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.”