Now in its 14th year, the 30A Songwriters Festival provides a rare opportunity to hear from the men and women behind some of music’s most enduring hits – the storytellers that act as the oft-unseen backbone of the music industry. Among the billing at this year’s fest is a songwriter that is no stranger to penning hits: Matt Dragstrem.
Dragstrem first caught the country songwriting bug while watching a round at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. After hearing Jeffrey Steele play his latest Rascal Flatts cut, Dragstrem immediately got to work figuring out where he, a Chicago native, fit into the puzzle.
Since, he has become a tour de force on Music Row. Among his cuts are “I’ll Name the Dogs” (Blake Shelton), “One Margarita” (Luke Bryan), “You Look Like I Need A Drink” (Justin Moore) and “Sippin’ On Fire” (Florida Georgia Line). Elsewhere he has created magic, trans-genre, with the likes of David Guetta, Charlie Puth and G-Eazy.
We caught up with Dragstrem at 30A to talk about how he approaches writing for other artists, his radar for knowing a hit, the story behind his latest No. 1 song with Jordan Davis’ “What My World Spins Around” and more. Find our conversation, below.
AS: Did you ever want to go the artist route or did you always know songwriting was your path?
MD: I did the artist thing. At Belmont [University] there was a big singer/songwriter thing going on. Dave Barnes was really big. Ben Rector was as well. But, then I realized…I’m a terrible performer. I went on a couple of tours and had a small following, but not enough to think, “This is something I want to struggle for.” Being an artist doesn’t bring me the joy that I find sitting in a room with someone, helping them create their vision. It has never gotten old.
AS: Do you have a moment when you feel like you arrived as a songwriter?
MD: My first cut ever was with Kenny Chesney [“Rock Bottom”] for The Big Revival album. It was also when I got my first publishing deal, but it was more about the fact that an artist liked the song and recorded it. That’s really important validation to me. Anyone will tell you, especially non-artists, sometimes getting that cut is more important than a No. 1 – you’re still relevant and you’re still in the game. That first cut was definitely when I arrived.
AS: How do you balance putting in your own perspective in a song while making sure that the story/emotion of the artist you’re writing for gets represented?
MD: I am constantly asking questions like, “Does this resonate with you?” I don’t want to be the person that is guiding a song in a way that doesn’t feel right to the artist. I’d rather just help them guide their vision. But, it does depend on the artists. Some really want you to just create something for them. They have an idea but they need me to help them get ahold of it. Some want you to stand off and just encourage and take on more of a producer role. It’s mostly about being a friend, being open to them, and being non-judgmental.
AS: Can you feel during a session if something is going to become a hit or not?
MD: I think there is only one song of mine that I thought was going to be a hit. I’ve never said that again – I feel like it’s a curse to say that. It’s also so out of your control and that is not why I love writing. I know if I had a good time during a session. Typically if it was conversational and easy, those are the songs that get cut.
AS: Which was the one song you knew was going to be a hit?
MD: “I’ll Name the Dogs” by Blake Shelton. It felt so good when we wrote it. We were laughing the whole time. It was one of those things where everything just worked. We never pushed it. Sometimes things just drop out of thin air. That’s how I try to be – receive the songs instead of writing the songs.
AS: Do you like to stick to the same co-writers? Or do you think it’s good to switch things up?
MD: I think it’s better to have a combination. Some writers I’ve worked with for decades but, I also love working with new talent. I think if you’re not writing with new talent then you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. There’s a balance there. Every month or so, I try and bring a new person into the group just to hear different perspectives and experiences.
AS: Do you ever wish you could go back and edit some of your songs?
MD: No, I never think about that. I feel like they’re all just drafts – they are always evolving. You could edit forever but, you know when the song is done for the moment.
AS: Who or what are your biggest inspirations for writing?
MD: It’s people. Most people would probably say a band or a song but, for me, it’s really about hanging out with people and hearing their stories. I take ideas from normal things in everyday life – people that enjoy what they do. That inspires me to enjoy what I do.
AS: Can you tell us the inspiration behind Jordan Davis’ “What My World Spins Around?”
MD: That was a fun one. It was during COVID but when people started to loosen up. So Jordan, Ryan [Hurd] and I wrote in a big room with chairs in each corner. It was funny looking back – it was just how you had to do it then. The lyrics are about our mutual understanding of how life shifts when you meet that person. We’re all married so it really just fell out.
AS: Did you grow up listening to country music?
MD: No, that’s the funniest part. I grew up in a Dazed and Confused kind of town that was big into classic rock. Grunge rock was also really big when I was growing up – Nirvana, Pearl Jam and all that. I’ll be honest, I was a country music hater. Then I went to The Bluebird in Nashville and saw a round and I immediately thought, “Okay, I get it. How do insert myself into this?”
AS: Do you approach writing for different genres in different ways?
MD: I go to L.A. to write pop music and it’s very melody based there, whereas in Nashville we get the words down first. But, I still try and approach things the same way. Maybe, it frustrates people in L.A. but I don’t know how to do it any other way than the way I do it.
Photo Courtesy of Big Machine Music