Which is why I did backflips when I received my coolest-ever assignment last week: The director of my former summer camp tapped me to write a sarcasm-free alma mater/theme song ("friendships deepen through years with thee/lasting 'til eternity," etc.) for a new camp set to open in the summer of 2008. By sheer happenstance, American Songwriter materialized in my mailbox a few hours later. Creative nourishment and a blatant column-opening bit in a single package? Sign me up.
I was gracious for the opportunity to reacquaint myself with American Songwriter, a title I studied religiously before realizing that I'm not, as they say in the music biz, "talented." Truthfully, I had little idea that it was still being published. I hadn't seen it on the newsstand or in my musician pals' bathrooms or anywhere else. I assumed it had quietly withered away, like Billy Squier.
The new American Songwriter -- it got bought and revamped a few years back -- is a distinctly different magazine from the one I remember. From a design perspective, the mag has charged into the 21st century, stuffing itself with photo-illustrations and fonts both thin and thick. For those who haven't seen the magazine in a while, American Songwriter trumpets its creative evolution on the cover of the May/June issue, which features an alluring pop-arty mockup of a Mandy Moore photo.
If you're thinking "Former teen tart Mandy Moore on the cover of a Nashville-based magazine for serious-minded practitioners of songcraft? What the...," you're not alone. That's my problem with the revitalized American Songwriter: it attempts to be two different magazines at once. One appeals to mainstream fans likely to give performers like Moore a second listen (read: people who buy stuff), while the other goes after music purists forever raging against "American Idol" (read: people who are too cool for the room, who don't).
Not surprisingly, American Songwriter struggles with its new half-identity. The first sentence of the extensive Moore piece is actually quite lovely -- "Her hair is somewhere between cordovan and claret, and falls in cascades beyond her shoulders" --but it clashes style- and subject-wise with most of the May/June content, like the sit-down with a "Dreamgirls" composer and the check-ins with roots-music mainstays like Paul Craft and Joe Ely. There's nothing that a magazine like American Songwriter can say about much-hyped newbies like Paolo Nutini that hasn't already been said hundreds of times elsewhere.
But when the mag sticks to its core mission, it positively sings. The "American Icons" piece on Jimmie Rodgers, the "Song Analyst" bit on Tom Waits' "Hold On" and the "Behind the Song" appreciation of "Once In My Life" offer wonderful insight into the songwriting process and are rendered with obvious passion. The magazine's smallest, most personal moments rank among its best, especially the wistful "Street Smarts" column about a long-ago songwriting collaboration. At the same time, the feature on "Music and Corporate Advertising" administers a booster shot of economic reality to fans quick to yelp "sellout!" whenever a band licenses one of its tunes for commercial purposes.
American Songwriter isn't always above such snobbery. The "Left Coast Lines" column, for example, revels in its extreme insiderishnessitude: "Advance copies delivered to select press members reveal a melodic song cycle coupled with extraordinary lyrical depth." Oooh, you got an ADVANCE COPY? Can I touch it? Can I smell it?
Also, American Songwriter's reviews occasionally stray into shill mode, like the strange mention of Academy of Country Music nominations at the end of a Miranda Lambert notice (I'm guessing somebody came up a little short on the ol' word count). Its guitar reviews, a rarity in a records-first music mag, have adopted a silly "jammin'" and "rockin'" rating scheme. And I wonder if it's wise to give winners of the mag's lyric contest significant real estate in the print edition. While I'm wowed by their nü-Spinal Tap moxie, couplets like "Across the River Styx a dark ferryman awaits/Pay your tariff and accept your soul's fate" don't belong within 600 pages of the aforementioned Jimmie Rodgers story.
But then, this comes from a guy who has spent the last eight days trying to come up with cogent rhymes for "sportsmanship" and "memories" and "furtive fumbling with a bra strap behind Bunk 8." It's all relative.