We’ll keep this one simple: you’ll use your own catalogue of memories for step one, then we’ll add a word challenge twist.

This one evolves from Jason Isbell’s “Cumberland Gap” which uses memories of his hometown to set the scene of the song, eventually becoming a metaphor for what the speaker has become.

One of the big takeaways from “Cumberland Gap” is the strength of the imagery and how Isbell uses it to shape a song that summarizes his background, which in turn shaped who he is as a person.


Using A Prompt
  1. Don’t over-think what you’re writing – the goal is to get you started
  2. Don’t worry about rhyme and structure – you can clean that up later
  3. Do write down whatever comes into your head
  4. Do it for 15 minutes but no longer
  5. Go back and circle the parts that have an emotional connection to you
  6. Go back and underline any strong imagery or items that could be stronger if you spent some time on describing them more


Memories + Word Challenge Prompt
  • Write down 3 brief memories from your childhood or choose 3 from your songwriting notebook

Keep the lines short and surface-level only: e.g., left behind at gas station, choosing runt from a litter of puppies, my first childhood memory, my first day hearing a different language

  • Write down 7 – 10 random words chosen from a secondary source like a movie, facebook, a book you’re reading, a dictionary, emails or a book of poetry.

Select words that are usual and are a variety of nouns, verbs and adjectives.  The goal here is to give yourself a variety as well as provide language you wouldn’t normally use.

Zane Williams turned a word challenge exercise into a #1 song on the Texas Country chart!

  • Choose one of the memories and begin writing whatever comes to mind – write for 15 minutes.

Don’t edit yourself and don’t try to incorporate the words yet.  Get the memory down and let it take you wherever it takes you.

  • Circle the parts with the strongest emotional connection for you, and underline anything that could be strong imagery.

Your goal here is to start seeing the song idea in the object writing you just completed.  What’s jumping out as a strong “theme”?  Is there a plot forming, or could you create one around what’s been circled?

  • Start sketching out your song with the 7 – 10 words you’ve identified in the back of your mind

I keep a list next to me as I’m writing so they are a part of the process.  You may not be able to use them all, and that’s OK.  But try and let them influence the storyline or your imagery.  They could bring a very different path to your original song idea.

  • Go through your regular songwriting process to complete to a full song


Melody Prompt & Chord Progressions


Think “Yesterday” (da-da-da) or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (da-da-da-dum).  Use sound patterns to create a basic template for your melodic hook, then build your melody from there.

Can you find words to fit these patterns?

Da-Da-Dee-Da  – e.g., Talk to me girl (Da is short, Dee hold e song in “me” long)

Dum-Dee-Da-Dee-Da – e.g., With you I’m free again


  • Chord progression starts:

G ->  C  ->  Em7

Em -> C -> G -> D

C -> F -> G