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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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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