You won’t see Luke Laird onstage very often… but you will hear his songs there. You’ll also see them on the Billboard charts, where 14 of his country co-writes have climbed all the way #1. We talked with the man behind some of the decade’s biggest tunes, from Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” to Eric Church’s “Drink In My Hand,” about songwriting, John Prine, and why it pays to show up.
How many songs do you write per week?
On average, I usually get three or four new songs a week. Some weeks there’s more; some weeks there’s less.
What percentage of those songs actually see the light of day?
Very low [laughs]. Let me see… I guess the percentage would be a little higher right now, because I had a really great year in 2013. It doesn’t mean that all of them will necessarily get released, but I probably had close to twenty songs recorded.
What do you do with the songs that don’t go anywhere? Do you ever return to them and rewrite them?
The good thing about being a songwriter is if you write something and nobody likes it right away, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of that song’s life. A lot of times, songwriters are coming up with stuff that’s ahead of the curve. You’ll write something, and then two years later it finds a home and gets released. And there have been certain occasions where I’ve written something a couple years ago and I look at it [again] and think, “I really like the idea, but I don’t feel like I nailed it.” Like, it could be better or it could have a different angle on it, and I’ll pull those out sometimes. Every new song is one you’ll always have in your catalogue, and you never know when it could show up again.
Did you grow up listening to country music?
I got into it when I was in high school. It was weird; I was into like rap, mostly, but I grew up in the country. I grew up on a dirt road in rural Pennsylvania. Once I was in high school, I actually started listening to the lyrics of songs, and I really enjoyed the stories and felt like I could relate to what they were talking about.
What about the classic singer-songwriters, like Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen, Neil Young… are you into those guys, as well?
Yeah, I am. Also John Prine. I think the songs that are the hardest to write are the ones that are simple, but not stupid. Believe me, I’ve got plenty of stupid songs, but the way [Prine] was able to write a lyric that wasn’t too smart for the average person, but was also really clever… I just really appreciate how difficult that is to do.
How often do you perform?
I used to do it more than I do now. Last year, I probably did six different things. I’m so rusty when it comes to actually performing my songs. Like, I’ll have to print lyrics out! I’m not very professional, I guess, because I don’t have time to sit down and practice them and just learn them like I want to. ‘Cause I’ll write one and then work on the next one, you know?
Is there anybody who taught you how to write songs?
Once I realized, “Oh, I can learn a song by ear,” I would listen to it on the radio — or tape it off the radio on my boom box — and then write those lyrics down, line by line, and figure out what each chord was. That [process] really taught me structure. I mean, I probably didn’t know at the time that this part is called a verse, this is called a chorus, this is called a bridge… but I was seeing how different songs were laid out, and at a pretty early age, it started feeling natural to just put a song together.
That’s amazing. So you started writing when you were very young?
Well, I started making stuff up. By second grade, I was writing things that would probably be equivalent to a verse and chorus… just a lot of stuff about whatever a kid in second grade would write about. Like, little diddy things. I’d spend hours in my room just playing music, listening to music, and I loved it. And that’s what I still do [laughs].
After high school, was your goal to become a songwriter? Did you have another day job in mind?
I really wanted to be a songwriter. My first visit to Nashville was between my sophomore and junior year of high school. I came with my family on a family vacation, and we did the whole tourist thing… but when we went to the Bluebird, it was the first time I’d seen songwriters — like, real songwriters playing songs — and I was just blown away. From that point on, I just knew I had to get to Nashville. MTSU had a music business program, so I got into that program and tried to use every opportunity they had, like volunteering at different functions in Nashville, in order to be around people in the music business. I started coming up to Nashville and playing open mic nights. Finally, I ended up with a couple publishers who took an interest in my songs, and one in particular just kept calling me and saying, “Hey, when you have new songs, come up and play them for me.” I graduated college and I still hadn’t gotten a publishing deal, so I ended up taking a job on the road for the country group Brooks & Dunn. I did their meet and greets. I was kind of the assistant to their tour manager. And then, when we would be off the road, I would go in and try to get new publishing meetings. Finally, I got signed in 2002. About a year after I graduated college, I got my first publishing deal, and it was really exciting because you’re like, “Wow, even though it’s not a lot of money, someone thinks I’m actually good enough to pay me to write songs.” It’s fun to have hit songs and all that, but getting that first realization — “Wow, this is actually a possibility for a job; like, I can literally do what I love and get paid for it” — that was just awesome.
How long did it take before you had your first successful song?
I got my pub deal in November of 2002. I didn’t have my first released cut — a recording that was on a LeAnn Womack album — ‘til February of 2005. And then I didn’t have my first hit song until the summer of 2007.
People are always complaining about the current state of country music, saying that hit songs are too similar to one another. Last year, you had a bunch of big hits. Do you feel personally offended when people talk like that?
I pay attention to [those comments], but at the same time, I’m not going to get caught up in it. For me, as writer, I’m always trying to grow. If I just do the same exact song every day, it would fry me. It would just kill my soul. As far as the current state of country.. I mean, in country music, radio is still king, and the playlists on radio are so short that you are going to hear a lot of the same kind of songs. That’s kind of how it’s always been. One song works, and then every other record label in town will try to put out something that sounds like it. Then, all of a sudden, people get burned out on it, and then something else breaks through. It’s just that kind of thing. I don’t think about it a ton, I’ll be honest. I’m just trying to write good songs [laughs].
Do you have any rituals, like wearing a hat when you write or something?
Before all my co-writes, I like to get my head straight and start thinking about ideas for songs. I usually get a couple of ideas going, and I think most of my success has come from not winging it. I don’t think “Oh, let’s just see what happens today.” I always try to get there early so I can be ready to go. That’s when I started having success, when I would basically get to work early and start working. I guess that’s kind of my ritual. It’s fun because it’s creative, but I still treat this like a job. There’s certain days where I may not feel inspired, but I still show up. And you never know what could happen. Like, if you don’t show up, I know what’s gonna happen: nothing [laughs]. So I just always show up.