Conversations with the Academy of Country Music Awards Songwriter of the Year Nominees

American Songwriter caught up with the five Academy of Country Music Awards
nominees for Songwriter of the Year, including Ashley Gorley, HARDY, Hillary
Lindsey, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. These hitmakers talk songwriting,
songs they wish they had written, and what they would like to see more (or less!)
of in country music songwriting.

Videos by American Songwriter

The ACM Awards will air April 18 on CBS.


Photo: Josh Ulmer

Selected Songwriting Hits: “One of Them Girls” (Lee Brice), “You Should Be
Here” (Cole Swindell), “Fix A Drink” (Chris Janson)
American Songwriter: You have written 53 No. 1 hits, including Thomas Rhett’s recent hit, “What’s Your Country Song.” What was it like fitting that many hit song
references into the track? Was there a particular line that was your

Ashley Gorley: It was tough—there are so many classic country songs out there that we all love. We wanted to cover lots of decades and wanted to be sure we gave nods to the
more recent classics. The line that references ‘That Ain’t My Truck’ is special
since Rhett Akins—who is a writer on ‘What’s Your Country Song’— is the
artist/writer of ‘That Ain’t My Truck.’ Referencing an older song/artist and having
that writer on the current song in the room as you write it is a pretty unusual
occurrence—not to mention Rhett is Thomas’ dad.
AS: What is your process like for writing songs?

AG: Sometimes songs start with a groove or melody, or someone brings in a title
they love, or a lot of times, a conversation we have in the room turns into the
song. Once we land on an idea, I like to outline the song off the top of my head
all the way through. If the outline feels good, I go back in with my co-writers and
fill in the lyrics and scrutinize the melodies until they feel right.
AS: What advice do you have for new songwriters in Nashville who are trying to
find their “tribe” of co-writers?

AG: There’s always a new class of writers coming to town. It just kind of happens
naturally, through writer rounds, being at different events, and starting the co-
writing process. Eventually, you find your crew—then it’s crucial to keep writing
with them. Success happens when you’re writing with the peers you get your best
songs with.
AS: What is one song you wish you had written?

AG: Too many to name! ‘House That Built Me,’ ‘I Hope You Dance,’ and ‘American
Kids’ are a few that can’t be beaten, in my opinion. There’s also ‘90s R&B songs that I’ll never get tired of hearing, like ‘End of the Road’ from Boyz II Men, or
‘Anytime’ and ‘One Last Cry’ by Brian McKnight.


Photo: Tanner Gallagher

Selected Songwriting Hits: “One Big Country Song” (LOCASH), “More Than My
Hometown” and “Sand in my Boots” (Morgan Wallen)

American Songwriter: This is your second nomination in this category. How does that feel for you as a writer?

Hardy: It makes me feel really proud of my journey and how far I’ve come. I’ve only been
writing professionally for about eight years. I’m just very grateful to be considered
for this category, given that the rest of the people are really veteran writers that
have tons of hits. I’m just very appreciative.

AS: You are a co-writer on Morgan Wallen’s “Sand in my Boots,” with Josh
Osborne and Ashley Gorley. What do you recall about writing that?

Hardy: We wrote it on Morgan’s birthday, and when we got done, I knew that he had
been wanting a piano ballad. So I sent him the song and said, ‘Happy birthday. I
wrote you a hit.’ He listened to it and said, ‘Well, I guess you d*** sure did.’ I had
the title for the song in my notes for forever. I just thought it was cool because it’s
such a different thing. Boots and sand don’t usually mix, so I thought you could
develop a cool story behind that. Ashley brought his keyboard, and it just kind of
stood out being a piano ballad.

AS: What would you like to see more of (or less of) in country music writing?

Hardy: I am such a sucker for hooks. That I would love to see, and they really have
come back a lot, but I would like to see songs hook more. I listened to the New
Boots playlist on Spotify the other day, and I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of
young kids that are really writing hooks.’ I just hope that that continues.

AS: What is one song you wish you had written?

Hardy: It would have to be either ‘Landslide’ or ‘Hurt,’ by Nine Inch Nails. I know
everybody loves Johnny Cash’s version [of ‘Hurt’], and I know it’s such a dark
song, but it captures the moment of being sad. Regardless of what kind of
emotion you want to portray when writing a song, if you can portray the emotion
to its truest form, I respect it.


CR: Evolution PR

Selected Songwriting Hits: “What She Wants Tonight” (Luke Bryan), “Girl Crush”
(Little Big Town), “Two Black Cadillacs” (Carrie Underwood)

American Songwriter: You won this award for the first time last year. What do you recall about the moment you found out you won?

Hillary Lindsey: 2020 was a different year for the ACMs because of COVID so I wasn’t buying a dress, getting a plane ticket to Vegas, or trying to find a way to get a spray tan
(laughs), so that in itself was strange. But also, I was in Orange Beach, Alabama,
with my parents preparing for a hurricane. I got a text from my mom saying I had
won, and I didn’t even know what she was talking about because I was so
distracted trying to hunker down. I almost didn’t believe her—I had to call my
sister to see if it was real, and then all of these congratulatory texts came in from
my co-writers and colleagues. I was in massive shock but so thrilled and
honored. My family and I had a toast to celebrate, and then we got back to work.
AS: You are a co-writer on “A Beautiful Noise.” How did that song come about?

