Hold Your Hats!

April 5, 2016

I just spent a few days with Nashville Hall of Fame singer-songwriter Gary Burr and his lovely wife, the amazing singer-songwriter Georgia Middleman.

Gary has written hit after hit after hit. His songs have been recorded by a who’s who — from Reba McEntire to Christina Aguilera, Conway Twitty to Joe Cocker, Kelly Clarkson to Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers to Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes to Faith Hill, Lynyrd Skynrd to Ringo Starr. His stuff is gold.

Gary says people sometimes ask if his head is brimming full of ideas before he sets out to write a song. He says it’s the opposite. More like he starts out in a place where there’s absolutely nothing in his head. Trusting that something wonderful will show up.

And what comes out of that empty head? Stunning.

As we talked about the songs Gary has written and how he came to write them, it struck me that the process of writing a song is a lot like the process of writing a book, or a blog post, or a poem. A lot, for that matter, like starting a business, or a new project, or a new relationship. Or creating your life.

It starts with a pregnant emptiness. A blank page, an open space. A hole in the marketplace. A place where there’s nobody sitting next to you. A permission to experience some nothingness.

And, along with that nothing, the passionate anticipation of something stunning showing up, an expectation that is almost childlike in its guileless totality.

It made me think of something that happened a year before I was born.

My older brother, Adrian (then age four), and my mother were attending a concert that my father was conducting, at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey. On the program: Handel’s cantata, Ode for St Cecelia’s Day.

About a third of the way in, there’s a spot where a lilting soprano aria comes to a close. There is a pause: complete silence in the hall — and then the next piece begins abruptly, forte, with a solo trumpet fanfare.

The text is Der schall der trompete, er ruft uns zer schlact, meaning “The trumpet blast calls us to arms.” My mom was concerned that this particular trumpet blast might call my four-year-old brother to arms. (Or, more likely, call him to start wailing.) So she warned him ahead of time, so he wouldn’t be startled.

Evidently he took it upon himself to make sure nobody else was startled, either. As stillness spread throughout the hall, in the split second before the trumpet sounded its first note, my brother shattered the expectant silence with this full-throttle shout:


(We will pause here briefly to picture the look on my mother’s face. And my father’s. And all the several hundred other faces in attendance.)

So: if you want to write a song, or a poem, or a book? To start a business, a project, a relationship? To live a life? Here’s how I think it may work:

You find a good seat, some place comfortable.

You make the space for some nothing.

And then you tap into the childlike part of you, the part inside that never grows older, the part that still knows anything is possible and fully expects it and yet is stunned by the overwhelming amazingness of it all over again when it shows up, and you shout:


(Thanks to Adrian Mann for supplying the details of what was on the program that day, and for being a good sport about my telling this story. I should point out, he doesn’t shout at concerts anymore.)


  1. James Justice

    Very cool story, JD. Faith will get you everywhere!

    • John David Mann

      Thanks, James!


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