GP’s songwriting-themed issue coincided with my being in New Orleans to cover the 49th annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, so it was an awesome opportunity to connect with top regional players about the art of acoustic songwriting.
Tab Benoit is best known as a spitfire bluesman, but the Houma, Louisiana, resident is also a true bard of the bayou, as well as the head of a new label appropriately dubbed, “Whiskey Bayou Records.” Anders Osborne is easily one of the most respected songwriters in New Orleans. He originally hails from Sweden, but he has been in the Big Easy for so long—and embodies the region’s distinct musical dialect—that he’s sought out for songs and collaborations by NOLA stars such as Trombone Shorty and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, as well as artists ranging from Keb’ Mo’ to Tim McGraw. North Mississippi Allstars frontman Luther Dickinson is also a former Black Crowe, as well as a sought-after producer who took the Honey Island Swamp Band under his wing for its latest release, Demolition Day. The group has won Best Roots Rock Artist honors multiple times in the respected New Orleans publication Offbeat, and most of the band’s Bayou Americana tunes come courtesy of lead guitarist Chris Mulé and rhythm guitarist/mandolin player Aaron Wilkinson.
Do you choose the acoustic or an electric when using the guitar as a songwriting tool?
Osborne: I write almost exclusively on acoustic guitars—even the rockers. I love the organic feel and intimate relationship I have with my acoustic guitars. The capo might be my best friend.
Dickinson: My whole relationship with the guitar is acoustic-based. Even my electric approach is about trying to make a fingerpicked semi-hollow Gibson with humbuckers played through a powerful tube amp respond like an acoustic guitar. That can be tricky, but turning the guitar’s volume down, and using a higher action helps.
Wilkinson: I play the mandolin a lot, but acoustic guitar is my main songwriting tool. It has great range, and it’s better for feeling out different keys for vocals. The first key you try is often not the best one. You might start in G, only to find the melody you hear in your head is a little high, so you move it down a bit to F or E.
Mulé: Even though I play mostly electric onstage, the only time I play my stage guitars at home is for practicing to improve on specific parts. Otherwise, I only play acoustically, and I write all my songs on acoustic.
Benoit: Right. The thing I like most about the acoustic guitar is convenience. You don’t have to plug anything in. I always have an acoustic nearby in case an idea strikes.
What acoustic have you written the most songs on?
Osborne: I’ve written the most songs on a 1963 Gibson J-45, and I’ve used it to record lots of them, as well. The J-45 is my close friend, and it’s warm and mellow sounding. I play a Yamaha LL26 onstage, because it’s perfectly consistent and smooth with a strong attack and a brighter tone that works well in a live setting.
Dickinson: I have a few Harmony acoustics that I love. The old wood on those is so light, they feel like tumbleweeds. My solo records are all-acoustic, and you can hear my Harmony guitars on them, sometimes with a magnetic DeArmond in the soundhole. The pickup Elmore James and Lightnin’ Hopkins used has not been improved upon.
Benoit: I don’t have a lot of acoustic guitars. The one I always wind up taking along for writing songs is a 1946 Gibson that’s a little smaller than a dreadnought. It has that old porch kind of sound, and it’s one of the loudest acoustic guitars I’ve ever played. I don’t know the official model—Gibson didn’t put serial numbers on guitars at that time—but I can tell the model year by the writing on the headstock, and the sunburst. Somebody refinished the top because it had started cracking. That stripped the collector’s value out of it, which is good for me, because I don’t want it as a collector—I want it as a player.
Mulé: Every player needs a beater acoustic for songwriting at the beach or a campground. I’ve had every kind of inexpensive acoustic from Alvarez to Takamine. My current beater is a really old National resonator that I leave out of the case lying around the house all the time.
Wilkinson: Your only acoustic can’t be the $5,000 guitar hanging on your wall, because you won’t ever play it. You’ve got to have something inexpensive and comfortable enough to bring with you, because when you are inspired to write something, you need the guitar right then. My beater is my former stage guitar—an old Epiphone acoustic-electric with a built-in Fishman pickup. The pickup died, so it became useless onstage, but it still sounds fine unamplified—even though I haven’t changed the strings in 15 years. I actually keep the Epiphone in my closet next to my dirty laundry pile [laughs].
What are your tuning preferences when it comes to writing new stuff?
