An eerily foreboding melody flows through this story of a place called Sipsey, a place that exudes a warning to outsiders, but at the same time takes care of its own. Supported by Mark Schatz's bass bowing, Jason Thomas’ fiddle follows Claire’s vocals, building a melody that echoes the supernatural feeling of this “forsaken place” called Sipsey.
DOUG: I’m speaking with Claire Lynch, a great singer/songwriter. I’d like to discuss a beautiful song that will be on the upcoming “Whatcha Gonna Do” CD called “The Woods Of Sipsey.”
DOUG: How did “Woods Of Sipsey” come about?
CLAIRE: I was driving into the woods off I-65 in Alabama into Walker County where Granny’s lived for all these years I’ve known her. That’s my granny-in-law, but … she was dying in the hospital and we were drivin’ out there to go to her house. My mother-in-law was letting us pick out what we wanted to keep of hers before she got rid of everything else.
The thing about Walker County (Sipsey location) is that it has the reputation for being the most violent county in Alabama. As a matter of fact, a couple of years ago there was a front page picture in the Huntsville newspaper. In the state senate there was a fistfight and the guy that started it was the representative from Walker county. There’s a pervading ignorance there. A lot of country backwoods people - many, many descendents of coal miners. That’s where granny grew up and then married a coal miner. When you drive into that area it’s like another world. And the woods are grown and thick. I started drivin’ in and then the song just came to me ….
“In the woods of Sipsey, the trees are so tall, an unscalable wall”
… that’s all that came.
DOUG: So right away you had the melody and the first verse?
CLAIRE: Yes, and I realized that, I was saying more than, you know, the wall of the woods was sort of a metaphor for these people and how they had closed thinking and had closed themselves to the rest of the world educationally, socially. Yet granny’s attitude was (she was like one of the dignified members of the community) she loved it there and she was O.K. with it. She tolerated that. Not that she was educated herself, but she had more class to me. This is where I’m from and this is my place and it’s country and I love it. She had lived in Birmingham for a number of years but she went back home. She grew up in the woods. Empire was her little town. There are a number of these small communities next to each other, but Sipsey is where I was drivin’ in so that’s why I used that. But it’s her neighborhood. And I realized I had something to say about that. What I had to say in honor of her was that, yes, it’s not your world but it’s my world and it’s perfect for me and I love it.
Because Walker County has this pervading reputation for violence, fistfights, knifings, usually if you hear about violence in mid-Alabama it’s Walker County. We don’t understand it, I could delve deeper into it in a spiritual sense, some pervading spirit over that area, you know, which if you get that deep, and I like to, but I won’t go there for you today. But it can get beyond this world into another world. Maybe there’s an explanation for what’s happening there. That’s the core of the song. Was to honor her and to use the woods for a metaphor for time stood still back there. The rest of the world went into the Internet age and they didn’t.
DOUG: Did you have any hurdles that you encountered writing this song?
CLAIRE: Two and a half years writing this song. Yeah, a lot of hurdles. The melody was easy to establish. But I had so many different verses and so many different things to say and I had to choose. I had to boil it down to really a lot simpler that what I had wanted to say. I had more complex pictures of children playing in the yard but it didn’t seem to… the song seemed to have a dark melody and I didn’t want to compromise that because it’s spooky. That’s the thing when we talk about the deeper aspect, you know, the spiritual aspect. If you think there’s powers and principalities over that area, it is spooky and then she’s dying and she’s almost into that realm. A lot of the stuff I wrote was too sweet, I think it was pictures of my own memories of being out there when my children were little, playing in the yard, getting really hot, no air conditioning, lemonade and barbeque over a hickory pit.
DOUG: Did you change the melody at all?
CLAIRE: I don’t remember compromising the melody. I remember it was just easy to write the melody. Although I didn’t know if it was structured…it’s not really a standard structure. And it’s got that…
“They fly, fly, over my home”
You know it’s just kinda like, not really bluegrassy. You would probably, instead of just stopping, you would just chop through it or something. So I felt like it was an entity unto itself.
