Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
The initial idea for the nostalgic “The House That Built Me” came to songwriter Allen Shamblin in 2002 while in Sundance, Utah, for a writers round. He then approached frequent collaborator Tom Douglas about the concept one morning while at breakfast.
“He said, ‘I’ve been thinking about how houses hold memories. What if we wrote a song, not about the houses that we build, but the house that built me?’” Douglas tells Billboard. “Immediately when Allen said that, I know he was thinking of the details in his home in Huffman, Texas. I took a trip back to 3018 Oregon Drive in Atlanta. It’s our details and our memories, but it transports the listener back to their childhood home.”
Now a beloved and poignant ballad about the roots found in one’s childhood home, the song had a long journey before Miranda Lambert released it in March 2010. The two men initially wrote a 10-minute version filled with personal details and after they gave it to their publisher, it sat on a shelf for nearly seven years. In 2009, Douglas called Shamblin and suggested they revisit the tune.
It was during this writing session where they penned the hook: “If I could just come in/ I swear I’ll leave/ Won’t take nothing but a memory.” “We didn’t have that until the very last day,” Douglas recalls. “Once we had that, the whole thing just locked in place.”
The song was first pitched to Blake Shelton along with several other tracks. As Shelton was listening to a CD of demos while driving around Oklahoma, then-girlfriend Miranda Lambert was beside him in the passenger’s seat and started crying upon hearing the track. Thanks to Shelton’s urging, Lambert decided to record “The House That Built Me.” Lambert’s stunning version became her first No. 1 song and resonated with the industry, winning multiple CMA and ACM Awards, as well as a Grammy for best female country vocal performance.
Lambert’s stirring vocal delivery alongside the deeply personal yet universal lyrics struck a chord with listeners. Shamblin says around the time he and Douglas began writing the song, he was longing for home and for a simpler time. After 9/11, he found himself realizing that the world he grew up in was drastically different than the one his three children would live in.
“Something about the timing of that in our culture, with so much moving from place to place and lack of community, I think it helped remind people of their childhoods,” Shamblin explains.
In 2010, American culture was changing, and so was country radio. Douglas says the song was released at a transitional time for country music when story songs were less common. “Right after ‘The House That Built Me,’ [was released] the world changed. Literally within months we went from this narrative storytelling to [Florida Georgia Line’s] ‘Cruise.’ The era of bro-country was ushered in. So it was, honestly, the end of an era.”
“Culturally, I think people feel lost. There’s a real sense of dislocation. We’re so connected from a technological standpoint and yet we’re all so lonely. Allen and I write songs to try to get people to remember, because we’re trying to remember something. Most popular songs help people forget.”
“The House That Built Me” gave listeners a reason to remember who they were and where they came from. It became a song that listeners took ownership in and cherished as their own, as well as a career-defining hit for Lambert that set her up to become one of the prominent female voices on country radio for the next decade. For those who didn’t have a childhood like the one reflected in the song, “The House That Built Me” became a wish or prayer for their future and their own children.
“If somehow this song made people feel less alone in their aching and longing for home, I’m thankful. It’s becoming the world’s song and I’m grateful. I’m thankful for Tom who picked up the phone after six years to revisit. It’s just that one phone call. If it never happened, it’d be on the shelf collecting dust,” says Shamblin.
“The reason why people like it, it’s because it takes them on a trip,” Douglas concedes. “It takes them back home. And we all want to try to get back home again.”