Having co-written #1 songs for Zac Brown Band and Luke Combs, you might think that Wyatt Durrette would rest on his laurels. Instead, he has stepped out recently as an artist in his own right. “Love Wins,” his duet with Mel Washington released earlier this year, turned out to be the rare song that addresses racial issues with both insight and heart.
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As one of the most in-demand songwriters for hire in the country music genre, we thought he could provide some lessons that up-and-comers could savor. That’s why we were so pleased that Durrette took the time out to speak with us at American Songwriter about his past hits, his co-writing rules, and what drives him even after so much success. Here are some of the choice excerpts of that interview.
How much of an impact has your eclectic taste in music made on the songs you’ve written?
I think it’s huge. We all pull from somewhere, whatever the art. For me, from a very young age, it was country and bluegrass. I quickly fell in love with the storytelling kind of music, telling a story and taking somebody to that place. That is by far my biggest influence and what I love to do most. And then I was introduced to Springsteen and Marley and things like that, which showed me music’s power, its ability to connect and change governments. I fell in love with that as well.
I use bluegrass and reggae influences for the melody. To me, the perfect song is where the lyric and the melody meet perfectly. People ask me what’s more important, the lyric or the melody. For me, the kind of music that I write, the lyric is, at the end of the day, the important thing. But the melody is the vehicle to get people to what you have to say. They have to start tapping their hand on the steering wheel first.
I understand that “Chicken Fried” required several years of you and Zac Brown writing and rewriting it. Is that a testament to a song never being done?
100 percent. Zac shared the same mentality as me. I still believe that. I don’t believe in finishing a song that day just so you can say you finished a song. The song lets you know that. That song, in particular, had a long journey. I wrote the chorus and the chorus melody at the top of my Mom’s driveway when I was 18 years old. A long time ago and I won’t date myself (laughs.) I met Zac when I was 24 and probably played it for him when I was 25, 26, and then it took us another two, three years to finish it. There are a handful of songs that we have that you kind of put on the shelf, and then when you’re writing something else, you’re like, “Oh, wait, this belongs here.”
How much do you heed the audience of a particular artist?
You do pay attention to what works. If I haven’t written with an artist, I’ll listen to their stuff. But about 10 to 14 days, I’ll stop listening to their stuff, because I know that they’re also bringing me in to do what I do too. It’s always a give and take in the room. My thing has always been that you just can’t think too much. It has to be about the song in the room that day, not the artist you’re writing with. Trying to get that song right is literally the only thing you can control. If you’re trying to write it for somebody else, you might not get the truth right enough. It can be about somebody else. But if you’re trying to write for somebody else, it can get clouded.
You have a way with first lines, such as “Beautiful Crazy” (written with Robert Williford and Luke Combs and performed by Combs): “Her day starts with a coffee and ends with a wine.” How much importance do you place in them?
It’s super important, man, because you don’t have long to grab their attention, especially the attention span of our world right now. Sometimes the lick at the beginning of the song is important, just to grab somebody’s attention. I think that particular one is really special because a lot of songwriting, especially the kind I’m talking about, the singer-songwriter stuff, you’re trying to make it feel like a conversation. That line is so conversational. It sounds like somebody is talking to somebody else. Those exact words. That’s why it grabs people, the humanity of it.
In “Even Though I’m Leaving,” (written with Ray Fulcher and Luke Combs and performed by Combs), the song starts out so simply and ends up revealing something so profound about the parent-child relationship. Is it difficult to achieve that kind of sprawl within a song?
It’s about the story. Some can be surface-y and fun, at the beach and stuff, but it still has to have a beginning, middle and end. That one we were aiming for a father/son song. A lot of times it reveals itself. That day, all we had was a title. I said I wanted to write a father/song, but then Luke had that title in his phone. And then everybody was immediately like, “Oh, let’s write that.” You quickly in your head see a blueprint or schematic. You see the end, but you don’t really see what’s going to happen in the middle yet. It was that kind of thing.
So you don’t always need to have the bigger picture in place when you start writing?
Sometimes you walk into a room and you say, “I’ve got this chorus, and I know exactly what this song is about.” And sometimes the writers in the room won’t want to write that particular thing that day, so you just move on to the next idea. Some of them are just the idea itself, and you do have to ask the writers in the room, “What direction are they going? Are they breaking up at the end of the song? Are they staying together? Is he happy to be alone?” You ask all those weird questions so you get a grasp of where it’s gotta go. And then everybody slowly gets on the same page. That’s not to say you won’t get further into a song and you’ll say, “You know what, I think this needs to go this way, and not that way.”
That brings up an interesting part of the co-writing dynamic that I wanted to ask you about: the ability to compromise.
To me, that really goes back to really believing that the song is the most important thing in the room, and leaving ego out if it. Ego is a big old word in our business. You somewhat have to have one, because, a lot of times, you’re the only one who believes in you as a songwriter. You believe in yourself and keep pushing. But in the writing room, if you can find a way to keep that word out, you’re really focused on the song. When you’re writing with an artist, you want them to say that rhyme the way that they would say that rhyme. They have to believe it and sing it. As long as the sentiment is there, there is a give and take. You might repeat yourself twice and say, “Are you sure that’s not the line?” I feel it’s not that hard to stand up for a particular line when you’re standing up for the song. And give into one when you’re giving into the song. It makes it a lot easier if you let this three-letter word out of the room.
Considering that you write from a personal place, do you ever worry that you won’t connect with everybody listening?
You definitely worry about it. It’s more wording than sentiment. It’s more that I’ll want to put some personal things that happened in the song so people can see what you’re talking about. But then stepping back out in the chorus so maybe it is a bit broader and maybe does make them feel more connected and like, “Oh yeah, I have felt like that before.”
Yet a song like “Colder Weather” (written with Zac Brown, Coy Bowles, and Levi Lowrey) definitely benefits from feeling so lived-in.
I knew that song needed poetry and that kind of color in it. I wrote a good bit by myself in the beginning and then did a little bit with Zac. Then I went to my buddy Levi Lowrey, who I kind of knew I needed to write most of that with. He’s an amazing wordsmith. Luckily, I was right.
Give us some great advice for young songwriters you’ve learned along the way.
I was sitting having dinner with (songwriter) Rivers Rutherford. And I had a couple #1s at this point. He said, “Do you have that what-next feeling yet?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, you wanted #1 on the radio. You’ve had two. What do you want next?” And it really stopped me and it was like, whoa, what do I want next? It made me focus on what I wanted, which is just songs.
That leads into the thing for young songwriters, which is you better love it. No matter your success, you’re told no 98 percent of the time. It doesn’t matter how much success you’ve had, the #1s you’ve had. It’s still a level playing field. Lightning still has to strike every time and every song. The one thing that I’ve done to combat that is that if I’m always thinking about the song and trying to tell the truth, whatever that is, happy, sad, mad or otherwise, then I’m getting little victories every day. That really helps you put up with the no’s and all the other junk that comes with a songwriter. There’s a lot of negative stuff. But the biggest thing is if you’re just trying to make it about that song, that day, and chasing that, it makes it a lot more positive journey.