DOUG: So you had a lot of verses but you were thinking what is the greater picture of this song?
CLAIRE: Exactly! To me writing a good song is stepping back and examining it. It’s just like writing an essay for your English teacher, senior year of high school, “What is the main theme?” Go there and find out the gist of what you want to say. And then examine the verse and see, is this pointing to that? It needs to point to it somehow. It needs to either embellish the idea or describe the idea in another way. I mean it can do a lot of things but it has to point to that, to me. In order to move from a good song to a great song, you’ve got to tweak it and boil it down.
DOUG: This structure is different?
CLAIRE: It’s more, folky to me.
DOUG: Did you try to follow a rhyme scheme?
CLAIRE: I had a lot of trouble rhyming “Sipsey”. “History” was one. And I had a verse with “history” and what I was saying was really cool but it sounded didactic it didn’t sound picturesque. It didn’t sound artsy enough and I had to dis (ditch) that whole verse, like trash it.
DOUG: Totally trash it?
CLAIRE: Yeah, well it’s the second verse…let’s see if I can remember…
“In the woods of Sipsey
No lights after dark
Except for the stars that hang in space
And when the air is misty”
There’s another rhyme. It’s not a complete rhyme but it sounds similar. You know “misty” and “Sipsey.” Pretty close. And so I found “misty” and thought that it could help describe. It was a descriptive word and the thing about it is, it’s so moist in Alabama, it’s very humid. On the bodies of water, when it’s really hot, there are little clouds that hover over the water. I thought this would be realistic and it would also help mystify the song.
I wish I was able to check my notes before this interview. I have all those. I never throw anything away. I keep a file on all my writing…each song. I think I was going to a political place, you know, a quasi-political place, with that history thing.
DOUG: Was there a point where you sought opinions from friends, musicians or other songwriters?
CLAIRE: I shared that song in several songwriting classes that I was teaching. I was sharing with them the pitfalls of writing it. What I was up against. How it started and how it changed. I had to trash the whole second half of the first verse and rewrite it. I know what it was…
“In the woods of Sipsey
The trees were so tall
an unscalable wall of green brocade.”
…I wanted to use brocade. I really did. But I could not get the rest of the verse to rhyme with that “ade” thing and make sense and sound good. I probably spent eight months working off and on. I wasn’t wholly disciplined just for that song. I really wanted to use it and I shared it with my class and the women in the class would go, “Oh brocade. I love that,” especially the women who wrote kinda ethereally. They had wordy songs. They were the ones who liked it. It’s a little outside-the-box we like to put our songs in…that I like to put my songs in. And the guys were non-committal about brocade. A lot of the guys did not know what brocade was. And I thought, well there’s something! I could not care what anybody thinks or I could try to relate to everybody.
DOUG: You would like to put a word in a song that everyone will grasp and have a feeling for.
CLAIRE: That’s the thing. Because when you hear a song, one thing I teach is when you hear a song there are many, many impulses coming your way. Your senses are picking up more than just hearing the lyric. You’re listening to melody at the same time. So you’re examining that. If it’s a live performance you’re looking at the performer and their bodily movements. You're listening to the technicality of how they are singing it. And if you go too many places in a song and make it too complicated for the listener, they are not going to catch what you are trying to say. You know what you are saying. The hardest thing for me to tell songwriters is that you need to hit them with a clean thought. So they can let the rest of the sense of the song, the other things that are hitting their other senses, enjoy that too. They’ll get the idea if you give them a straight idea. Their mind is going to elaborate as they listen. You don’t have to elaborate for them.
I think that’s really important and I’ll prove it in my classes. I’ll take a song that we are examining that one of the students (wrote) and I’ll have her sing it. And then I’ll pick out something that doesn’t make sense to me as I hear it. I’ll ask the other people in the class, what do they think that means? They always reinforce me and say, “Well I don’t know what it means.” “It could mean this or it could mean this.” Sometimes people are empathetic and will say, “I think what you are trying to say is …” Well if we think what they’re trying to say… instead of getting it?
