Show me, don’t tell me.
Country music has always been built on visual imagery in the lyric. Use word pictures laden with emotional hooks to make your listener follow the story arc that you want them to go down. By building up layers of descriptive adjectives, you can paint a picture so specific, that your listener has no choice but to follow the narrative you have laid out. Work hard at turning a generic thought like: “There’s a car in my driveway, with girl (boy) at the wheel.” into “There’s a red Corvette in my driveway with a pretty young blonde at the wheel.” or “There’s a muddy old jeep in my driveway, with a jet black-haired boy at the wheel.” The specifics of the imagery tell two completely different stories based off the careful crafting of the same original generic image.
Often by simply shaking the sequence of a lyric or musical section around, a song takes on a new unplanned shape or narrative. Don’t get caught writing so linearly from A to B to C in a line in the same sequence that the ideas came to you. See the song sections and the lyric lines as movable building blocks that can be rearranged to bring about a new path or to break through a trouble spot.
Loop the loop.
Country music has seen the same influence of the broader move in modern music to be rhythmically based. The starting point for every writing session I have had with Keith Urban in the last years has been a drum loop. The rhythmic elements dictate the song from the bottom up. Bass lines appear, chord movements and sections layer on top – let melodies come later and lyrics last.
Don’t be a victim of tempo lock. Experiment with grooves at widely varying tempos. The loop that “’Til Summer Comes Around” was written to was slowed down by more than half of its original tempo to get the feel we were looking for. This is true for drum fills, arpeggiated keyboard riffs and all your tempo-based building blocks.
Modern country music is comfortable and accessible over certain sets of chord changes. Be OK with that. I often hear songwriters throw in unusual chord changes and sequences simply because they feel like using a standard cadence or chord sequence must be too obvious. Everyday, hit songs are written over simple I-VI-IV-V changes.
Learn the language.
Today’s country music is not about trains and prisons and word-smithy turns of a phrase like “Sleeping single in a double bed.” People tell me all the time that some archaic concept would make a good country song. The themes that resonated five, ten or 20 years ago don’t always have the same impact in a new and quickly evolving market.
Re-write to learn.
What better template is there than a great song that already exists? I encourage people to rewrite the lyric to a current hit song and see if you can hold up to the original. Rewrite a melody to a great lyric as well. This exercise means that half of the content you are working with is pre-vetted, so you know it’s good. By working with existing songs you get the chance to see how your input sounds inside of a success. Once you get some comfort with that, then strike out on your own.
Three chord blues.
Lots of folks get stuck in a musical rut because they limit their song imagination to what they can play on their chosen instrument. Don’t let the fact that you can’t play a B minor on a guitar keep you from writing a song with one in it. I use EZkeys all the time, because I am a terrible keyboard player. Being able to click a few times and hear different chord options being played by a real player frees me up to make creative choices, where I might have otherwise settled for less by just playing in my comfort zone.
The truth is out there.
People like the truth as it suits them. In being too literal or sticking too closely to your own exact storyline, you can miss the mythological truth that resonates with people in songs. How many people have actually “danced in the rain” or “skinny-dipped under a full moon” – not to mention “plowed the back 40 on the grandpa’s John Deere”? These represent idealized versions of actions that bring an emotional response.
Most songwriters are terrible critics of their own work. It’s amazing the number of people who play me songs that have nothing in common with what makes a song commercial and are sure it could be somebody’s next hit. I encourage listening to songs that get to the top of the charts. They don’t get there by accident. Then literally and figuratively lay your song on top of it like it was tracing paper on top of a famous work of art. What is their song doing that yours isn’t? When do certain things happen? How does it all fit together? You can never spend enough time comparing your own work to objective standards of excellence.
Sing, Sing, Sing.
Every smart phone has a voice recording app. Use it daily. When an idea hits you, or a little melody gets stuck in your ear, capture it right then and there. These little moments of inspiration are the DNA that we craft with and they are often fleeting. With only your brain and your voice in the mix, you will hum melodies that imply chord changes you never use and you will say things that would not come to you as you struggle to fit a lyric into the box you have already created for it.
Don’t create your own writer’s block.
Don’t write yourself into a tough rhyme in a place where you are forced to then limit your options. Rhymes are pleasing, they are part of the package. When you need one, but have something specific to say, try and work the thought you are conveying in such a way that it leaves you an easy rhyme. Let’s say the image you want is of a heart gone dry, with no love left in it. If you write “her heart was an empty fountain,” you could leave yourself a tough rhyme back to “fountain”. If you write “her heart was a fountain gone dry”, then you still get the fountain image but have hundreds of words that end with an “I” sound to rhyme with. Work at leaving yourself more options and you won’t inadvertently sit around for an hour trying to find some way to make the word “mountain” fit into your song simply because you wrote your way into a rhyme trap.
Write an entire instrumental piece before creating any lyric. Craft the melody and changes on their own, so that they stand alone as something you would like to hear as an instrumental composition. Once the piece is that strong, then you know you have a solid foundation for a lyric.
Modern country music isn’t as melodically driven as it used to be, nor is any current music. It’s also not as poetically driven in the lyric. Many modern songs seek to create atmospheres and sonic landscapes that drive the creation forward. Songs are often inseparable from their underlying production. The notion that a great song can translate into any setting is less true than it was. I hear the singers with their guitars at the Nashville airport playing some of the current hits and feel sorry for them. The melodies are all compact and repetitive; the changes are just looped over and over. Without the benefit of the production stage that the song was written into, the songs fall flat. Use the tools at your disposal to create production foundations and sonic signatures for your songs as part of the writing process.
Stop thinking and saying “I can totally hear Sam Hunt doing this song”. If you think your song belongs on someone’s album or even in the current iteration of the genre, then make a playlist and prove it. Make a playlist on your device and put your song inside the album playlist in the sequence you think it belongs, or just randomly seed your songs into a playlist of current releases. Pay close attention to three song sequences where your song is in the middle. Does it really sound like Sam Hunt? Is it really seamlessly doing the same things rhythmically, lyrically and musically the control songs are doing? Listening honestly will go a long way in showing you the actual distance you have to make up to be competitive.
Grab and go.
A great way to get inspiration and a start for a new song is to let someone else do a lot of the work for you. Use your DAW or looping app on your device to grab and loop snippets of songs you hear that catch your ear. Let that loop of another song be the starting point for yours. Turn the volume down until it’s just loud enough to hear without pulling you into it too deeply. Now sing away! Write new melodies and lyrics over that snippet. You will often come to a natural place where you will need the chords to change etc, but just force your idea over what’s there knowing you will come back and make the necessary changes later to accommodate where your song went after being kick started by the looped one.
I love you tomorrow.
A lot of people do not realize how quickly the industry changes and how subtle stylistic differences make the difference in the commercial life of a song. If you are writing something like “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line, then you are three years behind the industry curve. Be a student of what’s relative and realize that what you hear on the radio and what is being released is already a year old and those writers and artists are well on to the next thing. I still have people tell me they have a song that would be great for an artist or a sound that has long since passed. I literally had someone show me a song they thought would be great for Johnny Cash after he had died. Remember this: most writers miss the mark because they are writing out of nostalgia for an era that moved on.