HL: That song came about from Ali Harnell at Live Nation—who reached out to
Brandy Clark about writing a song for women’s rights as it was the 100th year
anniversary of women’s right to vote. Brandy asked myself, Lori [McKenna] and
Hailey [Whitters] to write it with her—which we did entirely over Zoom from four
different locations. I was in Orange Beach, Hailey in Nashville, Lori in Boston,
and Brandy in L.A. When we started writing it, even over a computer, we felt the
strength of this song but we had no idea this song would turn into what it did with
the involvement of Brandi Carlile, Alicia Keys, Linda Perry, and Ruby Amanfu. [I
am] so incredibly thankful to be a part of this song with these amazing beautiful
AS: What is your process for writing songs?

HL: Some co-writers bring in titles, sometimes I have a groove or title, sometimes the
idea comes from a conversation. The process is different as far as how it starts,
but it’s always about trying to find the heart of the song, and what the song wants
to be. If there was a perfect formula, it’d be easy— but there’s not. In the same
breath, I’m kind of glad there’s not, because that’s what makes this fun and
exciting every day. 
AS: You have written over 25 No. 1 hits. What is one song you wish you had

HL: Right now there is a song that is heavy on my heart and it’s ‘The House That
Built Me.’ The first time I heard that song I knew that was a song I wished I had
written —but I had no idea that years later it would haunt me and kill me in the
most beautiful way. My parents sold my childhood home a few years ago. They
moved into it when they got married. I’m the oldest child, it’s the only home I’ve
ever known— and I have dreams about it almost every night: the hallways, the
doorknobs, the kitchen table, and it wakes me up at night. That song
encapsulates everything that I feel. I don’t know if I ever could or would be able to
put it down on paper like Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin did. They are brilliant.


Photo: Weiss Eubanks

Selected Songwriting Hits: “Follow Your Arrow” and “Space Cowboy” (Kacey
Musgraves), “Some People Do” (Old Dominion)

American Songwriter: You have previously taken home the ACM’s Songwriter of the Year honor twice, and this year, you have two songs up for Song of the Year. What do
you recall about the writing sessions for Old Dominion’s “Some People Do” and Ashley McBryde’s “One Night Standards?” 

Shane McAnally: With ‘Some People Do,’ we had already written a song that day. We were all packing up and Thomas Rhett sat down at the piano and started playing and we
all had to sit back down and start figuring out why that music was moving through
the room. We started talking about some really personal stuff and a song started
to pour out. It felt like it was begging to be written. I’m so glad I was there when it
With ‘One Night Standards,’ Ashley, Nicolette [Hayford] and I were working on a
song called ‘Airport Hotel’ when Ashley said ‘Oh, that was a real one night
stander’—and I thought she said ‘one night standard’ and the rest is history. We
changed course immediately because we couldn’t fathom that the hook ‘one
night standards’ had never been written. It was magic. After that happened, the
song probably took 30 minutes to finish. 

AS: What advice do you have for new songwriters in Nashville who are trying to
find their “tribe” of co-writers?

SM: I always remind them that your “tribe” doesn’t need to consist of someone having
hits already. Your tribe is a group of like-minded people at the same place in their

AS: You have written 41 No. 1 hits to date. What would you like to see more of
(or less of) in country music songwriting?

SM: I hope that we all can remember that the truth and the vulnerability is what put
country music on the map. I feel like the last few years have steered away from
the heart and more about the flash. I love both, but I would like more heart. 

AM: What is one song you wish you had written?
SM: Any Lori McKenna song


Selected Songwriting Hits: “One Man Band” (Old Dominion), “Vice” (Miranda
Lambert), “Body Like a Back Road” (Sam Hunt)

American Songwriter: You are a co-writer on Darius Rucker’s new song “My Masterpiece.” What do you remember about writing that song?

Josh Osborne: Darius, J.T. Harding, Ross Copperman and I had recently written ‘Beers and Sunshine,’ which had become a single for Darius, and one day J.T. heard Darius
doing an interview on the radio where he talked about how during the quarantine
he was trying to become a better piano player, and he said, ‘I can’t play piano
like Ray Charles but I’m trying to get better.’ So J.T. reached out to Ross and I and said, ‘I wonder if that could be a cool idea for a song that we could write with
Darius?’ Ross and I loved that line. We all got together with Darius on a Zoom
co-write and tried to flesh it out and see what kind of song it would be and ‘My
Masterpiece’ was where we ended up. For a long time, we called the song ‘Ray
Charles’ because that was where the idea had come from.  
 AS: What would you like to see more of (or less of) in country music

JO: Because of what we have all gone through in this past year, it is very easy right
now to want fun and escapism in our lives, whether that is coming from music or
movies. I know that is very true for me. Having said that, I do think we’re reaching
a point now where a turn back to real life and consequences would be welcome,
mixed among the good vibes. 

AS: You have written 25 No. 1 hits to date. What is one song you wish you had

JO: ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys, because that’s probably my favorite song.
It’s the kind of message I would want to write and then be able to play for my
wife, daughter, or any of my loved ones and have them know that they are the

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