Ever since he was 12 years old, Corey Crowder has played golf. Today, the songwriter and performer says, he is “somewhere between horrible and professional.” He laughs, the chuckle of anyone who’s held a club often, who knows the mired feeling of imperfection, of struggle. And of making hits. It’s a similar laugh he gives when talking about the craft of songwriting, too.
Videos by American Songwriter
“It’s one of those sports where you can somehow play for a long time and still suck,” he tells American Songwriter. Though, without context, it would be unclear which he’s referencing. “Kind of like songwriting.” Though Crowder has gone on to become one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville these days, his entry into the work came humbly. Via a pawn shop. Crowder, who won ASCAP’s Country Song of the Year Award for the song “Famous Friends,” received his first six-string from his dad, who bought it at the local store.
“My dad used to frequent a pawn shop in our hometown,” Crowder says. “And I got this fascination with playing guitar. So, he bought me a guitar at the pawn shop. I took lessons in a literal back closet.”
Eventually, Crowder says, he began to play at church. He was high school age. He began singing then, too. Until then, he didn’t even know he could. The church helped him earn an introduction to that side of music. He wrote songs, thinking there was a straight line between writing, singing, and recording. Unaware, like most, that there were even jobs out there for professional songwriters who composed tunes for other artists. Thankfully, though, for Crowder, he landed a record deal and moved to Music City and the higher-ups started passing him around through songwriter circles in the city.
“That was the first time I ever collaborated with another person on a song,” he says, “though I’d already written hundreds by myself. That’s the period I call songwriting Bootcamp.”
Crowder, who boasts handfuls of No. 1 hits and big-name collaborations to date, says he was often writing two-to-three songs per day, five or even seven days a week. He “became a sponge” and “soaked up every good quality from all these amazing songwriters in town.” He adopted aspects of their process that he thought were valuable. Over time, he grew. He earned commercial success. It wasn’t from any tricks or shortcuts. It came from hard work, dedication, effort, and even failure. That’s the tried-and-true path to achievement.
“You write a lot of shitty songs,” he says. “But it’s really—you have to wade through those waters. A lot of times people ask me for my best advice. And really you just have to write. I relate it to golf. You have to go to the driving range and hit.”
With reps comes knowledge and understanding of the craft. You learn “pathways to the finish line,” he says. And what Crowder especially appreciates is a familiar-yet-new hook. His favorite thing, he says, is writing about something a listener knows—a small town, a truck—but presenting it in a way that’s new, fresh, concise, clear, visual, and exciting. To see your home in a new light, that’s the talent.
“I love nothing better than when I hear a song lyric that makes me visualize something in a way that I haven’t ever heard it,” Crowder says.
But Crowder is not just someone in the back room scribbling lyrics. He’s also a performer, an artist on stage. While he admits he hasn’t totally yet “dialed” that side of himself in, he’s putting in the reps, the time. He gets feelings of nerves, but just like with the writing, one reaps what they sow. Crowder loves to sing and when he gets in the groove, he can come to life on stage. He loves to tell a story to his audience and appreciates those who offer that skill well, too. And putting in the work, performing the job repeatedly, Crowder says, has birthed “characters” in his voice and even his songwriting psyche.
“If I’m pitching a song to Blake Shelton,” he explains, “it helps to have that kind of character in my voice to where I can sing the song in a way that I could think he’d hear himself singing it.”
For inspiration, Crowder often looks to ’70s rock and roll. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and so the city’s legendary hip-hop scene is also a part of his art, from groups like Outkast to solo artists like Ludacris. Melodies, and chord progressions, are the things that have been burned into his mind from decades of listening to songs. As a result, he prefers clarity. He doesn’t want something difficult to get into. Say it clearly, say it well, and say it new. That’s the equation. And for “Famous Friends,” that’s exactly what worked. The song, he says, was written on a tour bus in St. Augustine, Florida, with a few artists, including Chris Young (who sings on the song, along with Kane Brown). Immediately, when it was done, it was clear it would be a song Young would record in the studio.
“Once we stumbled on the idea that the song is not about [celebrities],” Crowder says, “but that it’s about famous people you’ve never heard of, famous people in your hometown, we knew we had something.”
The collective behind the song had so many verses, they ended up having to drop a handful to keep the song from turning into a novel. Now that the song has become a hit, Crowder says it’s a thrill to see so many people light up when they hear it. Not only is it great to land the song, and have it recorded, but one doesn’t know what a song will do until it’s heard by the masses. To date, the song has 18 million YouTube streams, alone. As for Brown, who sings half the song along with Young, the collaboration was a joy. Brown used to pattern his voice off Young and the two have been looking for a project to work on together for years.
“When this song came along,” Crowder says, “Chris was like, ‘Man, what if I get Kane on this song?’ It adds an extra layer to have a literal famous friend on it. But it’s also somebody that we have extreme history and love for.”
Not only is the song a fan-favorite, but it’s now earned critical acclaim. To receive the ASCAP Country Song of the Year Award is a “bucket list” award, Crowder says. It’s one he’s always wanted, and felt envious about. And once he found out he’d achieved it, Crowder went straight to his cabinets and fixed himself an old fashion to celebrate. Hole in one.
Now, looking ahead, the writer says he will continue to do his thing, write songs, make records, and balance being a dad to two kids, ages six and 10. Not too shabby. But Crowder never takes his eye off where his roots grew or where his skill comes from, he says. In this way, he’s a pro’s pro.
“Music is from God,” he says. “So, it’s not surprising that music can make you feel like you’re somewhere else. It eases your pain, and makes you happy. There’s nothing else on Earth like it.”
Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for CMA