Dickinson: When I am in the writing zone, I’ll have all of my acoustics spread out around me, each in a different tuning. I love open C tuned like open E, but down two steps [low to high: C, G, C, E, G, C], open G with a low C on the 6th string [low to high: C, G, D, G, B, D], open F—which is simply open G tuned down a step—DADGAD, dropped D, and standard tuned down a half or a whole step. I also love nylon-string guitars, and using flatwounds on a steel-string guitar. They’re all colors in the palatte.
Osborne: I also like having four to five different guitars from different makers and years in various tunings set up around me, allowing the personalities of the instruments to guide me, as well as the tunings. I use anything and everything—from standard to open E, open A, and dropped D—whatever suits the tune. Open D is wonderful, because it can sound huge, and it’s also romantically folky.
Wilkinson: I have an old Hohner that I love, but the neck started bending inwards over time. It would cost more than it’s worth to fix it, so, to your point, I leave that one in open D. It’s good for slide, because the action is so high. It’s not good for anything else, but it’s cool for that.
Mulé: I use anything and everything when it comes to tunings.
Benoit: I never mess with open tunings. Everything I do is in standard.
Where and when do you write most?
Osborne: I love writing, so I’m bound to do it anywhere—including all over my house and backyard, as well the tour bus. Ideas for songs come on airplanes, too. I’m usually most inspired in the morning and mid afternoon, and mostly when I’m alone.
Dickinson: I write alone at home, or with the kids hanging around. Sometimes, I’ll write stuff at soundcheck when I’m touring with the band.
Wilkinson: I write almost all of my songs in my head when I’m driving my car. I sing them into my phone. If you do it enough, the melody and the chords start to come at the same time. You hear the melody, and you intuitively know what the chords are.
Mulé: My songs usually come when I’m thinking about something else. I’m not trying to do it. But if you like an idea, sit down, and hash it out right then if you can. Mine come at weird times. Sometimes, it’s when I’m driving, but also when I’m dreaming. If you wake up out of a dream with a song in your head, you’ve got to work on it before it fades, so you need a digital recorder that you bring everywhere. I don’t like to use my phone, because I had one that stopped charging all of a sudden, and I lost an epic poem I’d written when the phone died. I carry around a little Zoom recorder specifically for songs.
Benoit: I don’t do a lot of writing in buildings. I like to write where there are no people. Most of my songs are written when I’m on a boat with an acoustic in a swamp among the cypress trees. I usually go by myself, but I’ve brought other people out there for collaboration—including Anders. There’s a certain inspiration in the atmosphere out there that a player can’t find anywhere else. Plus, the acoustic guitar is such a natural-sounding instrument that when you start playing and singing on the swamp, the frogs start humming and singing along [laughs]. I took Dan Rather out on the boat when he was doing a story on me. I brought him to the spot were I wrote “When a Cajun Man Gets the Blues,” and when I started playing and singing it he said, “Wow, who cued the frogs!”
I might write at any time, but dawn and dusk are particularly inspirational—right in the transition when the light gets good. Photographers love that time, too. Everything starts amping up in the morning in most places, but in the swamp, everything amps up when the sun starts going down, because swamp things hunt at night.
Mulé: When Aaron and I first started working together, it was more like one or the other would have a song, and the other would learn it. We collaborate a lot more nowadays.
Wilkinson: Now it’s more like, “I’ve got half a song—you finish it.” That’s a good thing for songwriters to do intentionally. The next level of songwriting is when you don’t feel like you have to finish it yourself. Walk into a situation with most of an idea, and let someone else handle that last bit. You wind up with a fresh perspective on your song, and something more than if you would have done it alone.
Mulé: You really have to trust your songwriting partner if you’re going to have one.
What do you feel is your best acoustic-guitar song?
Osborne: I don’t generally grade my songs, so I can’t answer that.
Dickinson: I play “Blind Lemon and the Hook Man” from my acoustic-instrumental album Hambone’s Meditations at most gigs. I simply love the song.
Wilkinson: “Nadine” is a good bluegrass-y thing that we did on our first album.
Benoit: I have one acoustic track on just about every record. On Medicine, there’s a song called “Long Lonely Bayou” that I wrote to play with Michael Doucet. He’s the fiddle player from BeauSoleil, and one of the most famous traditional Cajun musicians alive. A lot of Cajun songs are based on basic open chords, but most fiddle players I’ve talked to hate to play in the key of E—especially E minor. But Michael told me that he loved it, so I said, “I’m going to write a song in E minor so I can have you play something with me in that key.” “Long Lonely Bayou” is the song that came out, and it does make an eerie sound when his fiddle starts playing along. The visual that sound creates is a bayou with dark water winding through the cypress trees with moss hanging down. You can almost smell it when you hear it.