“Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.”
Jim Carrey’s line from the 2003 movie Bruce Almighty is a humorous take on a female’s ability to handle the egos, fish tales and dad jokes that are often part and parcel of their husbands’ public presentations. But the eye rolls are less important than the roll of the dice those women take when they make a commitment to stand by their man. And any guy worth his salt is aware of their role in his life.
Thus, Matt Stell’s sense of his own familial inheritance fits his new single, “Man Made.”
“I come from a long line of badass women,” Stell says.
And they likely instilled an appreciation for dad jokes – wordplay, as they’re called by country music songwriters – which is part of the reason he ends up infusing so much believability into the song and its turn-of-a-phrase hook: “Behind any guy doing anything right is a woman’s work at hand/ If a man made anything it’s ‘cause a woman made that man.”
“A lot of what makes country music great is the lyric turn — you know, when the lyrics do something interesting,” Stell says. “I think the title of this song definitely does that. You think it’s one thing, and you hear it, and it’s another. That’s my favorite way for a lyric to work. And then it’s got a melody that I just want to sing a million times.”
A woman’s work is definitely at hand in the creation of “Man Made,” which had its genesis in the Nashville-area kitchen of songwriter Brett Sheroky on Nov. 12, 2018. For cowriter Ian Christian, the inspiration was a composite of several influential females — but for Sheroky, it was entirely an appreciation for his wife, Christi, who he met when they both studied speech therapy at Southern Illinois in Edwardsville. She convinced him to move to Nashville so he could pursue writing, and they waited a difficult 11 years of him working by day and writing at night before he finally got a publishing deal.
“I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for her,” Sheroky reasons. “I wouldn’t have kept doing it and kept trying if it wasn’t for her. So that hook, the idea of the song — she is the epitome.”
Christian suggested the “Man Made” title, and Sheroky had a similar idea, so he had already thought a bit about the creative journey they were about to take.
“I didn’t have anything other than the fact that not everything’s man made, and I kind of knew I wanted [it] to be more of like a praise for women,” Christian recalls. “Then Brett took that – I remember him saying, ‘Why are you holding that idea?’ – and he just ran with that, and really was able to land that hook.”
Sheroky also devised the underlying acoustic guitar part, a lilting, rhythmic thread with a faint Jack Johnson vibe that includes an almost-jazzy ninth chord, a rarity in country. Knowing where it was headed, they dug in at the top of the first verse, compiling a laundry list of significant inventions by men who presumably required a woman’s support to change the world. The bulk of those creations fall between 1850-1920: skyscrapers, the record player, the radio, the airplane, the light bulb. They Googled those objects’ histories, too, to make sure they were created by men.
The chorus very specifically gave a nod to Mama. And when they tackled verse two, they purposely abandoned the list approach, settling on just two creations inspired by women – the wheel, “so he could drive a girl around”; and the Mona Lisa, which got its own bouncy turn of a phrase with a clever internal rhyme: “And you can’t convince me that Da Vinci would be as famous as he is…”
“I love ending a line on a two-syllable word and then having to rhyme both syllables with that word, because that just doesn’t get done as much,” Sheroky says. “But three-syllable words, and nailing ‘Da Vinci/convince me,’ I kind of get a little bit of a smile every time we say that. It’s like working a little extra hard for something, but it pays off.”
They recorded a demo built around Sheroky’s acoustic guitar, with a few additional instruments overdubbed later, though they kept the end results intentionally spare. “When you have one part that just does so much alone, that doesn’t step on anything else, you really don’t have to do much more to sell the song,” Christian says.
Sheroky, though, felt the song needed one more thing: He fought for a bridge that would personalize “Man Made” just a bit, departing from the song’s third-person viewpoint to a first-person message directed at the woman who inspires the singer. They finished “Man Made” in February 2019. “I’m so glad they wrote a bridge — because that bridge does kind of turn the focus onto a love interest, which I think is pretty powerful,” Stell assesses.
Granger Smith was first to cover “Man Made,” releasing his version in November 2020. Sea Gayle senior creative director/A&R Kim Wiggins subsequently pitched a handful of Sheroky’s songs to producer Ash Bowers (Jimmie Allen, George Birge), and he nabbed “Man Made” for Stell, who had just visited Paris for the first time several months earlier and seen Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” They were unaware of Smith’s recording at first, but since it wasn’t a single, they didn’t care that it had been previously cut.
Bowers and Stell both thought they should follow the demo’s uncluttered motif. “The two things I wanted to keep in the production was that acoustic guitar, and then just making sure the song could be the song,” Bowers says. “The demo was so good it made my job so easy.”
They recorded it Feb. 7 at the Black River Studios in Nashville, with several guitarists providing light shimmering parts that darted in and out without calling much attention to themselves. The bulk of that was accomplished at the session, though Ilya Toshinsky took a little extra time at a later date to fully recreate the demo’s acoustic guitar. “It’s a fairly complex timing kind of thing that is repetitious,” Bowers says. “It’s not a lead lick, but it’s like a rhythmic signature lick for the song. It’s more picking than strumming. It’s not just hitting a couple of notes. It’s just getting in that groove and perfecting that for three-and-a-half minutes.”
Songwriter Clint Lagerberg (“Blue Ain’t Your Color,” “Here Comes Goodbye”) engineered Stell’s final vocal session for “Man Made,” which required some warmups before he could go after it seriously.
“We started recording at about 9 a.m.,” Stell recalls, “so it took me several times of singing the song through until it was even worth hitting the record button. In that chorus, there’s a part where I don’t have the highest voice, so I had to go up and get it a little bit. Once we kind of got warmed up, it didn’t take all that many passes, but it did take a while to get to get that all morning rust off.”
The video features numerous real-life pairings of men with the women who made them, including Sheroky and his wife, Christi, who appear ironically during the bridge that he fought to create. Meanwhile, RECORDS Nashville released “Man Made” to country radio stations on April 29. It appeared on the Most Added and New & Active charts associated with the Country Airplay chart dated June 5, operating with a counterintuitive sort of promise.
“We’re trying to make songs big so that they take up space on the radio when you hear them and command attention,” Stell says. “But sometimes, you can be understated and it’s even more powerful when the song kind of speaks for itself.”
No eye rolls required.