Country has never been as open to change as it is now — from Kacey Musgraves singing about joint-rolling and same-sex kissing to Florida Georgia Line collaborating with Nelly on the hip-hop-fueled "Cruise" remix. But the Nashville songwriting complex still operates on a series of codes and traditions you just don't find in rock, pop or any other genre. Here are some ground rules:
1. Three Is the Magic Number (of Songwriters)
Of the 50 most recent songs to top the country charts, only three were credited to just one songwriter — and two of those were by Taylor Swift. Pretty much every country song is written in a group, usually of three people — sometimes it's two writers and the artist; other times one writer will handle the melody, one the lyrics and the third the backing track. "For most people starting out, songwriting is a solitary world," says Craig Wiseman, who has written Number One hits for Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton. "They'll come to town and have to learn the art of co-writing. You have some horror stories. But sometimes you find the right partner and it's like love at first sight."
2. Tell a Story, Clearly
Rock & roll lyrics are allowed to be mysterious and vague, but Nashville prides itself on total clarity — you will never catch a country singer yowling, "A mosquito! My libido!" like Kurt Cobain. "Country is kind of literal," says Wiseman. "It separates the bullshit from the real thing." Country radio loves slice-of-life stories that anyone can relate to. "All I want to do is capture a moment, even if it's riding around in a pickup truck," says Wiseman.
3. Punch the Clock
Country songwriters don't wait for inspiration to strike; they show up at work and hammer away. "When you're writing, you do three sessions a day," says Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, who made his first country record in 2008. "You write in the morning, break for lunch, write after lunch, have a break, then write before dinner. You just write a song. That was a revelation to me."
4. Think Summer, Not Bummer
If you're aiming for the top of the country singles charts in 2014, it doesn't hurt to write party anthems involving beer, young love and/or trucks. Jimmy Robbins, the 24-year-old co-writer of two Number One country hits, credits the wave of feel-good songs to the need for escapism in a bad economy; Wiseman says it's partly due to all the young men who've ditched Nickelback-y "active rock" radio for country in recent years. "You have younger people enjoying country," he says. "These are the songs that resonate with them. Country songs about mamas, and all this deep shit, are put out all the time, but they're just dying on the charts."
5. Keep Your Ears Open
Country songwriters routinely look to pop, rock and hip-hop for fresh ideas. "Bruno Mars, he's huge among writers here," says Shane Minor, who has co-written Number One country singles for Kenny Chesney and other top stars. Robbins co-wrote the Jake Owen hit "Beachin'" after listening to Macklemore. "We took the drum pattern from 'Thrift Shop,' slowed it down and wrote over it," says Robbins. Often, country follows safely behind pop and rock trends by a few years. "In early-2000s pop, there was still a lot of organic instruments — acoustic guitars and drum loops," says Robbins, citing John Mayer and Ashlee Simpson. "And that's kind of what we're doing now."
6. The Hook Is Supreme
Ralph Murphy, who Q wrote hits for Crystal Gayle and Ronnie Milsap in the Seventies and Eighties, once noted that country hits repeat the song title three to seven times in the lyrics. Not everybody sticks to that, but the spirit is alive in Nashville. "Get to the chorus as soon as you can, and get the hook in there as many times as you can," says singer Cole Taylor. "People don't know what they like; they like what they know. If you hear something over and over, you're eventually going to love it."
7. No Cussing
"You can do about anything in a country song," says Dallas Davidson, who has co-written more than 10 Number One country hits. "But no cuss words. The soccer moms don't want to hear it." Adds Minor, "No, you can't drop an f-bomb — although we do every five minutes in the writing room."