The great songwriters in country music history had one very basic way to create a song: Sit down with a guitar, a pen and a sheet of paper; find some words or a melody; then frame them with the right chord structure. There were exceptions, of course, but it was the same basic process for Hank Williams, Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton for decades.
But just as the rest of the culture has gone tech crazy, Nashville's songwriting community has increasingly turned to machinery to create new songs, and it's turned the process upside down. Kind of.
This article originally appeared in our twice-weekly Country Music Update
You hear the results on the radio. Programmed sounds from the original writers' demos have made their way into such hits as Keith Urban's "Little Bit of Everything," Blake Shelton's "Boys 'Round Here" and Eric Church's "Springsteen." And Music Row's writers have begun to write frequently to tracks, building melodies and/or words on top of pre-existing rhythms and chords, instead of using the words or the melodies as the original inspiration.
It's a technique long accepted in other music forms -- particularly R&B and hip-hop -- and it's been used experimentally in country, though never to the degree that it's occurring in 2013.
"We've been hearing it and using it around town for years, but you really weren't seeing it make it to the records," says songwriter Lee Thomas Miller ("In Color," "Southern Girl"). "Everybody's trying to hip 'em up and pop 'em up and hip-hop 'em up, but when they go into the studio and cut 'em, that stuff doesn't come along with it. It's changed."
Writing to a pre-programmed percussion loop isn't new. Hall & Oates and Phil Collins did plenty of that in the '80s, and Urban has been known to use a drum machine and a ganjo to write a song from scratch.
Writing to tracks is a little more complex. Often, a "track guy" -- as they're called -- will have a series of music beds and percussion already recorded before he sits down with a co-writer or two and reviews a few options to see if a track provides any inspiration.
Luke Laird ("Take a Back Road," "Pontoon"), one of BMI's two reigning country songwriters of the year, is regarded as the first to take the tech route seriously in Nashville. Lady Antebellum's song "Downtown" illustrates the process: Laird stored some rhythms and a guitar hook on a track in his laptop. When he played it for his co-writers, the words and much of the melody took shape from there.
Laird listened to hip-hop in Pennsylvania along with contemporary country during his formative years in the '90s, so it wasn't a stylistic stretch for him to gravitate to track writing. But practicality was what really drove him to first pursue it around 2007 or 2008. He was frequently discouraged by the demos he made to pitch to artists and producers.
"A lot of times, I was being let down -- not because of the musicians, because they're the best -- but maybe because I wasn't communicating what I was hearing in my head to them," Laird says. Numerous computer programs -- including Logic, Pro Tools and GarageBand -- allow a user to layer musical sounds, and he taught himself the fundamentals. It enabled him to fill out his demos with keyboard fills or guitar riffs. That meant that when he pitched songs, the artists and producers were hearing something that more closely resembled a finished product.
As it turns out, that's not only beneficial to the demos. It sometimes can inspire the songwriting process.