Anatomy of a Song: The Smile in Her Eyes


Note: This article was written as a companion piece to another I wrote about the recording process for this song. You can find that article HERE. Also, if you run out of patience while reading the story, a recording of the song and a copy of the lyrics can be found at the bottom of the story.

By way of introduction, I started out my musical journey with a foot in two worlds – classical and pop. I grew up with classical music playing on our house. I picked up guitar at the age of thirteen. After playing guitar for ten years I studied classical composition in college and found myself in the world of “absolute music,” instrumental music that portrays no story or narrative. That approach influenced my compositions for a good long while.

Meanwhile, I still loved singer-songwriter music even though I wasn’t writing any. I recently pulled out an old favorite pop album from the ‘70s that reawakened something in me. I’m talking about the album Souvenirs by Dan Fogelberg. This album is full of vocal music and the main feature of Fogelberg’s writing is storytelling. When I revisited Souvenirs, the storytelling and wordsmithing were so compelling that I decided to try storytelling again myself. Because I’ve always found writing lyrics to be a chore, I decided I would need to select a subject that was close to my heart in order to get motivated enough to generate first-class lyrics. I planned out my strategy: I would sit down with my guitar and noodle a little to find an acceptable progression and melody, I would choose a subject, I would list and outline some statements I wanted to make, and then I would write.

So, I sat down with a guitar and started working in keys that would support my baritone range. I settled on the key of “C.” A little experimentation produced an initial guitar hook that I felt could become a vocal line. With the melody line in mind it was fairly simple to create a starting melody line for the song’s verses. Okay, we’ve got the basic tools. Now it is time for a subject and lyrics.

While I was thrashing about for a subject it occurred to me that dating and new love are probably two of the most popular subjects for songs. Ah-hah! I had just the thing! A couple of years ago an author friend asked me to write up the story of my wife’s and my courtship as an essay so that she could include it in her next book. My story made the cut and was published in her book. I had already done a lot of wordsmithing and developed imagery to create that short story, so I thought that adapting some of those impressions to a song lyric might be a good place to start.

The overarching strategy for the song was to tell a story but to leave it sparse enough that the user could construct his own movie inside his head. I wanted to engage the listener but felt that it was okay to leave some questions in his head for him to fill in for himself. With that said, as I thought over the story I decided I needed to establish the time and setting for the story right off the top, so my first line just tumbled out. Before things got out of hand, I grabbed a legal pad and started listing factoids about our courtship that might play well into the song’s narrative. As I wrote them down, I also searched for ways to state them that might be lyrical and/or might make them easy to fit into a rhyme. I ended up with a list of about six or seven items that might be useful to the song.

I used the first verse to set the stage. Before I even started pursuing my future wife she was “all but engaged” to a young man in another state. Being a proper young lady she had decided that it wouldn’t be fair for her to date while “all but engaged” to her high school sweetheart. That was the big challenge.

With the second verse I decided to tell the story of our first “non-date.” One night without any preamble I asked this young lady if she’d like to go to a little off-campus café to study, and she accepted. While there, I introduced her to the world’s best chocolate fudge cake that was offered at this little bistro, a craft cake with chocolate chips baked in, served heated, with fudge topping. She was hooked. We spent the evening sipping coffee and talking endlessly in the low light of the rustic café and, coincidently, didn’t get any studying done. I had a blast. That was a great theme to fill out the mental picture and also seemed to be capable of generating pictures in the listeners’ minds.

At that point it was time to think about a chorus or bridge. Musically, I decided to drop to the relative minor of the key of C which is Am for a chorus, and I worked out a short chord progression to cover the section. For a theme, I started out by simply generalizing the narrative. What struck me about this young lady that first night was how freely our conversation flowed and how comfortable I felt talking to her. In fact, I felt more comfortable talking to her than I had ever felt talking to any woman, a fact that hasn’t changed. Our relationship, love, and romance have lasted amazingly. What is it Einstein said?

"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity."

