Southern Gothic

Quick Q and A with Chuck Cannon

Chuck Cannon may not be a household name to many but he should be.  This Nashville-based musician / storyteller imparts much wisdom into his songs and stories.  He gets to the core of the human experience and he succeeds in pulling the listener in a bit closer and hearts become more open and accepting.  Now, more than ever, Chuck needs to be heard.

Check out his website for more information!

Here’s a video that is a tiny taste of Chuck’s heartfelt music.

 I have to admit. I don’t know a lot of your music but the lyric of a song by Kiki Dee comes to mind: “I’ve Got the Music in Me” comes to mind.  Have you always felt the music in you?

Well, since we’re admitting, I have to admit I’ve never had a Kiki Dee reference in an interview… Ever. Now that song is going to be stuck in my head all day!

I cannot remember any time of my life when music was not at the center. Even when Baseball was what I did more than anything else, I would sing songs to myself to help maintain rhythm while pitching.

What’s your earliest recollection of feeling moved by music?

That would have been in church. My father was a Pentecostal pastor. In Pentecostal churches music is a big deal. That is an understatement along the lines of “The Beatles were a popular band during the Sixties.”

Your dad was a Pentecostal minister.   How much did your life as a minister’s son influence you and your artistic sensibilities?  (Just last night I watched a video about the life of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson and was struck by her messages combined with uplifting and memorable music!) 

What a compelling question, Kathy.

There is no short answer and brevity can only lead to all sorts of inaccurate conclusions by those who read this. It is complicated because my father was not a typical Pentecostal minister. I will hit a few high spots, but the picture will be incomplete at best.

Not only was my father a Pentecostal preacher, but so was my mother … so was my Grandfather … along with several Uncles and an Aunt… or two …

Pentecostals place a lot of emphasis on The Holy Spirit. When I was emotionally moved by music at a very early age, it was explained by the people I loved and trusted the most as “The Spirit of Almighty God” moving in me.

It made an impression.

My life as a preacher’s son was built around going to church. Church was every Sunday morning, every Sunday night and Prayer-Meeting every Wednesday night. Also, there were revivals at least once a year, which meant going to Church every night of the week. Preachers’ kids don’t miss Church services. My friends, of course, could not imagine how this didn’t bore me to tears. I honestly didn’t understand where they were coming from until I visited one of their Churches.

Let’s just say our Church was different. Ours was a church where The Holy Spirit moved! The music made you dance and clap your hands and you can bet your sweet salvation we were clapping on two and four. The preaching had rhythm and the preachers often broke into song during the message to illustrate a point. The chorus of “hallelujahs” and “amens” from the congregation always punctuated the sermons.

There was a lot of Church and Church was a lot of things, but it was rarely, if ever, boring… especially the music.

I am sure all of that is why I am drawn to music that emphasizes the backbeat and songs that deal with weighty issues.

Among my earliest memories are seeing both my parents reading. Daddy spent Saturdays studying for and writing Sunday’s sermons. He liked to recline in bed while reading and one of my clearest memories of him is with his notebook in his lap, his pencil scratching across the page while surrounded by open books. Fathers are heroes to sons and this, no doubt, engendered my own passion for reading.

From a very early age, I was encouraged by both my parents to talk about the books I read. “What did the author mean by choosing this title for this book?” “Why did the author choose that illustration?” I came to understand early on how story is important, but how the story is also the author’s vehicle for conveying far deeper meaning.

Writing came later, but my father made sure I had a firm grasp on the pencil. I brought home a mid-term “C” once in my high-school sophomore year and he had me write an essay entitled “The Pitfalls of Mediocrity.”  The summer I turned sixteen I wanted a dune buggy. My father offered to buy it for me if I wrote the Book of Proverbs verse by verse in my own words. The reward was a lot more than the dune buggy.

Seeking understanding was prized in my family, with the emphasis on seeking. My Grandfather often said, “Son, to have arrived is a sad thing.” He would say this to me anytime I spoke as if I knew definitive answers to the deeper questions of life. He would also roll that little saying out when any visiting preacher seemed … umm … let’s leave it at “a little full of himself.”