I’m from the Nashville school of writing and they are very strict and condensed with their writing in country music. I think it’s a really good point. You can be flowery and descriptive but really all you have to do is throw an image into someone’ s mind and then let them picture it.
DOUG: There are some hit songs with lyrics that are so vague as to seem to have no meaning. For example, “Horse With No Name.”
CLAIRE: See, there are different schools of writing. This is just how I teach because it’s the way I write. And I guess I’m asked to teach because of what I write. I bring Dylan to my classes because he would throw images at you.
I think a lot of that era…those guys were all doing drugs. They were out there anyway. It probably did mean something to them. It could have been code writing because they didn’t want to say they were doing psychedelics in the desert or something. Who knows? But I kinda get that impression from some of that lyric. Like it’s just impressions they are seeing in their own mind. I don’t know. Maybe they were talking about peyote. What do you think it means? That’s a great example you could bring up for discussion in a class.
DOUG: What tools did you use to write this song?
CLAIRE: I use my computer now for documenting lyrics. I often print it out and look at it on paper and tweak it with a pencil. And then go back in (to the computer) and make my corrections, because there is something about having your hands on it for me. And stuff comes so fast. Well I don’t want to put my guitar down and grab my keyboard. But if I have my guitar and just grab a pencil I don’t have to let go of my guitar. It just seems more convenient. There are a lot of times I will just ramble into a recorder. You know I started writing that song (Woods Of Sipsey) with a cassette recorder and I finished the song with my iPod.
I have a program that will allow you to hook a microphone up to your computer. And it will document that and it has thesaurus, it has dictionary, it has rhyming dictionaries. All in one program it’s called Masterwriter. It’s got all the elements for songwriting.
DOUG: So now you’ve got the song the way you like it and you bring it to the band. I noticed when you performed it there was a nice vocal in harmony with the fiddle that I really liked.
CLAIRE: Yeah. Thank you I’m really glad you liked that.
DOUG: How did you bring it to the guys and say, “What are we going to do with this?”
CLAIRE: When I made my first guitar/vocal demo of it to play for the band. I made it and sent it to them. I sang that. I always heard like an (American) Indian flute. Because granny was of Indian descent, she was Echota Cherokee. So I always heard this wafting flute in the background and I decided it was my decision to write that melody. I sang that melody while I played my guitar on my demo. And I told the guys I wrote this and we don’t have to do exactly this but I would like for maybe you guys to pick up on that melody or close to it and doing something more like an interlude than playing the melody for a “ride” ( a ride is where the instrument plays the melody). In other words, take a ride that is a reiteration of the melody of the song. In that case the guitar would come in and (Claire hums the melody)
…or an embellishment thereof. But my guys stick to the melody and work off of it and that’s the way I like it and they do too. On this one I really wanted an interlude. I didn’t know what to call it. So I wrote that. I said I’d like the instruments to do it. They said, “Man, we like it when you sing it.”
By that time Jason had already learned it on the fiddle. I was teaching it to him and so I was singing it and he was playing it the same time I was singing it. And I think it was Mark or somebody said, “That sounds really cool. Both you guys doing it.” And then Jason wanted to do harmony with my melody that I was singing. We vetoed him and we said, “no man” in unison, it’s cool, it’s so un-bluegrassy. To me, the fact that we are hitting that and not totally accurate with each other pitch-wise sets up sort of a tension between them and it’s spooky. It goes with the song.
DOUG: What advice do you have for beginner songwriters who want to write about a deeply personal issue?
CLAIRE: Well I would say, stay on that subject matter but write a little more on the surface. In other words don’t dig too deep. Find something else around you in nature that metaphorically speaks of how you feel, like the wall of the trees, or you can say the pain in my heart without getting graphic about what caused the pain. I think it takes wisdom and discretion to write well. Know when something is not enough and know when something is too much. And I think that balance belongs in every area of everybody’s life from the way we dress, to the way we eat and anything else. And I think it should apply to your songwriting.
