Top Nashville songwriter/producer Luke Laird has written two dozen No. 1s for artists including Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. But as BMI’s 2012 country songwriter of the year and the recipient of the 2019 Grammy for best country song began writing a new batch of songs that turned into Music Row, it became clear that he was writing for—and about—himself.
“I was at a point where I had a collection of songs that were very personal and, to be honest, weren’t the easiest to pitch to other artists,” he tells Billboard. “My wife, Beth, encouraged me that it would be a good time to make my own album. This was before the pandemic, but having the extra time at home was great for focusing and finishing it.”
The album, which comes out Friday (Sept. 18), chronicles Laird’s path from Hartstown, Penn. to Nashville with each song effectively serving as a different aspect of his journey. Fittingly, Music Row comes out on Creative Nation Records, the label branch of Creative Nation, the publishing/management/artist development/label company started by Laird and wife Beth Mason Laird in 2011.
Laird shared with Billboard the creation of the album and some of its most intimate songs, as well as how songwriting has changed on Music Row and which hit has resonated with him the most.
This album is a musical diary. What do you want listeners to get from your stories that they can relate to?
Hopefully, even though it’s personal, listeners will relate to some of the themes. Whether it’s marriage (“One More Divorce”), addiction (“That’s Why I Don’t Drink Anymore”), relationships with friends (“Good Friends”), or losing someone (“Leaves on The Ground”), I hope there is something everyone can connect with.
How is writing songs you are going to perform different than writing for someone else?
To be honest, it’s easier, only because I don’t have to worry about things like “Would someone say this?” or “Will radio play this?”
One of the most personal is “That’s Why I Don’t Drink Anymore” about getting sober. Why was it the right time to share your story?
A lot of people close to me already know this whole story. As far why it seemed like the right time to share, that began after I played it one night at the Bluebird Cafe. After the show, a young lady came up to me and told me how much the song impacted her. She told me the story about her dad’s struggles with alcohol and she asked me if the song was available to buy anywhere. I told her it wasn’t but I got her email address and went home that night and recorded a guitar/vocal of it and sent it to her. That experience was really the catalyst to record and release this song. I do hope that those struggling with addiction can find hope in this song.
You and your wife run Creative Nation and she’s as well known in Nashville as you are. How did she feel about “One More Divorce?” Did she get to vet the songs?
Well, the truth is, while Beth and I don’t have the perfect marriage, this song wasn’t inspired by that. One day I was having lunch with the pastor from my church and jokingly he asked me if I ever wrote songs where “they stay together?” I told him, “Country music is built on cheating songs.” We both laughed, but then one day while I was sitting by myself I was thinking about what it would look like to write a song that was honest about the struggles of marriage, but also the sweetness of loving someone through the highs and lows.
How has the songwriting process changed over the years that you’ve been in Nashville?
One thing that is still the same is that most great songs begin with a great idea. Songwriters are still waking up every day trying to come up with great song ideas. I would say that these days you are more likely to get a cut when the artist is a writer on the song. That can at times be frustrating; however, many of the new artists I work with are actually great songwriters.
You wrote all of these songs by yourself except “Branch on the Tree.” You usually co-write. What is the key to a good co-writing session and how do you prepare?
I think the key to a good co-writing session is coming prepared. Whether your role is more lyrical or you are the track person, it’s always good to come with ideas. Also, everyone in the room should trust each other and be willing to share any ideas they have. I had written the chorus to “Branch on The Tree” and didn’t know where to go with the verses. Two of my best friends, Barry Dean and Lori McKenna, and myself were in a writing session and I asked if they could help me with it. Without hesitation they jumped on it and made it better than I ever could have on my own.
What do you do when a song you wrote comes on the radio?
If it’s the first time I’m hearing it, I turn it up as loud as I can and thank God. If I’ve heard it a bunch, sometimes I listen the whole way through, but lots of times I change the station.
Which one of your hits resonates the most with you?
Probably Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids.” It takes me right back to my hometown and all the great memories I have of it
How did Hartstown shape who you are?
It really made me value family. My family was very close. Lots of time with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. Also, my parents really taught me about priorities just by leading by example. We went to church every Sunday and my parents were always loving and supportive of whatever sports, music, I wanted to get involved in. I’m so grateful for that. Also, I loved growing up in a town where you would always run into someone you knew whether it be at the grocery store, church, or football game. It was a great place to grow up.
You were assistant tour manager for Brooks & Dunn when you first moved to Nashville. What did you learn from that job that has stuck with you?
I learned that there are so many behind-the-scenes people it takes to make this business what it is. It was also great for me to see how much the music affected the fans every night and it made my desire to be a songwriter that much stronger. I’m so grateful to have had that experience and those guys were incredible to work for.
On “Country Music Will Never Die” you mention some of the songwriters who inspired you. How do you feel knowing that a new generation of songwriters feels the same way about you as you do about Bob McDill or Harlan Howard?
I don’t even consider myself in the same league as those two writers, but it is very cool to get to do this for a living. When I meet new writers, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to have been doing this for as long as I have. I hope that I can inspire the next generation the way my heroes have inspired me.
The world is at a pivotal juncture in so many ways and many eyes are on country music. What are the key ways that writing rooms can become more diverse?
For me, I think it’s always being willing to work with new writers. A lot of my favorite co-writers are people who, even if we disagree on certain topics, we have a mutual love for music and great songs.
You host Country Replay Radio on Apple Music. What creative outlet does that provide for you and how do you decide which songs to highlight?
Since being a fan of country music is what brought me to Nashville in the first place, it’s really cool for an hour every day to DJ and highlight some of my current favorite songs as well as dig back into the 90s and play some of those songs that started my passion for country music. My show highlights Apple’s Country Replay playlist. but they also give me the freedom to play whatever I feel like.
What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
Michael Jackson, Thriller, on cassette.
What was the first concert you saw?
Randy Travis at the Crawford County Fair in Meadville, Penn. 1987. I was 9 years old and I went with my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Vince.
Who made you realize you could be a songwriter full-time?
Bill Luther, who is a great songwriter, heard a few of my songs and he really encouraged me and believed in me. He told me I had what it takes. That was huge for me.
What’s the last song you listened to?
If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?
What movie always makes you cry?
What TV series have you watched all the way through multiple times?
The Office. It’s lighthearted and super hilarious. I’ll never get tired of it.
If you were not a songwriter/producer, what would you be?
Maybe something involving kids. I used to work at YMCA after-school program and really enjoyed it.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Be more humble and use the gifts God gave you to elevate other people, not use them.