Liz Rose doesn’t play an instrument. That hasn’t stopped her from co-writing some of the biggest country songs of the 21st century, though, including nearly two dozen Taylor Swift tunes and a handful of hits for Little Big Town, Eli Young Band, Gary Allan, Tim McGraw and Bonnie Raitt, among others. She’s won Grammys. She’s topped the charts. Her songs — several of which were co-penned with “The Love Junkies,” a songwriting trio comprised of Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna — have sold more than 20 million copies combined.
When you’ve got stats like that, who needs a guitar?
“I got into songwriting as a lyricist,” she explains. “Some people have said to me, ‘Don’t learn an instrument. Never learn an instrument. You’re only going to ruin your process.’ And I think they’re right, because I don’t need it. I just need someone to start playing a beat or some chords, and the ideas immediately flow.”
These days, while Taylor Swift turns to more pop-friendly collaborators like Max Martin for help on her crossover records, Rose remains as busy as ever. She contributed three songs to Little Big Town’s Pain Killer and runs her own music publishing company from a cozy, two-story walk-up on Nashville’s Music Row. That’s where Rolling Stone Country caught up with the lauded hitmaker to get the stories behind her songs, from chart-toppers to personal favorites.
Taylor Swift, “All Too Well” and “You Belong With Me”
“My strength with Taylor isn’t writing lyrics. It’s whittling things down and pulling out the important pieces. She’ll talk a lot and mumble and say lines, and I’ll write them down really fast and keep them stored away. Then I’ll take her back to those lines and say, ‘What about this?’ I don’t mess with her style, lyrically. I let her say what she wants to say. People used to tell me, ‘You’re more like an editor with Taylor,’ and it used to frustrate me, because I can write lyrics, too. But those people were right. Taylor is good because she has lyrics that work for her age. I just help her grab the ones that are great.
‘You Belong With Me’ was written at the very end of the recording sessions for Fearless. She said, ‘I’m finishing the record on Monday. Let’s write an uptempo song.’ We wrote ‘You Belong With Me’ in one or two hours. It’s amazing to go back to the work tape and listen to it, because you wouldn’t believe the nuances that show up in the album version, too. When she’s writing something, she’s already producing in her head. She hears it all.
When we did ‘All Too Well,’ I hadn’t heard from her in awhile. She hadn’t really been writing. I was in Nashville one day, slowly moving the last bits of junk out of my garage so I could move to Dallas. My house had already sold, so I had to come back and clean it out. I had a trailer and four guys helping me, and I was sick with some kind of sinus infection. It was just the worst day. I was in my driveway and my phone rings, and it’s Taylor saying, ‘Man, I’ve got this thing and I really need you to help me with it. Can you write today? What are you doing today?’ So I gave those guys the keys to my storage place, told them to put all my stuff into storage and drove over to Taylor’s.
It was the first song she wrote for that record, I think. She had a story and she wanted to say something specific. She had a lot of information. I just let her go. She already had a melody and she started singing some words, and I started writing things down, saying, ‘Ok, let’s use this, let’s use that.’ She mentioned a plaid shirt, and I wrote that down in a corner, and when we got to the end, I said, ‘Let’s put the plaid shirt in there.’ That turned into one of the best lines: ‘After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own/Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone/But you keep my old scarf from that very first week/’Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me.’ It was the most emotional, in-depth song we’ve ever written.
She’s such a force. You remember the songs you write with Taylor, because the emotion that goes into them is so palpable. One of my daughters is her age, so I understood that I needed to stand back a bit and make sure we wrote Taylor songs, not Liz songs. I didn’t mess with her. The writers that did try to mess with her lyrics? She didn’t write with them a second time.”
Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
“Lee Brice and I wrote that, and it was real easy. We were talking about how females look for problems. And we just do! We’re the emotional ones. Lee and I were talking about that, saying things like, ‘Why are girls always waiting for you to leave them?’ That’s where it came from. It took a couple hours. If I don’t finish a song during a session, it’ll be a miracle if I go back and finish it later. I respect and commend people who can work on something forever and ever, like the guys who did “The House That Built Me.” But for me, a song is an emotional moment. I get into the emotion rather than the craft, so it needs to come out pretty fast.
Right after Lee and I wrote that song, he put out a single — something he hadn’t written — called “Love Like Crazy.” He wanted to keep “Crazy Girl” for himself, but the record label said, ‘You just released something with the word ‘crazy’ in it. Why would you release another song with the same word?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, why would I do that?’ So the Eli Young Band got it instead.”
Little Big Town, “Tumble and Fall” and “Girl Crush”
“I get together with the Love Junkies every three months, and we’ll write as much as we can in three days. We got three songs on the new Little Big Town album, and we wrote ‘Sober’ for their last album,Tornado. Karen and Kimberly came over one day to help us write ‘Tumble and Fall,’ and when they got there, we’d just finished writing a song called ‘Girl Crush.’ We played it for them, and they were like, ‘Oh, my God.’ Then we all wrote ‘Tumble and Fall’ together, which is like an answer-back-and-forth between the guys and the girls in the band. It was very hard to write, because you have to write the guy parts and the girl parts, and there’s a lot of harmony going on. But we had a bit of wine, and it worked out. They’re so good. When you write with them, they’re already singing the harmonies. They know exactly where they’re gonna go.”
Gary Allan, “Songs About Rain”
“That song was written with Pat McLaughlin. I was at my publishing company one day, and I looked down at a desk and saw that someone had written a song with ‘rain’ in the title. I said, ‘Man, somebody else has written a song about rain? God. No more songs about rain!’ Then I thought, ‘Hey, I can write something about being tired about all these songs about rain.’ So Pat came over and we did. We had a different chorus originally, and he left and then called me from the car and said, ‘Hey, what if we do this other thing instead?’ We changed the chorus around, and it saved the song. He made it a hit.”
Bonnie Raitt, “I Don’t Want Anything to Change”
“That was with Stephanie Chapman and Maia Sharp. Maia is a AAA artist who wrote the song ‘Home’ for the Dixie Chicks record. She’s so great; Bonnie was very enamored with her songs. We were all writing, and Stephanie came in with the first verse. That was a hard song to write. It took all day. If you go back and listen to that song, you can hear how intricate is. We’d each offer up a line, then we’d all massage it and make it better and better and better. It was fun after that session to go to Bonnie’s shows, because she’d make us stand up or tell people we were there. No artists do that! And I don’t want them to do it, really. But she’s the exception. If someone’s gonna do it, you want Bonnie Raitt to be that person.”