More than a dozen years after releasing his first independent album, Casey Donahew has become a steady, if underrated, player in the country genre, with each of his last four projects hitting the top 10 on the Country Albums chart.
The Texas-based singer-songwriter’s next album — One Light Town, due July 26 on his Almost Country label — includes what might be his most enticing individual track to date: “Let’s Make a Love Song,” a pulsing production that makes an unconventional break with his own history. Casey writes the majority of his material, and he freely admits that his tendencies toward broken hearts and difficult subject matter can sometimes annoy his wife, Melinda Donahew, who also manages his career.
“Things are great in my life, so it’s always weird,” he says. “You know, some painters paint flowers, and then some painters paint skulls and skeletons and that’s just what they’re good at.”
“Let’s Make a Love Song” takes on a much more positive tone than Casey’s typical recordings, and it arrived in his hands through a series of unusual events. For one, producer Josh Leo (Alabama, Love and Theft) tends to avoid pitching self-penned songs to his clients, but he decided to email one of his demos to Melinda. Once he talked himself into that step, he actually sent her the wrong file. He had intended to pitch “A Million Miles Closer” — an uptempo song that he had co-written with Dustin Lynch and Tim Nichols (“Cowboys and Angels,” “Live Like You Were Dying”) — but had attached the slinky “Love Song” instead.
However, Melinda loved “Let’s Make a Love Song” — and so did Casey, who appreciated both the song and the endorsement his wife gave it.
“She was like, ‘Wow, you know, if a guy felt like this about me, then that would be it,’” says Casey. “So I listened to it and immediately liked it.”
But that was a bit of a problem, since “Let’s Make a Love Song” was under consideration in Blake Shelton’s camp.
“It could have been weird,” Leo says, “but it didn’t get weird.”
Leo came up with the initial sequences for the song in a near-sleep state in January 2017. Just before he dozed off, he locked into a compact melodic phrase. He repeated it three times, then tacked on “Let’s make a love song” as the payoff and recorded what became a four-line verse.
“I tend to, as a melody person, try to find something simple and repeat [it] so that people can catch on and sing along,” he says. “I’m not a great singer — I’m not Aretha Franklin — so I’m not going to do that kind of stuff. So I tend to go for more of The Beatles: same thing over and over.”
The next morning, Leo matched it with a chord structure and hammered out a little more of the idea, including the basis for the chorus — “We got all night/ I been thinkin’ of you all day” — that treats music as a metaphor for passion.
“It’s another way of saying, ‘Let’s fuck,’” notes Leo.
The first time he dropped the idea on a co-writer, it generated zero interest. But when Leo brought it up the second time, during a writing appointment with Nichols and Jimmy Yeary (“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” “I Drive Your Truck”) at THisS Music on Music Row, he found willing partners.
“What a great concept that two people could actually make a love song,” says Yeary. “All the ingredients that are in a love song — instead of singing it or hearing it, they could actually live it. I loved it.”
The woman’s heartbeat became the song’s rhythm, and the chorus tunes in clearly to the message she’s broadcasting: “You’re like a radio tower in the midnight hour/ Coming in loud and strong.”
Nichols flashed on a line from Neal McCoy’s “They’re Playin’ Our Song” — “A million watts of love power comin’ on strong” — but also saw the “in the midnight hour” line as a tribute to ’60s R&B figure Wilson Pickett. The writers cemented the soul motif in the second verse with “Kisses like a Motown record spinnin’/ Baby keep ’em coming/ You got me listenin’.”
“Those Motown songs were pretty simple, straight ahead, really accessible types of songs,” says Nichols. “Those are the ones that can resonate the most at some basic core level.”
“That era of music was just a very sexy, cool, fun, smile-on-your-face kind of music,” adds Yeary. “That was just appropriate for the setting of the two people in the song.”
Yeary sang the demo, which painted a new wave/pop coat on top of their soul-stirred country framework.
“We had heard that Blake loved ‘Every Breath You Take,’” says Leo. “So I instructed the guy doing the demo, ‘Don’t get it really close, but get it kind of close. Use that groove.’ So he did, and that was the version that we pitched to Casey.”
Both The Police’s “Every Breath” and Casey’s “Love Song” are midtempo efforts with descending bass eighth notes and arpeggiated guitar chords, though the melodies and phrasing are fairly dissimilar. Casey actually accessed the production through a different filter.
“I kept going back to the Puff Daddy remake version of it [“I’ll Be Missing You”] when [The Notorious B.I.G.] got killed,” he says. “I kept hearing that in the intro.”
Leo consciously lightened those elements when they recorded “Love Song” among more than 15 other tracks during a three-day period at Starstruck Studios in Nashville in November 2018. Casey knocked it out quickly when he sang the final version a week or two later — “He does his homework,” says Leo — applying a classic kind of male-country approach to a love song.
“That masculine vulnerability,” says Nichols, “to a female audience, that can be attractive. Masculine and vulnerable at the same time is a pretty good place to be.”
The singalong quality of “Love Song” and its radio-tower reference made it a likely choice for a single somewhere along the line, but it became an obvious lead single once it made its way into public circulation.
“Everyone just felt like this was the strongest song streaming right out of the gates,” says Casey. “And so that made it the clear choice to be the first single.”
Almost Country sent it to country radio via PlayMPE on April 29. Whether audiences pick it up from terrestrial towers or from digital streaming signals, they’ll likely find they have little choice but to listen. Thus, the come-on message in “Let’s Make a Love Song” becomes an invitation to another kind of relationship: an interaction between artist and fan.
“You’ve got to have something people can sing along to, and that’s a big part of our live show,” says Casey. “I don’t want people sitting there in silence. I want people singing along, standing up and being a part of the show.”