I was in a class where a guy sang a song and it was so extremely personal. And you could tell he was almost dead with pain. It wracked everybody in the class. Instead of arousing emotion and being touched by it and saying, “Oh! I can relate to that,” it was more like, “I’m so embarrassed.” And you don’t want your listeners to be embarrassed.
DOUG: So you have to step back and look at your song objectively.
CLAIRE: I had one songwriter say, “I keep working on my song until it stops bothering me. Or it stops nagging at me. ” You know you come to a spot in the song and it’s like, “eek.” So many amateur writers will ignore that because they love themselves and they love their own work, and they’re proud of it and they choose not to see the flaws. I think the smartest thing you can do is step back and examine it. And when you feel that bump in your emotion and you go, “Oh, that’s OK,” stop and say, “How can I improve this. What is it that is bothering me about this spot right here. Is it melody? Is it the lyric?” and try to improve it.
DOUG: Is this a “hole” in the song?
CLAIRE: It’s a hole, exactly, “I really don’t like that but I’ll let it go because I can’t think of anything better.” Max D. Barnes said, “If I’m stuck on a song I get up and sit on the other side of the table.” Look at your song from a different perspective. Also, I think walking away from it. Don’t stay with it until it wears you out. Put it down. Go wash the dishes. And you’d be surprised what will come to you when you are just doing menial tasks and your mind has a chance to relax and not concentrate so much. Your thoughts have a chance to flow more.
Sidebar: Claire Lynch Interview
This was in reference to my idea of building a “pile” of information for a song idea.
“Highway” written by Claire Lynch and Irene Kelly.
CLAIRE: One of the other songs on the album is called “Highway” and it starts;
“California coastline with it’s never ending sunshine
and Encinitas' breeze, sounds so good to me”
When we were writing it we were compiling information just like you.We went to a road atlas and got out California and looked at the southern coast of California, went up and down naming all the towns that we saw on the map and Encinitas just slipped right off the tongue, it fit in, had enough syllables, it sang well. All that stuff! Sometimes you know it’s a great word but it doesn’t sing well, you know, you should practice singing it and see if it’s hard to sing or if people will understand what you are saying.
I love to hear other singers (phrase) … that’s another thing I like about co-writing with Irene (Kelly) although she has bluegrass roots too and we have similar voices, she phrases different than me. And I love to hear her sing a song that we have written together because it is invariably different phrasing on certain parts of the song and a lot of times I think it is cooler than what I do.
DOUG: Did you ever look back at any songs you wrote and said, “Did that come out of my brain?”
CLAIRE: I tell you what I did, you know I quit for six years. I tried to save my marriage and got my daughter raised out of high school. And then I re-emerged, performing again in 2005. So for six years I walked away. I didn’t even look at, well, I played with Dolly (Parton) but I didn’t look at Claire Lynch’s career. I was putting a band together again and looked back at my catalogue of my music and went, “I’ve written a lot of stuff!” I didn’t even know it when I was doin’ it. Sometime it’s good to have a different perspective. Dang! There’s a whole career right there of music! I never understood that until I took the time to examine it from another perspective.
DOUG: Well thank you very much, Claire, for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk to me today. We all look forward to hearing your next CD and hopefully seeing you perform again soon.
This article by Doug Mathewson is the second installment in his song writing series. Look for more in the future.
About Doug Mathewson:
As a musician, Doug's first instrument was drums. He participated in high school marching band, school band and in the orchestra he played tympani. He had a Dixieland band in junior high and a modern jazz group in high school playing with the soon to be great jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Around age 18 he started singing and playing the guitar. He had grown up listening to big band and country particularly on many trips to his mother's family in Arkansas and Texas. He has had several country bands where he did the lead singing and rhythm guitar. In 2006 he took up the dobro playing leads for the first time. In 2009 he added mandolin. Songwriting became pre-eminent in the '60s and remains a favorite form of expression. You can hear examples of some of Doug's music on his websites: