“I can always take a happy song and make it sound sad.”
Miranda Lambert‘s evaluation of “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” a duet with Little Big Town that was released to radio on June 8, practically tells the story of its transformation. A nod to a more innocent past, it was originally conceived with some of the same cheer as Stevie Wonder‘s “I Wish,” a song that longs to relive a misspent youth. By the time “Smokin’ ” was finished, it became more of an adult reflection on the past, one that acknowledges a personal history without trying to rekindle it.
“It went from like a Kid Rock summer song to like a 1970s slow jam, which is cool,” says songwriter Natalie Hemby (“Pontoon,” “Automatic”).
While she had no role in Lambert’s final recording, Hemby was key to the evolution. She introduced the languid, linear verse melody; invoked a tradition from her senior year in high school to create one of the song’s most vivid images; and sang the demo, which ultimately inspired Lambert to dial up Little Big Town.
“When you have a Natalie Hemby vocal, you can take a pretty average demo to another level,” says co-writer Luke Laird (“American Kids,” “Talladega”).
Laird hosted the songwriting session with Hemby and Shane McAnally (“Take Your Time,” “Merry Go ‘Round”) at his Creative Nation offices, and the seed for “Smokin’ and Drinkin’ ” was planted as he pulled into the parking lot that day.
“A lot of times you get an idea when you’re driving, so you record it in your voice memos on your iPhone,” notes Laird. “I didn’t know if it was gonna be a rap song or what, but I just put that down. I made a sample of ‘Smoke, smokin’ and drinkin’,’ and that’s all I had.”
The title practically demanded that it be a good-time anthem, but none of them were interested in writing something that obvious. So they explored the phrase a bit to see what else it might trigger, and they ended up back in another era.
“We just talked about our childhood, mostly our teenage years, and how we either tried to get away with things or thought that it was so cool that we could drink or smoke,” says McAnally. “It’s supposed to feel like those high school years where you’re not an adult, but you’re not a kid anymore.”
Hemby rolled out that steady verse melody, building on an ideal that was instilled in her during her own teens.
“One of my favorite things about those types of melodies is that it’s almost like someone’s talking to you,” she explains. “I’ll tell you who I learned that from was Amy Grant. I grew up listening to her, and a lot of her stuff, it sounds like she’s talking to me.”
That linear section unintentionally set up a much more expansive chorus.
“That was just the perfect thing for those words,” says Laird. “The funny thing is — and you can hear it in the [final] cut — that song is really low for a girl to sing in that key. I think we even tried raising the key, but it captures the perfect emotion if you keep it down in there and then let it open up a little bit at the chorus.”
Laird and McAnally offered some of the sensory images from a bonfire gathering — the lingering smell of smoke in blue jeans, the feeling of connection with classmates — and Hemby pulled from her time at Nashville’s Overton High School, where it was a rite of passage to paint something on a nearby freeway bridge, coincidentally just off of Lambert Drive.
“Your senior year, you painted on the bridge,” she says. “Even the cops knew, and they’d be waiting for you. The worst you would get is a citation, because there was just graffiti all over it saying ‘Senior year’ and ‘Johnny and so-and-so love each other’ and all that kind of stuff.”
Laird built the “Smokin’ ” demo on his laptop as they wrote it, and Hemby sang in unison with herself on the track, inspiring Lambert to bring in a guest when she first heard the song.
“On Natalie’s demo, she had doubled her voice, so we wanted Little Big Town to replicate that sound,” says Lambert. “And it’s funny to me. In parts of it, you can’t really tell the difference between Karen [Fairchild] and me, which I think is a huge compliment to myself!”
Producers Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf and Chuck Ainlay played the demo just once for the musicians when they recorded it at Nashville’s Sound Stage, then let the studio band find its own inspiration. In the process, the synthetic tone of the demo was replaced by a more subdued attitude, kicking off with a trippy handful of bass notes from Worf.
“With her voice and phrasing, Matt Chamberlain‘s drumming and Glenn’s bass part, they picked up on a different route to go and just fell into what it became,” says Liddell.
Jedd Hughes added an appropriately restrained 15-second guitar solo two-and-a-half minutes in.
“It’s classic in that it’s spacious and it’s melodic, but whatever that tone is, I’ve never heard it before,” observes Liddell. “It sounds like somebody who is a great instrumentalist playing with a lot of heart.”
Lambert did her final vocal that same day and let Little Big Town overdub its part with Liddell later with little direction.
“I didn’t micro-manage it at all,” says Lambert. “I was like, ‘Whatever you want to do to make it your own, it’s fine.’ Because why would you tell Little Big Town what to do? Ever?”
Liddell found one other way to bring out the nostalgic quality on the track. They used an ARP string ensemble — familiar in such old titles as Gary Wright‘s “Dream Weaver,” Parliament‘s “Tear the Roof off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)” and the Bee Gees‘ “Nights on Broadway” — to approximate a string section.
“It’s a little messed up and hard to use, and it’s kind of quirky and funky, but you hear that machine on a lot of records from the ’70s,” says Liddell.
Lambert and Little Big Town performed “Smokin’ and Drinkin’ ” live for the first time on July 20, 2014 during the Faster Horses Festival in Brooklyn, Mich., and they reprised it during the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 5. That set up expectations that it would become a single, but when Little Big Town issued “Girl Crush” the next month, “Smokin’ ” was delayed. After finally being released to radio in June, it has risen to No. 41 in three weeks on Country Airplay. Combined with “Automatic” and the ’80s-themed “Another Sunday in the South,” it provides a nostalgic undertow for Lambert’s Platinum, which won the CMA Award for album of the year the same evening when she last performed “Smokin’ ” with Little Big Town. But Lambert cautions that remembering her history doesn’t mean she’s living in the past.
“I don’t want to move backwards,” she says, “but I definitely like looking back there.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.