The great songwriters in country music history had one very basic way to create a song: Sit down with a guitar, a pen and a sheet of paper; find some words or a melody; then frame them with the right chord structure. There were exceptions, of course, but it was the same basic process for Hank Williams, Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton for decades.
But just as the rest of the culture has gone tech crazy, Nashville’s songwriting community has increasingly turned to machinery to create new songs, and it’s turned the process upside down. Kind of.
This article originally appeared in our twice-weekly Country Music Update
You hear the results on the radio. Programmed sounds from the original writers’ demos have made their way into such hits as Keith Urban’s “Little Bit of Everything,” Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” and Eric Church’s “Springsteen.” And Music Row’s writers have begun to write frequently to tracks, building melodies and/or words on top of pre-existing rhythms and chords, instead of using the words or the melodies as the original inspiration.
It’s a technique long accepted in other music forms — particularly R&B and hip-hop — and it’s been used experimentally in country, though never to the degree that it’s occurring in ????2013.
“We’ve been hearing it and using it around town for years, but you really weren’t seeing it make it to the records,” says songwriter Lee Thomas Miller ?(“In Color,” “Southern Girl”)?. “Everybody’s trying to hip ’em up and pop ’em up and hip-hop ’em up, but when they go into the studio and cut ’em, that stuff doesn’t come along with it. It’s changed.”
Writing to a pre-programmed percussion loop isn’t new. Hall & Oates and Phil Collins did plenty of that in the ’80????s, and Urban has been known to use a drum machine and a ganjo to write a song from scratch.
Writing to tracks is a little more complex. Often, a “track guy” — as they’re called — will have a series of music beds and percussion already recorded before he sits down with a co-writer or two and reviews a few options to see if a track provides any inspiration.
Luke Laird ?(“Take a Back Road,” “Pontoon”)?, one of BMI’s two reigning country songwriters of the year, is regarded as the first to take the tech route seriously in Nashville. Lady Antebellum’s song “Downtown” illustrates the process: Laird stored some rhythms and a guitar hook on a track in his laptop. When he played it for his co-writers, the words and much of the melody took shape from there.
Laird listened to hip-hop in Pennsylvania along with contemporary country during his formative years in the ’90??s, so it wasn’t a stylistic stretch for him to gravitate to track writing. But practicality was what really drove him to first pursue it around ???2007 or 2008????. He was frequently discouraged by the demos he made to pitch to artists and producers.
“A lot of times, I was being let down — not because of the musicians, because they’re the best — but maybe because I wasn’t communicating what I was hearing in my head to them,” Laird says. Numerous computer programs — including Logic, Pro Tools and GarageBand — allow a user to layer musical sounds, and he taught himself the fundamentals. It enabled him to fill out his demos with keyboard fills or guitar riffs. That meant that when he pitched songs, the artists and producers were hearing something that more closely resembled a finished product.
As it turns out, that’s not only beneficial to the demos. It sometimes can inspire the songwriting process.
“You’re already hearing what’s possible with production stuff,” says songwriter Shane McAnally ?(“Better Dig Two,” “Merry Go ‘Round”)?. “It’s almost like when you walk into a house that’s not been furnished. Writing a song on a guitar to me feels like I’m walking into a completely empty room, and I’ve got to try different paint colors, different furniture, to make it work, not knowing what the end product is going to be. Having a track almost feels like you’re walking into a more furnished room, and you already can kind of see where it’s going to land, which makes your brain focus on different things.”
Like tempo. Many writers say writing speedier songs is a harder task. One reason for that is the process itself — if you stop to analyze a word or a phrase, it cuts down the energy in the room. A track lets writers renew the pace and the vibe by simply pressing play.
“To make money and keep your job, you have to have songs on the radio,” Laird reasons. “Well, what do people want on the radio? The majority want uptempo stuff for when people are driving around. Unless I have an idea like ‘The House That Built Me,’ I’m trying to write something fun and uptempo. It’s easier for me to write slower songs, but the reality is those are harder to get recorded.”
Tracks are the new technological way to keep meter and intensity, though songwriters have found other ways to do that through the years. Layng Martine Jr. ?(“Rub It In,” “Way Down”?) was known to write songs in the bathroom on occasion to take advantage of the bigger sound produced by the reverb. Alabama’s Randy Owen ?(“Mountain Music,” “Tennessee River”)? liked to turn up the amp on his electric guitar and play on his front porch in the country. They’re all different forms of inspiration.
But they don’t work for everyone. Taylor Swift may have built some of the cuts on her current album Red around programmed instrumental parts, but none of the songs were originally written to tracks.
“I’ve tried writing with tracks, and I never end up picking those songs for a record,” she says. “For me to really make something that’s bold enough to end up on my album, it has to start with a lyrical hook rather than a cool melody.”
While Laird has developed a reputation as a “track guy,” he doesn’t exclusively work that way. And the other songwriters with similar reps — Ross Copperman ?(“Pirate Flag,” “Point at You”)?, Jimmy Robbins (?”We Were Us,” “Sure Be Cool If You Did”)? and Chris DeStefano ?(“Good Girl,” “That’s My Kind of Night”)?, to name several — are similarly able to write in the more traditional way, too. That’s important, because even with the increased use of the new tech, the old standards still generally apply.
“This town’s always been about the story,” observes Jeffrey Steele, who wrote the Rascal Flatts hits “These Days” and “What Hurts the Most” to some form of tracks at least ?? years ago. “It’s got to be real-like ‘Dirt Road Anthem.’ I know that was done with a loop, and I know Colt [Ford] and Brantley [Gilbert]. That was real life they were writing about, and it works.”
While the pendulum has swung of late to writing to tracks, many writers and publishers expect that method of songwriting will eventually fall off in frequency.
“About the time that all of us have ??10,000??? loops on our computers, they’re gonna go back to something like Mumford & Sons or Alison Krauss,” Miller says. “It’ll be fiddles and kick drums and, ‘Oooh, that loop is so dated.’ That’s how music works.”