Writing and Rewriting "She's In Love With The Boy"

Jon Ims is a superb craftsman and a wonderful teacher. His song, "She's in Love With the Boy" was the breakout hit single for a Nashville demo singer named Trisha Yearwood. It introduced her to the world and established her career. Breakout singles are the hardest to select. There's a lot of promotion money riding on them and the choice has to be a good one. The industry is littered with the broken bones of careers that, once hopeful, simply died when the first single tanked and the record company decided maybe the artist wasn't as exciting to the public as the company thought. The combination of the song and artist was inspired.

The song was a combination of inspiration and hard work. By his count, Jon rewrote the song about thirty-two times. I called him and asked if he'd contribute his writing and rewriting experiences to this chapter and he graciously agreed. Though there are many, many ways to go about writing successful songs, this is a great lesson, both in terms of a broad process and specific techniques he used to put it together, his understanding of what was needed to make it work, and the determination to continue to re-write it 'til it was as good as it could be. Was it worth the work? It's now in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The song was born from the quirky first phrase "Katie's sittin' on the old front porch watchin' the chickens peck the ground." It just popped out one day while I was fishing around for song ideas. I quickly wrote it down then I sat and stared at it for a good amount of time while I fooled around on the guitar and drum machine looking for something simple and catchy that fit the phrasing.

I found a nice little guitar groove and a punchy drum setting after a while and began to explore some chord changes. Still no further lyric was presenting itself. When I got tired of staring and waiting for divine intervention to inspire me with the next line I decided to use a "clustering" technique. I took the words Katie, front porch, chickens, and peck the ground, and put each of them in the center of their own separate blank legal pad page. The idea was to splay out strings of words or phrases from the central word and take any associations that came up without prejudice. One word would lead to another and pretty soon I'd be in "the zone" where I was no longer thinking with the left brain but automatically writing the next thing that popped into my head. Just spilling it all out. I then went from one page to the other writing down whatever happened to show up.

Katie was a character, so my mind flew over every aspect of who she might be, what she might be into, and what images inhabited her world. The "Katie Zone." Porch was a location, so I soon found myself jotting down memories from the farm I was born on back in Pennsylvania. Soon the page was filled with smells, sounds, and pictures from my childhood. Watchin' the chickens peck the ground brought forth all the things on that farm that lived and moved, including Dad's beat up Chevy truck. I was then immersed in memories of the old Ims place on Town Line Road. In addition, peck the ground was a little more complex because it implied an attitude: boredom. And it recalled for me colloquial phrases that I'd grown up with. I made a long list of those, including short end of the stick and he ain't worth a lick. My writing tablet was now filled with pages of jottings held together by a very loose but common thread.

While all this was going on, pictures were forming in my head. I began to see a young female character with likes, dislikes, and motivations along with a number of vivid small town locations. And I knew she was bored. What would perk her up? Was she waiting for someone? My imagination was kicking into gear. I was getting somewhere without even having written the second line to the song.

Before long, I was developing a story and writing lines using the technique of opposites. What's the opposite of boredom? Action. Who might be the opposite of Katie? Tommy. Okay, let me introduce Tommy in an opposite of boredom, like "layin' on the horn splashin' through the mud and the muck." That'll work. My dad used to say muck a lot. What a word. You can almost sink your hands into it.

Next came the dilemma of plot. If this was going to be a story, which is what it felt like it was becoming, it was time to take these characters somewhere—have something happen. The plot, like all good stories, had to create tension. There had to be a conflict. Conflict is created by opposites. Can you tell my mother was an English teacher? What's the opposite of Katie and Tommy? Who could be opposed to them? Dad. So I decided to take them on a date and have her dad be less than enthusiastic about it.

At this point I realized that the form of the song had to be established before I could go any further and it was time to make a "song map." I decided that the story within the song would take place in the verses, the plot would be made evident in the lift sections, and the resolution to the plot would take place in the chorus. The music, although remaining simple, would also have to differ slightly from section to section. For example, I chose one minor chord to be placed in the verses and another to fit the chorus. Little things. The song's melodic peak would also occur at the title line. That is, assuming I would find a title.

I also decided at this point that the characters would be most effectively brought to life if I quoted them and that the narrator would let us in on what Katie's feelings were.

Soon the story was developing and moving through time, the plot was thickening, and each section had a cool little guitar riff to accompany it. The lyric, although not perfect, was shaping up and I knew that there would be time later to edit through it all and spruce up the action verbs, cut out the words that were clunking up the flow, check the rhyme schemes, make sure the melody was falling on the right words, etc.

That's when I got stuck.

I didn't have a clue as to how to resolve the plot in a way that was interesting. I liked the characters, there was definitely a clash between Katie and Tommy and Dad. But where should I go with it? Everything I could think of was a cliché—the same old same old. I was determined not to go there. This song had a great energy and I didn't want to sacrifice it to the god of mediocrity. I decided to sleep on it. Literally. I had been working all day and was fried. Just before I turned in, I stood up and looked at all those pages lying there and decided it needed more focus. What was the point of this story? What was the bottom line? It was simple. Katie was in love with Tommy. So I wrote She's in Love With the Boy in thick black magic marker on a piece of paper and stood it up on end like a tent in the middle of it all. I had titled my table. Then I went to bed.

