Good news, Washington. There is a way for doom and gloom to exist on Capitol Hill, and for it to actually excite people — it just needs to be contained within the lyrics a country song.
Right across the street from the place where bad news seems to stream out daily, the Library of Congress hosted the Country Music Association Songwriters Series on Wednesday for an evening of beautiful-but-depressing country tunes in front of a sold-out crowd. The traveling acoustic concert, returning to Washington for the third time, featured musicians — ’80s and ’90s country stars Ronnie Milsap and Lorrie Morgan, respectively, and Nashville hitmakers Bob DiPiero and Jim Beavers — telling the stories behind their songs.
The four took turns playing instruments onstage in the Coolidge Auditorium for two hours, and poked fun at Nashville songwriters’ tendencies to produce stunning, albeit devastating, material.
“If you’re not depressed now, you will be after this,” Morgan quipped before belting out her 1994 single “If You Came Back From Heaven,” explaining that she writes her best songs about the saddest topics. The audience cheered.
Still, the night wasn’t all forlorn — in addition to rapid-fire banter between all participants, the crowd was repeatedly reminded that a big part of country music is finding the silver lining. The singers told tales about how bad situations could lead to success. DiPiero was motivated by potential money problems to keep writing hit songs; Beavers used heartbreak to score a chart-topping single.
“I’ve been left by women in a lot of ways, but this was the most profitable,” Beavers joked before playing “Watching Airplanes,” a mournful, post-relationship single he co-wrote that became a smash hit for Gary Allan.
All of the musicians said they were excited to be in Washington. Milsap, who is blind, talked at length about how grateful he is that the Library of Congress helps provide audiobooks. Beavers shared his D.C. tourist stories and segued into playing a song about the United States.
It wound up being Faith Hill’s “American Heart” — which, Beavers said, even though the chorus claims you can’t break an American heart, it turns out the under-performing song “can’t break the top 20,” he cracked.
Beavers, who served as comic relief for the night, said he tends to have more success with up-tempo, goofy songs that even kids seem to love, and played a song he wrote to bring a little joy during the recession back in 2008. That’s “Why Don’t We Just Dance,” a Josh Turner tune about a couple who decide to ignore the bad news on TV, and just kick off their shoes and dance.
“Don’t tell Josh Turner,” Beavers confided to the audience in the middle of the song, “but this song isn’t really about dancing.”
Jokes aside, bringing the songwriters series to Washington adds a bit of a serious element, according to DiPiero, who served as host of the program. That’s because the artists know they’ll be performing in front of members of Congress who could address copyright laws that affect the music industry.
“We’re all owners of copyright; that’s how we make our living. Anytime we can get in front of anybody in a position to make decisions regarding copyright issues, we’re going to be there,” DiPiero said before the concert, which, sure enough, included multiple members of Congress in the crowd, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who got a shout-out from the stage. “Just to give them a face and name to connect, so they can see there are real-life people, working and writing and performing these songs.”