Anything that I’ve accomplished as a writer is because of my writing. It doesn’t happen by chance. You make your own opportunities. You have to put the work in, no matter what you’re writing about.
I didn’t study Journalism in college. I have a Philosophy degree. It doesn’t matter what you go to school for. I’ve yet to have an editor ask me. I learned rules and style writing for my college newspaper.
After I graduated from college, I moved to Los Angeles, California. I didn’t sit around waiting for an opportunity to write for a magazine, I started my own, TJ Music Magazine (Turnstyled Junkpiled). I was twenty-five-years-old. It was at a time when everyone was creating blogs. I said That’s lazy. I’m a journalist, I’m starting a magazine.
No one read it for months. I knew that would be the case. Still, I continued to develop content. I started out writing features about local bands. Six months later I was interviewing one of my favorite songwriters, Guy Clark (“Dublin Blues”).
A few months later, I did my first print cover story. It was a piece on Ryan Bingham (“The Weary Kind”) for Lone Star Music Magazine. At the time, I’d never done a big eight-thousand word Rolling Stone style feature. It’s a lot of writing, a lot of storytelling. You have to figure out where to put things. That isn’t easy. Even though it was the first time, I was able to do it. As a writer, you have to learn how to adapt. It taught me a lot: the value of second sources, and how much research you have to do. How aware you need to be of a person’s actions and your surroundings. One of my second sources was Terry Allen (“Amarillo Highway”) who is my favorite songwriter and a champion of the younger generation.
Six years later, I have a publishing deal. I’m writing a book called Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver (Texas A&M University Press, 2020). It was unexpected. My friend and now mentor, Brian T. Atkison started the Songwriting Legacy Series with his book I’ll Be Here in The Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt. One day he told me the publisher was looking for someone else to do that style book. He decided that person would be me.
He introduced me to his editor, I did chapter samples, and the next thing I know I have a book deal. I never asked him to help me. I thought, Why would someone do this for me? I guess the answer to that is, because of my writing.
I now live in Buffalo, New York, because Los Angeles was the opposite way. There was this, “How can you help me?” mentality I didn’t care for. I got out of there. I’m a writer. It doesn’t matter where I live.
The book I’m writing is s a collection of interviews where songwriters give their take on Shaver’s life and music. The way the book is written is far different from an article. It’s an academic book, so I had to learn new rules and style, such as the Oxford comma. No matter what you’re writing this is how you format: Times New Roman. 12pt font, five-space (use the space bar) indents, double-spaced.
Writing is a craft. You have to put the work in. Every day, you have to strive to get better. Make sure your sentences don’t back into each other and make sure you know what that means. One of the key components of writing is learning how to edit. It should take far longer to edit an article than it does to write it. You can’t just write something and leave it. I wrote a novel (Where Dreams Never Die) in three months. I spent six months editing it. If I publish something and find a typo, I beat myself up over it. I should. It’s on me, I’m the editor.
I just did a twenty-five-page zine on Wayne Hancock (“Thunder Storms and Neon Signs”). I wanted to try something new, so I combined New Journalism, which was started in the Seventies by Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), or Gonzo Journalism, started by Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), with an oral history, like the book I’m writing. Each artist is their own section, telling a story, while I put the reader in the here and now. The journalist is part of the story. It requires saying ‘I’ throughout. That’s not technically correct. But because of where I am in my career, I can do that. You have to learn the rules before you can break the rules. Start off writing conventionally (I still do it).
Last year, I wrote a feature on Terry Allen. He’s about the least conventional person there is, yet the article was dry. There’s a time and place for everything. This was a phone interview. New Journalism wasn’t called for.
A few months later, a reporter at NPR stumbled across it and tweeted “Missed this profile of Texas legend Terry Allen when it published last year. If you’re a fan, you’ll love. Otherwise, read it and discover one of the true great songwriters ever.”
I thought that was the coolest thing. It wasn’t because it was my article, it was because someone was bringing recognition to the person whose music means the most to me in life. That’s the goal: get other people to discover the music that has had a great impact on you.
