You wanna know what you get
When you play a country song backwards?
You get your house back
You get your dog back
You get your best friend Jack back
You get your truck back
You get your hair back
Ya get your first and second wives back
Your front porch swing
Your pretty little thing
Your bling-bling-bling and a diamond ring
You get your farm and the barn and the boat and the Harley,
First night in jail with Charlie …
— Rascal Flatts, “Backwards,” 2006 (Tony Mullins and Marcel, writers)
Tongue-in-cheek? Oh, yeah. But if country fans didn’t expect a few dance floor goddesses, dusty boots, hayfields, truck stops, motels, porch swings and (as Hank Williams put it) tears in their beers, they would have joined Elvis and left the building long ago.
So while country audiences may want things “the same but different,” artists have found plenty of room to grow, from Grand Ole Opry legends like Hank Williams, the Carter Family and Johnny Cash to outlaws, honky-tonk revivalists, rockers and Americana artists such as Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, the Eagles, the Allman Brothers, Darius Rucker, Leonard Cohen, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and many more.
Still, as “Backwards” suggests, anyone who wants to make it in Nashville has to learn how to walk a tightrope between freedom and formula — which brings us to the phenomenal Ashley Gorley (profiled earlier in this issue). At the tender age of 43, Gorley has written no fewer than 50 No. 1 hits, so whatever the secret of tightrope walking might be, he’s got it nailed.
If you want to study painting, it’s best to book a few lessons with Van Gogh, so I got a list of those 50 hits and went to work, listening and taking notes. The first thing I considered was theme, and I found (mainly) five of them (some titles repeat):
A – Good Love
“Crash My Party,” Luke Bryan; “Do I Make You Wanna” and “Don’t It,” Billy Currington; “Play It Again,” Luke Bryan; “Rumor,” Lee Brice; “Tonight Looks Good On You,” Jason Aldean; “Nothin’ Like You,” Dan + Shay; “Rewind,” Rascal Flatts; “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” Randy Houser; “Yeah,” Joe Nichols; “Then” and “Today,” Brad Paisley; “Unforgettable,” Thomas Rhett; “Eyes On You,” Chase Rice; “A Guy With a Girl,” Blake Shelton; “Heartbeat,” Carrie Underwood; “Catch,” Brett Young.
B – Bad Love
“Dirty Laundry” and “Good Girl,” Carrie Underwood; “Hard To Forget,” Sam Hunt; “I See You,” Luke Bryan; “Love Ain’t,” Eli Young Band; “Marry Me,” Thomas Rhett; “Middle of a Memory,” Cole Swindell.
C – Celebration
“All-American Girl,” Carrie Underwood; “American Country Love Song,” Jake Owen; “American Saturday Night,” Brad Paisley; “Dirt On My Boots,” Jon Pardi; “Fix a Drink,” Chris Janson; “Good Vibes,” Chris Janson; “Kick The Dust Up,” Luke Bryan; “Life Changes,” Thomas Rhett; “Living,” Dierks Bentley; “One Big Country Song,” LoCash; “Start A Band,” Brad Paisley; “Then,” Brad Paisley; “T-Shirt,” Thomas Rhett; “What Makes You Country,” Luke Bryan; “Young & Crazy,” Frankie Ballard.
D – Nostalgia
“All-American Girl,” and “Don’t Forget To Remember Me,” Carrie Underwood; “It Won’t Be Like This For Long,” Darius Rucker; “Remember You Young,” Thomas Rhett; “Rewind,” Rascal Flatts; “Then,” Brad Paisley; “Unforgettable,” Thomas Rhett; “You Should Be Here,” Cole Swindell; “You’re Gonna Miss This,” Trace Adkins.
E – Sex and Seduction
“Black,” Dierks Bentley; “Don’t Ya,” Brett Eldredge; “Hey Girl,” Billy Currington; “I Don’t Know About You,” Chris Lane; “Just Gettin’ Started,” Jason Aldean; “Ridin’ Roads,” Dustin Lynch; “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” Randy Houser; “T-Shirt,” Thomas Rhett; “That’s My Kinda Of Night,” Luke Bryan.
As Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young said, “Teach your children well.” So sit up straight, boys and girls, and feed your dreams as follows:
1. Get organized: Create five Word documents, one for each theme above. “A – Good Love” will have 17 pages, one song title at the top of each page. Same with B, C, D, and E. One song title to a page. Under each song title, copy and paste a link to the song itself. This is very important as you want to be able to hear all songs in one category in quick succession (Control-Click activates links in Word).
2. Elements: Copy and paste the following list after each song: Harmony, Melody, Form, Hooks, Wordplay (such as “Tonight looks good on you”), Irony (such as “I’ve gotta do a little wrong so I know what’s right”), Details (such as “38s” for “truck tires”), Repetition (such as “Yeah, yeah, yeah”), Same but Different (“How is this song like others, but unique?) and finally, “What makes this a hit?”
3. Fill in the blanks: Listen to all songs in a theme, concentrating on one element at a time. Take notes. Then, try imitating elements.
4. Write! If you’ve truly immersed yourself in this task, you will find your notebook flush with ideas. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it — seeking inspiration within the confines of “same but different”? But as Igor Stravinsky said, “Good composers borrow; great composers steal.” This doesn’t mean plagiarizing. Rather, it means immersing yourself so deeply that the principles of successful songwriting become a part of you. Freedom will follow.
Featured Photo of Rascal Flatts; Photo Credit Robby Klein