The men and women who raised me were all avid readers. As far back as I can remember I was encouraged by them to read, understand, and write with clarity. I read a lot. Early on I fell in love with Emerson and Thoreau. I also read science fiction and fantasy with Asimov and Tolkien as early favorites. I am, of course, drawn to the Southern writers such as Faulkner, William Gay and Mark Twain. I’ve recently gotten into listening to books while on long drives and best sellers like Stephen King and John Grisham sure make the miles go by.

I have to say though; I always come back to Philosophy and Theology. In the last few years I’ve read a lot from the new atheists. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are intriguing and compelling writers. I also read John Polkinghorne, Frederick Buechner and Francis Collins, who are well educated, compelling believers.  I’m still a seeker. God is a fascinating subject and while I know it is impossible to “know,” one way or the other, I find useful truths from writers all along the spectrum between belief, disbelief and unbelief.

Clearly, if God exists, She prefers this grand mystery. “To have arrived is a sad thing …” Maybe the journey really is more important than the destination… I know my journey informs my art more than anything else…

For 1960’s Pentecostals, my parents were pretty liberal. Many hard-core Pentecostals were suspicious of music that couldn’t be found in the hymnal. In this regard, I was extremely fortunate for a kid growing up in that particular idiom of Christianity. Both my Father and Grandfather emphasized love in their sermons. They talked a good bit about unconditional love, and more importantly, they demonstrated that kind of love. I don’t remember them preaching ‘hell-fire and brimstone.”

This may seem a long ways ’round to the point, but Mama and Daddy were somewhat unique as Pentecostal preachers because they both loved all kinds of music, whether it was in The Broadman Hymnal or not. My father loved words. I remember him saying, “Listen to the words to this song, Son!” as he played songs by Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, or Merle Haggard. He liked the blues and turned me on to B.B King. He gave me Isaac Hayes’ album “Hot Buttered Soul” for Christmas one year. Mama loved her some Elvis. One of my earliest musical memories outside the church is my mother’s record collection, which included Elvis (of course), The Platters, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Duke Ellington.

Like most kids in the 60s, I fell in love with The Beatles. When the kerfuffle about John pointing out The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ was at fever pitch amongst Christian fundamentalists, my mother told me not to believe a word of what those people were saying about The Beatles. I remember her even quoting the scripture that says all good and perfect gifts come from the father of light and that those boys gave us songs like “Yesterday” and “If I Fell” (her favorite Beatles songs) and those were as close to good and perfect gifts as she had ever heard.

It made an impression.

My parents gifted me a love for words by encouraging reading and writing. They exposed me to a lot of music and listened to the music I brought home. They were not perfect, but I have come to see how fortunate I am to have been raised by people who listened, loved and encouraged. My mother died when I was eleven and, in many ways, it crippled my father. That’s another story for another time but all in all, I was given a good foundation.

We all end up with a lot of baggage from our childhood. Growing up in a Pentecostal minister’s home comes with its own peculiar baggage. Some of the stuff in that baggage is the good stuff… much of it weighs me down. My first studio project, “God Shaped Hole,” deals with the weight of the baggage I’m hauling.

I have come to believe fundamentalism, in all its forms, is informed by fear. I believe fear is the opposite of love.

In the balance, I was shown love. I was loved. I was taught that God is Love.

What I do know for certain is I feel connected to something indescribable when I am writing or performing.

It feels a lot like Love.

You attended Belmont University, which is in the heart of Music City, USA — Nashville, Tennessee.  What did you learn about the music business at Belmont?   

 “Music Business.” Now there’s an oxymoron!

Honestly, I wish more artists understood how the business of music works. Just like most artists, I wish it were all about the art. Maybe in a perfect world it is, but this world isn’t perfect and there are people who understand how business works who will take advantage of those who don’t.

To be fair, I have enjoyed relationships with people in the business end of the music business who are honorable. However, I cannot stress enough how important it is for an artist to have a strong working knowledge of how the business works so they can avoid getting involved with those who are less than honorable.

At Belmont I learned how music publishing works.

Songs are powerful and they are valuable.

