I have been asked over the years how I wrote “Maybe It Was Memphis” and have told the story many times. The song has been analyzed in a songwriting book, How To Write A Hit Song by Molly-Ann Leikin, written about in others, like Chicken Soup for the Soul – Country Music, and I have told the story of the circumstances of how it was written many times in interviews and articles.
But for this article I was asked how I actually wrote the song – and I inferred that meant technically since that is what this column is about.
I wrote “Maybe It Was Memphis” on my first trip to Nashville from Los Angeles in 1983. The circumstances have been detailed many times and probably best in the Chicken Soup for the Soul – Country Music book. So I won’t go into detail, but to recap briefly the story in the song happened just like the lyric – in that sense it wrote itself. I had gone to Nashville and been taken by Southern charm – the city, the atmosphere, and a girl. I had just signed my first publishing deal, I was closing in on my first record deal, and I was writing and performing, recording and working all the time. I had gone to Nashville to explore the country music capitol and to see about working there.
Country music had been an influence on me my whole life – I was born white trash – (long boring story) – I had the pedigree. I was country without trying. Rock was my main music – but country and R&B were ever present in Grand Rapids and Detroit.
I was very serious about being a songwriter and I wanted to write something in Nashville. I started the song in the dark, unairconditioned guesthouse I was staying in – a songwriter had lived there. There was a guitar and a piano and a lot of old country hit song “how to” books. I started playing around with some of the chord progressions I found in there (stole from there) and fell into a feel that I had always liked – that slow, bluesy, Delta “D” chord with a pull on the “C” – very swampy and humid – fit perfectly the atmosphere of the city that hot Indian summer. That is the key I wrote it in and I still perform it in. It was changed for Pam Tillis’ voice in the hit.
That riff started it – it felt right. I have written many songs that way – a musical riff leading to everything else. I also worked the melody out on the piano – note for single note (I can’t play piano) – one of the only times I have ever done that (note to self…).
The lyric was a straight reading of what was happening. The opening verse was just describing in detail the magic of a Southern summer night and telling the story of the girl. (Her name was Bronwyn – for some reason I remember her being from New Orleans – that may be fiction). I wrote the first verse first.
Over the next few days I had various ideas on the song – I wrote and / or worked on at least three other songs then between the times I started and finished “Memphis…” I believe I wrote the last verse soon after the first verse – may have been the same night - and I knew it was the last verse. I didn’t want the standard “happy ever after” storyline – and I couldn’t see it ending badly – so I left it open – just the way it was. I imagined myself back in LA remembering it all and just wrote that.
Sometime within the next few days as I was leaving her place late at night I remember walking down the steps of the porch and wondering if everything I was feeling was just because I was in Nashville – I remember saying to myself “Maybe it’s just Nashville” – and then I thought that was a good hook / title – but it wasn’t very romantic and I had learned an unwritten rule of writing in Nashville was to never write about Nashville (just like country songs are never written about New York City or Chicago). I immediately ran through a list of cities in my head and I had always romanticized Memphis – Elvis, blues, Southern, independent, - phonetically it really sang well. Didn’t matter to me that I had never been in Memphis at that time (ended up spending a lot of time there later) – the song, in my mind, was now “Maybe It Was Memphis.”
I had everything at that point except the second verse. I convince my publisher to pay for demoing the song in Nashville rather than waiting to get back to LA – I knew it was special and I wanted that “Nashville” sauce on the recording. We set up a recording date and I still didn’t have a second verse. I didn’t tell my publisher that.
The night before the session I decided to just write a filler verse and then I would record it that way and change it when I got back to LA. So I made up some stuff about Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and country love songs (“summer night beauty took my breath away” was directly from “Southern Summer Nights” by Glen Campbell and one of the song books – never even liked that song but the concept worked in context). I recorded it the next day and never changed the verse.
That verse has gone on to be the most frequently quoted to me as a favorite. For me it was a vibe I didn’t think anyone would ever get.
I played the song in my set – always liked it. But everyone said it was too country for rock and too rock for country. I didn’t even record it on my first album (which was ironically enough, recorded in Memphis).
It was a hit for Pam Tillis almost 10 years later (and that is a whole other story).
You can contact Michael Anderson at michaelanderson.com and hear his version of “Maybe It Was Memphis” on YouTube