Rodney Griffin: Songs Are Messages
From working in the nuclear quality division of a ship-building company in Newport News, VA to writing gospel songs for some of the biggest names in gospel music is a long road to travel in just 10 years, but Rodney Griffin has traveled it with passion.
A member of Greater Vision and one of southern gospel music’s most popular songwriters, Griffin not only writes many of the group’s songs but has had songs cut by Ernie Haase, The Freemans, The Cumberland Quartet, The Kingdom Heirs, The Florida Boys and Kirk Talley.
Griffin was named Songwriter of the Year in 1999 by subscribers to Singing News magazine and in 1999 and 2000, he won Songwriter of the Year from the Southern Gospel Music Association.
Griffin spoke with American Songwriter as Greater Vision was headed to Florida for another singing engagement, taking the time to explain just how he got into gospel music and how he goes about writing his songs.
“I was a quality analyst at the shipbuilding company and I did not like my job because it was not very creative,” Griffin explains. “I found that during the down time, song ideas would come into my mind, and I began pursuing them. I had always wanted to sing but I never thought I was talented enough to do it. In 1991 the Lord opened the door for me to sing with a group and I left my job and moved to Ohio to sing with Higher Dedication. That only lasted a couple of months, but it got me out there. Then I moved to Arkansas to sing with the Brashers and was there six months and the door opened to go with The Dixie Melody Boys.”
All the time Griffin continued to write, though at this point he still had not had a song recorded. That opportunity came when he joined the Dixie Melody Boys.
“I got my first song recorded with the group in 1992. We recorded that on our live album in Marion, IL after I had been with the group just a couple of months. It was a real honor to sing a song I’d written with them. I was with them two years and we put a couple of my songs on each recording.”
In January 1994, Griffin joined Greater Vision and moved to Morristown, TN. They immediately began to cut his songs, and each new album found more and more Griffin tunes being recorded. “When I pitch a song to Greater Vision, it has to pass the same test as any other song that it pitched to us,” Griffin says. “I think it might be even harder to get a song recorded by the group because you’ve got to really believe in it in order to convince them that it’s better than something that came in the mail.”
Griffin has his own publishing company and does his own pitching to other groups. He describes the process for getting a song cut by another group. “Usually I’ll see a group somewhere, they’ll tell me they’re recording and I’ll send them a tape after we get back home. Then maybe I’ll follow up with a phone call to make sure they’ve got the tape. And months later they’ll call me to tell me they’re cutting something. It’s hard to plan to pitch to someone because you don’t know what they need until it gets down to picking the songs. If they like what I’ve sent them, then when they’re ready to record they will cut it. I don’t call and push it, I let it sit there.”
Griffin admitted that deciding what to pitch to whom is one of his greatest challenges. “I sent away a song called “He’d Still Been God,” because I thought it was too Pentecostal sounding for us. The Freemans recorded it and did well with it. Then we decided to cut it because we needed an uptempo song, and we’ve done it every night since. The song did well for us and them too. So there’s one that maybe I should have kept for us, but who knew at the time. It’s tough to know at the front end; you are so close to the songs you don’t’ know if it’s something for you or for somebody else.”
One of the group’s biggest hits was a Griffin tune. “His Name Is Lazarus.” Griffin heard Dr. Adrian Rogers, the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, give a sermon on a cruise that they were on; that gave him the idea for the song. Greater Vision recorded it and it has become one of their most popular songs.
A similar thing happened when Griffin heard evangelist Ron Dunn preaching in Conroe, TX about a year ago. “Dunn was talking about faith, and he said we don’t have faith, but the disciples didn’t have faith either,” Griffin said. “They lived with Jesus, ate with him, he told them he was going to die and rise again, but how many of them were standing outside the tomb waiting for him?
“That idea just knocked me off my feet. I realized that we are like the disciples, because Jesus has said he’s coming back but how many of us are looking for him? I started on that song at the conference, and the next day “No One” was finished.”
Griffin keeps a cassette recorder on the bus, handy to have if he gets an idea while the group is traveling. “I usually get a melody and time signature and title of chorus, and that may be all I have,” he explains. “I’ll get the recorder and I’ll sing it on there. I don’t sit down and write the whole thing at one session. I have to kind of build it and sing it over and over until nothing bothers me. It’s kind of like building a sermon, you have points you want to make, then you find a way to bring the point across, deciding where it fits best, first line or last line of chorus. In “Lazarus,” the first line is the strongest. In “Well,” it’s the last line. I just kind of work with the words until I feel the message is strong.”
Griffin says during the time he was honing his craft, he just kept writing and kept listening to songs he liked, trying to figure out what song had that made it work. “That taught me how to get to the point without wasting the point and without wasting words. I also learned what words are singable and what words are poetic that are not singable. Poems may be pretty to quote but not possible to sing. That’s part of the gift of songwriting, to know what will fit and what won’t. I wouldn’t consider myself a poet; I just sing lines over and over until it sounds like something I would want to sing.”
Among Griffin’s influences are Kirk Talley, of whom he says, “I admire the way he gets to the point. He has very creative lyrics, and there is a passion in his songs for the Lord. I also admire Phil Cross and how he makes God big. That’s so important in Christian life, letting God be as big as he is and not limiting him. That’s given me a good example of what to shoot for when I write.”
In regards to advice, Griffin said that someone once told him to keep the language on an eight grade level and you won’t be over anyone’s head in the audience. “The thought may be deeper but as far as the language used, I do try to keep the song in those parameters,” Griffin says. “The Gaither’s song “The King Is Coming,” the thought is much deeper, but the lyrics are very simple. I want to write deep songs on eighth grade level, and that is the challenge for me.
“What I’ve found is that it’s not your talent but your desire to do something for the Lord that makes things happen,” Griffin continues. “He’ll open the doors to let you do it. You can outdesire someone else to do what you want to do.”
On a final note, Griffin said that he does feel that his songs are messages that people are supposed to hear. “I’m the first one to be moved when I write a song,” Griffin said. “If a subject moves me to write about it, then there must be someone else that the Lord wants to hear it. Looking back on some of the songs and lyrics, I could never sit down and write them again. So I feel that it had to be something God wanted conveyed.”