Songwriter Zach Crowell Nabs Dual Candy-Coated No. 1s With Sam Hunt, Billy Currington

Zach Crowell
Zach Crowell

Zach Crowell photographed on Aug. 1, 2017 at L27 in Nashville, Tenn.

When songwriter-producer Zach Crowell slipped into Billboard's Country Power Players party on Aug. 1, he received plenty of figurative pats on the back.

Just the day before, Sam Hunt's "Body Like a Back Road," produced and co-written by Crowell, had established a new record by spending a 25th straight week atop the Hot Country Songs chart, which measures airplay, sales and streaming. At the same time, another Crowell co-write, Billy Currington's "Do I Make You Wanna," occupied the top slot on the Country Airplay tally.

A No. 1 song is difficult enough, but to reign on two different singles charts with two different tracks? Crowell knew he was in rare company.

"I definitely sent a couple of bragging texts to co-writers and friends, just to talk trash, but it was all in fun," says Crowell. "I thought, 'It's got to be a cool and unique thing,' but I don't remember it happening a bunch."

It actually marks the 16th time the feat has been accomplished since Hot Country Songs was introduced five years ago in the issue dated Oct. 20, 2012. In fact, it represents the second time Crowell has ruled the two charts as a writer on separate songs: Hunt's "House Party" and Dustin Lynch's "Hell of a Night" ranked at No. 1 on both Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay on Sept. 19, 2015.

As different as the slinky "Back Road" and more centrist "Do I Make You Wanna" sound, the two songs share a bond that points to the path Crowell traversed.

"There's R&B tendencies in both of them, melodically and groove stuff," says Crowell. "That's kind of the world that I come from, the R&B world, so that's probably a common thread, but they definitely don't sound like each other. You wouldn't think they're related."

A Nashville native, Crowell soaked up a certain amount of country by sheer osmosis. But rap and hip-hop held more sway for him during his school years, particularly the ultra-rhythmic, heavily programmed work of producer Mannie Fresh on Cash Money acts Lil Wayne and Juvenile.

"That was what I was digesting all day, every day, for like a 10-year stretch," says Crowell.

Not surprisingly, the synthetic percussion of those albums gave Crowell a starting point when he decided to pursue music. He bought an Akai MPC2000 drum machine and began creating beats on his own. Once he became proficient with that, he added a keyboard, then employed a computer to build full-fledged mixes. During the course of a decade, his self-training progressed to the point where he created choruses and music beds and sold them to local musicians for $50, $100, $500 -- whatever the market would bear.

In the mid-2000s, Crowell spent a couple of years as a tour manager for his cousin, songwriter Josh Hoge ("Think of You," "Used to Love You Sober"), which gave him more insight into the life and financial realities of working artists. Hoge, in turn, introduced Crowell to songwriter Ashley Gorley ("That's My Kind of Night," "You Should Be Here"), who likewise has landed dual songs at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay three times. Gorley had, at the time, just scored his first country hit or two, but he shared Crowell's R&B fetish. When Gorley eventually formed his own publishing company -- Taperoom, associated with Combustion Music and Warner/Chappell -- he signed Crowell and helped develop his commercial sensibilities.

"A lot of times, a publisher's job is to kind of hype you up, pat you on the butt and make you feel like you're pretty," says Crowell. "Sometimes that works, but one thing that worked well with Ashley is he was honest with me, and it was crucial for him to be honest. If you're writing C-minus songs all day thinking you're going to get on the radio with that, it's just not the case. That was right when he was hitting his stride. He was in the zone -- and he's still in the zone -- so I believed him."

Crowell was essentially in the right place as Nashville began to incorporate pop/hip-hop writing techniques during the last few years. He became one of the town's "track guys" -- he often brings an instrumental bed to a songwriting session, as he did when he co-wrote "Heartbeat" with Gorley and Carrie Underwood -- and at a time when country's heavily synthesizing sounds from other genres, he has become a proficient songwriter, co-writing and/or producing music for Keith Urban ("Cop Car"), Scotty McCreery ("See You Tonight"), Cole Swindell ("Middle of a Memory") and Dustin Lynch ("Small Town Boy").

It was a Lynch hit, "Where It's At (Yep, Yep)," that helped define Crowell's niche. He filled a vacant space in the production with a quixotic "yep, yep," which became the identifiable hook of that song. He points to the background hollering in "Body Like a Back Road" and the "scratch-offs" reference in "Do I Make You Wanna" as other examples of that eye for a quirky lyric or sound that helps set a record apart.

"I've always referred to it as 'the candy,'" he says. "I'm the guy in the room who's typically getting turned on when we find little candy moments and little sprinkle things. It's funny. People say, 'What do you do when you're [writing] in a room?' 'I don't know.' It's that emotion or that feeling that those little bitty things get. 'Body Like a Back Road' is full of candy things. It's probably the most candy song I've ever done."

"Back Road" and "Do I Make You Wanna" helped make the Billboard party a sweet moment for Crowell. At the event, BBR Music Group executive vp Jon Loba acknowledged those two songs and his production work with Lynch, noting that this would be a good time for Crowell to be at the end of his contract. In fact, his deal runs out by the end of the year, putting Crowell in an enviable position as he talks about renewing with Warner/Chappell, Combustion and Taperoom -- or establishing a new relationship elsewhere.

"It is a good time," says Crowell, as "Back Road" and "Wanna" repeat their chart-topping success on the Aug. 22 charts. "It is nice to have a good game before you go in and talk to the coach."

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