It breaks my heart when I hear a horror story of someone gifted enough to make up a song millions of people fall in love with and not get paid fairly. It almost always happens because the creator of the song doesn’t have a good working understanding of the business.

I don’t think a college curriculum is necessary, but I think it is important for anyone to understand his or her livelihood.

Belmont gave me a good working knowledge of the business of music and it has served me well.

The world of songwriting sessions in Nashville is akin to the history of songs that were birthed in the Brill Building in New York City back in the day. Can you tell us what it was like to sit with others or your lonesome to come up with hit songs for others?

 I have never been adept at what I call “target writing.” By this I mean: get a pitch sheet, find out which artists are recording, and try to come up with some words and music that sound like something they would sing. Really, all I have to go on in that situation is what they did on their last record. In that regard, I feel like I’m aiming behind a moving target. That said, many of the songs we know and love are written this way. I know songwriters who are amazing at doing exactly this. I’m just not one of them.

I try to write the best songs I can write and then look at which artist is recording and pitch them my best songs. That is what has worked for me.

Writing all by my lonesome is … well, it is lonely. I find it to be a beautiful lonely because I enjoy spending time alone. Sometimes it takes longer to write a song alone because there is no one there to bounce ideas off of, and sometimes it moves along more quickly because there is no need to explain my line of thought to someone else.

I enjoy co-writing, especially with people who have a body of work they have written by themselves. There is no doubt they know what they are doing. I encourage aspiring songwriters to write alone so when they co-write there is at least one person in the room who knows how to finish a song.

I also enjoy writing with artists. When I have the opportunity to write with an artist, I’m simply trying to help them say what they want to say. My role in that situation is to pay close attention. I believe it is important to understand the artist’s voice, which encompasses far more than merely their vocal range.

Co-writing is built on trust. There are lines in songs I sing that I initially resisted, only to realize later my co-writer saw something I was missing. I am grateful to them for those lines and glad I trusted in their talent. Co-writers confide in each other. It works best when souls are bared. We bleed on each other. In the best co-writing situations our weaknesses are balanced by our co-writer’s strengths.

A few years ago I read Paul Zollo’s interview of Leonard Cohen. Leonard remarked that his job is a difficult job and asked, “Why should my job be easy?” I remember how hard that hit me. We have a job to do. Cohen went on to elaborate on the importance of the job and how seriously he takes the job of being a poet and a songwriter. Early in my writing career I was in a co-write session with an older songwriter who had several hits under his belt. We were struggling to come up with the proverbial last two lines of a pretty good song that had, up to that point, come pretty quickly. After about two hours of not one line coming I commented, “It can’t be this hard… This isn’t brain surgery!” This wise old songwriter laid his guitar down, looked me directly in the eye and with urgent seriousness said, “Yes it is. And not only is it brain surgery, it is heart surgery… and more than that, this is even soul surgery. You better figure that out right now, or we’re done here!”

Talk about making an impression!

Professional songwriters take their job seriously, but I don’t want to come off here like it is all heavy. We have a lot of fun and that is an understatement. Most really good songwriters are extremely well read. Most are possessed of a quick wit and have a wicked sense of humor. The best are keen observers of the human condition. We just have a quirky job.

Co-writing is some high-toned fun. The job is to write the best song we can write… so, a co-writing session typically involves two well-read, quick-witted, funny observers of the human condition offering up the best lyrics and melodies they can think of and using their gifts to make them better. This usually involves me being out-witted, out-funnied and finding out about books I’ve never read… and hopefully results in a great song. A song that operates on hearts, souls and minds which otherwise, would have never been written.

I am so fortunate to have the job I have … We get to play in the word field. We get to experiment with melodies. It is hard for me to imagine a better way to spend a day… And if we do our jobs well, and all the stars line up, the whole world sings along.

How do you separate out YOUR songs vs. the songs you write for others?  Do you feel an emotional attachment to the songs that you feel fit into your personal repertoire as opposed to those you write for others?

