On the Ranch with Lubbock’s Brightest Songwriters

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ey y'all, shut the hell up. This song is amazing," says William Clark Green as he goes into a solemn version of Guy Clark's "Cold Dog Soup." It's nearly 3 AM and he's surrounded by some of Lubbock's best singer-songwriters. Some are long established. Others, they're up-and-comers. All of them though, form a promising crop of storytelling voices in the latest wave of The Lubbock Sound.

The acoustic guitar Green's playing, it's being passed around a flickering campfire. A handle of whiskey that isn't too far behind. It's making its' rounds as well. Green finishes and hands it off to whoever's next in line. They've been trading Clark covers, stories and jokes for the last few hours. At times, only the howling wind and the crackling of firewood are louder than the songs being played. At others, the group spurs into roaring singalongs. Daniel Markham, a garage rocker who now lives in Denton, leads them into Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places. (And yes, he includes the all too important third verse.)" They may as well be Peter Pan's Lost Boys.

For the moment, that campfire may as well as be the center of the universe.

The songwriters gather as they arrive at Melody Mountain Ranch.

The New Lubbock Sound

There's always been this innate bond between Lubbock musicians and songwriters. For this newer bunch, they can all trace their roots back to The Blue Light Live on Buddy Holly Ave. For the better part of 20 years, it's been the epicenter for Lubbock, Panhandle and at times, Texas music. Despite not having the shine, population or catchy bumper sticker slogans like other Texas towns, Lubbock's steadily churned out some of the state's best. Many of them, they've matured as songwriters inside the walls of The Blue Light, frequently honing their craft on Monday's Songwriter Night.

In February of 2016, Green asked me for a roster of songwriters I knew from Lubbock. Names, numbers and emails. That October, the first 806 Songwriter Retreat happened at Larry Joe Taylor's Melody Mountain Ranch. Joining Green, the unofficial leader of the clan, were songwriters Josh Abbott, Brandon Adams, Charlie Shafter, Dalton Domino, Cleto Cordero of Flatland Cavalry, Randall King, Charlie Stout and Benton Leachman.

It took a rugged kinship and put a name to it—Eight Zero Six, named after the Texas Panhandle's spacious area code.

Nearly a dozen songs are written in the two-day span. A year later, four have been recorded, "I'm Your Only Flaw" by Abbott and Cordero for Abbott's Until My Voice Goes Out, "Drunk Again" by Green and Adams and "Poor" by Green, Adams and Domino for Green's upcoming Hebert Island, and "Mirror, Mirror" by King and Adams for King's upcoming full-length.

For this year's retreat, a handful of additional Lubbock songwriters join the fold, the aforementioned Markham, Wade Parks, Ross Cooper and Grant Gilbert. With the exception of Domino, everyone from last year's group is able to make it back.

William Clark Green, Josh Abbott, Charlie Stout and Ross Cooper share a freshly finished song.

Songwriting and storytelling

There's a moleskin of jotted down ideas, lines and half-finished songs balanced on Cordero's knee. In front, there's a legal pad of even more. Some lines are scratched out. Others are moved with arrows pointing further down the page.

Abbott and Cooper are sitting next to him, guitars in their laps, with very much the same setup. They're talking it out. It's a discussion about the direction of the song, and ultimately, what they're trying to say with it. There are pauses where all are looking at their notepads, jotting down this and that, not saying a word. Cooper plays through what they have. Cordero does the same. It's slightly different.

This is what songwriting actually looks like. It's very much the same at other camps of co-writes happening across the ranch. Adams and Gilbert are located under a patio. Adams, a grizzled veteran, and Gilbert, an up-and-comer who has just turned 21, are paired together. Markham and King are across the field shaping up a country drinking anthem. Inside at the bar, Green and Stout are writing about one of the most polarizing subjects in Texas: Chili. Specifically, if beans have any place in chili.

Grant Gilbert and Brandon Adams share ideas at the ranch's small stage.

"We were going to write about something else," says Green. "But we ended up talking about Kent Finlay. From there, it was on to one of Kent's rules. You don't put beans in chili." Finlay, the late owner of San Marcos' historic Cheatham Street Warehouse and songwriter, has been an integral influence for a bevy of Texas artists over the years, none more so than on Green and Stout. They take the mantra, "Don't you put no beans in my chili," and run with it. It ends up somewhere around Guy Clark's "Texas Cookin'." Echoes of laughter pour out the door with each line taking shape.

Later that day while Green's leading the charge on cooking up steak fajitas, Cooper, Parks, and Adams venture off and write a tune called "Headed Up the Hill." Cooper, who currently lives in Nashville, has been looking for an opportunity to grab Parks and Adams for the Mexican border tale. He's held the idea for a while now. He's finally getting to scratch that itch. Parks, who's fluent in Spanish, shares his insight. Meanwhile, Abbott and Gilbert will also write up a song called "Denying Desires," an almost surefire hit for the pair. It'll most likely end up on Gilbert's first full-length record this next year.

William Clark Green, Charlie Shafter, Josh Abbott, Benton Leachman and Ross Cooper cook steaks on night one.


For the sake of the song

It's not just trading lines that rhyme and calling it good. It's not verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, done. Nothing is as simple as it seems. A lot of it, it's figuring out what to say and why. Then, finding out how. "We have to show more and tell less," says Cooper.

You see these moments of clarity. Their eyes brighten. There's excitement in their voices. A flash of genius. They rush to write it down before it leaves them. It's "a-ha!" moments followed by questions that need to be resolved for songs to actually work. Those questions, they'll get answered with time. As much as they'd love for each song to get recorded and become a fan favorite or staple of their shows, in that time writing, it's about the song and nothing else. The intentions are there. In that window, they're looking to find that high that comes from catching lightning in a bottle.

Ultimately, it's the love of songs that strengthens their bond. That's what it's about. It's the Lubbock way.

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