Why Country Songwriters Won't Be Putting Their Phones Down Anytime Soon
You're not imagining it: tons of country songs mention smartphones in the lyrics. "The phone is a part of your body at this point," says one songwriter. "It's going to be a lyric in a lot of songs."
It has practically replaced the magazine in the doctor's office waiting room, superseded the CD rack as a place to connect with music and almost eliminated the radio alarm in bedrooms across America.
Since Apple introduced the first smartphone to America in 2007, the telephone -- once locked by cords to specific locations -- has become a ubiquitous device across every aspect of life. Drivers check them at red lights, country artists use them to connect with fans from the bus, and a certain president finds it a convenient way to lash out from his bedroom at people and policies he doesn't like.
As the phone has grown in importance, its influence has likewise increased in country songs. At least four titles currently in the Country Airplay top 20 -- Florida Georgia Line's "Simple," Old Dominion's "Hotel Key," Cole Swindell's "Break Up in the End" and Justin Moore's "Kinda Don't Care" -- reference the device or its impact. And a bundle of other recent titles -- like Luke Bryan's "Light It Up," Luke Combs' "One Number Away," Old Dominion's "Written in the Sand" and Rascal Flatts' "I Like the Sound of That" -- have made the phone's omnipresence felt in the context of their lyrics.
"The problem with the phone thing is it's not going away," says songwriter Rhett Akins, a co-writer of Carlton Anderson's "Drop Everything," which finds a woman rejecting her boyfriend's repeated calls. "The phone is a part of your body at this point. It's going to be a lyric in a lot of songs."
It's practically a linchpin in songwriting. Where composers used to scribble potential song titles in notebooks or on loose scraps of paper, they now log them into their handheld device. While the work tape was captured on reel-to-reel tape, cassette or CD in previous eras, it's now recorded on that same handheld phone. And it's also the medium many writers use to send their demos to artists or producers who might be interested. If it's that central to the process, it's bound to appear in the work.
"Face it: We're all addicted to these things," says Old Dominion's Brad Tursi, co-writer of "Light It Up" and "Written in the Sand." "You obviously write about what you know, and a lot of times, you're interacting with people via text or some sort of messaging system on your phone, so it's a timely thing to write about."
The phone has, in fact, been ingrained in people's lives for over a century, as Reba McEntire noted in her 1994 single "Why Haven't I Heard From You," which excoriates an uncommunicative lover with a brief history lesson about the device: "Well, back in 1876, an ol' boy named Bell/Invented a contraption that we know so well."
As a familiar household item, it has played a role in country songs through the decades, including Bob Luman's "The Pay Phone," Lee Ann Womack's "Last Call," Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," Eddy Raven's "I Should've Called," Barbara Mandrell's "Operator (Long Distance Please)" and Travis Tritt's "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)." The conversation in Jim Reeves' 1959 single "He'll Have to Go" -- which he opens by crooning, "Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone" -- could conceivably have been conducted on a party line, a then-common system that linked multiple customers on a single local network. Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty's 1974 release "As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone" used a now-vintage telephone ring to launch its breakup message. And Collin Raye's 1994 hit "That's My Story" finds an out-of-touch husband suggesting the couple should get a cellular phone, which was considered a luxury at the time.
"It's a different world than when I was a kid," said Tim McGraw in 2013 after a dead cellphone inhabited the storyline of "Highway Don't Care," his collaboration with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban. "I remember not having a phone, period. So having a phone outside of your house and talking on the phone and texting and driving, it's not ingrained in [my generation]. It is now, because we've lived with it for a while, but that's all [kids] know."
That generational gap may have played a role when William Michael Morgan's "Missing," a song that celebrated getting off the grid, didn't take off even though it sounded very much like a hit.
"It didn't connect with the younger audience," says Warner Music Nashville senior vp A&R Cris Lacy. "Some of the feedback that came back is the younger audience doesn't want to go missing. They don't want to be detached from their cellphones."
Smartphones took off in Japan eight years before they spread across the United States, and Bryan's producer, Jeff Stevens, remembers being shocked during that period when he visited the country and saw an entire culture more focused on its screens than its neighbors.
"Within a couple years of that, we looked just like they did over there in social situations, everybody kind of looking at your phone and hoping somebody will light it up," he says. "On Facebook, you post something on there, and then you keep checking to see if anybody's responded. You sort of get like Pavlov's dog."
That was certainly true of the character in Bryan's "Light It Up." The guy drags his phone to bed, to the shower and to his truck, waiting for a romantic communique that never comes. One line, "I feel the buzz in my truck/And I almost wreck it," acknowledges distracted driving.
"I didn't say, ‘You text.' I just said, ‘You feel the phone buzzing, and you freak out,' " he says. "We did think about that [distinction] while writing it."
In a telling amalgamation of behaviors, the phone's influence is inescapable in Combs' "One Number Away." It captures a bruised lover debating whether to tap that last digit in a phone number and reach out to his ex in desperation. Combs logged the lyrics into his smartphone, and the first time he sang it publicly, he read the words off his device at a venue in Asheville, N.C. That performance was captured, naturally, on a smartphone.
"There's an old YouTube video hanging around from the very first time we played it," songwriter Rob Williford notes, "and Luke is reading the lyrics off of his phone in the concert."
And the phone then becomes a playback platform for "One Number Away."
"Everyone's on it," co-writer Sammy Mitchell says. "They're probably hearing it as they're holding the phone."
It's also a place where they're hearing "Simple," in which Florida Georgia Line uses Instagram as a metaphor for everything that sucks up attention on the phone. FGL's Tyler Hubbard dropped off the platform for several months in 2015, and "Simple" encourages listeners to go offline periodically, too. The phone may be here to stay, but it doesn't have to run your life.
"Being present in the moment with your friends or with your family, I found that's a large struggle for a lot of people in this day and age, myself included," says Hubbard. "It is just a reminder to live in the moment. Be present, and don't miss what God has right in front of you."