From Taylor Swift to Dustin Lynch, Country Artists Try Unusual Wordplay to Set Songs Apart
There's nothing wrong with rhyming city with pretty -- but some radio hits are branching out.
Zach Bryan’s “Something in the Orange” has resided at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs for six weeks, joining Johnny Cash’s version of “Orange Blossom Special” as the only top 10 country songs to employ the citrus color in their titles.
Meanwhile, Dustin Lynch rides at No. 49 in his third week on Country Airplay with “Stars Like Confetti,” a song that, if it reaches the top 10, would become the first in that tier to reference a blast of party paper in its name.
The country genre has long used wordplay to tell its stories and hook its listeners, but increasingly, the wordplay is less about twisting meanings and more about applying words that one doesn’t normally expect to hear in a three-minute song. Sometimes it’s a reference as silly as the restaurant shoutouts — Applebee’s, Frosty and Oreo shake — in Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” or as weighty as the term “patriarchy,” which appeared in Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version).” Both songs topped Hot Country Songs in the last two years.
“The line was on a key chain,” Swift’s co-writer, Liz Rose, notes of “patriarchy.” “That was very specific.”
Capturing details from the writers’ lives — as both “Fancy Like” and “All Too Well” did — is one of multiple reasons to throw an odd word or phrase into a lyric. Sometimes it happens because it’s dictated by geography: Alan Jackson created a light atmosphere when he rhymed “Chattahoochee,” a river that was previously unknown to large swaths of Americans, with “hoochie koochie”; The Oak Ridge Boys brought a Pennsylvania tributary, the Monongahela, to the national spotlight with their 1988 release “Gonna Take a Lot of River.” And in other instances, the word fulfills a poetic function at the end of a line, as the phrase “happily delusional” does in Old Dominion’s “Memory Lane.”
“We had ‘loving you as usual,’ and you’re just searching for a rhyme,” the band’s Trevor Rosen recalls. “The guy had to throw [“delusional”] out there twice. It’s a weird word. It’s like, ‘I wonder if you could say that?’ And then it was like, ‘Oh, wait, no, that’s actually it.’”
Old Dominion has a history with oddball phrases —“drunk as a skunk eating lunch” appears in “I Was on a Boat That Day,” and it titled a 2015 single “Snapback,” a ball-cap term that wasn’t necessarily known to everyone. But that happens in great part because the band is willing to chase down odd terms, where some other songwriters might balk.
“It depends on the room,” says “Memory Lane” co-writer Jessie Jo Dillon. “People like the Old Dominion guys — I mean, nobody’s scared to do something strange.”
Lynch, on the other hand, experienced an internal debate about “Stars Like Confetti.” He had doubts regarding the song he was about to hear when he first saw the title, and even after the demo hooked him, he still had reservations for a time, fearful that the vocabulary might not suit him.
“I’ve been the one that has questions, if the word ‘confetti’ isn’t masculine enough to do,” Lynch admits. “The circle I have, obviously we scrutinize a lot. We’re very tough on ourselves and try to really pick apart everything we can about a song and make sure we’re looking at all the angles of a song. I kept coming back to, like, ‘Is it cool for a dude that lives to hunt and farm? Do I sing “confetti”?’ I had to do some soul searching and just make sure you’re like, ‘OK, am I going to be cool singing a song the rest of my life if it takes off?’”
Obviously, “Confetti” won out. Others have fared well over the long haul with terminology that seems uncommon in the conservative country world. George Strait calmly considered “transcendental meditation” in his breezy “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” Faith Hill navigated “centrifugal motion,” “perpetual bliss” and “pivotal moment” in the chorus of “This Kiss,” and Lori McKenna shared a Grammy nomination with Swift this year for “I Bet You Think About Me,” a song that whips out “pedigree,” “upper-crust circles” and “organic shoes” in its narrative.
“We’re so used to listening to things in the background,” McKenna says, noting that unusual vocabulary “really can bring the listener right to ‘Wait, what was that?’ I don’t think it’s meant to be a trick, but I never stop an artist when a word works for them. My job is to stay away from changing their truth.”
Neal McCoy, who sang “no need to psychoanalyze” in the course of the 1994 single “Wink,” was perhaps ahead of his time with the therapist lingo. Chris Young couched the phrase “to hell with the closure” in a key chorus passage in “I’m Comin’ Over,” and Ingrid Andress’ new “Feel Like This” explores “manipulation,” “toxic situations,” “security” and “stability.”
Andress offers those words unapologetically.
“That was sort of intentional,” she says. “I wanted to move the genre forward and to kind of keep up with the rest of society because in most places, I think people in my generation are comfortable talking about the fact that they go to a therapist, but I know that that’s not true for everywhere. I just want to start normalizing that in conversation.”
Although that kind of expression may not feel normal to every act.
“Those are words — like ‘manipulation’ — that only a girl like her can use,” says “Confetti” co-writer Zach Crowell. “I would encourage her to use that stuff. You don’t hear Luke Bryan saying those words. That’s good. It’s honest.”
That’s great confirmation, though Andress doesn’t seem to need it. Something in the orange says she’ll be populating her songs with intelligent phrases as long as she pursues her singer-songwriter role.
“At the end of the day, I’m just writing my story,” she says. “It will come out the way that it feels truest to me. If that’s something that has not been done before in the genre, then I view that as a win. Because I think my goal is to constantly discover new art forms and new ways of saying things. Whether people like it or not, I’m still going to be doing it anyway.”
Subscribe to Billboard Country Update, the industry’s must-have source for news, charts, analysis and features. Sign up for free delivery every Monday.