Songwriters’ Circle at CMW

While the bars of Toronto are filled with the sounds of Canadian Music Week, the Interactive Music and Media Seminar is accessible only to the fortunate few who ponied up the price of the conference at the Royal York Hotel.

You have to look hard to find a roots angle here. The exhibit booths, songwriting contests, panel discussions and the like are implicitly aimed at mainstream, radio-friendly genres. But one exception was Saturday’s “Songwriter’s Circle,” featuring a who’s who of master songcrafters swapping songs in festival workshop format.

Moderator Paul Williams – an Oscar, Grammy & Golden Globe award winner – was joined by Canuck-rock legend Randy Bachman, country-folk diva Emmylou Harris, Cape Breton songwriting sensation Gordie Sampson, and Nashville veteran Bob Dipiero.

Williams (who unfortunately didn’t play) was jocular as host, slyly tossing off references to his own extraordinary accomplishments between questions.

Bachmann disappointed a bit. Maybe not everyone knew “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” mimicked his stammering brother or that “Undun” was written around Lenny Breau chords, but did we really need to hear those songs again? Sampson and Dipiero more or less followed suit, setting up their big hits with the relatively workaday anecdotes behind them.

Each was humorous, deferential to the talent of the others, and professionally humble about his own work – and every song was a certified winner. But like so many workshops at folk festivals these days, the “songwriters’ circle” had the aura of a “hear my hit” showcase. There was no collaboration beyond Bachman and Sampson noodling generically on a Dipiero tune or two; few surprises, and little risk-taking.

The exception was Emmylou Harris, who, to her immense credit, treated the songwriting circle as what it might have been: a chance for the audience to hear something different. Her songs, including a loving tribute to her late friend Kate McGariggle, stood out for their unabashedly folk approach: simple, contextual, and heartfelt.

Regardless of preference, the Songwriter’s Circle was a rare opportunity to hear a group of legends and leaders in one place at one time, and each revealed a few gems. Here are some highlights.

Randy Bachman

On the business: “The currency of the music business is the song… so I’m going to play you some money.”

On inspiration: “If you open up, somebody somewhere sends you a song.”

Songs: “No Sugar Tonight”,  “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and “Undun”

Emmylou Harris

On role models: “I wanted to be Joan Baez.”

On authenticity: “Being authentic, it’s time for me to bring everything down.”

On childhood: “I had a very happy childhood so it makes it really hard to write songs about it.”

Songs: “Red Dirt Girl,” “My Name is Emmet Till” and “Darling Kate”

Gordie Sampson

On social media: “It’s all sugar-goodness to me.”

On the meaning of a song: “It’s construed as a love song, but it’s really just a chronological version of how Troy Burgess got punched in the nose.”

Songs: “Fear of Flying”, “Jesus Take the Wheel”, and “Paris”

Bob Dipiero

On motivation: “I said, let’s write a two-chord song with a one-word title and we’ll be out of here by lunch.”

On Johnny Cash: “He was like a combination of Santa Claus and Jesus.”

On living in Nashville: “I wasn’t born in the south but I got there as quick as I could”

Songs: “Gone”, “Southern Voice”  and “If You Ever Stopped Loving Me”

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  1. avatar
    Michael Trenholm 12 March, 2011 at 18:28


    I really enjoyed the read. Informative and insightful and deserves to be read by a wider audience. I liked it and hope my Facebook friends will give it a look.



    Michael Trenholm

  2. avatar
    Shawna 12 March, 2011 at 21:40

    Thanks for the reminders of those gems of quotations! I was also hoping for more collaborations, at least some singing – particularly with several catchy/singalong choruses – but I thoroughly enjoyed the event. I quite liked the “cabaret seating” setup, which had the effect of a “communal dinner” situation, where one might get seated with strangers, and new introductions get made.

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