All it took was one visit to the Bluebird Café for Pennsylvania native Luke Laird to know he was destined for Nashville.
The then-teenager was a huge country music fan but didn't listen to music like your typical fan; he relished dissecting lyrics and studying the writing and producer credits on albums. He was in between his sophomore and junior years of high school when he went on what became a life-changing family vacation to Music City.
"That's when I first saw a writer's night at the Bluebird and thought, 'I have to live here'," Laird recalls to Rolling Stone Country. "One of the writers that night was Tony Arata, who wrote 'The Dance' for Garth Brooks, one of the best songs of all time. I saw him sitting there playing it, and he's such a big performer…. I got his autograph. [laughs] I knew I wanted to do what he does."
While the budding talent put education first, he did attend college just 30 short minutes southeast of Nashville, at Middle Tennessee State University. His first job out of school was as Brooks & Dunn's assistant tour manager, but that was only four days per week, leaving the other three for honing his craft. His first publishing deal came just a year out of college, but the first taste of success required a lot more patience.
"I had my publishing deal three years before my first cut (Lee Ann Womack's "Painless"). And I didn't get my first single until almost five years (after signing the deal), which was "So Small" by Carrie Underwood. At that time, you're counting everything…. How many songs do I have to write to get on the radio?
"I remember at one point I had 15 unreleased cuts — either they didn't make the album or it was a new artist who lost a record deal," Laird continues. "So you just keep grinding away. It was a little frustrating, but at the same time I'm still getting to wake up and go write songs. I still feel this way. I feel so grateful to actually do this for a living. It can be frustrating, but it still beats anything else I'd be doing."
His persistence has paid off… in a big way. Laird now has writing credits on 15 Number One singles, along with a BMI award for the 2012 Songwriter of the Year and a Grammy for co-producing Kacey Musgraves' album, Same Trailer Different Park, on which he also has six co-writes. With songs recorded by the likes of Musgraves, Underwood, Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and even R&B superstars John Legend and Ne-Yo, fellow songwriters and artists alike are knocking down his door for writing sessions.
"I love hearing other people sing my songs," Laird insists. "It's such gratification."
Read below, as the lauded songwriter tells the stories behind five of his biggest hits:
Eric Church, "Give Me Back My Hometown" (Church, Laird)
"Eric has a cabin in North Carolina, and he has different writers from Nashville come out for a few days at a time to write with him there. So I was going out there in my old truck, and I got to Cookeville (Tennessee) and my transmission started breaking down. I called my wife, Beth, and said, 'It's time for a new truck! Will you call the dealerships in Knoxville? I want a black F150.' So I drove right into a dealership, bought a truck and drove it to North Carolina. As soon as I got there, I told Eric, 'We have to write a single. I just bought a new truck!'"
Little Big Town, "Pontoon" (Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Laird)
"Natalie and I had written a song for Miranda Lambert called 'Fine Tune' — one of my favorite songs I've ever written. Natalie was telling her publisher about it, and the publisher misunderstood and said, 'What is this song called 'Pontoon'?' And Natalie was like, 'No, it's called 'Fine Tune.'" So we said, 'We should write a song called 'Pontoon.'' Even the word sounds funny, so we just had fun with it. I played a little groove for her, and said, 'If this was a song called 'Pontoon,' would it say?' And she just started singing, 'Back this bitch up into the water.' And then she delivered that 'motorboatin'' line like she meant it! We started dying laughing; it was one of my most fun co-writing sessions ever. Dierks Bentley and Kix Brooks both had it on hold, I think. I would've been happy if anybody had recorded it! But then Little Big Town really connected with it and made it into magic."
Carrie Underwood, "Last Name" (Laird, Hillary Lindsey, Underwood)
"I think (Carrie) was talking to a guy at some awards show after-party, and she told us all about him in the writers' room and said, 'I don't even know his last name.' And I looked at Hillary (Lindsey) and said, 'Yep, that's what we've gotta write!' We wrote it really fast. It was so funny to write this story as a country song. Carrie is one of those stream-of-consciousness people who just starts rattling off lyrics… And a vocalist like her, it immediately sounds awesome! We fleshed out all the lyrics and didn't have the music done, so it was almost like a rap song."
Brad Paisley, "Beat This Summer" (Chris DuBois, Laird, Paisley)
"Chris called me up one day to ask if I wanted to write with them. He had me bring some beats out, because Brad was trying a little different process in that he was trying to write to tracks. So I took a sample of a steel guitar, and it ended up being the musical hook to 'Beat This Summer.' But we were writing until about 1:00 AM and I kept telling myself, 'Suck it up! You're getting to write with Brad Paisley!' I pulled that beat up and Brad really liked it. He already had the idea for 'beat this summer,' so we finished the lyrics, wrote it that night, and he recorded it the next day."
Eric Church, "Drink in My Hand" (Church, Michael Heeney, Laird)
"Michael and I went out on the road with Eric, and we were in South Dakota in November. It was about negative nine degrees. Michael and I went in to watch Eric's show; I always like to watch the people and see the show from the fan's perspective. So I see all these people with their Solo cups, and everybody's pretty drunk. We got on the bus after the show, and we were all feeding off the energy of the crowd. I started playing this groove and it came out: 'all you've gotta do is put a drink in my hand.'"