If you’re going to be a music journalist, you have to make sure that you’re doing it sincerely. It’s a selfless endeavor. It isn’t about you. For the most part, no one reads a by-line. Your name doesn’t carry much weight until you’re an established writer. Now that I have a book, people in the Texas Music community know who I am. That’s about it. I’m pretty obscure so I was a bit surprised when Raghad reached out to me to do this. I come to find out she has excellent taste in music.
Last year I visited Los Angeles for the first time since I moved to Buffalo. I was at a gig, and my friend introduced me to the editor of a big (who cares?) magazine. He thought we’d have things in common.
“Are you a musician?” said editor asks. I thought What does that have to do with anything? “Yeah, I play bass,” I say. “When you talk to a musician, tell them you’re one, they’ll relate to you. I became a music journalist because I’m a songwriter. It was a way for me to talk to songwriters.”
That is the exact wrong reason to become a music journalist. “Who have you interviewed?” he asks. “Guy Clark. The Texas guys. I just did a feature on Terry Allen.” “Well I’ve interviewed, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Paul Simon….” The name dropping wouldn’t stop. You don’t interview someone because they are a name. It’s not bragging rights. I guess this guy thought the people I interviewed were chumps. When I told him I did the feature on Terry Allen, he disregarded it. Not a name. But that’s the person I’m most proud to say I wrote about. Someone not a lot of people outside of Texas have heard of.
I’ve never encountered a songwriter who took interest in my writing. It doesn’t happen. You’ll go through life not knowing if anyone read it. Terry Allen is the example of how to be in life. He’s the exception, and I remember when he said he admired my writing, I was a bit in shock, I thought, Wait, he said that? He’s more cutting edge than anyone I can think of. Pushes boundaries, always himself. I admire that. I try to be the same way. Why did he say he admired my writing? Because of my writing.
I just interviewed him for the daring article (zine) I wrote about Wayne Hancock. When I sent it I thought, This is out-there. It was, so I knew he’d get it. He had nothing but kind words to say. You don’t earn respect by being afraid. You have to be fearless.
He put it quite well one time when I’d interviewed him, “What moves you about someone’s work,” he said, “is the courage they bring to it. The honesty they bring to it. The ability or skill they bring to it. The intelligence of doing something that you never thought of. When you look at something and say Shit! I wished I would have thought of that. That’s what motivates you to take those things into your work, to give you courage in your own work and make you push your own ideas.”
The day I got the encouraging email about my out-there article, I had a moment that made me realize that was most meaningful part of my career. That the person whose art I most respect respects mine. I thought a publishing deal would be my biggest accomplishment. Not the case.
In talking about it to my husband, I was fairly emotional. I said, “I just can’t believe this. The guy who I look up to most, who inspires me, whose music means so much to me, he takes the time to read my writing? Why? No one else would do that. He cares about my writing? Treats me like a peer, encourages me? Why?” “Because of your writing,” my husband says.
That’s the goal. Be as good of a writer as you can be. Don’t go into it thinking that someone’s going to help you. You have to have initiative, and do it on your own. If you’re a good writer, people will take notice. If you’re going to be a music journalist, make sure that music informs what you do, that you’re passionate about it, and put the work in. Otherwise, find something else to do.
Wayne Hancock: Thunderstorms and Neon Signs
Waylon Jennings: Honky Tonk Heroes
Billy Joe Shaver: Old Five and Dimers Like Me
Dale Watson: Cheatin’ Heart Attack
Courtney S Lennon is the Founder and Editor of TJ Music Magazine, a No Depression, Lone Star Music Magazine and Texas Music Magazine contributor. She has written features on the likes of Ryan Bingham, Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Dale Watson, and Wanda Jackson to list a few. Lennon is currently working on an upcoming book ‘Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver’ a showcase outlining Texas legend Billy Joe Shaver’s life in music narrated by Shaver’s friends and peers in the music industry.