Songwriter Hunter Phelps has had a banner year, notching his fifth overall Billboard Country Airplay chart-topper two weeks ago with Dylan Scott’s “New Truck.” One week earlier, Jake Owen took another Phelps co-write, “Best Thing Since Backroads,” to No. 2 on the same chart.
These successes came on top of the Country Music Association honoring Phelps in May with its prestigious CMA Triple Play Award for penning three No. 1 country hits within a 12-month period: the Chase Rice/Florida Georgia Line collaboration “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen,” the Rodgers/Luke Combs duet “Cold Beer Calling My Name,” and the Dustin Lynch/MacKenzie Porter pairing “Thinking ‘Bout You,” which spent six weeks atop Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Even better, Phelps’ mentor, legendary songwriter Ashley Gorley told Phelps of the milestone. “He sent me a screenshot of the news and was like, ‘Welcome to the club, buddy. Triple play, you got it.’ When you think of having three No. 1s in a year, it just seems impossible,” Phelps says. “I’m so grateful.”
For the Florida native, his passion for songwriting is just carrying on a family tradition. His father was an aspiring songwriter who would create music in the family’s home studio and often brought over fellow local musicians to play music.
“He was a member of NSAI [Nashville Songwriters Association International], but he never came to Nashville,” Phelps recalls. “He would talk about songwriting and he probably wrote about 100 songs. At an early age, I knew people wrote big songs for artists. Seeing all of this happen for me, he definitely is super proud.”
By age 12, Phelps began learning guitar — and in his teen years he balanced school, music and working at Marina Dry Storage in Niceville, Florida. While earning his bachelor’s degree in building construction at the University of Florida, he began playing in a local band.
“We played our friends’ tailgate [parties] for free, every home game. Probably only had two paying gigs in four years,” he says with a laugh. Still, the performances solidified his passion for music and, despite having no Nashville connections, Phelps moved to Nashville in June 2012.
Within days of arriving, Phelps met fellow singer-songwriter Jameson Rodgers at a writer’s round at the Commodore Grille. They became regular collaborators — and one of their co-writes, “I Love This Town,” ended up on a four-song EP Phelps recorded in 2014. Phelps was already signed with performing rights organization ASCAP, and met with then-ASCAP exec Ryan Beuschel (now with Warner Chappell), who referred Phelps to Robert Filhart, who also worked at ASCAP at the time.
Filhart asked Phelps whom he most wanted to write with, and Phelps aimed high, naming Gorley. “The next day, Ashley was texting me to set up a time to get breakfast and talk songwriting. It all happened super-fast,” Phelps says.
That same year, Phelps landed a joint publishing deal with Warner Chappell Nashville and Gorley’s Tape Room Music. Within months, he landed his first cut with “Wish You Were On It” on Florida Georgia Line’s 2016 album Dig Your Roots. Though his first No. 1 Country Airplay hit didn’t come until 2019, as a co-writer on Chris Lane’s “I Don’t Know About You,” Phelps says he wasn’t discouraged.
“It was awesome because it was the first time I’d ever been paid to be able to write songs full time. I wasn’t worried because I had a publishing deal and was writing songs, and there were different holds that were encouraging.”
Gorley’s bucolic property, tucked away near the Harpeth River outside of Nashville, has become a regular writing spot for Phelps. “I’ll bring shrimp to fry and we’ll hang out and have a couple of beers before we start writing,” he says. “We’ll write a song in the afternoon and maybe go catch some bass or get on kayaks in the river. We’re not just grinding out songs the entire time, but I think that’s why it’s so productive.” He adds, “I’ll write up there even if I’m not writing with Ashley. Sometimes I just wanna do something different besides going to the Row.”
