Songwriters wait for that divine moment when a song drops from the heavens above, makes it presence known and declares its intent to stick around for a long time. Co-writers in the room get goose bumps and the writing session is inspired and often effortless.
Matt Stell knew he and his co-writers had received a special gift when they finished writing “Prayed For You.” Sung by a man who’s “far from a preacher/but I’m a believer,” “Prayed For You” is a journey to love through many darkened roads leading nowhere, all the while knowing deep down, if you believe, the love of your life will show up and two will make one.
But even Stell couldn’t imagine how the song would change his life and take him from struggling independent artist to Number One country songwriter, and also earn him a 2021 ASCAP Pop Music Award for Most Performed Song. It’s a subtle but important difference for the Arkansas native and affirmed that he did in fact belong in Nashville writing songs.
“I knew when we finished writing that song it was a good song,” Stell told American Songwriter. “I had no idea it would change my life. ‘Prayed For You’ turned me into a writer/artist instead of an artist/writer.”
‘Cause every single day, before I knew your name
I couldn’t see your face, but I prayed for you
Every heartbreak trail when all hope failed
On the highway to hell, I prayed for you
“Prayed For You” began in a whirlwind fashion in late spring of 2017. Co-writer Allison Veltz was running late for a scheduled writing session with Stell and Ash Bowers. A week prior, Veltz had met a man who would eventually become her husband and was bubbling with excitement. She promised the writing time would be well spent as she had a gem of a lyric ready.
“Allison had ‘More than I can fathom/ I didn’t know you from Adam/ But I prayed for you.’ We ended up taking that and it became the back of the song- the hook and turn.”
Veltz’s newfound romance resonated with Stell, who was in a relationship with his girlfriend, and Bowers, who was a happily married man. The three took to the lyric and set out crafting a narrative.
“We tried to tell an honest story about a guy who’s way luckier than he deserves in a lot of ways. The next thing we did was to sketch out a character who is a lot like me in that respect.”
Though the songwriting trio was ‘trying to chase down the best song’ in their session, the lyrics were written with the idea that it would likely be a cut for Stell, and not one to shop to other artists. “It was probably written with me in mind because there’s a lot of me in the song. It was coming from that place (of happy relationships).”
The song’s theme also presented the opportunity for Stell to show a different, more personal, side of himself in his music.
“This song stands out in my catalog in so many ways and is different from what I typically do. I had one love song before this! Love songs are something I do, just not as much. I guess I gravitate towards darker or heavier sides of a narrative.”
The song’s subtle religious overtones, of course, play a big part in the catchy, singalong chorus. But the lyrics read well enough on their own to warrant even the biggest non-believer to sing along without fear of conversion. Stell confesses that while he considers himself religious, he’s not one to preach to others.
“I grew up in that world but I’m very humble in that aspect. I don’t ever want anyone to think that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to that world. I respect everyone’s journey whether it looks like mine or not.”
Stell wasn’t signed with a major label at that time the song was tracked. Co-writer Bowers was a successful songwriter who had his own publishing company and the pair decided to put the song out on an EP with five other songs.
“Ash is a great songwriter who’s had lots of cuts, and he signed me to a publishing deal,” Stell continues. “He’s talented in so many ways, from publisher to songwriter to manager. He was the first person to be in a position to believe in me and also put his money where his mouth is and do something about it.”
Gradually, “Prayed For You” gained fans. “People started streaming it and then we put out a video. That is what got me a record deal. It’s a typical story of how everybody in town tells you ‘no’ and then you get some traction.”
The song caught the ear of the owner a major record label outside of Nashville who put together a team to work the song to radio. “Sony had one label out of New York who mostly do rap and alternative music. They signed me to a record deal and put together a country staff and took the song to radio. Then my deal became a joint venture with Sony Nashville and Arista which is the label I’m on now. ‘Prayed For You’ is the song that opened doors for me.”
What listeners hear on the radio is the same master that Stell originally recorded, complete with a catchy melodic guitar part. The origins of the guitar riff were on Stell’s original work tape and then fleshed out in the tracking session, which took place at either Black River Studios or Soundstage. “We had that hammer-on/hammer off thing. I love to bring in ideas and let the people who have the chops and taste to work in that space and interpret it.”
“That’s the great thing about the players in Nashville. You take in a finger painting and you walk out with The Last Supper! That’s how I love to work.”