writing a song, you are juggling the listener’s expectation. They expect the melody, so I can throw them a curveball a little bit. If I’m playing a hymn, I’m playing the melody and playing the lines, but then I’ll go, I feel like doing this thing that twists the phrasing just a little bit so they don’t fall asleep. You’re playing with their expectation. They say, “Oh, I didn’t expect that, that’s cool,” and then, “Ah… I did expect that, that’s nice.”
I think you can abuse that, too, and frustrate the listener.
RB: Yes, you can go too far in either direction. It can be boring, or it can be an abstract thing that never repeats and has no melody.
Ron, your vocal range seemed really big on this album. Was that you continuing to grow and stretch yourself? You write the notes; you’re in control of the range.
RB: Remember “Inside the Actor’s Studio”? Both Richard Dreyfuss and Sally Field were asked, “What made you take that script?” They both said something along the lines of, “Because it scared me to death.” That place of, Am I going to be able to do this?, that’s the place of growth.
When we were doing these melodies and choosing these keys, sometimes I’d think, that’s pretty wide. But I went to my vocal coach, and we figured it out. You have to grow. It forces you to grow. This record has helped me move into new places.
This might sound terribly contrived, but I wanted to get each of you to talk about the other’s contribution to one song.
RR: Can I pick an instrumental? I listen to “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” over and over again. It makes me do what the song says—to lean. Whatever I’m thinking and wrestling with, when that comes on, I’m not listening to a record. It puts me in that place where I’m leaning on the arms of God. It’s like prayer almost. The way he plays that takes me out of the temporal realm and puts me in the eternal realm. Actively.
RB: The purpose of the record was to have the guy who’s driving to work thinking, I fought with my boss yesterday and I don’t want to face him, or the mom that’s struggling with her teenage son. They can put this record on and go, I remember. I can do it.
RB: I want to talk about “Everything Broken and Everything Beautiful.” I love what she did with that. “The fog angels bathe in a choir of praise, yield to the sun as it rises.” I remember many times overlooking a river and in the morning you see those wisps of fog and as the sun comes up it begins to burn them off and they yield. So that image of us yielding to God, yielding to the sun as it rises.
Remember what I was saying about writing reviews? That line grabbed me by the ears out of the background and said, “I’m going to blow you away right now.”
RR: I was at a state park, really early in the morning, and it has these beautiful bodies of water. I turned around a corner and there was this strange fog—there were hundreds of these little tendrils and it looked like at the top they were opening, almost gasping, and I thought, I just saw something amazing. I was reading something at the time that made me think about unity and submission.
RB: That’s how a poet views the world.
Last question. “His Love Will Bear You On” has half the Rabbit Room on the vocal! How did that come about?
RR: We were talking about wanting it to be like the end of Hutchmoot, when everybody sings the Doxology. We wanted to catch some of that spirit.
RB: I love that when you listen, you can go, oh, there’s Ellie, and that voice sounds familiar, who’s on the right? It captures that sense of community.
RR: We wanted it to be an invitation.