As Eric Paslay launches his new single, “Angels in This Town,” he has connected the sound to a surreal photo that matches him to a huge pair of wings, so large that his 6-foot-6-inch frame actually looks small.
It’s an extreme representation of the sentiment behind “Angels,” the idea that something miraculously positive can happen in the most unexpected moments. The photo owes a debt to Kelsey Montague, who has been painting wings on murals around the globe as part of her What Lifts You campaign. In a small miracle, the wings she created in Nashville are on a building in the Gulch, just blocks from the office of Paslay’s management company, Red Light.
“She’s painted these wings all around the world, and people take pictures in front of it, and there’s even little wings beside it for like your kids or your dog,” says Paslay.
They’re perfect for “Angels in This Town,” a 2-year-old song that was built around the concept of guardian angels during a songwriting retreat at a rental house in Gulf Shores, Ala.
“You don’t know why God doesn’t send angels all the time,” reflects Paslay. “But the fact that He does, when He doesn’t have to, is a pretty amazing thing.”
Paslay’s then-girlfriend (now his wife), Liz Rose Music creative director Natalie Harker, was the angel who engineered “Angels in This Town.” Paslay had been scheduled to co-write at the 2014 retreat with Corey Crowder (“I’m Comin’ Over,” “Think of You”) and singer-songwriter Erik Dylan, but Paslay and Crowder went fishing instead. Near the end of the trip, Paslay had a two-hour window before he was to catch a plane, and Harker corralled them and sent them to work upstairs.
“She was very adamant about us writing a song before he left,” recalls Dylan.
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The writers’ conversation that day was about those odd, inexplicable occurrences that impact a life. Paslay knew a guy from his high school, Kerry Wood, who had felt as if another hand guided him when he caught an improbable Hail Mary touchdown pass in a sea of opponents. All the writers knew someone who had fallen asleep at the wheel, only to wake up just in time to barely escape an accident. And Paslay told a real-life story about a woman, walking alone, who was spared by a murderer who thought he saw two large men at her side.
With that thread already in their psyches, Crowder introduced an upbeat track he had created and saved specifically for Paslay. Two hours turned out to be plenty of time to write “Angels.”
“We had already done all the groundwork by talking about it,” says Crowder.
Paslay invented a melody over the chorus portion of the track on the fly, and he sang a bunch of half-mumbled syllables to go with it all. In that off-the-cuff moment, “Angels” appeared.
“I asked him if it was ‘Angels in this town’ that he sang,” remembers Dylan. “He said, ‘Yeah,’ and we just started writing it.”
They sewed up the chorus first, then went back and created the verses in a lower range with a series of short phrases. Paslay managed to stuff the entire story of the high-school touchdown into less than 25 seconds.
The second verse was likewise rhythmic, with Paslay recounting a moment when he fell asleep at the wheel and woke up in time to miss an accident by a fraction of an inch — “by the skin of your tire,” as Dylan said in a line that became key for that stanza.
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They finished with enough time for Paslay to sing lead and harmonies on the track, which was already fairly elaborate.
Then came the waiting. Paslay promised he would record “Angels in This Town” on his sophomore album, but his first self-titled project had just been released weeks before. They all knew it would be a while before he could do anything with it, and he would write perhaps 100 more songs by then.
“If somebody tells you two years out that they’re going to cut one of your songs, you’re kind of like, ‘All right, we’ll see,’ ” says Crowder. “Eric really stayed true to that. He’s always loved that song, and he’s always protected that song.”
Paslay played the demo for producer Marshall Altman (Frankie Ballard, Marc Broussard) on July 23, 2014, and in a follow-up song meeting on Sept. 16, they reaffirmed that “Angels,” with its gentle spiritual message, was an essential piece for the next album.
“That’s an important part of his life,” says Altman, “but I also think it’s an important part of who he is as an artist that he really communicates strongly.”
Altman assembled seven musicians for the tracking session at Blackbird Studio D, including multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Yudkin, who came up with a plucky line on mandolin or bouzouki that became a key part of the intro. Altman later got Yudkin to expand on the line, and they created a big string section for the track that approximates angels flitting about in the background.
Paslay cut the vocals at Altman’s studio, needing only five takes to nail it. The bulk of the performance comes from his second and third passes, indicative of how quickly Paslay was able to capture the essence of “Angels.”
“I’ve never heard him not connect to that song,” says Altman. “That’s one of the reasons I think it’s so powerful.”
As Paslay lived with the track, he ultimately decided it needed a remix. He asked Crowder, who produced Chris Young’s current album I’m Comin’ Over, if he could recapture some of the original demo’s power.
Crowder added some new programmed elements, made Tony Lucido’s bass and Aaron Sterling’s drums more prominent, and dialed back on Yudkin’s string parts, which he felt would have a greater effect if they peaked late in the song’s development.
“I wanted those strings to matter when you heard ’em,” says Crowder. “They’re there, but they really make themselves known starting in the little bridge spot before the last chorus, and then through the rest of the song, they’re in your face.”
Universal Music Group Nashville originally had another song in mind for a single, but UMGN chairman/CEO Mike Dungan called an audible during a staff meeting with Paslay, thinking it was time for a song with some weight.
“I was kind of like, ‘Cool, we can actually say something?’ ” jokes Paslay.
The guardian angels message became timely as a string of terrorist attacks and shootings between police and civilians dominated the news cycle in the early summer. “It’s a bummer that so much bad stuff is going on in the world right now,” says Paslay, “but I’m glad that [“Angels”] kind of shines a light on the fact that good things still do happen.”
Released to radio via Play MPE on July 5, the single is being supported by a series of “angel visits,” with Paslay recognizing such entities as Habitat for Humanity, first responders and Ronald McDonald houses in different cities. Additionally, there’s some talk about bringing Montague’s What Lifts You wings on tour.
“She wants me to build a wall, and we’ll paint it and take it out on the road where people can take pictures in front of these wings,” says Paslay. “Hopefully that happens.”
It would certainly back up the premise — there would be angels in every town where Paslay performs.
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.