God and Country Music: The Ethical Dilemma of Nashville Ghost Writing

Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.

Today, and really for the last half century, much of popular music has not been written by the performers. And in all genres of popular music, and country in particular, ghostwriting has turned into a legitimate profession. Let’s look at it this way, just about every country song that you have heard on the radio in the last twenty years has been written by someone other than the songwriter. Independent and alternative musicians have long used this verity to criticize Nashville acts and a whole sub-industry has emerged of writers hoping to sell their songs to big name acts. For example, remember that Dierks Bently/Miranda Lambert hit from a few years back, “Black Angel”? Not only was it annoyingly catchy, it was written by one of Nashville’s host of talented songwriters, Verlon Thompson. While guys like Guy Clark have made entire, astoundingly successful careers sending tracks off to Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley.

But what does this say about the country music industry? Country isn’t like Top 40 radio, where every artist has to be a beauty and old, fat guys in the A&R department are writing the songs. Country has always been about authenticity, honesty and grit (okay, okay, and drinkin’, gamblin’ and cheatin’ women), but never as image focused as other genres. Look at Toby Kieth. He is no Brad Pitt. So why in the world aren’t the myriads of talented songwriters making the radio?

This is Guy Clark, you may not have heard of him, but he wrote most of your favorite country songs.

It is a complicated question with a complicated answer. There are numerous factors: money, connections, image, marketing, branding and charisma, to name a few. For the Christian who wishes to not simply reject culture or take culture at face value, this facet of country music begs for some inspection. Ghostwriting should not simply be written off as evil, it feeds a lot of families and makes a lot of careers. But also, realistically, the music we listen to isn’t being sung as an expression of creativity and emotion but simply as a product. Which makes country music a bit more prone to emotional pandering and subcultural propaganda. Essentially, many writers write what they think the pop country audience wants to hear. This is how we end up with songs about red Solo cups.

So while ghost writing may seem at first glance inconsequential, it is helpful to understand and wrestle with both sides of the artistic argument of issues likes this. It can be a good exercise in assessing culture within an orthodox Christian worldview. And while I look at the practice with the suspicion on the grounds of greed and lack of artistic integrity, maybe there is no right or wrong answer. That is for you to decide.

About Nick Rynerson

Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously). In his free time, He writes, attempts to play mandolin, reads and hangs out with his groovy wife. Nick has a soft spot for any song with a banjo and thinks Bruce Campbell is the best actor on earth. However, he is a terrible golfer and has particular distaste internet controversy . Nick is passionate about the Church, (lower case) orthodoxy and whatever he's been reading about recently.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
or at his website: nickrynerson.com

  • Jim Geertsma

    I have a son who lives in Nashville who does some ghost writing to make a living. He has had some songs placed on television as well (the new show “Nashville” will feature on of his songs). Music today is a business first of all. Artist does not have as much control of their music as one would think. Their “label” really calls the shots. Often times songs used for an album are chosen by the label with the artist having little to say about it. Frankly, the label knows what the listening audience wants to hear, so that is why country songs (or any genre) have a similar sound. In the long run, this kills creativity, but artists are able to make a living. Fortunately, there is a lot of independent music one can listen to today from “starving artists” like my son. Here the creativity thrives. Like I said earlier, it is a business.

  • Joe Carter

    Country has always been about authenticity, honesty and grit

    Really? So Johnny Cash really “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die?” ; )

  • Bruce Charles Meyer

    Are you talking about where the writer signs away his mechanical rights for a one-time fee, and authorship is then attributed to the performer? That’s what I thought you meant by ghostwriting. That’s a moral dilemma, I suppose. But it looks like you just talking about professional songwriters who pitch their songs to artists and some go big time, e.g., Change The World.

  • http://jaket.is-a-geek.com/blog Jake T

    Wait, you’re saying that Nashville country is just a product sold on sentimentality??! I don’t believe it!

    In all seriousness, it’s been like this for a LONG time. At least as long as I’ve been old enough to understand country music, which is to say, since the mid 90s (although probably longer).