At some point during my Alpha state early the next morning, I was lying in bed hearing the guitar chords and floating through a random stream of old memories when I suddenly hit upon a memory that shot me right out of bed and back to the writing table.

When I was nineteen and in college, I dated a cute blond high school senior named Lynn whose dad didn't approve of me because I was older (by two years), had long hair, and was in a rock band. Each time I'd pick her up to go out I was reminded sternly that she had a curfew and that I might look more presentable if I got my hair cut. As it happened, one night the band was playing at a huge party in a barn out in the middle of nowhere. The place was going crazy. The host kept asking for one more song, one thing led to another, and before I knew it we were about an hour late getting back. Big mistake. When we finally arrived, her dad sat me down and started reading me the riot act. I was getting an earful when suddenly slipping down the stairs in curlers and a housecoat was Lynn's mother. She began to defend me and in the course of doing so mentioned that when she and he were dating years before that her father didn't approve of him either. And that the present situation was a mirror of that experience. And could he lighten up a little and see some of himself in me. That statement took the steam out of him and led to us reconcile our differences over coffee in the kitchen.

And here I was years later realizing that was what the song was about. I had been writing it unconsciously up to this point but now the songs' pivotal moment was rushing out of this old memory. Time to get back to work.

There was a lot to cover in the last verse. First, I had to get rid of the pacing technique I had employed in the earlier verses where a line was followed by a support line that further explained the previous one (as songwriter Harlan Howard said, "Tell 'em, then tell 'em that ya told 'em"). Now, each line had to further the point. The song was picking up momentum.

I carefully crafted the last verse section using quotes in the exchanges between characters along with more of the colloquial phrases I had clustered the day before. The lift was now given to the mother and had the responsibility of turning the tables on Dad to complete the plot twist. When the final chorus kicked in it would now apply to both Katie and Tommy and Mom and Dad. The moral of the story: "Let he who hasn't sinned cast the first stone," would be shown rather than told ("show, don't tell"). I wrote and rewrote this last section for hours to find the right order of lyric unfoldment, and the right amount of syllables and stresses so it would sing well. It had to rock and make sense at the same time. Have I mentioned that I love rewriting? I also take it for granted. Nobody is a genius all at once.

After putting the song through the performance test at various gigs, I realized that I needed a grand statement at the end to encapsulate the whole story. That's when I again recalled Harlan Howard's words and decided to "tell 'em" again. This took about a weeks' worth of cocktail napkins with scribbled phrases unloaded from jeans pockets the morning after until I finally settled on "What's meant to be will always find a way."

And that statement is as true for the sentiment of the song as it is as for the song itself because it has certainly found its way and changed the lives of both Trisha Yearwood and myself in many ways. And all because of a little phrase that jumped out of my head about chickens pecking the ground.

Go figure.

I'd like to point out a few things that make Jon's song work so beautifully.

Structure: ABC ABC ABC (verse/pre-chorus/chorus verse/pre-chorus/chorus verse/pre-chorus/chorus). He extends the chorus at the end, reiterating his "What's meant to be . . ." philosophy. He doesn't need a bridge because there's enough melodic contrast with the three sections.

The song, though it's well fleshed out and clocks in at close to four minutes, has plenty of sectional contrast and doesn't seem too long, because the story holds our interest. He changed the lyric in the last pre-chorus and found a brilliant way to highlight a pivotal story change while still using nearly all the content of the previous pre-chorus' first two lines.

Chorus: Lots of hook repetition. No way to forget the title. If you remember the melody you'll recall that instead of filling the space between the hook repetitions with lyric, he used a one-bar guitar riff to fill it in and it becomes part of the song. Also note that the last line of the pre-chorus in each case changes phrasing and melody enough to telegraph that the chorus has arrived. In a story song with this much lyric it's a good idea to get as spare as you can in the chorus. Keep it simple!

The dialogue is utterly believable and brings these characters to life. The line "When it comes to brains . . ." is one that every country fan is probably familiar with. And I love the way Katie's father refers to Tommy as "junior." It's just the right tone of intimidation and depersonalization and sets up a great contrast when the mother starts to take him to task. And she does it in a way that only a wife who's been through these battles many times has learned to do. She's the ultimate diplomat when she says "Katie looks at Tommy like I still look at you" directly after she tells him he's wrong. A brilliant piece of dialogue that rings so true. The line "Katie looks at . . ." is also a great emotional setup for the "She's in love with the boy" hook.

There's another element here that, in fact, I learned from Jon when we co-taught a seminar in Massachusetts a few years ago. You need to maintain a "consistent level of specificity." Notice that it's not just a front porch, it's an "old" front porch. The fact that it's been there a while is important. It's not only a "beat up" truck. It's a beat up "Chevy" truck. It's not just a movie, but a "drive-in" movie, and they're not just parked, they're in the "very last row." They didn't just come home, they were "sneaking" up the walk and daddy wasn't just waiting up, he was waiting 'til "half past twelve." Consistent specific detail.

This is the kind of writing and rewriting that's worth spending the time on.

John Braheny — This is an excerpt used with permission from Johns best-selling book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting, (3rd edition). He's a top consultant for songwriters and music entrepreneurs. Check out his site at


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