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These Earworms Are Hard to Hook, Unless You’re in This Year’s Nashville Songwriters Hall Class

Tasty instrumental licks aren't always a big focus in Music City writing circles, where wordplay and clever titles are king (or queen).

When Shania Twain launched the best-selling studio album in country history with a cheerleading musical phrase, she underscored the importance of the elusive instrumental hook.

The phrase in question — a seven-note sequence that defines her anthemic “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” — helps to understand why Twain is one of five 2022 inductees in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The official ceremony will take place Oct. 30, just five days before the 25th anniversary of the release of Come On Over, the album led by her pom-pom riff.

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Twain and her then-producer/co-writer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange (“Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”), stuffed Come On Over full of such riffs, which often make the difference between a good song and an addictive one.

Appropriately, Twain’s Nashville Songwriters Hall induction class consists of composers who are quite familiar with the value of an instrumental riff: songwriter-guitarists Steve Wariner (“I Got Dreams,” “Nothin’ But the Taillights”) and Gary Nicholson (“One More Last Chance,” “Someone Else’s Trouble Now”); Hillary Lindsey (“Knockin’ Boots,” “Last Name”); and songwriter-producer David Malloy (“I Love a Rainy Night,” “Love Will Turn You Around”).

The riff isn’t always a focus in Music City songwriting circles, where wordplay, plot twists and clever titles tend to command the most attention.

“It’s really all about the words,” Nicholson allows. “That’s the first thing I realized arriving here.”

But secondary instrumental riffs — the twangy lick at the outset of Jake Owen’s “Best Thing Since Backroads,” the relentless guitar in Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast As You,” the bluesy piano in the opening of Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” or the woozy guitar intro in Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk On a Plane” — often elevate the songs they inhabit. None of those titles would be quite the same recording without that defining musical support.

“When James Burton kicked out ‘Mama Tried,’ you knew right away that’s ‘Mama Tried,'” says Wariner, citing one of Merle Haggard’s trademark efforts. “The song had hooks, and it was like another hook.”

It’s harder than it sounds. The chord-driven opening riff to Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” or the ascendant introduction to Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” might be key elements to lighthearted pieces. The “We Will Rock You” drum part is a defining moment in Twain’s “Any Man of Mine,” and the soulful bass is an essential addition to Ronnie Milsap’s “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me.”

But creating a memorable riff requires the songwriter — or, often, a studio musician and/or producer — to find a very short space in which to develop an earworm. Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” employed two repeating riffs: the unison sound of Bob Moore’s bass and Hargus “Pig” Robbins’ left-hand piano on a six-note fill, and Pete Drake’s spiky steel bursts. But where those all-important lyrics can draw from thousands of words in a vocabulary, the riff gets crafted from just 12 available notes, and it has to be kept short and stay out of the way of the lead vocalist.

“It’s tricky,” Nicholson concedes.

Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks” illustrates how that works with a simple, emphatic Dan Dugmore steel riff filling holes after the title. Lindsey, who co-wrote it, isn’t sure exactly how that key instrumental part evolved in the song, though she says it could have come from her own noninstrumental riff factory.

“I’m actually known for my guitar mouth solos,” she says with a laugh. “I know it’s very bizarre, but when we’re doing a work tape, I’ll be singing and then I’ll get to the part and [mimic a guitar]. A lot of times those actually make the demo — the guitar players are like, ‘Wait a minute, I love that lick.’”

The instrumental riff is often associated with top 40 classics — Keith Richards’ guitar in The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the bassline in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the snarling guitar in Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” the back-and-forth horn figure in James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” or the syncopated kalimba-like tones beneath Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.”

Identifying those kinds of features helped Malloy earn his place in the Nashville Songwriters Hall. The “snaps and claps” behind Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love a Rainy Night,” the ringing nylon strings of “Drivin’ My Life Away,” the staccato keyboard figure in the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton duet “Real Love” and the rolling chord progression in Reba McEntire’s “One Honest Heart” are typical of Malloy’s compositions.

Developing an instrumental trademark was one of the takeaways he got from the records that his father, recording engineer Jim Malloy (Elvis Presley, Henry Mancini), would bring home.

“I would listen to the records and stuff, but I really listened to the radio a lot,” says David. “My obsession was hit singles, not album cuts.”

Those are generally the kinds of copyrights that land people in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. And while the lyrics may still be king in Music City, Malloy figured out something that this year’s class seems to know innately: that the message frequently stands out more when it’s encased with a catchy instrumental hook.

“The words ride on the magic carpet, which is the music,” he says. “If you’re hearing music off in the distance on a speaker, it’s not the words that our mind effortlessly goes to. It goes to the melody. I always felt that it was the music that gave the words a ride.”

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