Songwriter U: Hayes Carll Examines the Continuing Evolution of Co-Writing in Country Music

Folks who are native to Nashville know of the city’s rich history of country music. With influences from diverse music cities in the state of Tennessee like Memphis, Nashville became a melting pot for music. The city’s identity as a “mecca for songwriters and artists” quickly emerged. Aspiring writers would pick up a guitar and carry whatever they could with them to make the trek, looking for a shot at a deal or just to be around other creators who understood.

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The atmosphere for songwriters and artists has changed in Nashville, however. While still a mecca for creators, the way songs get written today is a lot different compared to Nashville’s golden era.

American Songwriter checked in with Grammy-nominated, self-proclaimed “country poet” Hayes Carll to comment on the changing atmosphere in collaborative songwriting.

Album cover for Hayes Carll’s latest album You Get It All

“In Nashville, co-writing is a pretty common thing,” says Carll. “There were a lot of people just writing by themselves, but there’s also a long history of two or three people writing together. More often two. I just think musically, production-wise these days, the artists have caught on that’s where a lot of the money is… in the songwriting royalties. So, the artists want to be in on the song. So, say you got two people who are writing or three people who are writing, and then the artist gets included.

“But then you get into, I think with hip-hop, and now country to a degree, you have people doing tracks and you have samples and you’ve got this melody guy or whatever,” continues Carll. “Again, it’s not really my world, but from what I can tell, as the music goes in a certain direction, more and more people seem to be required to create that.”

The average number of writers it takes to produce a song (let alone a hit) has increased considerably from the golden era days. According to research from Music Week, the average number of writers is in the ballpark of five people. Carll said that in his experience with writing, all he needs is an acoustic guitar and maybe one other person to co-write.

Country music previously was, you can just get an acoustic guitar and come out with the whole ‘three chords and the truth’ idea. But now again, I don’t experience it, but I’ve heard a lot of people say, you got your track guy here and you’ve got your melody guy here and whatever. I’m not going to slag it if it works for them. But yeah, it is odd sometimes to see, okay, there are 12 people on this song. How does that work?

Even with the changes in Nashville’s songwriter scene, Carll has continued his collaborations regardless of “how many writers it should take.” There’s never one right way to write a song or a “magic number” of writers to make something meaningful.

“I have done a lot of co-writing and particularly in the last five or six years, most of what I’ve put out, it’s been some sort of collaboration with somebody,” says Carll. “But never more than two, and mostly just one.”

Hayes Carll is currently on tour. Click HERE to see if there’s a show coming near you.

Photo by David McClister

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  1. Wow! This was something of an eye-opener. I sometimes ask myself if I’ll ever do better than an Hon. Mention in the AS Lyric Contest. But if co-writing is one of the keys to success, I’m now amazed that I’ve done so well! As a Bahamian who writes mostly country-style lyrics, I’m so isolated I might as well be on another planet. I’ve only ever co-written one song, about thirty years ago. It was entirely by snail-mail back then, and the song never went anywhere–nor did it deserve to. I can’t even imagine writing a song with four or five other people! One co-writer would be fine. In fact, that’s what I’m planning to look into this year. I’m a decent singer, but no musician (though I often hear the music for my lyrics in my head as I write). But it would be really helpful to collaborate with someone on both.

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