Take a left turn at the second verse

The first chance I ever had to play one of my songs for a genuine publisher from Nashville I was told, in a kindly way, that the song was boring because the second verse said the same thing as the first verse. It was a song I really liked, and I decided he was just wrong. Then another song got the same comment from a NSAI critique, and I realized that the second verse might be a real problem. It turns out that it is a notorious problem; one you hear about at lots of writing workshops.

So how do you deal with the second verse problem. There are lots of things you must do, but what I’ve done is look at some of the top ten country singles during the last week of November, 2011 to see what kinds of strategies they use for dealing with the 2nd verse.

No. 1 is “Country Must Be Country Wide” by Thomas Dekle, Coit Ford and Brantley Gilbert. The first verse proves the hook based on a conventional idea of “country” – boots and a truck. The second verse expands the idea of what is “country” based on the hook. If country is country wide, then it must be something more than clothes that makes you country. “It ain’t where it’s how you live” suggests that if you are decent, honorable and generous you are country, no matter what you wear. A schematic would go like this:  verse 1 has an observation (folks all over the country wear boots), the hook/chorus is a conclusion from that observation (country must be country wide), and then verse 2 has a further conclusion based on the hook (if country is country wide, it must be more than just wearing boots). I’m going to call this a “prove the hook / follow the hook” strategy for dealing with the first and second verses.

No. 3 “Baggage Claim” does things a little differently, with the second verse answering a question posed by the first verse. Verse 1 tells us that the singer’s man is worthless baggage just like his suitcase, which the singer has been dragging around for him as he goes on a business trip. In the chorus we learn that the singer is fed up with the man, and the idea of baggage expands from a suitcase to everything he owns, all of which is out on the lawn. Verse 2 goes backward to explain how the singer got to where she is – she’s found out about the other woman. I call this a “where we are / how we got there” strategy.

No. 4 “Keep me in mind” is a straight forward I’m a man on the road and so I keep leaving and coming back woman but I’m worth it song. Verse 1 tells us that the singer is interested in the woman. Verse 2 lets us know this has been going on for awhile. Verse 3 suggests that the man might actually give up his roving lifestyle for this woman, which doesn’t seem very likely to be the truth. It’s a lot like the strategy in Baggage Claim – verse 1 starts with the present and verse 2 moves to the past.

No. 6 “God Gave Me You” is a pretty typical “I’m a wretch and I really need you baby” song. Verse 1 is about the singer, verse 2 is a lot of compliments about his woman. Call it “its about me / its about you” which works for this kind of song.

No. 7 “Easy” adopts a really simple strategy for making verse 2 different – have it sung by a different person. The sad misunderstanding between lovers adapts itself perfectly to “my point of view” and “my point of view”  In fact, the whole point is that verse 1 and verse 2 are pretty much the same.

No. 8 “I Got You” is another love song, but the singer isn’t a lucky wretch but just a lucky guy. Verse 1 revolves around the idea of what’s got what. Car’s got gas, crops got rain, you’ve got me. It sets up the hook, which is “I got you.” Verse 2 looks at the hook from the opposite direction. If I’ve got you, what else do I need? Nothing. In some ways it is like Country Must be Country Wide – go to the hook then follow the hook.

If you’re not bored with this by now, I am, so how about a summary of strategies for the second verse:

(a) go to the hook, follow the hook (b) show the present, go to the past to explain it. (c) this is me, this is you. (d) my view of things, your view of things (especially where you sings her own part).

these strategies won’t make a song great, or even good, but they can give a start on a second verse that doesn’t just repeat the first.

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