With a nod to Einstein I attempted to convey the feelings I had while talking to her that first night under low light in a secluded booth at this little café. Along the way I decided to weave in how quickly the evening passed, the resulting timelessness of our relationship, and how freely we talked. Once again the goal was to convey the kind of imagery that allowed a listener to create a movie in his own mind.

Out of the chorus we return to the narrative. At this point, in order to prioritize my story facts I needed to ask, “How many verses we are going to have?” I’m thinking four. We’ve got two in the bag. It is time to start bending the story line towards how this one night “non-date” led to a lifetime of love. How did it go from being just another dating experience to being “one for the ages?” Verse three would need to be a discussion of what drew me to her. We were two people from extremely different cultures and it took a lot of “doing” for us to adapt to one another’s outlooks and learn one another’s way of living. What characteristics allowed her to choose to make the adaptations necessary to start dating me, this guy from a very different culture? What drew me to her? As I worked through them, an overarching characteristic stuck out at me: her kindness. Her kindness informed so much about her. It was a characteristic I could see in her eyes from that very first night. It didn’t hurt that her eyes were beautiful, did it? I was a bumbling rookie at dating and she was a kind, patient veteran who went easy on me. In fact, once she got to know me, she helped me figure out how to date her. That formed the framework for the third verse. And the kindness in those beautiful eyes led to the line that became the last line of both the third and fourth verses.

Okay, we are three verses in and it is time for the fourth. I chose to use a guitar solo to develop the song and then to repeat the chorus before the fourth and final verse. At this point we could further discuss her virtues and try to close and seal the story but I think that might be too heavy and personal. We need to leave room to let listeners inject their own story into mine, make my movie their own. How could I wrap things up in a way that accomplishes that goal? Well first, I wanted to get across that while this is a tremendously romantic story, our relationship was first based upon creating a solid friendship. The first line of the fourth verse explains that. It just so happens that our relationship began on top of a beautiful mountain with many hiking trails leading through gorgeous tree-lined avenues. I had spent years hiking those trails so I was able take her for long hikes where we talked endlessly, our romance budded, and we ended up walking hand-in-hand in classic storybook fashion. They all lived happily ever after. Of course, like any lasting relationship, there has been a lot of work and sacrifice. And throughout it all, her kindness and patience with me has informed the affair. So I wrapped up the song with the same thought that ended the third verse and became the name of the song.

The framework of the music and lyric came together in an hour. Because the framework was solid, all I had to do was continue polishing the lyric for a few days until I got the imagery the way I liked it. I also continue to refine the melodies and chordal base a bit to polish them. I rehearsed the song repeatedly to make sure I could actually sing it, interpret it, and make the verse rhythms come naturally. Three days later I got up my nerve and presented the song to my lovely wife of thirty-seven years. She loved it!

Start with a subject that is close enough to bring out the feelings you want to convey. Find a key that you can sing in and create a chord progression and melody. Condense your message and outline it. Put meat on the bones and fill out the song. Then adjust and tweak as needed to wrap things up. And in this case, with a subject that was near and dear to my heart, I found that the lyrics flowed really freely. Here is the final lyric:


It was Fall of ’78 when I first met her.
But we couldn’t date ‘cause she was “all but engaged.”
So I bided my time and I watched her.
Then we went to this little café’ and had coffee.
(And chocolate fudge cake) - Didn’t study
But she told me about herself.

And the time
It went by so fast
As she told me all about her past
And we talked of the things that we love,
We talked about everything

So I learned
That she’d dated before
But was patient with me
And all that she did was kind and sweet
The smile in her eyes said it all.

Guitar Solo (x2)

And the time, it went by so fast
As she told me all about her past
And we talked about the things that we love,
We talked about everything

So we grew together became two buddies.
Took many walks beneath the trees
And the smile in her eyes said it all.

The smile in her eyes says it all.
The smile in her eyes says it all.

© 2017 Robert C. Womack

And here is the finished track.


© ℗ 2017 Robert C. Womack