Chances are, Luke Laird is simultaneously an entirely new name and an entirely recognizable music professional to much of the music listening public – especially those listeners of the country variety. Those who enjoy songs by artists that include Zac Brown Band, Amy Grant, Sara Evans, Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Lori McKenna, and several others, have heard the sound of Laird’s pen brought to life and despite the shared genre space of many of these artists, it’s a display of great conceptual and sonic range that Laird’s ideas resonate with the artistic and emotional idiosyncrasies of so many different individuals.
There’s a speck of amusing irony in the fact that Luke Laird, a prolific and heavily acclaimed songwriter known for a cavalcade of composer credits longer than Music Row itself, not only chose to name his debut album after Nashville, TN’s main thoroughfare but also that, for someone who built up his career through the grind of continuously writing individual songs for other people, Laird actually prefers the traditional full album format.
“I do like working with artists who are album-focused because it’s not just a one off thing because then you can kind of get a whole feel for what they’re trying to go for and then kind of alongside with them. Get into that space and see what see what comes about,” says Laird.
That being said, Laird is no stranger to balancing and attending to multiple creative needs and artistic preferences within himself. And in the case of Music Row’s development, at the time, that meant Laird rearranging the priority space of his appreciation for full albums, knack for writing one-off singles, ability to work with several people at once, and now finally getting an opportunity to just write music his way.
“I really enjoy what I get to do (with others) because it’s actually you know, a lot of my job is working with other artists. So I’m kind of bouncing around from one project to the next but it’s kind of cool to get with an artist and I get in their headspace and see where they’re at and what they’re trying to accomplish. And I actually really enjoy that role,” says Laird
“(Still,) for me, making (Music Row) was very creatively fulfilling because I didn’t have to think about, you know, ‘Would an artist say this?’ or ‘Would radio play this?’ It was complete creative control and freedom and just doing what sounded good to me, good to my ears, and writing about things that were personal to me. It was actually really enjoyable,” Laird says.
Lucky for Laird, the stories set to be part of Music Row – stories that touch on memories from his childhood in Hartstown, PA, tales of familial bonds, deeply personal experiences of grief and individual tribulation, as well as unique descriptionsof what he loves about his genre of choice – weren’t all born from complete scratch so, it’s not as though he suddenly found himself staring into a completely dark abyss, left trying to decide what to say.
“None of the songs (on Music Row) are super old but, I’ve had them for so long.” he says.
That said, it’s not as though the making of the album didn’t come with some moments of deep reflection – beyond the shift of not having to coordinate with co-writers – and the kind of songwriting process that Laird hasn’t made much time for since his before his professional career even began.
“(I was reminded) of back when I was in high school and would just write songs by myself.” he continues. “I had that time to, I guess, just be alone and really think about what I wanted to write without any restrictions. And I’d never done that. I mean, I haven’t done that in a long time. And so I think just having the alone time was really beneficial and to getting these these ideas and, and eventually the finished songs. And so once I had a couple of those, it really kind of, I don’t know, inspired me to write more in that way (and) I probably haven’t approached writing in that way in a long time, to be honest.”
Though there’s always the chance that revisiting an older mode of creating can lead to the need for a bit of rust to get shaken off, some of the most emotionally intimate cuts on Music Row, like Laird’s sobriety confessional, “That’s Why I Don’t Drink Anymore,” just insisted on being seen all the way through to the studio but they made that point clear in their own good time, without leading to a song that felt forced, cliché, or too impersonal.
“For a while, and I think I just never found the right time to sit down to write (these songs) or if I did, they just didn’t come to me (right away.)” Laird explains.
“One of those (songs) in particular was “That’s Why I Don’t Drink Anymore”,” he continues. “I sit down (to write) and I was like, ‘I know I want to write a song. This is exactly what I want to say. But I just don’t quite know how to say it.’ And one day, I sat down, pulled out my list of titles and that was there again. And then the first verse just just popped out. And it was honestly pretty easy to write after that but, it was getting to that point of, ‘How can I do this in the most honest way and not sound contrived?’ and that song is a great example.”
Now that it’s a finished piece of work, it’s pretty much impossible to argue against Music Row’s degree of and approach to narrative sincerity. In fact, that song in particular was so profound for one person who heard it early on that Laird felt inspired to give the music a private but permanent home before the piece was even in its fully realized form, simply because the music was so moving for someone else.
“I actually played it out one night at the Bluebird Cafe and a young lady came up to me afterwards and she had tears in her eyes.” Laird says. “The fact that it affected her so much…”
He continues, “She told me a story about her dad and she actually asked, ‘Is there anywhere I can get that song?’ and I said, ‘Well, nobody’s recorded it.’ But, when I got home that night, I got her email address and I just sat down and recorded a guitar and vocal and sent it to her. That was kind of another thing that propelled me to continue writing in this way. And so I’m hoping that you know, some other people hear that song along with the others and and, you know, maybe it’ll touch a nerve in them as well.”
