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What Andy Gullahorn Taught Me About Songwriting

[I wrote this to encourage every single person on earth to purchase Beyond the Frame, the new album by Andy Gullahorn. Get it here. There’s also a great review of the album by Jonathan Rogers here. –AP]

“Write it like you would say it.”

I can’t tell you how many times over the years that maxim has snapped me out of whatever florid garbage I was writing. It’s a good idea to emulate your heroes, to ask yourself when you get to the bridge, “What would Paul Simon do?” Or when you happen upon a guitar part which, miracle of miracles, sounds unique enough to try and build a song on upon, to ask, “How does James Taylor get into a part like this?” Steal boldly, I say.

But most often, when I’m scribbling in a notebook the nonsense that I hope will become a not-unbearable song, when it’s late and I’m sleepy and I’m stuck, stuck, stuck, I remember these words: “Write it like you would say it.”  It usually opens the door to the lyric I was looking for. It keeps me from putting on airs, which we’re all prone to do. People can spot a fake a mile away. It’s the difference between reading a speech from a podium and looking someone in the eye and telling them “I love you.” It communicates to the listener that you’re not pulling any punches but you’re not blocking any either. “Trust me,” it says. “This might hurt, but if we make it out alive we’ll be better for it.”

If I had to name one bit of advice that has brought me back to center more than any other, it would be that. “Write it like you would say it.” Who gave me that advice? Andy Gullahorn. And on each of his albums he provides example after example of honest, excellent songwriting which always invites me in to a face-to-face conversation that leads to something genuine and healing.

Sometimes it’s humor. I’ve seen a lot of concerts over the years but I’ve never, ever seen anyone else make the room laugh merely at the word “Hello.” Ben and I always look at one another in wonder when, yet again, the crowd chuckles at Andy’s greeting, whether we’re in Sweden or Connecticut or Texas. The Gullahorn Hello, apparently, is a universal language. And few things delight me like sitting on the side stage and watching the crowd react to a song like “I Haven’t Either.” They have no idea what’s coming, I think. And then I realize that, though I’ve heard the song hundreds of times, it’s still doing its work on me too. Tears spring to my eyes, conviction comes quick on the heels of my laughter. It’s one of the best working examples I know of C. S. Lewis’s principle of sneaking past “watchful dragons.” Lewis wrote in an essay called “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,”

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”

Enter Andy Gullahorn, stripping away the audience’s self-righteousness or shame or their expectation that they were going to have to listen to a bunch of uptight, guilt-ridden Christians blubbering about Jesus. Instead they get a song about skinny jeans. Or about country music or shopping malls. “I could hang out with this guy,” they think. (And they actually can, if they’re in a certain Nashville bowling alley on Wednesdays.) And then, gently, lovingly, Gully slips past their watchful dragons and surprises them with a moment of grace. Not judgment, not high-falutin’ Bible talk. Just an honest conversation. That grace may bring conviction for the self-righteous, or it may be a gentle assurance to the lowly sinner that, despite their worst fears there is a great and graceful Person in the world who loves them as they are and not as they should be. I find myself on both sides of the coin from one minute to the next. Amazingly, both can happen at the same time, to the same person, when they’re listening to an Andy Gullahorn song.

Gully’s humor is often the first thing people mention, but the conversation never stays there. It quickly moves to awe at his ability to do what some call a ninja move. Let the record show that he is no comedy act, however often people tumble into the aisles in guffaws—even if he is, truly, one of the funniest people I know. His best songs are the ones that cut to the heart, and what I see in those songs is that—you guessed it—he writes it like he would say it. That, my friends, is the real ninja move.

We all live with our defenses up. Ron Block has written much about the “false self,” something we’re all familiar with. We’re afraid to be known. I’m terrified of it. We’re all hiding the Mr. Hyde lurking inside our Dr. Jekyll. But Andy asks us to be brave enough to open the cage. Maybe, he suggests, the best way to kill the monster is to expose it to sunlight. And he leads by example, writing about his own inconsistency, his own pain, his own silliness—each song daring the listener to open that dungeon door a little wider, asking us if we’re really happy with the way things are. We know we aren’t, but we’re too scared to take another step. Andy’s songs are a hand in the dark. He tells us in the opening song of Beyond the Frame, “If you need a friend to do some dying with you, I will.”

It’s easy to imagine Jesus saying the same to us, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t just tell us in the New Testament that the Christian life is a hard one, that death is a prerequisite to finding the life he offers—he also showed us. He blazed the trail, laying down his life for the glory of the Father. The Master tells us as we timidly open our hearts to the pain of love, “I’ve done this before, and I know it hurts, child. But this is the only way. I’m right here with you. Don’t be afraid.”

I’ve been a fan of Andy Gullahorn since Old Hat, his first indie record about 15 years ago. I’ve seen him grow at great cost, and I’ve seen him pour that hard-earned wisdom into his songs. I’ve also seen, first-hand, the effect of his songs on people in the audience, and it not only causes me to praise God for Andy Gullahorn, it reawakens my wonder at the power of songs as an art form. Three or four minutes, a few chords, a few words—and then in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, a heart is changed. At the very least, in a world where we walk around numb as lepers so much of the time, a song can make you actually feel something, a tingle in a place you thought long dead. That’s what this album did for me. Beyond the Frame, from the first track to the last, is Andy’s most evocative work yet. Not only are the songs arguably the best and most passionate he’s ever written, the production bar has been raised. There are colors in the palette that we haven’t heard on a Gullahorn record, but it’s so tastefully and naturally done that I can’t put my finger on exactly what has changed (other than the welcome addition of piano).

The last third of the album leads us into that dungeon I was telling you about. Into the darkness of the tomb. But then with the final song comes Easter morning. Birdsong. And with it the strong, gentle and wise reminder that all that time I was afraid of the dark, so afraid that I wore myself out building walls, laboring long to keep every single shaft of light from illuminating the truth, there was nothing to fear. Something good was, and is, coming, and it’s worth the cost.

So next time I sit down to write a song I’ll ask myself, as I have for years, what my songwriting heroes would do. Right at the top of that list is a guy named Andy Gullahorn, reminding me to have the guts to write it like I would say it. It’s a principle that’s simple and yet packed with meaning, just like his songs. It’s not just advice for songwriting, though; it’s a good way to live. Dash all pretense; be who you are; kick down the walls; love the listener. It’s scary, sure. But good songwriting is a call to courage, on both sides of the exchange.

Andy Gullahorn is one of the bravest people I know.


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