The Warren Brothers Tell Stories Behind Poignant and Polarizing Hits

Siblings Brad and Brett scored a Grammy nod with Tim McGraw's "If You're Reading This" and a fluke hit with Toby Keith's "Red Solo Cup"

Brett and Brad Warren have written hits for Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban and many more. Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SESAC

Brad and Brett Warren spend most of their afternoons in a cozy Music Row office, one door down from songwriting legend Craig Wiseman and just across the hall from fellow hitmaker Rodney Clawson. Gold and platinum records cover the walls, celebrating songs that the Warren Brothers have written for Keith Urban, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Dierks Bentley and several others. Evidence of their earlier gig as an up-and-coming country duo on BNA Records — a duo that, coincidentally, toured the country as McGraw's opening act during the early 2000s — is harder to find, a sign that the Warrens are more than content staying home these days.

"It was fun," Brad says of the pair's time as a touring act. "I wouldn't wanna do it full-time anymore, but I'm glad we did it. It was nice to play in an arena at night. It was nice eating Tim's catering. And now, we can take that concert experience into account when we write. We can say, 'Let's think about how this will sound live. Let's write an anthem. Let's write a show-opener.'"

They've written plenty of both. As one of the most in-demand songwriting teams in Nashville, it's almost harder to find a new country album without Brad and Brett's names on its credits. They have three songs on Steven Tyler's new solo album, along with tracks on the latest releases by McGraw, Jason Aldean, Frankie Ballard, Blake Shelton, Randy Houser, Chris Young, A Thousand Horses and Tyler Farr. (The list goes on and on.) Beyond Nashville's borders, the two have left their mark on pop and rock & roll, too, penning tunes for Nickelback, Hinder, Joss Stone, Gin Blossoms and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The two siblings — close enough in appearance to be identical twins, although they're separated by two years — moved to Nashville in 1995, becoming small fish in a big pond after achieving the opposite in their hometown of Tampa. At home, they'd climbed their way to the top of the town's beach-bar scene, playing original songs and country covers to a rotating mix of locals and sunburnt tourists. Things were different in Tennessee, with the brothers splitting a single-bedroom apartment for two years to make ends meet.

By 1997, their fortunes had improved. The Warren Brothers signed with BNA and went on to release three albums for the label, scoring moderate hits with songs like "That's the Beat of a Heart" (featuring Sara Evans), "Move On" and "Hey Mr. President." Losing their record deal in 2005 wasn't as big a blow as it could've been, with the brothers bouncing back by focusing more time on an already red-hot songwriting partnership. Just a few months later, both McGraw and Hill released songs that the Warren Brothers had penned, scoring huge hits with both. Brad and Brett kept working, knocking out hit after hit for a who's-who list of artists. One decade later, they'd need a much larger office to display the full spread of gold records they've racked up.

Rolling Stone Country sat down with the Warren Brothers in their writing room to get the stories behind some of their most anthemic hits — with the first being one of country music's most polarizing (yet best-selling) songs of the last decade.

Toby Keith, "Red Solo Cup" (Bret Warren, Brad Warren, Brett Beavers, Jim Beavers)
Brad: "As writers, we're always looking for something to break up monotony. So we formed a fake band called the Warren Beavers with another pair of brothers — Jim and Brett Beavers — and decided to write crazy shit that no one else would be writing in town. We wrote 'Felt Good on My Lips' and 'Red Solo Cup' that way. 'Red Solo Cup' is a joke, really. Jim Beavers came in one day and said, 'I wanna write a song about a cup,' and voila! Four million downloads later, that's the song everyone thinks about when they think about our songwriting.

Brett: "We had a demo session that day, and we'd already torn down all of our gear, and the engineer was like, 'Please record the cup song.' And we said, 'No. It's stupid. No one will ever want it.' But he insisted, so we got around one microphone and just sang it a few times. And Toby loved it. Once a song of ours gets cut, I don't really listen to it, but I heard 'Red Solo Cup' the other day in my car and I just cracked up laughing. I thought, 'There's no way this song made money.'"

Tim McGraw, "If You're Reading This" (Tim McGraw, Brad Warren, Brett Warren)
Brett: "This was after 9/11 happened, and we still had soldiers in Afghanistan, and the whole thing was weighing on everybody's mind. Tim was on an airplane, reading a Time Magazine piece about all the letters that soldiers were writing home to their wives. He wanted to write a song similar to that. We went over to his house after we got back, and we all three finished it together. He had an album that was already done — it was in the can, in the stores, with a single on the radio — but he decided he was gonna play his new song one night at a benefit concert, and Carole King came up afterward and told him it was the best song she'd ever heard. Two weeks later, he played it on the ACM Awards with two acoustic guitars and some strings. There's no recording of that song anywhere else, except the live recording from that night. It went all the way to Number Three on the Billboard charts, and we got nominated for a Grammy."

Keith Urban, "Little Bit of Everything" (Brad Warren, Brett Warren, Kevin Rudolf)
Brett: "One of our song pluggers hooked us up with Kevin Rudolf, this Miami track guy who plays guitar and had a hit song with Lil Wayne. We met up with him and played this idea on a ukulele. He took that part back to Miami and built a track around it. Meanwhile, Keith was doing a record, and a guy named Serban Ghenea was mixing it. Kevin is friends with Serban, so Kevin sent him the song, and Serban played it for Keith, who was probably like, 'Great, even my mixing guy is pitching me songs now.' But Keith really liked it — he thought it was some cool, hip rock band from California — and it was only after cut his own version that he realized me and Brad wrote it."

Brad: "Thirty percent of the time, we'll write with a guy who's doing tracks. The first hit we ever had on the radio was Faith Hill's 'The Love You Want,' and we wrote that with Jay Joyce. When you write with Jay, from the first minute he has some track up and ready. Every songwriter does it differently."

Faith Hill, "The Lucky One" (Brad Warren, Brett Warren, Jay Joyce)
Brett: "We wrote that one with Jay Joyce, who was producing rock bands like Cage the Elephant at the time."

Brad: "He's a genius. We love him. He pulled up a cool track as soon as we got into the room, and Brett just started singing to it. It took us maybe an hour and a half to write. Brett and I are hyper and ADD, so we write fast. We write hard. We don't go to lunch. We just work until it's done."

Brett: "We're rock-influenced country writers, and my voice sounds gravelly and rough, so we were surprised when we sent the song to Tim and he said, 'Faith likes this one and is gonna cut it.' If it's the right lyric and it's something that a country female might want to say, though, they can hear through the demo. They can hear it working for them. And it worked for Faith."

Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift & Keith Urban, "Highway Don't Care" (Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, Brad Warren, Brett Warren)
Brad Warren: "We always envisioned this song as a duet. We wrote it with Josh Kear, who could sing high enough to do the girl's part, which is good, because we certainly can't get up there. It's crazy, because we went from Josh singing that part in the writing room, to a female singing it on the demo, to Taylor Swift singing it on the recording. And then Keith Urban played guitar on it! Somebody asked me if I wrote that guitar solo, and I said, 'I wish.'"

Brett Warren: "Tim McGraw is such a visionary. He had the patience needed to get the right people on board. We were like, 'Can't Faith just sing that part instead?' But he waited, which was the right thing to do."

Brad: "We have three hits with Tim, but we have 20 or 21 cuts with him overall. When he started cutting our songs, nobody else was. Those were the first cuts we ever had."