14 Simple Rules For Writing a Country Hit - Rolling Stone
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14 Simple Rules For Writing a Country Hit

The tunesmiths behind Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and more tell all

Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan

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Country has never been as open to experimenting as it is right now – from Kacey Musgraves singing about same-sex kissing to Florida Georgia Line cruising with Nelly. But the Nashville songwriting complex still operates on a series of codes and traditions you won’t find in rock, pop or any other genre. We talked to four of the industry’s hitmakers – a whopping 34 Number One songs between them — who have managed to find the proper balance. So far they’ve yielded winners for Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Diamond Rio, Cole Swindell, the duo of Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, and many more. Here’s some advice if you’d like to try, too.

Reporting by Christopher R. Weingarten, Beville Dunkerley and Joseph Hudak

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1. Nothing Is More Important Than Melody

Dallas Davidson, 12 Number One Hits: I used to think that lyrics were the number-one driving force in a good song, but I find that over my years writing these songs, that it's not. You got to have a melody; if you don’t, nobody gives a shit. You can be ridin' down the road and you hear something that feels so good and you want to sing along to it. Then they learn the words to your song.

Shane Minor, 4 Number One Hits: I know Nashville is so lyric-driven, which is great, but now they’re becoming more like it was when I was in Los Angeles. Working there, it was all groove and melody-driven; that’s what drove the song.

Craig Wiseman, 22 Number One Hits: I think one of the reasons country is so popular now is because that part of pop songwriting has come into it. You hear that repetitive hook in songs by Florida Georgia Line, by Luke Bryan. It can be so simple and so fun. It ain't friggin' rocket surgery, man, it's just popular music!

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2. Work in Groups

Wiseman: Co-writing goes on a lot in Nashville. For most people, songwriting is a solitary world. They'll come to town and have to learn art of co-writing. It's kind of like the art of learning how to date. Co-writing is like slow-motion speed-dating. You have these various people across from you in the writers' room and so you have a lot of horror stories. But just like dating, you look across the table at that girl and it can be love at first sight. As soon as it clicks, it's like "OK, now I get it."

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3. Think Summer, Not Bummer

Jimmy Robbins, 2 Number One Hits: We’re in a place where feel-good songs are really successful on the radio right now, and I think it’s because the economy the past few years, people just want to escape in music for a while. We’re going to get to a place where people are going to be creating a little bit of a deeper thing, but I definitely think we got a couple more years of the kind of pocket we’re in right now.

Wiseman: Right now, everyone is saying, "Quit writing these songs about being from the country and riding in pickup trucks," but that's what people are out doing. You have younger people enjoying country and the songs that resonate with them are like that. If you are 22 years old, it is pretty much either "Me and my girlfriend broke up" or "I'm out partying to meet a girlfriend so she can break up with me and I'll be heartbroken." For some reason, in this format, people don't flinch coming to it and saying, "Why aren't you guys writing about this? You should be doing this or that." No other format is held to that standard. But why is it our gig to check every box of life? Songs about mamas, and all this deep shit, are put out all the time, but they're just dying on the charts because that's not where the audience is. All music that covers all kinds of stuff is coming out at all times, and I'm sure there is an excellent polka album coming out right now, but you and I both know how well that is going to sell.

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4. Country Tends to Follow Pop Trends — Just a Few Years Behind

Wiseman: Forty percent of the active rock males have abandoned that format and come over to country.

Robbins: If you listen to early-2000 pop radio, there was still a lot of organic instruments on there – acoustic guitars and drum loops were huge back then. Those John Mayer records or that Ashlee Simpson stuff. And that’s kind of what we’re doing now. There's very few guitars on pop radio. I actually think EDM, being so much of pop music right now, is a big part of why country music has transitioned. We’re doing what pop radio was doing. People like those songs and we’re filling that void now.

Minor: The core country music listener is probably the guys that lost rock & roll before Nirvana came along and the hair bands [died out]. So, we’re probably the closest things they have.

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5. Practice Your –Ella, -Ella, -Ella

Robbins: I feel like country music is just getting excited about post-choruses right now. Pop got really excited about that about eight years ago. Kind of the catalyst in pop music was probably "Umbrella," that big Rihanna hit – you have your chorus, but then moment after the chorus is the real hooky part.

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6. Don’t Mince Words

Wiseman: As other genres have influenced country, the lyrics have gotten a little more poetic, but the hallmark of country is that it talks about life in no uncertain terms. I'll never forget when I was a kid, I was a drummer playing in rock bands, and I went over to a guy's house one time and he was playing Johnny Cash's "Sunday Morning Coming Down," the Kris Kristofferson song. I'll never forget when he hit that line in the first verse: "The beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad, so I had one more for dessert/I stumbled to my closet, went through my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt." I was like, "Oh my God, I'm wearing my cleanest dirty shirt right now." Country is kind of literal, but I like that, because it separates the bullshit from the real thing.

