And we’ve faced a lot of it: how to behave in the face of a deadly virus, whom to believe when the federal government can’t be trusted, how to make music when you can’t organize in a single room.
A Thousand Horses was, like much of America, lost a bit when the coronavirus forced widespread shutdowns in March. Ultimately, the band decided the best way to address the uncertainty in that moment was simple: Do something.
“Everyone was just like, ‘What’s going on right now?'” remembers guitarist Zach Brown. “Then you kind of go, ‘OK, this sounds like this is here to stay. So let’s pick things up and figure out how to get back to being productive.’ “
And for the Horses, that meant figuring out how to record when studios are closed. Beginning March 27, the band assembled parts one track at a time by communicating with producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, The Highwomen) through a combination of FaceTime and laptop recording programs to capture “A Song to Remember,” a catchy, melodic effort with a surprising amount of energy.
“It’s an uptempo heartbreak song, which is, you know, a hard kind of thing to do,” says lead singer Michael Hobby. “Most heartbreak songs are ballady, and ours isn’t. That was something that we were always wanting to be conscious of.”
“A Song to Remember” is, appropriately, a song of uncertainty. It features a protagonist who recognizes his relationship is officially over as he watches the taillights on his ex’s vehicle head off into the night. The wound is fresh following their breakup in a bar, a humiliatingly public location to end a romance.
“It’s probably really common, too,” muses songwriter Brad Warren (“Every Time I Hear That Song,” “Sober Saturday Night”).
Sorting through the empty uncertainty of a fresh uncoupling was the whole point of the day when Hobby wheeled into the Starstruck Studios parking lot for a songwriting session on Feb. 17, 2017. He met Brad and Brett Warren (“Highway Don’t Care,” “Red Solo Cup”) at the office of songwriter-producer Chris Stevens (“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” “Where That Beer’s Been”) with an intent to write about the numbing aftermath of a split.
“We’ve all been there,” says Hobby. “You kind of look back on that time in your life when you were going through that — you know, I like to call it ‘heartbreak purgatory’ — and kind of analyze the relationship, as you do when you are fresh out of one.”
They launched into a short chord progression that starts with a bitter two-minor chord that slips eventually into a more cheery tonic chord.
“We wanted to have some emotional weight, and I think, honestly, the two-minor chord is what helps bring that,” says Stevens.
The protagonist spends almost the entire song perched on a barstool, though the lyrics suggest enough movement — smoking cigarettes, taking a shortcut to the jukebox, the woman’s memory running through his mind — to create a sense of activity.
“One of the great things about country music is how much action can happen in a five-foot radius,” quips Brad. “Whether it’s a dive bar or a trailer, boy, you can get a lot done.”
The group accomplished that while keeping just enough uncertainty in the lyrics that it requires multiple listens to fully understand some of the details. The breakup is laid out in the first verse, though never stated outright. And the reference to the barstool is the only direct indication that the singer is in a club.
“Our old publisher, Craig Wiseman, used to always tell us, ‘Don’t tell me how I feel. Paint a picture, and I’ll decide how I feel,’ ” notes Brett. “That was one of the greatest things we learned [during] the years when we were writing at Big Loud Shirt.”
Stevens produced the bones of a demo before the appointment was over with Hobby belting out a passionate vocal — so convincing that that same performance would become the basis for the final recording. No doubt that the power of that vocal helped sell the song to the rest of the band when Hobby played the demo for his mates on the bus outside a now-forgotten concert venue.
“I just remember personally digging that song right off the bat,” says Brown. “That was one on first listen that we always loved, and as we were picking songs for the new album, that was definitely one that kept rearing its head.”
The Horses, in fact, worked up their own demo version, though Hobby’s cowriters were unaware of it. And their uncertainty — especially as the Horses drifted a bit between label deals — made them anxious about the song’s fate.
“I thought it was a smash the day we wrote it,” says Brett. “It kind of went away, and I even pitched it to a bunch of artists because I thought it was a hit.”
“A Song to Remember” finally got its moment when the band began its remote recording sessions, building the instrumental parts around Hobby’s emotional vocal. Working virtually with Cobb required a learning curve, and the uncertainty of then-new precautions against the coronavirus created some awkwardness for guitarist Bill Satcher and his neighbor, bassist Graham DeLoach, as they worked through their contributions in Satcher’s kitchen.
“In the beginning, we were like, ‘All right, I’m going to walk over to your house, we’re going to discuss the flow, how it’s going to be, we’re going to keep our social distance,’ ” says DeLoach. “So I walk next door to Bill’s and we kind of hashed through all the parts, and then he’s like, ‘All right, you have to get out of my house.’ “
“It was pretty funny,” continues Satcher. “I was like, ‘Do I Lysol the chair now that he’s left?’ I didn’t know what to do, this whole quarantine protocol was so new. We recorded at my kitchen table, and I was like, ‘No, you got to sit on the far end. I’ll sit on this end.’ We didn’t really know, you know — trying to be cautious.”
Stevens supplied the drums and percussion programming, helping the production reach a peak during the bridge, pulverizing the toms in tandem with each syllable in the stanza’s final line: “Running in and out of my head.”
“It’s almost like he’s hitting his head against the counter of the bar,” says Stevens.
Ultimately, A Thousand Horses created a sonic journey that helps to disguise the five-foot radius in the center of “A Song to Remember.”
“The music — and the bass parts specifically — there is a lot of forward momentum to the song,” observes Satcher. “I guess musically and lyrically it matches up.”
Cobb’s Low Country Sound, in conjunction with Elektra and Warner Music Nashville, released “A Song to Remember” to country radio via PlayMPE on July 20. In the process, it hints at a shift from a Southern rock-inspired brand of country to a heartland rock-branded version.
“This is a look into the future of A Thousand Horses,” says DeLoach. “So much time has passed from the last album that we made with Big Machine. We’ve grown a lot over the years, and I think this song shows that growth because everything that you do, you want to be better.”
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