When the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) gave out its annual awards on Sept. 17, songwriter of the year Josh Osborne (“Hotel Key,” “Kiss Somebody”) and the trio that penned song of the year “Break Up in the End” — Chase McGill, Jessie Jo Dillon and Jon Nite — claimed their trophies on the stage of the historic Ryman Auditorium.
But when Durango Management held a Sept. 18 event to find songs for Cody Johnson, those current hitmakers were not on the invite list. Instead, the aptly named back-alley hangout Old Glory filled up with writers such as Mike Reid (“Stranger in My House”), Jim McBride (“Chattahoochee”), Michael P. Heeney (“God Must Be Busy”) and Aaron Barker (“Love Without End, Amen”) — writers whose work in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s made them the darlings of the NSAI at the time.
Durango has no issue with the 2019 winners, who also include David Garcia (“Meant to Be”), Luke Dick (“Burning Man”) and Kevin Kadish (“Whiskey Glasses”). But Johnson has a thing for traditional country, and not much of that gets pitched anymore. Thus, as the Texas-bred singer assembles material for his second Warner Music Nashville album, Durango — owned by Howie Edelman — decided that throwing a party for some of the old guard might familiarize them with Johnson’s music and inspire them to dig into their catalogs for the gems that never quite got cut.
Durango A&R executive Scott Gunter specifically asked for songs that were written before 2000, and by the next day, untapped music and thankful notes were already rolling in from the likes of Allen Shamblin (“The House That Built Me”), Steve Bogard (“Carried Away”) and Kerry Kurt Phillips (“I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”), the go-to guys on Music Row at the end of the 20th century.
“I’ve never had that request before,” says independent song plugger Sherrill Blackman of the pre-2000 guideline. “That’s what made it so intriguing: that they don’t want any of the modern stuff. Scott was in publishing for years. He knows — as we all know — there are some great songs tucked away in these catalogs, and it’s going to take some of the older people that have been around to know how to find them.”
Gunter, who worked for Universal Music Publishing before shifting into management, used to get 100 new songs a week from the Universal staff. That volume makes it difficult for new publishing hires to catch all the good tunes, or to unearth hidden titles that slipped through the cracks. Thus, publishers invariably pitch new songs from current writers to current artists, and for a guy like Johnson — who was heavily influenced by 1990s country — those songs often don’t fit his format.
“What Cody is drawn to is a more classic lyric,” says Gunter. “It’s classic songwriting without the current terminology, without the current phrasing.”
The contrast between the NSAI awards and the Johnson song-pitch event is a real study in the evolution of country songs. Two of the titles honored by NSAI members this year in their 10 Songs I Wish I’d Written category — “Drowns the Whiskey” and “Some of It” — use the classic wordplay and simple chord structure that are hallmarks of a previous era. But many of the other winners — particularly the crossover titles “Meant to Be” and “Tequila” — use more free-flowing melodies and syncopation than were found in earlier decades.
And where classic country songs are strictly verse-melody constructions, sometimes with a bridge section as a bonus, the current crop of material segues frequently between different sections of a song with pre- or post-choruses; it’s designed to have an ever-changing dynamic.
“The songs today have more almost ‘tricks’ in them because the attention spans are different,” says Osborne. “You start back in the ’60s, the people that were writing [songs] were poets. As it morphed into the ’80s, you still had a lot of that in there, but suddenly they were adding more musical elements. And it just continues to evolve. It literally is like comparing apples and oranges.”
The current generation of songwriters, of course, grew up with hip-hop and naturally employ what Blackman calls “jagged or staggered phrasing” instead of more straight-laced melodic rhythms.
And with songs increasingly composed over programmed loops or prebuilt tracks, writers are practically building the song and the arrangement at the same time.
“There’s songs in this new age that are just a ‘vibe,’ ” says Nicolle Galyon, one of the “Tequila” co-writers. “That’s something that I never heard 20 years ago when I moved to Nashville. It’s like, ‘Oh, that may not be the best song, but it’s a vibe.’ People say that all the time, and I totally get it because there are songs that I just clean my house to, and I totally understand the purpose of that. It doesn’t degrade or demean the value of the song to me at all.”
Songs tend to reflect the times in which they’re created. Thus, Loretta Lynn — honored this year with the NSAI’s Kris Kristofferson Lifetime Achievement Award — would likely not have written “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in 2019.
“There’s not many coal miners anymore,” observes HARDY, who co-wrote “God’s Country,” one of the NSAI’s 10 Songs I Wish I’d Written.
“God’s Country” is its own example of changing dynamics. Though it has a throwback outlaw attitude, one of Devin Dawson‘s contributions — an esoteric line about “the dogs runnin’ ” — might have been kept out of the song in an earlier era. The phrase suggests a mood, but it doesn’t follow the literal story-telling approach that dominated the genre as recently as the ’80s and ’90s.
“It’s our job to capture a moment,” says Dawson, “and the moment in 1981 is completely different than the moment in 2019” — which is why Johnson turned to those classic writers and their publishers.
“Up Down,” another NSAI winner for HARDY, references “B.F.E.” — an abbreviation for the fictitious “Bumfuck, Egypt” that never would have survived country radio censors in, say, 1969. And the new Florida Georgia Line single, “Blessings,” celebrates a “lucky fam” — another verbal shortcut that can currently be found in the Urban Dictionary but would have sounded goofy at another time.
“There’s probably lingo from back then that we don’t know,” says “Up Down” co-writer C.J. Solar. “You know, Rolling Stones, ‘It’s a gas’ — nobody says that anymore. There’s so many little sayings like that, that are just very timely. You just sing them and you go, ‘Well, who would ever say that these days?’ I’m sure in 50 years no one will say ‘fam.'”
George Strait received the President’s Keystone Award during the NSAI event, recognizing his key role in the lives of Nashville songwriters, and he symbolizes why digging into those catalogs has value. He provided a traditional counterbalance in country’s pop-leaning Urban Cowboy era, intermittently stocking his hit list with titles that were 20-40 years old at the time, such as “Right or Wrong,” “Drinkin’ Champagne” and “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’).”
Thus, Durango and Johnson are not necessarily out of step as they search for songs not from this era.
“There’s a duality about traditional versus contemporary,” says Blackman. “As we know, it’s always been going on.”