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7. Unpack Your Adjectives

Robbins: Country music loves adjectives. They love interesting, quirky adjectives. I wrote a song called "Sure Be Cool If You Did," that Blake Shelton did. "You don’t have to throw back your pretty pink lemonade shooter," instead of saying, "You don’t have to drink your drink." Four words to describe that drink instead of one.

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8. Listen to Music Besides Country

Minor: Bruno Mars, that's big here. Huge among writers. And I'm a huge fan. He's one of the greats. If I can come back, I'd wanna be Bruno Mars.

Robbins: I have a song on the radio right now called "Beachin'," the Jake Owen cut. That morning [that we wrote it] we were all listening to "Thrift Shop," that Macklemore record, and so what inspired "Beachin'" was we took the drum pattern from "Thrift Shop" and just slowed it down and wrote over it.

Taylor: Nobody says, "I listen to country and that’s it." I listen to a lot of pop radio, where you might not hear the words, but you hear the melody. That tends to spark [ideas] for me. I love the melodies behind pop, rock and R&B music.

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9. Pay Attention to Words Happening Around You

Davidson: I've always been a decent listener, but now I consider myself a really good listener because you never know what you’re going to hear. Luke Bryan and I grew up in Albany, Georgia, which is a real agricultural-centered town where they literally pray for rain. It was the livelihood of that town. I was riding down the road and I heard the weatherman doing the little 30-second weather report on the radio station, and the weatherman said, "Sorry Nashville, but it's gonna be a rainy weekend." And I remember thinking to myself, "Well, Hold on a minute – it’s summertime. We need some rain! What is this guy talking about?" So I called Luke and I said, "We need to write a song called, 'Rain Is a Good Thing.'"

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10. Write What You Know

Wiseman: All I want to do is capture one moment, some slice of life, even if it's riding around in a pickup truck. Brooks & Dunn's "Hillbilly Deluxe" came from me waiting for my wife in the grocery store and watching a country town go by on a Friday night, realizing that it hasn't changed a bit since I was a kid. Whatever I'm looking at, if I can get that windowpane clear enough to where I'm just showing the picture, that's the ballgame for me.

Davidson: [Luke Bryan's "That's My Kind of Night"] is what my kind of night would have been if I was in high school or college – hell, even now, to be honest with you, I still like to party. "Floating down the Flint River"; that’s the river I grew up on. "Catch us up a little catfish dinner"; of course it rhymes really well, but the truth is, we’d go fishing.

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11. Quiet Verse, Explosive Chorus Still Rules the Roost

Robbins: Pop music right now, the chorus breaks down. Like, your verse is big, and then chorus actually sucks down and gets small. It's the opposite of what your brain thinks. I've written a couple of songs like that for this country market and we're not quite ready for that yet. I've tried it a few times and they haven't bit on any of the songs, so, I don’t think we’re allowed to do it yet.

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12. Don’t Be Afraid of Hip-Hop

Davidson: As country boy as I am, a lot of those hip-hop guys are country boys, too. T-Pain being from Tallahassee, which is only an hour from where I grew up, man, he speaks the same language as me. If you go to a bar in Albany, Georgia, where I'm from, and there’s a country band playing, when that band takes a break, it's 100 percent hip-hop playing at intermission. And all the girls get out and start shaking their asses. That's in every small-town in America. So country listeners are actually very educated on hip-hop.

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13. Break All the Rules!

Minor: Songs are kind of taking on a different structure, and sometimes change is good. I like songs starting with the chorus – that was unheard of. Who cares? Who made those rules? It's been around since time began, but does it make it right? Here’s a good example: [Florida Georgia Line's] "Cruise." It starts out with the chorus. That's a rule-breaker. But look how big it was. The biggest country song in history, or close to it? It set all kinds of records. Another one was Luke Bryan, "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye." That is the shortest verse in the history of songwriting mankind. Big ol' hit. It had like a two-line verse and a big ol' chorus. That one broke rules. There's a lot of writers in town writing those songs where they’re changing the structure up.

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14. Don’t Say the F-Word

Minor: No, you can't drop an F-bomb. Although we do about every five minutes in the writing room.

Davidson: You can’t say "fuck" in a country song. You can talk about sex – they’ve been talking about sex in country songs since the Sixties and Seventies. You can do now more than ever; you can do about anything. But the cuss words, on the radio, the soccer moms driving around with their kids in the car, they don’t want their kids hearing bad language. Hopefully, one day, we can say whatever we want.



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