Back in the late 90s I co-billed a show with the amazing singer/songwriter Mac McAnally. Mac watched my show from side stage. Later that night in his green room he made the observation that several of the songs I played that night were never going to be recorded by hit artists, but that they were great songs and deserved a voice. He encouraged me to make a record and feature those songs. He even went so far as to say I had a responsibility to those songs to make them heard by however small an audience. I was (and still am) in awe of his talent as a songwriter. Here was one of my heroes telling me he wanted to hear the record I would make.

So, the short answer is “MY songs” are the ones no one else will record.

As I said earlier, I try to write the best songs I can write. When I am writing with artists, to the best of my ability, I try to work in their voice. Often, that alone informs whether I will record the song for one of my projects. Those songs are simply not in my voice as an artist. Back in ’98 I recorded a guitar/vocal project that was all hit songs I’ve written for other artists. For some of my fans, this record is still their favorite of mine. I owe so much to the artists who have recorded my songs through the years. Those songs have taken good care of me and I am proud of every one of them. I hope I write some more of those hit songs… They just aren’t all I have to say as an artist.

Of course I feel an emotional attachment to the songs that are part of my personal repertoire. They are the songs that sing who I am as an artist.

It is one thing to write a song, have a famous recording artist sing it, hear it on the radio and see it go up the charts. It is an awesome feeling and to have done this a few times has afforded me a comfortable lifestyle and I am grateful to the artists and for those songs.

However, when someone requests a song they could have only heard at one of my shows or on one of my records… when someone sends a letter and tells me one of those songs helped them through a tough time in their life… Well, that’s another thing… and I can’t wait to do it again.

I’d love to know more about your spoken word pieces, which are very personal and most intense. I just listened to a number of them and they remind me of the first time I heard Eudora Welty read some of her pieces on audiobooks.  That’s a good thing…but that that southern take on things is something that is intriguing to listeners from other parts of the country.  Is your own personal take on things something that you love and hate at the same time?  (tough question, I know!)

Eudora Welty? Let me catch my breath! “The Optimist’s Daughter” is some serious Southern Literature! I actually listened to Ms. Eudora before I recorded my spoken word project. What a compliment, Kathy … Thank You.

The South … We talk slow down here … it is just too damn hot to get in a hurry. We enjoy the feel of words in our mouth and we like to linger over their taste. We like to round off their corners so they don’t cut when they come forth. We tell tall tales but we rarely have to make them up; we just remember.

I’m not sure where American Literature would be without the Southern Writer. Samuel Clemens, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, Kate Chopin, Thomas Wolfe, Harper Lee …

We love stories. As a child, big entertainment was to sit on Grandmama’s front porch and hear my Aunts and Uncles just tell about their day, much less when they told and retold the stories of the good ole days gone by.

My spoken word project, True Stories and Other Lies: Volume One was intended as a teaser for a memoir I am writing. It is proving damnably difficult to finish. It has been surprising that many of my fans claim it as their favorite work of mine. I’m not quite sure how to feel when new fans say they prefer the stories. Ha!

Yes, these stories are intensely personal. They are true stories, in that they happened as I told them. They are lies because some of them are separate stories mashed into one. As much as I try to be accurate, I am painfully aware of the vagaries of memory, but I love the process of getting these memories into words. I try to inform and augment my recollections by asking Aunts, Uncles and Cousins what they remember and incorporate their take where I may be fuzzy. But it is my personal take on the story. I don’t so much “love and hate them at the same time,” as I approach them with fear and trepidation.

I will say it is more difficult to read a story for a recording than it is to sing a song for a recording. I think it is because a song has a defined melody and meter. Finding the melody and meter to prose is challenging far beyond what I expected. Then there is the matter of hearing my spoken voice. It took a while to get anywhere close to anything resembling comfortable with hearing myself read.

The toughest part is what to leave in and what to leave out. Telling a story true can hurt. Some of the stories were told through tears and that aching that grabs the throat and threatens to choke the truth down. Some made me laugh, even in the telling. As a writer, I have an obligation to tell truth. I also have an obligation to be mindful of how truth can hurt people I love. So, if there is anything I love/hate, it is the responsibility to be truthful without being hurtful.

Do you have any career goals that you’d love to attain? 

I want to finish my memoir and get it published by a reputable book publisher.