Last year, when Daniel Knobler decided to propose to Carrie Crowell, a granddaughter of Johnny Cash, he said he “knew from the get-go” that he wanted the music to be something special.
The impulse is not surprising. Knobler is a professional musician and record producer in New York City, marrying into a family that includes the singers and songwriters Rosanne Cash and her former husband, Rodney Crowell. “I did my very best to not have Carrie hear it until the day of the wedding,” Knobler, 25, said of the music he was writing for Carrie Crowell, also 25. “I didn’t want to be sitting at home, playing the melodies and for her to hear all the ideas I was going through.”
So, every night before their May 31 wedding he would walk their dog, Millie, and hum melodies to himself.
“Any melodies that stuck with me for the length of walking my dog, I’d record into my iPhone and keep it,” Knobler said of his meanderings with Millie through the couple’s Brooklyn neighborhood. (The bride’s mother, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, John Leventhal, said: “Is it important that we both married native New Yorker musicians? Sure. It’s sweet. It’s now a family tradition.”)
But you needn’t be a musician marrying into an august musical family to have songs composed or customized for a particular wedding. A Google search reveals numerous songwriters and musical groups offering to write music specifically for a couple’s nuptials.
“I’ve definitely seen an increase of couples doing it, as well as vendors offering it as a service,” said Ariel Meadow Stallings, the founder and publisher of Offbeat Bride, a wedding blog. Taking on these songwriting commissions, she said, is also proving to be a boon for musicians, who are often struggling financially.
Even those musicians who may not be casting about for extra work are finding charm in writing custom music for weddings. Among them are Angela Webber, who, along with her sister, Aubrey, are the Doubleclicks, a duo based in Portland, Oregon, whom Angela Webber says specializes in songs she describes as “snarky, geeky and sweet.”
Their first excursion into writing a tailor-made wedding song was for Ashley Chatneuff, 38, and Jake Jester, 39, longtime fans of the Doubleclicks who were married in March 2013. Still, the commission happened almost by accident.
“The bride first asked if we could play at their wedding, and I said that would be very expensive,” Webber said, noting that the Doubleclicks and their instruments would have to be flown round-trip from Portland to the event, which was held in Richmond, Virginia.
Instead, Chatneuff then asked if the Doubleclicks would write and record a song specific to the couple. The answer was yes, and the price was a relatively reasonable $1,000.
Not all couples require an entire composition created from scratch. The lyrics of any number of existing songs can be customized to suit the needs of those about to wed. Rob Affuso, who played drums in the heavy-metal band Skid Row, is the founder of Soulsystem Orchestras, an entertainment company, and also the leader of the band Soulsystem.
When they hire his musicians, Affuso will, at a couple’s request, sometimes rewrite the chorus or verse of a song, like “Marry Me” by the group Train, so that it relates specifically to those about to wed. Achieving something that the wedding couple and their guests will respond to, he said, requires some research.
“First, I have to learn a little about them - if there was a special moment that was comedic or warm or loving or romantic,” he said. He specifically looks for that which is “special and unique to the couple that I can put into words and make something happen in the song.” (His services range from $5,000 to $25,000.)
Coming up with an original melody and lyrics that will forever be the couple’s alone offers staying power, in some cases beyond the viability of the marriage itself. Narada Michael Walden, a drummer, singer and composer who has played with Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, said he wrote music for both of his marriages. He so liked the song “Will You Ever Know” that he wrote for his first marriage in 1978 that it found its way onto his 1979 album, “Awakening.”
Those who have commissioned original music and those who create it say that what most want from original music is something around which their families can coalesce. “It’s an opportunity to create a piece of art that can be part of the family legacy,” Stallings said. “Almost a musical heirloom.”
Knobler knew when he began thinking of the instrumental composition that he wanted to focus on the bride’s processional, and for the rest of the music he would enlist the help of a good friend, Russell Durham, a Juilliard-trained fiddle player. Paying homage to his wife’s roots, Knobler decided the song should have a country flavor. Knobler said his main concern was not coming up with something to impress musical giants like Steve Winwood and Béla Fleck, who were attending the wedding in Nashville, Tennessee, but rather that these moments with his bride had to be perfectly scored.
The bridal party processional, written by Durham, was a much more formal classical-sounding piece, Knobler said, in juxtaposition to the bridal processional, which was “much more folky and tugging at the heartstrings.”
His wasn’t to be the only original music at the event. Cash said, “My ex-husband, Rodney, wrote a magnificent song for the couple, which he performed during the Jewish ceremony.” She added, “That song was a total surprise.” Called “Tennessee Wedding Song,” Crowell’s secret composition was a notably touching one that went, in part:
When we arrive as honored guests
Where John and June were laid to rest
In Tennessee, the land that gave you life
We’ll stand before those near and dear
And speak these words for all to hear:
For now and forever, be my wife.
Cash said that as the bride’s father sang, “the tears started flowing.” She added: “It was so perfect. So beautiful. It touched on so many elements of our whole extended family, not just half.”
Later on at the wedding, Cash joined her ex-husband along with the bride’s stepfather in singing Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” with what she described as the song’s “perfect wedding chorus: ‘Whoo-ee! Ride me high/Tomorrow’s the day/My bride’s gonna come.’” Steve Winwood, whose daughters are close friends of the bride, also performed, as did Del Beatles, a former band of top studio musicians in Nashville that reunited for the occasion.
The bride admitted to having been completely charmed by all of the music that was lavished upon her, but was particularly taken with that delivered by her groom and her father. “It was totally sweet and wonderful,” Crowell said. “But it also felt like, that’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s what a husband should do for his wife. I know it sounds crazy, but I come from a family where music is important. It felt like a natural, beautiful thing.”
Cash added: “Even when no one can express an emotion, they can express a song. That’s as essential to us and our family as anything else.”
It’s one thing when the bride, groom or other family members possess the talent to write a song on their own. Commissioning one takes patience, money and a significant level of communication between the writer and the couple.
To find inspiration for Chatneuff’s and Jester’s wedding song, and to gather string on the couple’s likes, dislikes and personalities, Webber and her sister sent the couple a list of questions. Among them: “Would you like something you can dance to - a waltz or other kind of ballroom dance?” “Give me 2-5 adjectives to describe your fiancé. (Have him do the same for you.)” “What TV shows/movies/books/games do you both enjoy?” “Please share lots of those ‘fun things’ about him.”
When Chatneuff responded to the questions, Webber said, she and her sister learned that the couple had met as avatars playing in an online video game. “So, that was a big part of the song,” Webber said. “It went from the specifics to an emotion. One line is, ‘I knew you before I met you.’” It was meant to underscore that the couple knew each other online before they met in person, she said.
The three-minute song was recorded on a CD and played at the wedding. It was also distributed on discs to their guests as wedding favors.
For Chatneuff, the investment had an enormous emotional return.
“I think everybody should commission a song because it will last forever,” she said. “We truly have our song.”