Grammy-winning children’s Americana folk artists The Okee Dokee Brothers, award-winning solo indie pop/rock artist Korby Lenker, and legendary country music singer and songwriter Whisperin’ Bill Anderson are all music makers who have made careers of songwriting. Compelled by storytelling, these artists have most comfortably navigated the world of notes and audiences. Each of them has recently found ways to tell stories on the pages of books as well. No publishing story is the same, but the unique nature of getting songwriters’ stories bound into books can teach every storyteller a thing or two about the power of collaboration.
Track 1: The Okee Dokee Brothers
The trees were littered with crudely hung ropes, the grassy lawn home to hand-crafted bows and arrows staged for the pair of young boys to run through with their stories and grab the purposefully placed props. Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing, aka The Okee Dokee Brothers, have been collaborating around stories since childhood. Collaboration defines them, and their efforts in songwriting, performing, and storytelling are why the pair are now authors as well.
“We loved to tap into imagination that entertains, to write our own stories in our heads,” Joe says. As kids growing up in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, the pair acted out timeless stories, made up new versions of age-old folktales, and lived in a world of their own making. Now, as Grammy-winning musicians of children’s folk songs, much of the recipe remains the same. They write songs that include reference to something outside, something mimicking a grander story, and always the two of them.
“It’s natural for people to think it would be easier to do this type of work alone, but we’ve always been proven wrong. It’s a better product when we put it through our creative relationship,” Joe says.
From the backyard games to a variety of musical stages and movie creations, the duo has shared their stories by offering their audiences a visual and musical experience. Some of the songs/stories that have been a part of their experience have finally found their way to the pages of a book, Can You Canoe? And Other Adventure Songs, a collection of songs from four song albums chronicling the pair’s adventures on a river, in the mountains, camping near lakes, and wandering around the world making new stories. It wasn’t the book The Okee Dokee Brothers initially proposed to publishers, however.
The pair has long shared an idea to rewrite the “happily ever after stories” into stories that end “simply ever after” instead. They sent the first manuscript of reworked folktales to a publisher, and the publisher counter-proposed with a two-book deal. They wanted to publish a book of their songs first and then publish the storybook manuscript.
Can You Canoe? provides a “one stop shop for what we’ve done over the last six years,” Joe says, and with compelling illustrations by Brandon Reese, the stories become something even more. “It told a story we couldn’t tell with just music. There are stories in each illustration and when lyrics are on a page you can study what the words mean. It’s a different way to consume stories.”
The book contains a CD and a map of where the two of them traveled and where they worked together to write each song/story. It’s a collaborative experience in life and on paper and one they hope to continue through songwriting, performing, storytelling, and book writing…together.
It will remain a collaborative venture. “In each creation,” Joe says, “the other one always makes it 100 percent better. We have a much better chance of connecting with people if we stick together.”
The Okee Dokee Brothers’ second book, Thousand Star Hotel, releases in spring 2017 and will continue the journey they began long ago…in a land not so far away.
Track 2: Korby Lenker
Korby Lenker wears striped socks and leaves car doors open overnight during snow storms. He improvises when he forgets his guitar strap and engages with the people who attend his small-venue gigs. Korby is a musician with stories. He also plans to be a novelist. He hopes to fashion himself in the likes of Tolstoy or Hemingway or Steinbeck. But until that happens… he plays music.
Korby is a bit of a solitary guy. Casual observers might go so far as to call him a loner. A self-proclaimed solo indie artist…it doesn’t get much more solitary than that. He travels around the world, touring alone, and he carries with him not much more than his instruments, something on which to write, and a suitcase filled with his CDs and his recently-released book of short stories. Seated on a chair in the center of the spotlight, he methodically strums out his stories and captivates his audience with recollections and reflections about life.
His fans know Korby is good for an interesting story. He has been a writer his entire life, sometimes writing stories and sometimes writing songs, but it’s always been about the writing.
“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Korby says. “I wanted to spend fifteen years touring and playing music and then I wanted to be a ‘real writer.’”
Originally an Idaho boy, Korby studied philosophy and music at Western Washington University, in what he calls an intense writing program. His band kept him mindful of his performing goals. He sought out a career in music, eventually moving to Nashville. But he needed to do the writing thing too. He would squeeze in writing while traveling on the road, often holed up in a corner of a room on Sundays. He compiled a number of original stories and put together a book, Medium Hero: And Other Stories.
Performing alone is what Korby does, but creation of his art has always been dependent upon the support of others. Initially utilizing Kickstarter, a crowd-funding application that helps people fund projects through donation or investment, Korby was able to produce an album and his self-published book. He sold copies of that book out of his suitcase when he performed.
He couldn’t have known when he self-published his book that a traditional publisher would discover his writing when it ended up on a table at Parnassus Books store next to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
“A lot of the things I do in my life, I come to because I try to say yes to things,” Korby says.
