Conversations: Lee Black (Songwriter)

Black, LeeThis week we open up our interview chair again to allow another conversations feature with Southern Gospel industry songwriter, Lee Black.

Lee Black has risen to prominence over the course of the last several years co-writing many stand out tracks on artist albums.  Several include:  “Applause” (Talleys, co-writer Ben Storie), “Call Is Still The Same” (Dixie Melody Boys, co-writer Rodney Griffin), “Even In The Sorrow” (Mercy’s Well, co-writer Kenna Turner West), “Here Comes Sunday” (Wilburn & Wilburn, co-writer Jason Cox), “I Want To Be That Man” (Brian Free & Assurance, co-writer Ricky Free), “Voice In The Desert” (Freemans, co-writers Jason Cox and Kenna Turner West) among countless others.

Congratulations goes out to Lee for picking up two Dove Award nominations this week for co-writing Aaron & Amanda Crabb’s performance of “I’m Learning”.  It was nominated for song of the year and country song of the year.

Eaton:  Were you familiar with Southern Gospel music before having your songs pitched to Southern Gospel artists?

Black:  “Yes, I was.  It was definitely something I grew up on.  I would have to say I guess I have always been a fan of more progressive Southern Gospel than traditional.  Although I do like and appreciate traditional, I would lean toward the more inspo sounding southern.  I would still love to write a convention style song at some point – there’s not a single one in my catalog.  That sound fascinates me.”

Eaton:  If so, what were your earliest memories of Southern Gospel music?

Black:  “I grew up in southwest Alabama, and our ABC affiliate was out of Pensacola, Florida.  Every Sunday morning they aired the Gospel Singing Jubilee.  So my earliest memories of Southern Gospel are from that program – The Florida Boys, Dixie Echoes, The Happy Goodmans, Blackwood Brothers, groups like that.  I always wanted to get ready for Sunday School early to have time to watch that show.”

Eaton:  I noticed you do a lot of co-writing.  Is there any one songwriter you enjoy getting together with and crafting a song?

Black:  “I feel so blessed to write with the folks I regularly do – Kenna West, Jason Cox, Gina Boe, Sue Smith, Ricky Free, Tony Wood, Joel Lindsey, Belinda Smith, David Moffitt, Ben Storie.  I’m sure there’s somebody I’m not thinking of right now… but that group of folks… wow, I love getting together with each one of them.  Each one of them is so talented; and I count it a privilege every time I can write a song with one of them.  I think I wrote over a hundred songs last year and only one of those did I write by myself.  Every other song was a co-write.  I love that process of getting together with someone and tossing out ideas and lines and melodies and leaving a room with something that everybody is happy with.”

Eaton:  Where do you draw your creativity in determining a song’s message/direction?

Black:  “It comes from everywhere.  I feel like my songwriter antennae are always up.  I hear ideas in sermons at church, reading the Bible, conversations with people…. Everywhere.  My wife says she can always tell when I have checked out and started writing a song in my head… that I get that glazed look in my eyes and she knows…. that I’m there, but not really. 🙂  But I think songwriters are always listening for ideas, maybe not on purpose, just can’t help it.  I have a songwriting folder on my phone that I can get to quickly and type phrases into notepad and sing melody ideas into the voice recorder.”

Eaton:  Of all the songs you have written/co-written, which one is the most personal?  Which one is your favorite?

Black:  “I think every song I have written is personal.  At some point I think it has to be personal for you or your heart isn’t in it.  When we’re sitting in a co-write and begin tossing out ideas, of course I have a personal connection to the ideas I’m tossing out because the initial seed of the idea was something that tugged at my heart enough to write down.  But if we write my co-writer’s idea, it’s got to be personal for me in some way to want to spend the time chasing it.  I want everything I write to be honest for me.”

