Songwriter Spotlight: Zach Crowell on Sam Hunt and Hustling

"Cop Car" co-writer and producer discusses some of his best-known cuts

Zach Crowell greets his caller with a profuse apology for the month that it took to nail down a time to talk. It’s not that the writer-producer was trying to be elusive. It's just that he’s been plugging away behind the scenes, building tracks that coax vibey, glistening new songs into being, and it never really occurred to him that an interviewer might take an interest in what he does when there are genuinely famous folks to interview — stars like Sam Hunt, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood, all of whom have Crowell’s sonic fingerprints on their recent recordings.

Though Crowell (no relation to the celebrated songwriter Rodney Crowell) geeked out over music growing up 40 minutes south of Nashville in Franklin, Tennessee — home to the pastoral acreage of many a prosperous music-maker — he had no real exposure to Nashville’s best known industry until later. His cousin Will Hoge would eventually carve out a niche and land some country cuts as well as a Chevy ad with red-blooded heartland rock, but Crowell's head was in the underground hip-hop scene. Before he worked on Hunt’s buzzed-about acoustic mixtape Between the Pines, he'd made beats for a mixtape by semi-under-the-radar, white, southern rapper JellyRoll.

"I got a little local name going on," explains Crowell, "and that led to me writing, being able to sell tracks to local artists around town for 50 bucks, 100 bucks, 500 bucks, whatever I could get. Then that slowly led to writing choruses on the songs that I'd sell rappers or R&B artists; I'd sell them a track with a hook on it or something. Then I got into writing full songs. It was a slow evolution."

Outside of this cut-price hustle, Crowell had accumulated but one professional credit — with gospel rapper Lecrae — when an equally unproven Hunt overheard some of Crowell's demos and took interest. "In hindsight," Crowell reflects, "Sam was trying to find the musical side to his brand, to his brain. He didn’t know that's what he was looking for, but that’s what he was looking for: someone who could make a bed of music for him."

Crowell continues, "My publisher booked us a co-write that day. I still have the email; I'm a nostalgic guy. [My publisher] wrote, 'Hey man. Just booked you today with this new guy Sam Hunt. Super excited about this one.' He sent me a song [of Hunt's] and I was just blown away. Kinda the reaction the whole world has had to him, I recall having it myself. About three weeks later we wrote 'Cop Car.' It was the second song we had written."

With its wistful lyric, sleekly rhythmic phrasing and broody, brittle beat, "Cop Car" was soon snatched up by Urban, so taken with what Crowell had done on the demo that he kept him on as the single's producer. The song was also one of several ruminative, small-town, slow jams that made it onto Hunt's blockbuster debut Montevallo, and Nashville took notice of Crowell's contributions to the album as co-writer and co-producer (along with Shane McAnally). Now Crowell's become a go-to guy for those looking to update their country sounds with a bit of pop-R&B smolder.

Here's his take on some of the songs that bear his signature.

"Cop Car," Keith Urban (Hunt, Crowell, Matt Jenkins)
"We were just kinda no-name dudes at the time. We were lucky enough to write a good song, and Keith loved the demo. He reached out and asked me if I would just produce it. I have no idea why he said, 'Yeah, just let that guy do it,' but he did, and I’m forever grateful. I'm still kinda known as 'the "Cop Car" guy' around town, which I’m thrilled and honored to be."

"Raised on It," Sam Hunt  (Hunt, Crowell, Jerry Flowers)
"We call that one the sacrificial lamb. It was the one that should've been a big hit, but we had to put it out on a smaller level [first] to get some recognition, and then put out another song [to build on that]." 

"House Party," Sam Hunt (Hunt, Crowell, Flowers)
"Me, Jerry and Sam got together one day and just started making some tracks, just kinda guessing as to musical ideas. Sam loves to just kinda get on the microphone and sing out loud, try to find melodies. Sam had the title 'House Party'... Of all the songs, that was one of the easier songs to write for his record."

"Break Up in a Small Town," Sam Hunt (Hunt, Crowell, McAnally)
"Speaking of easy, this was the opposite of easy. If 'House Party' took about two co-writes to get done, 'Break Up In a Small Town' took about 10 co-writes to get done. Sam brought it over to me and he had a good chunk of the chorus done. We were trying to figure out how to do the verses. He was just talking to me. He was saying, 'I wonder if it would be about a girl and we drive the same roads and we pay at the same pumps.' I remember going, 'Dude, that should be the verse! It should just be you talking to me, just like I put a microphone in front of your face as you're telling a story.' At some point we brought Shane McAnally over and he did what he does best, which is write really good lyrics, super emotional, realistic things. We circled back to it a whole bunch of times, because we knew that song was special. It's my favorite song I’ve ever been a part of."

"Heartbeat," Carrie Underwood (Underwood, Crowell, Ashley Gorley)
"I was lucky enough to write with Carrie about a year ago. I did a little demo and we all loved it. Then in the past year, I've had some success in the Sam world, so I think when it came time for her to cut that song, it was probably an easier decision for them to make [to have Crowell produce it too] because they know that I'd been able to get a song to Number One producing it myself. Especially since it's a slow, kinda sexy thing, it's a little bit more my comfort zone."

"Do I Make You Wanna," Billy Currington (Gorley, Crowell, Jenkins, Flowers)
"That was one of the tracks that Jerry and I made in the way that we made the 'House Party' track. Dann Huff produced Billy. That's one of my favorite productions, like, ever. I think he took the good parts about my demo and embellished on it."

"Where It's At (Yep Yep)," Dustin Lynch (Cary Barlowe, Crowell, Jenkins)
"If my demo had gone on the radio, it wouldn't have been a hit, but Mickey Jack Cones' production is perfect. Dustin knows that he's traditional in his tone of voice, his low register, but he's very progressive in his train of thought. He knows that he needs to push the envelope lyrically and melodically sometimes... That's a thing that not a lot of people are doing, singing pop melodies with cool little hooks and cool tracks with a cowboy hat and with his tone."

"Strong," Will Hoge (Hoge, Crowell, Gorley)
"Chevy was looking for a song for a commercial that had these certain bullet points to it kinda thing. We, along with probably a hundred other writers around town, wrote songs for this thing, like a straight-up pitch, a jingle kind of pitch. We were pulling lyrics from real emotions but that was one we probably nowadays would never have written that song. I'm just shocked for that one to have happened, because getting one of those on television and in commercials is just so hard to do."