Country Songwriters Strike a New Chord as Genre Adopts Less-Safe Song Structures

Harper Smith


Country music, we've been told for years, is three chords and the truth.

But in the current environment, the genre's key, signature sound may be undergoing a minor adjustment.

"I guess now it's nine chords and the truth," says Old Dominion's Trevor Rosen with a laugh.

Nine might be on the high side, but the truth is that country is growing more experimental in its chord structures. Standard three-note triads are subtly giving way to more complex four-note chords, and songwriters are increasingly likely to inject a flat or a sharp into a chord that bends it ever so slightly    out of the key signature. It's sort of like gene therapy — making small alterations in DNA to yield a large effect — although the tweaks in a chord are about reshaping sonics and mood rather than changing gender or eliminating a genetic illness.

"They do this thing to your ear where they go somewhere that you didn't expect, and it feels good," says Midland's Jess Carson of those nonstandard chords.

He points to a quick passage in the sixth line of the chorus in the band's recent single, "Cheatin' Songs," where a small change in the underlying structure creates a momentary burn as they sing "slipped in the pocket."

"That chord, for lack of a better word, it's a little bit weird," says Carson. "It's not necessarily a safe change to go to right there, but it's great."

The "weird," or unsafe, chords often heighten the sense of tension and release that makes music work. The major seventh guitar intro in Old Dominion's new single, "Never Be Sorry," spikes a standard chord with a hint of dissonance. Dan + Shay's "I Should Probably Go To Bed" uses a major three chord, injecting a sharp note from outside the key signature that practically begs for resolution. The hook of Devin Dawson's "I Got a Truck" ends in the first chorus with him singing a note that's not actually in the underlying chord, creating a discomfort that matches the plot. Danielle Bradbery's "Never Have I Ever" momentarily threads an Eastern-flavored pentatonic scale into a typical major-scale motif, yielding an engaging sonic friction. Morgan Wallen's "7 Summers" uses a mix of major seventh and minor chords to build a sense of nostalgic loneliness.

"Maybe they're coming back," says Old Dominion guitarist Brad Tursi of adventurous chords. "If you listen to a lot of older, classic songs — like Billy Joel or whoever — they're still writing very catchy commercial songs, [but the] chord progressions are just so much more intriguing."

To non-composers, discussing chords might sound like plumbers rambling about 1/2-inch nuts and 3/8-inch bolts. But the effects are easy to understand if you compare music to a pinball machine. In that world, the placement of the flippers and bumpers influences the pinball's direction. In the same way, musical chords operate as flippers and bumpers, altering the path that a melody can reasonably take.

As country writers have increasingly created songs by using chord progressions that repeat through loops they store on laptops, the foundation of those songs has become more stagnant. And that's part of what might be at work in the surge of nonstandard chords. A few writers are returning to guitars and discovering that when they're not locked into a loop, they have freedom to inject a fresh sound when it fits.

"The tracks are still obviously very prevalent and should be because they're fantastic," says songwriter Josh Osborne ("7 Summers," "Never Be Sorry"). "I love writing with track guys, but I think you're also getting more guys, when they have a day to not write with a track, they're maybe getting a little more adventurous musically."

At the same time, those "out-of-town chords," as Dawson has called them, can allow some songs to grow beyond country. And as streaming has made the consumer more conscious of songs that fit a particular attitude rather than a particular genre, it has made country writers willing to think beyond the three chords that have historically supported their truth.

"All the country sessions I've been doing lately, there's very little policing — like, ‘No, I can't do that' — right now," says Los Angeles-based songwriter Sean Douglas ("I Should Probably Go To Bed," "Die a Happy Man"). "In fact, I think people are kind of excited to try and discuss [new things] lyrically, sonically, chordally, all that stuff."

Dan + Shay's Dan Smyers confirms that expansive attitude when he considers the second chord in the repeating undercurrent of "I Should Probably Go To Bed." "That major three allows you to kind of get funky on the thing," he says. "It gives it that classic Beatles, Beach Boys kind of feel. It feels quirky, unsettled, maybe a little bit introspective."

But injecting those atypical sounds can put a country song on an outbound trajectory, as Dan + Shay found with "Speechless," which took an uncommon progression to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart and to No. 5 on Adult Top 40.

"It is an example of genres really not meaning as much as they did before, and artists not wanting to be put in a box and wanting to experiment and be able to be on different radio formats and reach a broader audience," says Los Angeles-based Warner Chappell vp A&R Katy Wolaver. "I think by doing those kinds of things, being playful with the chords and production, it's a step forward in that direction of things, continuing to be universal and widespread and not being pigeonholed."

Moving too far in that direction, of course, can turn off some core country fans. Thus, the trick is to still employ traditional storytelling and to use those out-of-town chords — whether it's one or two or nine — in the most judicious manner. Willie Nelson has loaded up many of his guitar solos with passing chromatic notes from outside the key signature, and he ended up in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Thus, there's truth in country beyond the standard three chords.

"There's room for it," says Dawson. "You've just got to find the right way to do it. Don't force it if it isn't right."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.


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