continued:  “As far as favorites go… I was talking to Ricky Free about this the other day.  We wrote a song a couple of years ago for a CCM artist.  That artist didn’t record it.  I can’t imagine any other artist recording it, but I absolutely love it.  I will listen to the demo every few weeks and just enjoy it myself!  Ha ha!  Sue Smith, Kenna West, and I wrote a song called I’ve Seen What He Can Do that Marty Raybon recorded.  It was just one of those times when there was a bunch of stuff going on in all of our lives and that song just felt like a gift given to us.  It’s still really special to me.  I wrote a hymn with Ross King last year called Because He Loved Me First.  I grew up on hymns and love the rich theology, lofty language, and structure.  And, again, it was just one of those days when I felt like we had been given a gift.  I wrote a song with Twila Labar called Backwoods Lullaby that was about where I grew up.  I can’t imagine anyone cutting it, but it’s important to me.  I’ve written songs for my wife and kids that will probably never be recorded by anyone, but I love them because I know where they came from.”

Eaton:  Has there been a time when you heard one of your songs recorded by an artist and it turned out totally different (in terms of arrangement/song delivery/tempo) than your initial vision of the song?

Black:  “Until a few weeks ago I would’ve said, “No… people usually stick pretty close to the demo.”  But Kenna, Jason Cox, and I wrote a song that Gordon Mote just recorded for his new record.  I really like our demo – it’s this fun shuffle thing.  But Gordon straightened it out and drove it.  And I LOVE it!!  It was the right call.”

Eaton:  Who are some of your songwriter heroes/mentors?

Black:  “Wow… I have so many.  The hymn writers – Fanny Crosby and the Wesley’s come to mind immediately.  The great American songbook writers like Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin and so many more.  I grew up playing the piano and loving Billy Joel and Lionel Richie.  David Foster.  The Gaithers.  When I really got into writing, I started studying the lyrics of Dave Clark, who was actually my first publisher and has opened so many doors for me.”

Eaton:  Do you do any songwriting outside the Christian music industry?

Black:  “I do.  I write some country music.  And just recently, I have branched out into some instrumental writing – the kind of production music that’s used in TV, film, and commercial underscoring.”

Eaton:  If you could give a brief bit of advice to an aspiring songwriter, what would it be?

Black:  “It would be to write and write and then write some more.  Don’t wait for inspiration; write until you find the inspiration.  I would say really study great songs and the songs that move you and analyze their lyrics and melodies.  You’ll typically find common patterns and themes that might help you in your own writing.  Read books on lyric writing.  Listen to beautiful melodies.  Feed your creative soul with poetry, great books, movies, sermons, and, etc.  Have a place and time set aside to write consistently.  Find people who will give you HONEST feedback and then have the guts to hear it.  You really do have to have a poet’s soul and a rhino’s hide if you’re gonna survive, because there will be a LOT of rejection.  Maybe that’s what makes the cuts SO sweet.  Sometimes I think people may see a writer’s name on ten songs and think those are the only ten they’ve written.  Chances are it took writing a hundred songs to get those ten cut.”

Eaton:  In closing, tell us a little bit about Lee Black, outside of songwriting.

Black:  “I am married to my best friend, Melissa.  We have four great kids – a 15-year-old girl, 14-year-old twin boys, and an 11-year-old girl.  I LOVE my family.  A great night for us is goofing off with a board game or sitting around watching something like Duck Dynasty on TV.  I’m a worship leader.  I love sitting at a piano and leading people in worship.  I’m a University of Alabama graduate and a Crimson Tide football fanatic – can’t wait for football season to start and hoping for another national championship.  Roll Tide!  And I read WAY too many southern gospel blogs.”  🙂

I want to thank Lee for stopping by for our conversations feature this week.  Here is a video of a Singing News song of the year nominee penned by Lee Black and Ricky Free of Brian Free and Assurance performing “I Want To Be That Man”.  Enjoy!

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2 thoughts on “Conversations: Lee Black (Songwriter)

  1. Thanks for this great interview. Good advice Lee, and I enjoyed hearing about your background. We share many of the same favorite writers/musicians. I know exactly what you mean about listening the demo over and over when a song gets rejected (that is, if the demo is any good!) Also love your description of the writer as needing to have “a poet’s soul and a rhino’s hide.” So true.

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