Looking beyond sincerity and style of lyricism, it’s hard not to consider where the lines are drawn between the starting and ending point of what makes country music, country. Though Music Row is explicitly intertwined with Laird’s journey to, and eventual connection with, Nashville, there’s a definite distinction on several fronts – instrumental, lyrical, thematic – that clearly deviate from many of the subcultural markers often present in the very same mainstream country hits that Laird is known for penning. Yet based on how he feels about the soul of country music, Music Row is just as much true to form as any of the big sound, rocking road songs that fill many a country radio playlist.
“To me, I guess I feel like country music is always kind of lead with the lyrics for the most part.” Laird explains.
“It’s (full of) pretty straightforward stories, and then even musically, (it’s) fairly simple musically. I mean, sometimes (songwriters) will sneak in some other chords in there as well but I guess what I’ve always loved about country music is (that) it’s straightforward – for the common man. And while it’s simple, I feel like this country songs come across as (though) they were very easy to write. But yet there’s something (about it) that it’s not. I think the hardest thing to write is something that sounds simple but wasn’t (and) isn’t necessarily the most simple. And so it can be simple lyrically but then can touch someone on a deep emotional level. And for me, that’s what country music’s always been,” he says.
The question now becomes, where and when does Laird see himself turning to this newly revitalized side of himself when writing songs down the road? How much does one look to, reflect on, or try to include what’s been accrued through an experience like making an autobiographically driven solo debut, once the day-to-day begins to again include the voices, perspectives, and artistic desires of other people? Laird’s own commitment to sobriety is a great example of where one’s personal values, dedications, and priorities might differ from the broader expectations and norms of what he does and to whom his songs often speak and resonate.
“I’ve written a lot of drinking songs. And you know, a lot of that is probably just a reflection on the culture (of country music) and know how people live their lives but I’m not, this point in my life, I’m not an anti-drinking person by any means. I mean, for me, I don’t drink but, there’s a lot of people that I know that go out and have a few beers on a Friday night without just losing their mind. And I think that’s good,” he says.
“But there have been times,” he continues, “where I’ve sat down I was like, ‘Gosh, do I really want to write another drinking song?’ Because I have come across a lot of people who just glorify it to the point where they don’t think about the dark side of someone with an addiction and problems like that. So, you know, while I’m not going to stop writing drinking songs, I also want to, on the other side of that, continue to write songs that maybe shed light on it and (write songs that have) nothing to do with drinking and just maybe bring a little hope into the world.”
The added twist in considering these kinds of new or more valued directions for country songwriting comes in the timing of Laird’s debut and acknowledging where his professional voice falls in a crowded room of music industry folk. There’s no downplaying the level of ubiquity Laird’s existing body of work and how that level of recognition holds a bit more weight toward shaping a conversation around change such as this, than perhaps other artists with similar hopes and-or intentions within the country scene at large.
“I’ve actually thought about that a lot lately. So when I sit down to write (music), I do try to (ask myself), ‘How can I bring some redemption into this song or this story?’ And that’s something that I want I do (and) I want to bring to country music. I mean, it’s already in country music but, I think sometimes we have to be careful about maybe the way that we glorify certain lifestyles,” he says.
While Music Row is just one album of one series of memorialized snapshots form Laird’s life, the thought of his creative openness combining with the vast breadth of people with whom he collaborates makes for an exciting prospect around what future voices, stories, and experiences country songs and albums yet-to-be-made could come to highlight and celebrate.
“I want to continue to tell stories,” Laird continues, “just true stories about people and a lot of that comes from the artists and what an artist is willing to say. So yeah, I’m always excited when I get with an artist and they want to write about something that maybe isn’t super common because I know it will be different. And I feel like the songs that are a little different, tend to stand out and I like being a part of that.”
For the moment though, Laird is simply content with celebrating the completion of this record, the satisfaction of tending to a long-running creative desire, and the pleasure of knowing people around him find connection in his stories. In this way, Music Row is even more so a fitting title for Laird’s album, as just like the LP’s namesake, the famed city street certainly leaves plenty for anyone – especially those new to it for the first time, just as most will be with Laird’s solo debut – to simply stop, look around, and take in with awe, before running right off to the next thing.
“One thing I’m really excited about is just that (these songs) are having a chance to get heard, even if it’s on a very tiny scale,” Laird says. “You know, as writers, we write songs to share with people. And I’m just glad that more than just my wife and kids and parents are going to get to hear the songs,” he says.
The amount of work that went into Music Row isn’t lost on Laird and while there’s that inevitable break between finished projects, what Laird dives into next only stands to benefit from the very special detour he took off his successful but very ingrained path.
“(Making Music Row) made me more appreciate the process an artist goes through in making an album,” Laird says. “I think what I’m trying to say is, it actually makes me more excited to now go and back to writing for other artists. It’s kind of like, I kind of got this out of my system for now. And now I feel more inspired to get back to my day job.”