Phelps authored “New Truck,” as well as HARDY’s top 15 Country Airplay hit, “Give Heaven Some Hell,” during a writing retreat in July 2019 at Gorley’s home. “Me, HARDY, Ashley and Ben Johnson wrote [future HARDY hit] ‘Give Heaven Some Hell’ that [first] evening and ‘New Truck’ was the first song we wrote the next morning. I had a title idea called ‘Old Songs, New Truck,’ or something like that. Ashley heard ‘New Truck’ and jumped all over it as a song.”
Phelps penned “Best Thing Since Backroads” at Round Hill studio in Nashville, with Ben Johnson, Jordan Minton and Geoff Warburton. Blake Shelton put the song on hold prior to Owen cutting it. “Jordan threw out the title idea and we just took off with it. It was a quick write,” Phelps says. “Ben got this vibe with a real country, four-on-the-floor, old Waylon [Jennings] and Alabama-style thing. We had the song in probably two hours and a couple of hours later we had the vocal cut and the song [demo] sitting in our text messages.”
Of course, not every song has come so easily. “Missing One,” which Phelps wrote with Rodgers in 2017, took months to perfect. “It was two months of meeting every other week and messing with the chorus,” Phelps recalls. “It took us forever to write that chorus — and once we landed on what we got, it felt like finding magic with it.”
Phelps says one of the prime benefits of his deal with Tape Room Music is getting to work with Gorley, who has written 49 No. 1 Billboard Country Airplay hits.
“Just watching how he works is priceless,” Phelps says. “I was writing with him yesterday, and I reminded him of something: I used to keep a little river boat at his house, back before I had a garage. I wrote a song one day and was finished by 1:00 and was like, ‘Sweet, I’m gonna take the rest of the day off and ride around the river.’ I went to Ashley’s house and got my boat. As I’m pulling out of the driveway, he’s pulling into his driveway, and he had already written two songs with Chris Janson and was writing one with Darius Rucker. I was like, ‘Dang, he’s doing his third writing session of the day. This is why this dude has so many freakin’ hits.’”
Gorley has taught him how to quickly identify when to stick with a song and when to move on. “I used to finish every song I started,” Phelps says. “Now, unless I think I have something really cool that’s firing on all cylinders, I’ll try to move on to something else. Usually if you’re not figuring out the song quickly, you’re probably not gonna crack the code that day, though you might do it a different day.”
As a songwriter, he says the challenges have shifted as his career has ascended: “If you just got to town, the challenge is getting in the door and getting your name around, to the point where people are inviting you to [writing sessions]. But now, I feel like the most important thing these days is getting the single — because that’s how you put food on the table. I’ve been extremely lucky in the last couple of years to get a handful of singles, and I’m super thankful for that, but that is definitely the toughest part.”
Parallel to writing hits for other artists, Phelps has periodically released his own music, including the 2017 EP Hope It Starts Raining. Last year, he put out the single “Whiskey Mode,” and last week released “Bird Dog,” written with Brent Anderson and Jacob Rice.
“It’s about a sunset ride with your girl and some beer in the back of the truck,” Phelps says. “I love the hook, because I think it’s a fresh way to say what some of my favorite artists have been singing about forever.”
Still, he says he has no plans for another full album. “It’s not at the top of the list of things I’m putting energy behind, only because songwriting is doing so well right now,” Phelps says. “But I’m going to keep putting out my own music for fun, and if something does take off as an artist, then that’s awesome.”
As successful as he has been, Phelps still has a wish list with plenty of artists’ names on it that he’d like to record his songs, including Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church and Tim McGraw. “I would think those would be some of the toughest ones to get cuts on, just because they have had guys they have leaned on as writers or co-writers,” he says. “Kind of like how I’m really tight with Jameson and HARDY. But I’ve been a fan of them since way before I was writing songs, so that would be incredibly cool to write a song that is good enough to get cut with as an outside person.”
Phelps also has another, more personal songwriting ambition: sharing a co-writing credit with his father.
“He has a song, and it’s like a father-son idea,” he says. “I want to write a second verse to it and record it one day.”