On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Robert Earl Davis On Songwriting

Robert Earl Davis On Songwriting

As you read this, The Earl Brothers are somewhere on the road performing original music that Amy Campbell of WDVX Radio describes as “rickety old steam engine rhythm, rough ole hollerin’ pitiful, sad singing… no Nashville, slicked-up, cookie cutter Bluegrass here, it’s real, and it hurts!”

The band’s main songwriter, Robert Earl Davis, is an artist in every sense of the word. Our bands performed on the same stage at the Oregon State Bluegrass Festival a few years back, and here we get to catch up on one of our favorite topics.


Your approach to songwriting has been described as a “less is more” style with a gothic Stanley Brothers vibe. Do you agree, and is this what you reach for when you sit down to write a new song?


Yes I’ve heard that before too, and I do agree that my writing style leans toward the minimal. I usually start off with a phrase or hook, and based on that I write in a free association, random style, and let it flow so to speak ’til I have some material to work with.

Depending on my inspiration at the time, I try to weave a song from there. If I do manage to write one, it is usually too wordy and personal at this point. The rest of the process is devoted to trimming and cutting the song down to its most essential elements. It’s my intention to write a song that will identify with the listener and have them feel as if I wrote the song for them.


This is one style that I use to write a song, there are others; inspiration is where you find it.


  • I keep a list of notes in a bag, when I get ready to write a song I sometimes reach into the bag and pull out a scrap of paper; many times it will be just the right word or phrase for the song I’m working on
  • Too much emotion is counter productive for songwriting or playing music… and most everything else
  • Keep a note book and pen handy by the bedside in case you get a good idea after waking from a dream — I have written several songs in this manner
  • I do not listen to very much music, especially bluegrass and country music. I prefer watching movies
  • When I get a good idea for a song I write it down immediately, otherwise it may be lost. If need be I write it on my arm
  • I always try to write the same song over and over. Since it’s impossible to do, I’m sure to come up with something new and interesting


Really good insights. So who are the songwriters in your band and do you tend to develop your material individually or as a group?


The Earl Brothers roots go back as far as 1980 with a bluegrass band that I helped start called the Squids. The Earl Brothers perform some of those original compositions. I write the majority of songs for the Earl Brothers. For the most part, songs are developed individually. If someone has a good idea but it’s not quite in the Earl Brothers style, we will try collaborating to give it the right feel. I always encourage others to write as much as they can. I’m very proud of the fact that we perform original material. It gives our music a strong sense of style.


As one with an MFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute, what are some similarities you’ve noticed in the creative process between writing a song and painting a picture?


I think it is true that one art form helps the other find its way, and the more diverse perhaps the better. I had been playing music for a long time, and at a certain point I decided to pursue art. When I made the decision to get back into music I found that I had new skills that were never there before. For me I think the most helpful was the ability to better critique my own music. Through this I was able to arrive at a direction and style of my own.


One art form helping another find its way…. Hmmm… I wonder what writing a blog will do for my own songwriting? Stay tuned….


The Earl Brothers Discography


Whiskey, Women & Death




Outlaw Hillbilly


Troubles to Blame


The Earl Brothers



  1. Heard your band today for the first time (since the ’80s,
    at a bar in the SF Marina?) and loved it. The name reminded me of the tune “That’s Earl, Brother” and I found it on iTunes:

    Hope to catch you at your next gig at the “Amnesia”, SF.
    *From a fan of both (bluegrass and bebop),


  2. I love this band’s lyrics (and music). They have a way of turning a phrase that sometimes hits a little too close to home, which all great artists tend to do. Some move us to tears. Some make us laugh. With these songs though, sometimes I’m laughing through my tears.

    I mean, who writes songs about badly injured boys abandoned by their mother? Philandering to the point of having to resort to the line, “For what its worth you’ve been on my mind?”

    The Earl Brothers! That’s who!

    They provide harmonies that will give you goosebumps, interspersed with instrumentals that remain in your head long after the song is over. This band is a diamond in the rough, longing to be admired for their unique accomplishments.

    In my opinion, these fellers deserve a little more media coverage for reviving what many felt was a dying genre. Who’s looking for a human interest story or documentary subject to film?

  3. Our Music Camp and Festival up here in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada had the pleasure of working with the Earl Brothers in 2010. They had been one of my absolute favorite bands since I found them through No Depression Mag.
    They held a writing workshop, and also taught individual instrument workshops all week. These guys were so wonderful and brought so much inspiration to everyone. Highly recommended both as a band and for teaching workshops. Also highly recommended as All ‘Round Good Guys. I’m proud to call them friends.

    Tracy Lalonde
    Northern Lights Bluegrass & Old Tyme Music Society