One of the things he had said yes to was an invitation to be on the board for The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville, an organization promoting and supporting the work of writers through workshops and events. At a board meeting Korby attended, an idea began to float about a creative fundraiser for the collective. They were brainstorming for an event idea that would be some sort of a collision of names and music and writing. They decided to pursue A Tale of Two Tims: an event that would feature literary great Tim O’Brien and Grammy-winning musician Tim O’Brien. The pair was slotted to read, tell stories, and play music. It was the sort of night suited perfectly for Korby Lenker.
Korby agreed to contact the musical Tim O’Brien while another board member secured commitment from the writing Tim O’Brien, and the stars aligned.
Korby attended the event in January 2015 and put his self-published book on a table next to Tim O’Brien’s. A representative for Turner Publishing happened to be in the room that night and, after reading Korby’s collection of stories, offered to work with him to get it published in their house. A Tale of Two Tims has become part of Korby’s tale too…the part of the story where Korby’s stories found a new page.
It’s probably true Korby Lenker will be a novelist some day. He’s prepared for the solitary space often occupied by novelists. The introduction of Korby Lenker, musician, into the book world, depended upon the collaborative effort of musicians and writers and the opportunity he found there to put his book on the right shelf (or table) at the right time.
Track 3: Bill Anderson
Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, world-famous country songwriter (six-time Songwriter of the Year Award winner and the only country songwriter to tally a Top 40 hit in seven consecutive decades), wrote his first autobiography in 1989…alone. There is nothing fantastical about a self-written autobiography because that is the nature of an autobiography. It is a pure reflection of the life Bill had lived and a snapshot of his individual achievement up to that point. The thing is, Bill’s story was far from finished. In the 1990s, Bill discovered the power of co-writing. His willingness to enter into collaborative creation in songwriting afforded him an opportunity to experience a revitalized career that warranted the writing of a second autobiography, and this one, he co-wrote.
Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music, is the co-written autobiography that, upon the urging of Bill’s publicist, he wrote with Nashville journalist Peter Cooper. Bill had been toying with the idea of writing a second book, but he was struggling with the project. The insight Peter was able to offer after combing through a copy of Bill’s original autobiography, proved to be invaluable.
“He (Peter) had a much more objective view of it than I would have had,” Bill says. “My view was not nearly what it should have been.”
Without the challenge of another writer’s perspective, Bill would have continued to struggle with getting to the whole story…the extended story. Peter forced him to work through and write down relevant parts of the difficult decade that nearly derailed Bill as a songwriter.
“Peter helped me a lot to organize the book and organize my thoughts. I went through a ten-year period when I don’t know what happened to me except I got side-tracked doing other things besides dancin’ with the one who brought me to the dance. He helped me dig into that.”
Bill writes, “Songwriting had always been something very personal to me. I had written many songs at three in the morning, in dimly lit rooms with the curtains closed and the shades pulled down. Could I bare my soul in front of another writer and create the same kind of emotion I had created many times in solitude?”
Bill’s crossover into a second career literally came through a song titled “Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn)” he co-wrote with Vince Gill.
After a decade of misfiring, bad investments, and personal struggle, Bill writes, “I had written another hit song, my first on the charts in more than twelve years. And I’d written it with someone else.”
Bill had discovered through the co-writing experiences of his second career that co-writing is about setting aside personal viewpoints in order to look at things from a different perspective.
“I didn’t co-write at all for about thirty years,” Bill explains. It was only when he allowed himself to work in tandem with the younger songwriters that he realized, “I had something I could teach them, and they had something they could teach me.”
Similar to the layering that happens in co-writing songs, in the venture of his co-written second autobiography, Bill tapped into some of the same strategies. Bill says of his songwriting process, “I am a better lyric writer than a melody writer. I’m the idea guy. I come at it from the lyrical side of things. Here’s a good story to tell, can we put a tune to it?” Bill’s story had his viewpoint, but Peter’s efforts in the co-writing bolstered the melody.
“I wrote most of the book,” Bill says, “but he (Peter) showed me how to make certain parts count and how to weave things together. The little interludes he writes in between the chapters are very insightful and they tie a lot of things together.”
Modern songwriting is a team effort, relying on the talents of not just one, but sometimes two or three songwriters on the same song. Joining the team meant a transformation of Bill Anderson’s process and a seismic shift in his view of artistic creation. His life story, the one he lived and the book he wrote about it, reflects the power of creative collaboration.
Some of the notable artists with whom Bill Anderson has written include: Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Alison Krauss, George Strait, Elvis Costello and many more.
No creation happens in a vacuum. All artists are inspired by those around them, and compelled by the pulse of life they observe. For some artists, creation happens alone, but as these three musicians will attest, collaboration has power too, and is the reason any of them have their recent books on the shelf at all.
Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music
Photos courtesy of Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito.
Book covers courtesy and copyright of respective publishers.
Meagan Frank is a songwriter and freelance writer, inspired by tales of collaboration to align the stars as she finishes writing her first novel. MeaganFrank.com