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WORDS ABOUT MUSIC: A NASHVILLE SONGWRITERS ROUNDTABLE

Nashville’s fortunes have always been built on songwriting, so we thought we’d ask some top tunesmiths to chime in on the changing times—because, you know, they don’t have enough to do. Below you’ll find their answers to the following question (feel free to sing the responses):

How has country songwriting —and songwriting overall in Nashville—evolved during the past few years?

Luke Laird
(UMPG; Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw, Kacey Musgraves)

I feel that country songwriting is still a primarily lyric-driven format. However, the last few years have seen some changes. In the past, labels have traditionally looked for songs that have a tight lyric and melody, but recently there has been a surge of wanting songs with more of a musical identity. Many of today’s demos directly affect the sound of the records you hear on the radio. This has been the case in the past, but it seems like now, just as in pop, country labels not only want lyrical hooks, but they are listening for musical hooks as well. Many of these musical hooks used to be left up to the studio musicians, who would come up with them on the fly. Nowadays, it’s part of the writing process to make sure musical hooks are as prevalent as lyrical hooks.

Shane McAnally
(Kobalt; Kenny Chesney, Sam Hunt, Kacey Musgraves)

The obvious difference in Nashville’s approach to songwriting in the last few years would be the emergence of writing to tracks or, more so, collaborating with engineers/songwriters who can build a track during a writing session. This expedites the demo process, as we can walk out of the room with a studio-quality demo that’s ready to pitch on the day of creation. It also brings a huge element of inspiration, as you are writing to sounds and instrumentation that can really bring in new melodies and ideas that might not be sparked by just a guitar or piano.

Troy Verges
(UMPG; Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw)

Songwriting in Nashville has evolved in a number of ways over the last few years. The biggest evolution in the process is that there are often a lot more production elements in the writing room now. It may be as simple as cranking up a beat to write to, or it may be all the way to the level of making the record as you write the song. Another big shift has been the increase in the diversity of style and content. While every genre has its boundaries, it feels like Nashville songwriting has opened up quite a bit in the last few years. Instead of just chasing pop music and always being behind by two or three years, Nashville feels like the place to break new ground now. 

Nicolle Galyon
(Warner/Chappell; Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum)

While there’s a lot of discussion about women artists at Country radio, it feels like women are more in the game on the writing front than ever before. Women have gotten very savvy and have figured out how to write songs for a primarily male market. This newer generation of women writers has a lot of working moms (Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose, Jessi Alexander, Laura Veltz, Sarah Buxton, Lori McKenna, etc.) who don’t have time to just write songs for the sake of writing songs. They are juggling a household and writing, and they mean business when they show up to write; if that means they don’t write very many female songs, that’s OK. Because a writer is a writer is a writer. It’s an inspiring thing to watch as a woman. That feels like a new generation to me.

Everything seems to feel a bit more deliberate than did when I first signed my publishing deal in 2007. When I started, it felt like everyone was just showing up every day and writing songs with everybody and seeing where they landed. Now it feels like there is more thought put into the overall strategy behind who gets put in the room with whom and why and when. Everybody’s still working as hard—if not harder—but they’re working smarter too. 

It feels like the overall pace of a co-write has tremendously changed. Writers used to start at 10:00, chit-chat for 45 minutes, break at noon for lunch and go until 5, 6 or 7. Now there are days that writers are finishing a song at 9, writing a whole new song with someone else at 11, and maybe hitting the studio at 3. That’s the common denominator among the top-tier writers: They are hustling to the max. Lunch break is a thing of the past.

Melissa Peirce
(Disney Music Publishing/Patrick Joseph Music; Tyler Farr, Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Garth Brooks)

I see the emergence of the great song coming back and being able to break through again. There is greater diversity in what is getting played and accepted on radio, which is giving a greater freedom to songwriters to paint with a wider palette. The songwriting community is down to the workhorses and the scrappers. I don’t know anyone having success right now who isn’t an extremely hard worker, trying to balance the need for a great song with the constant challenge of staying present and relevant in the market.

Marty Dodson
(ole; Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Billy Currington)

When I began writing songs professionally in the mid-’90s, the Nashville writing scene revolved around the song. Great writers got together and wrote the best songs they could write while publishers were out on the streets playing those songs for anyone who would listen. Artists built their careers on great songs from great writers. Writing a great song was the only way to succeed.

Now it seems that we have shifted to a more “artist-based” model, where almost every artist writes. So, to get a song recorded, you have to get into the artist’s camp. Many times that means writing with the artist or someone close to them. This model works if the artist writes well. When that is not the case, the artist can wind up cutting weak songs that just happen to be the best ones that came out of their camp instead of cutting the best songs in town.

Studying artists that have had long careers and sold millions of records (George Strait, Garth Brooks, etc.) would suggest that in most instances, those who cut the best songs win in the long run, no matter where those songs came from.•

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