As in pop music, songwriting teams have taken over the top of Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart.
Many country classics have been written by a single songwriter. Patsy Cline‘s “Crazy” was penned by Willie Nelson. Johnny Cash‘s “A Boy Named Sue” was written by writer-poet Shel Silverstein. And Dolly Parton‘s “9 to 5″was penned by Parton herself.
In more recent years, however, the country hit written by one writer has become nearly obsolete, mirroring the sharp trend among pop hits.
On the Hot Country Songs chart dated April 23, Tim McGraw ascends to No. 1 with “Humble and Kind.” The ballad was written by folk-country singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. It’s her 10th Hot Country Songs entry as a writer, although her second that she wrote on her own, following her first charted song, Faith Hill‘s “Stealing Kisses,” which reached No. 36 in 2006. She has written four top 10s, with one prior track having led the chart: Little Big Town‘s “Girl Crush,” which reigned for 13 weeks in 2015. She wrote the smash with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey.
Until McGraw’s new leader, how long had it been since a song written by one writer topped Hot Country Songs? More than four years, since Taylor Swift‘s self-penned “Ours” crowned the March 31, 2012, tally. Swift also scored the last one-writer No. 1 before that: “Sparks Fly,” which led on Nov. 26, 2011. Earlier in November 2011, Blake Shelton ruled for three weeks with “God Gave Me You,” originally a Christian radio hit for its writer, Dave Barnes.
Beyond a four-year gap between Hot Country Songs No. 1s authored by a single person, how rare has such a country hit become? Analyzing the April 23 Hot Country Songs chart, “Humble and Kind” is the only track written by a single songwriter. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of the chart, 31 of its 50 titles, were penned by a trio.
A year ago, the April 25 ranking boasted two songs credited to one writer and, notably, both were covers by contestants on NBC’s The Voice: the Bob Dylan-penned “To Make You Feel My Love” (by Cory Kent White) and A.P. Carter’s “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow” (Sawyer Fredericks).
Let’s go back five years, to the chart dated April 23, 2011. The number of titles in the Hot Country Songs top 50 billed to one writer that frame? Again, two. If we travel back 10 years, to the April 22, 2006, chart, we get two again (including George Strait‘s “The Seashores of Old Mexico,” written by Merle Haggard, circa 1970).
We need to go 15 years back, to the April 21, 2001, survey to finally see a marked increase in solo songwriter hits, when nine such songs appeared in the list’s top 50. Twenty years back, to April 27, 1996, shows eight. And, 25 years ago, on the April 27, 1991, ranking, 14 of the top 50 were crafted by a sole writer.
Finally, let’s look back 30 and 40 years. The numbers of one-writer entries in the chart’s top 50 in each respective mid-April week: 17 in 1986 and 31 in 1976.
The shift from 31 songs in the Hot Country Songs top 50 this week 40 years ago credited to one writer to a mere one on the latest tally echoes the decline in such hits on the all-format Billboard Hot 100. As covered in the October 2015 Billboard article, “Why Solo Songwriters Are No Longer Today’s Hitmakers,” just one song on the entire chart was penned by one person: Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” (by the duo’s Tyler Joseph). The trend downward was similarly staggering: In late October 2005, single writers (or singularly credited entities) wrote 14 titles, which itself was down sharply from mid-October 1995 (32 such songs), 1985 (41) and 1975 (51).
What’s behind the extreme shift? “One reason there were so many single writers back in the day was because of the money — you can make an incredible amount in a short time with a hit song — and people were reluctant to share credit,” John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, mused in the Billboard story. But, by the 1990s, according to Seabrook, and perhaps influenced by technological advances in production, a new style of songwriting began to take hold: “The track-and-hook method, [whereby] a track is almost a canvas with some background painted onto it and different people add hooks and a bridge and a chorus and, slowly, it becomes a song, rather than [it] springing fully formed from the imagination of Burt Bacharach, sitting at the piano.
“A Bacharach melody is not inviting people to get involved with it,” Seabrook concluded. “But, track-and-hook creates a template for a lot of different cooks stirring the broth.”
Adds Dave Penn, co-founder/editor-in-chief of Hit Songs Deconstructed, “Everyone involved, hopefully, has an important skill that they bring to the table, whether it’s lyrics or music.” Plus: “Sometimes when you have more than one writer, you never know what additional ideas you’re going to get.
“It all comes down to the song,” says Penn. “If it’s a great song, it’s a great song. It doesn’t really matter how you get there.”
Having scored success both as a solo writer and in tandem with others, McKenna signed with Luke and Beth Laird’s Nashville-based Creative Nation for publishing and management in June 2015. She joined a roster that includes Barry Dean (“Pontoon,” “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools”), Natalie Hemby (“Automatic,” “Downtown”) and Luke Laird himself (“American Kids,” “Talladega”).
“The fact that we’ve had such incredible writers come to us and want to work with us and be here, that has really blown my mind,” Beth Laird told Billboard upon McKenna’s signing.
Said McKenna, “I’m a singer-songwriter at the end of the day, and when I started talking to Beth as a publisher, she really lit a fire under [me]. I’ve always wanted to be the best writer I could be.”