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Similar to what is going on in the hip-hop world with Nas recently exposed as having a ghost writer. http://www.spin.com/blogs/nas-ghostwriting-controversy-and-why-it-doesnt-matter Hip-hop is also about “authenticity, honesty and grit” and also drinking, women and partying except expressed from an African-American perspective. The one difference with hip-hop ghost writing is that hip-hop was a musical subculture that went mainstream while country still remains for the most part a subculture unto itself.

    This whole discussion also reminds me of that Carl Trueman article about popular culture where he stated that we as Christians take it too seriously when it is merely meant to be used as a commodity. Framed in the sense that most popular music is written by ghost writers one could see how Trueman came to his conclusion. While the producers of various popular musics might treat the music as a commercial product the way that listeners interact with the music in my mind makes popular music a cultural artifact. The audience takes the music seriously even though it manufactured in a way which seems questionable.

  • Bruce Charles Meyer

    Matthew Linder’s comment: “While the producers of various popular musics might treat the music as a commercial product the way that listeners interact with the music in my mind makes popular music a cultural artifact. The audience takes the music seriously even though it manufactured in a way which seems questionable.”
    This reminds me of a meme in which a throwaway artifact, such as a to-do list or laundry stub, is retreived by an alien civilization or a postapocalyptic future society and is then turned into the highest sacred text. Dylan made early notoriety for knowing all the unknown songs of Woody Guthrie, and folk singers in Hibbing MN are able to do the same by knowing all the unknown songs of The Bob. Of course, Dylan’s songs were typically created by a working musician who needed to keep turning out new music (with lines such as “as the walls were tightening” to rhyme with “lightning”), but the songs were and are elevated to near(?) sacred texts. Intended as passing, received as permanent.
    Our current president made numerous promises–seeming to be sacred–which were spoken on the campaign trail and apparently had all the sacredness of rambling nice ideas and not covenantal promises: such as having a new high standard of openness in his administration where the deliberations of health care reform would be all broadcast on CNN. Intended (?) as passing, received as permanent.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Bruce, you comment “intended as passing, received as permanent” reminds me of historically-informed performance of J.S. Bach’s music. The musicians are militant about performing Bach’s music to the last note in the same exact way in which Bach intended it. While that is an interesting exercise which version of a piece does a performer use since Bach updated various pieces throughout his career as a church composer. There is a certain rigidity and inflexibility to historically-informed performance which does not allow the performer to include their interpretive voice in the music. Then if someone takes Bach’s music and changes some aspect of it many take that as defiling a sacred text. If however the musicians looked into Bach’s life they would know how much he was devoted to Christ in all of his life and he would be ashamed of the people who treat his music as on the same level as the bible.

  • Bruce Charles Meyer

    That makes much sense, when I think of Bach as the archtypical working musician who kept his agenda filled with jobs to support his many kids. I was just looking up transcriptions of John Coltrane’s work and much argument ensued about how new performances of his tunes miss one nuance or another.

    About the topic: are you talking about songs written by another and given the performer’s authorship, or about working songwriters-for-hire who retain authorship and rights?

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Bruce, so these critics are arguing that the musicians are not incorporating the nuances that John Coltrane did when he played his own music? Sounds like they are trying to remove agency from the performance and want the musician to act like a robot perfectly hitting every note as Coltrane would have. That is really scary but that idea of removing the human element with musicians only being vessels through which the intent of the composer flows comes from control freak composers like Stravinsky. In his short little book “Poetics of Music” he describes the function of the musician in this manner, a very interesting read.

  • Nick

    Interesting discussion. I like Matthew’s comparison of the hip hop world to that of the country world. And to Mr. Carter: what I could have said instead of country “always” being about authenticy, grit, etc. is that the ideal of much early country music was that of identification with certain, mostly rough, working class individuals. Not neccisarliy an expression of truth. I know you were just ribbing, but I felt that statement needed some editing :-)

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Joe, I think that’s the only reasonable explanation that fits all the facts. Sure, I know there’re lobbies that posit other motives (most notably, the Earthers—who believe he shot a man just to cover him with soil), but they’re largely just groundless conspiracy hogs. Even in Cash (by Johnny Cash), he recalls the night in question and talks about how he and Leonard Crawhill had been discussing the physical sensation of crossing into the metaphysical and whether the moment could be discerned by the watchful human eye. When they saw that hippie smoking out behind the Blue Trough, opportunity and scientific motivation collided and those events in Reno were made legend.


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