The new Blake Shelton single is a study in contrasts. "Doin' What She Likes" features a guy who's mostly been tamed but still harbors a wild streak. It's a love song that was written in the middle of a hunting expedition. And it's a country single that might never have been recorded if it wasn't for a unique sound effect that's more closely associated with 1970s R&B.
That sound is there within the first bar, a bubbly little five-note passage that continues to fill in the crevasses between Shelton's phrases after he begins singing. It was created by a wah-wah pedal, central to the scratchy guitar rhythms that populated such classics as Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft," The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," Love Unlimited Orchestra's "Love's Theme" and Rose Royce's "Car Wash." Eric Clapton also used the wah during solos in Cream's "White Room."
But in "Doin' What She Likes," the wah is hooked up to a banjo that John Willis originally played during the demo session. It's trippy, unusual and makes the song instantly identifiable.
"It just had an odd effect," says songwriter Wade Kirby ("All Over the Road," "I Saw God Today"). "You can kind of tell that it's a banjo, but kind of not. And it doesn't sound like an electric guitar. If it had been an electric, it would have had a little disco vibe to it, but it's still country because it was a banjo."
"It's a distinctive sound," producer Scott Hendricks agrees. "There's stuff that's different all the time that I entertain from musicians, but a lot of times it's out of bounds. This is not out of bounds."
Defining as the wah is, it wasn't an intrinsic piece of the song when Kirby and Phil O'Donnell ("Give It All We Got Tonight," "She Won't Be Lonely Long") started "Doin' What She Likes" during a December 2011 hunting trip. Kirby stayed in a cabin on O'Donnell's property near Centerville, Tenn., for several days, and the two would meet early in the morning and drive around looking for deer. But it was really more about hunting for songs than for bucks.
"Mostly, we would see something, and we'd go, ‘Yep, there's some there,'" O'Donnell recalls with a laugh. "But then it was, ‘Do you want to shoot?' ‘Well, if we shoot, then we'll have to go and pick it up, and you know, it's kind of cold out. It's real warm in this jeep.'"
On Dec. 20, they returned to the cabin about 10 a.m. and started playing with a loop that Kirby had built on a new drum machine. The groove had a romantic feel to it, and they began imagining the cabin, simple and grimy as it was, as a getaway for a couple. They envisioned the ladder to the loft as a staircase to a more inviting bedroom, and somehow they were able to transform the drab hunting outpost into a veritable love nest.
"If somebody was filming this thing, looking at these two kind of non-shaven guys, with this camouflage thing talking about watermelon candles upstairs, with a hip-hop drum loop going, with a dang rifle about three inches away, it's just ridiculous," Kirby says.
They purposely kept the images loose enough that the storyline could fit a couple at just about any stage of a relationship.
"She could be 18 years old, she might be 38 years old, but what woman don't want to hear how good she's looking in them blue jeans," O'Donnell says. "She could be eating sushi at Sushiyobi or in the line at the buffet at Shoney's. Come on."
They recorded the demo with O'Donnell on vocals two months later at engineer Dan Frizsell's Legends Studio, a recording site in Nashville's Berry Hill neighborhood. Willis introduced the wah effect, and within a few weeks, Big Tractor Music GM Clay Myers got Hendricks to listen. Myers didn't need to pitch the demo to anyone else: Hendricks forwarded it to Shelton, who happens to own property adjacent to the land where the song was written. Shelton cut the master at Ocean Way before the summer was over.
"It's kind of domestic, and that's pretty much what I am now," Shelton notes. "There's a lot of elements of that song that are just so true to mine and Miranda [Lambert's] life together. It's about a guy that's just, as long as he's making her happy, then he's happy."
The banjo lines with the wah effect were missing from the original tracking session, which created some uncertainty—"There's really nothing signature about the actual track without that," Shelton says—but Hendricks welded Willis' demo performance onto the recording. Shelton cut the final vocals after that at the Los Angeles house where he stays during production on NBC's "The Voice."
"The only part of the song that I can't quite figure out, and it's actually my favorite part, is I've never actually smelled a watermelon candle," Shelton notes. "I've smelled pumpkin spice and some Christmas spirit and all kinds of peppermint. I don't know that I've ever smelled a watermelon candle. Maybe I should make them and sell them in my merch."
Other parts are extremely familiar, particularly the bridge's reference to rewriting song lyrics to get a reaction from his wife. "I try to make them disgusting," he says. "I rewrote, ‘These are my people/This is where I come from' by Rodney Atkins, and I changed it to, ‘This is my peehole/This is where I cum from.' Miranda's in the back seat, saying, ‘Don't say that.'"
The second verse's racing allusions bolster the bad-boy piece of Shelton's public image, though he concedes it's not exactly accurate.
"The truth is I'm the slowest fucking driver you've probably ever met," he admits. "I do like to go down dirt roads and stuff, but I don't like going fast. That's the only part that's just kind of me just wishing, I guess, that I had the balls to be sideways on a dirt road fast. But I'm usually driving slow, looking for deer."
In the end, it's a good enough fit that "Doin' What She Likes" caught on immediately after Warner Bros. released it to radio via Play MPE on Dec. 16. In its first month, it's already at No. 22 on Country Airplay and at No. 28 on Hot Country Songs.
The record's balancing acts—the R&B effect on a country instrument, the domesticated rebel, the watermelon candle imagined by a couple guys in the middle of hunting—are clearly connecting. That's not entirely surprising: The song's originators, Kirby and O'Donnell, balanced their reality with their fantasy self-images. They aren't much different than Shelton, who's pretty similar to the men in his core audience.
"We're two hunter dudes," Kirby says. "We don't exactly buy candles, you know. But in our minds, we picture ourselves as that guy."