Pickup trucks, tailgates, back roads, bonfires and alcohol: commercial country has been obsessed with a handful of topics for several years, and just about every sector of the business -- from the songwriters to the labels to radio -- has voiced some level of frustration about what seems to be a limited lyrical approach.
But it keeps working, and writers keep finding new ways to write about those topics -- or to use them as a starting place to talk about something else.
Eric Paslay’s new single, “Song About a Girl” -- released by EMI to radio via Play MPE on Feb. 3 -- puts yet another tack on the issue, as a sort of anti-bro-country approach: “This ain’t about tailgates/Ain’t about bonfires/Ain’t about souped-up cars, water towers/Or drowning in a bottle of Jack.”
It’s a song about a girl, which, Paslay points out, is that to which all those songs that use the clichés are ultimately leading.
“We always talk about the bonfire -- there’s nothing sexy about a bonfire unless your chick’s glowing in it,” he says. “There’s nothing sexy about a tailgate unless your chick is sitting on it, and there’s definitely nothing sexy about the rusty water tower unless your chick’s name’s written on it, you know? Every time we sing a line in a country song, it’s always about the girl. So we just decided to write a song about it.”
Jessi Alexander (Miley Cyrus' “The Climb,” Blake Shelton's “Mine Would Be You”) brought the title with her when she met with Paslay for a writing session at the Nashville-area home of fellow writer Gordie Sampson (Carrie Underwood's “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Hunter Hayes' “Storm Warning”) in October 2012, the same month Paslay wrote Rascal Flatts’ “Rewind.” Alexander had also written Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck,” which Curb released to radio the next month, and she was already hearing negative feedback from other songwriters.
“I got a lot of crap for it in the beginning, when people saw the title, ‘I Drive Your Truck,’ ” she recalls. “I had friends like, ‘Oh, come on, Jessi. Are you writing truck songs now, too?’ Then, of course, when people hear the song, they know it’s so much more than that. But I think we all, as writers, are feeling a little boxed in by the topics.”
Oddly enough, the boxes became points of creative inspiration with “Song About a Girl,” which runs through a veritable laundry list of lyrical clichés -- hometowns, goodbyes, come-backs, the stars, the moon -- but always returning to its simple conclusion: “It’s a song about a girl.”
“We kind of turned brevity into a three-minute song,” says Paslay. “It’s just one line. The main point is that every song that comes on the radio today, you could say, ‘That’s about a girl.’ Like, ‘What’s this about?’ ‘It’s a song about a girl.’ If your kid in the back seat ever asks what this song is about, you just play them my song: ‘It’s a song about a girl.’ ”
And the kids may indeed be asking about a few topics in the song that were before their time. The first verse references Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and “coo-coo-ca-choos,” a shout-out to The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” a 46-year-old album cut that’s inspirational to many baby-boomer music executives but may not be familiar to a budding teen.
“Sometimes, the sound of the words will happen before the actual words,” Sampson notes. “So Eric will mumble something like, ‘Oo, oo, oo-oooh,’ and then it’s just about trying to find a word that fits in that hole, like ‘coo-coo-ca-choo.’ I remember reading an article about Shania Twain and Mutt Lange working together and them talking about that’s how she often would write, finding the sound of the words before finding the words themselves.”
“I’m hoping [“coo-coo-ca-choo”] makes people question and dig in deeper,” Alexander adds. “I mean, that’s what I did. When I heard different references about older artists, I was looking for them. So hopefully, it’ll bring a little light there.”
The “oo-oo-oo” sound reared its head again when they tackled the bridge. The “oo-oo-oo” morphed into “You-oo-oo-oo, yeah, you-oo-oo-oo, yeah, you-oo, you know who you are.”
“As a singer onstage, I always think a lot of people are gonna hear these songs live,” Paslay explains. “So it’s fun to just look through the crowd and go, ‘You, you, you, you know who are. All you girls. You know who you are.’ ”
All of the references and the “oos” were finished within a scant couple of hours, laced over a midtempo groove that was intended as a sort of rockin’ anthem.
“It’s all about Eric Paslay and his right hand, his guitar,” says Alexander. “He’s probably my favorite rhythm guitar player, ’cause he can sound like a whole band the way he plays.”
They made a work tape on their phones that day, then Sampson enlisted a band led by session musician Ilya Toshinsky for the demo. It got recorded, but Paslay told them to stop before they even started mixing. He’d already played the work tape for producer Marshall Altman (Marc Broussard, Frankie Ballard), and they were cutting it for Paslay’s debut album.
Altman, playing banjo, and Paslay, playing electric guitar, built a new version from the ground up, creating a pinging riff that formed a backbone for the song and changed it from a major key to a minor. That altered it from an anthemic piece into a more relentless groove -- Paslay initially protested, then decided it was an improvement. They also planned to add a bluesy harmonica to the opening, though Paslay ad-libbed more “oo-oos” while they were setting up. His off-the-cuff lines became a new hook. They ditched the harp in favor of his vocals, run through a hand-held harmonica mic and a series of distortion-producing pedals that give it a muddy quality. That intro riff repeats throughout the recording -- first played by two banjos, then by a bubbly rhythm guitar in the second verse (think The Chakachas’ disco hit “Jungle Fever” or Talking Heads’ new wave single “Burning Down the House”), then by banjos and fiddle.
“Three years ago when I first got to town, I would’ve heard that [guitar] line and pulled it,” says Altman. “When I first came to town I thought there were things that worked inside country music and things that don’t work inside country music. But what I’ve come to understand is that it doesn’t matter if there’s a mid-era disco/early-new wave sonic piece in it. If something’s country, it’s country.”
The initial response supports Altman’s beliefs. “Song About a Girl” debuted at No. 50 on Country Airplay this week. The chorus makes a bold prediction for itself -- “Think it’s gonna be a hit” -- and no one seems to think the line jinxes the song.
“It’s not that I’m not superstitious,” says Sampson, “but I actually think that there’s another way of looking at it. That line, when people hear it, they might go, ‘Man, I think it might be a hit, too.’ I’m crossing my fingers.”