For songwriters, a country divide
Things might get a little awkward backstage at the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville on Wednesday.
Among those slated to perform on the three-hour telecast on ABC, starting at 8 p.m., are vocal group of the year nominees the Zac Brown Band — playing with Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters — and entertainer of the year nominee Luke Bryan.
During a recent radio interview, Brown called Bryan’s current No. 1 hit “That’s My Kind of Night” “The worst song I’ve ever heard.” Brown made clear that he had enjoyed other Bryan songs, noted that Bryan hadn’t written that one, and also expressed his general dissatisfaction with the many songs of its party-hearty ilk currently dominating the airwaves. “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, Daisy Duke song, I want to throw up.”
As any music fan who has tried to share music with a friend knows, liking or not liking a song is entirely subjective. What is objectively true, however, is that many of the songs that Brown is complaining about — songs that fall into a genre dubbed “bro-country” by Vulture’s Jody Rosen — have been very successful on country radio and the charts; songs like “Boys ’Round Here” by Blake Shelton and “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line, both of which are nominated for CMA awards. If you want odes to trucks, tailgates, sweet tea, or dirt roads, you don’t have to wait long for them when listening to country radio.
Since it is often the case in country music that the artist singing the song isn’t necessarily the person who wrote it, we checked in with a few hit Nashville songwriters about their songwriting processes and the country landscape, and whether we have reached “bro-country” critical mass.
“When something works on a huge level, everybody does it,” says Shane McAnally, who has written a bevy of hits for artists including Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, and newcomer Kacey Musgraves. McAnally has two songs nominated in the song of the year category at the CMA awards: Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Musgraves’s “Merry Go ’Round.” “We’ve been doing the ‘We’re all from the country’ thing for so long, and it’s still really working,” says McAnally. “I think that ‘formulaic’ is a great word for it. . . . It’s a rearranging of the same thing and, again, we all do it.”
Although many of his songs, including the two for which he is nominated, haven’t been of the “bro-country” variety, McAnally says he has absolutely written that kind of song and “if the right idea comes up and it feels true to talk about somebody being in a truck and that’s the only way to tell the story, then I will reluctantly tell the story that way. But I am getting to the point where that just doesn’t feel good to me anymore. As a listener, I want to be surprised.”
Long beloved in the singer-songwriter community, Stoughton native Lori McKenna has become an in-demand writing partner in Nashville, scoring recent hits with “I Want Crazy” by Hunter Hayes and “Your Side of the Bed” with Little Big Town. She says she understands the inclination to write to the market demands.
“I’ve gotten into a little bit of trouble with ‘I Want Crazy,’ ” McKenna says of the more lighthearted tune, “but I don’t get defensive about it, because I’m proud of it.” She agrees with the analogy that just as actors sometimes make independent films to indulge their more artistic temperament and do blockbuster action movies to buy their boats, so do songwriters toggle between grittier and lighter approaches.
“We all just want to stay in the game, so if every now again you write a song about a riverbank, I think that’s cool. I think the acting scenario is exactly right. It’s not like we’re making a porn movie; there’s certain degrees of what we’re willing to do.”
And simply because a song fits a trend doesn’t mean it comes from an inauthentic place.
“When you show up to write a song, you’re only trying to write the song that you were supposed to write that day,” says Chris Stapleton, who has placed 150 songs with a variety of artists including George Strait, Kenny Chesney, and Josh Turner, and scored several No. 1 hits. “If that happens to be a fun, party, drinking beer song that has no other purpose than that, great. You write that song as good as you can write it. But if you show up one day and the gods of songwriting let the words come down from the sky through your hand on a legal pad or a computer then that’s a magical and fun day too, and you try to do that as good as you can do it.”
Brandy Clark, McAnally’s frequent writing partner — and co-CMA award nominee on the Lambert song — points out that songwriters don’t choose which of their songs get recorded.
“The guys who are getting slammed for writing [‘That’s My Kind of Night’], they probably have a ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ somewhere in their catalog that no one will cut,” says Clark, who recently released her debut as a performing artist, “12 Stories,” an album filled with substantive songs that more mainstream acts were skittish about recording.
Just as artists have different sides, all of the songwriters know that even if they strike gold with a current trend, it doesn’t represent the totality of their songwriting voice.
Dallas Davidson, co-writer of several of the types of tunes giving Brown tummy trouble, including “That’s My Kind of Night” and CMA nominee “Boys ’Round Here” has written more than 1,000 songs. “Because of Zac Brown’s big mouth, I’m pigeon-holed even more as the dirt road guy. Yeah, I love flying down a dirt road. . . . But that’s not all of it.”
Davidson, who has placed more than a hundred songs with the biggest names in country music and has had 17 No. 1 hits, is unabashed about his competitive spirit and writing what the fans want to hear, especially for best friend Luke Bryan.
But, he maintains that his songwriting is far from solely about calculation, veers all over the map, and naturally includes songs about trucks.
“I’m sitting in a truck right now,” he says on the phone from near his home outside Nashville. “A lot of people are hating on tailgates, and I was having a meeting with my farm manager this morning and we were sitting on the tailgate. Business deals are made on tailgates, virginity is lost. People get sick of everything, but I think a constant is just a way of life.”
But he knows this is also a phase, and for all those who are weary of the fleet of trucks parked on the charts, Davidson says to sit tight.
“The good news for me is once [country fans] get tired of this, we can switch gears really quick. I’m not really worried about it,” he says, adding with a laugh, “We’re songwriters, we make [expletive] up for a living.”