Nov
4

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The Highway’s CMA Songwriter Special: The Stories Behind ‘American Kids,’ ‘Girl Crush,’ ‘Like a Cowboy,’ ‘Take Your Time” & ‘Like a Wrecking Ball’ (Recap)

 

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It was already a busy day the morning Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose co-wrote a new song called “Girl Crush.”

“We didn’t think anything of it,” Hillary was saying on the eve of the CMA Awards, still remembering being in her pajamas and writing what she calls a “coffee song” around 9:00 a.m. “Really. Honestly.”

Trying to put it all in perspective, Lindsey said: “You can’t pretend to know any of what was going to happen. We’re all trying to write a love song every day that no one has heard before – and that’s just our job.”

The three were gathered onstage at Sirius XM’s CMA Songwriters Special on The Highway. The show brought together seven of the songwriters behind this year’s nominees for Song of The Year.

During the show, they performed acoustic versions of their songs and talked about the stories behind them. When host Storme Warren prodded them further, Lori McKenna said there just wasn’t a whole lot of thought to it. The song was written to get the day started before a planned co-write with Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town two hours later.

Lori had a title and when Hillary came back in the room, she played on one of Liz’s Gisbon guitars and sang the first verse. “She played those four lines in the first verse and looked at me,” McKenna recalled, “and said, ‘Is that what you mean?’ I said, ‘Yes that’s exactly what I mean.'”

Shane McAnally was one of the first to hear “Girl Crush.” He texted to them about how much he liked it. This year, he is up for not one but two nominations for songs he co-wrote. They are “American Kids” the Kenny Chesney song McAnally wrote with Rodney Clawson and Luke Laird and “Take Your Time,” Sam Hunt’s smash hit co-written with Josh Osborne and Hunt.

Growing up, McAnally says he was obsessed watching the Country Music Awards as early as six and before he even knew he could write songs.

McAnally quipped that given there is only one winner, the writers don’t write songs with the goal of winning.

Just then Osborne corrected him. “Oh yes we do.”

“Josh Osborne,” McAnally shot back. “Always waiting to kick the field goal.”

McAnally says it’s hard to stop and take a breath to reflect on the enormity of it all but Warren’s gathering seemed to do just that. It gave each of the writers a chance to share the stories behind the songs and the creative process of how they came to be.

Osborne shared that when he came to the session with Sam Hunt, the singer had an idea for a cadence but didn’t have the words to go with it. Another writer who heard it laughed. Sam went up to get coffee but Josh thought there was something there and wanted to Shane to hear it. It took three or four hours for the three to conversationally think what the song should say.

“We’re not going to say who that other writer was,” McAnally followed up, “but I did send him a car.”

Josh related how hard Hunt is on lyrics and how hard he tries to make the story real. “It’s his story which is everybody’s story which is what country music is about.”

“Like a Cowboy” written by Randy Houser and Brice Long was the first song Houser recorded for his then new album. Long had written “Anything Goes” and some songs on Houser’s second album. When they got together and sat down to write, Houser said something which prompted a creative spark. “You remember how Garth and George and those guys always had a cowboy song and it was a pretty big record?” Brice recalled.

For Brice, who rodeoed growing up, the idea resonated. But Houser was thinking of it more metaphorically. “For Randy he was just talking about being on a bus and being away from home,” Brice shared. He related how much easier it is for a writer than a performer to go out on the road. While writers can always look forward to coming back home, for performers like Houser, the demands of touring are continuous. “We used the cowboy image to portray what that’s like,” he added.

Houser was so elated by what they’d written, he told Brice, “This is going to be my song.” He also made a promise to make it a single. There were others that came before it but Brice says Houser is a man of his word and sure enough what was the biggest song on the road came to be released. Brice’s main disappointment is that Randy wasn’t also nominated for Best Male Vocalist, calling him the best singer out there.

McAnally likely reflected the thoughts of his peers when he said how lucky he feels to write songs with people who are “better” and challenge us. He moved to Nashville over twenty years ago and one day found himself scheduled to work with Luke Laird and Rodney Lawson. McAnally seemed in awe as he described how the duo has written twenty number one songs. As he entered their office, McAnally might have had a case of the nerves, thinking to himself that if this didn’t work out, he might as well move back to Texas.

It was a normal day that morning and McAnally, the father of twins, was trying to get his children out of the house and save up his energy for the session that was ahead. When the session started it seemed like it was going nowhere and stopped after two hours which he said was unusual. The writers couldn’t agree on anything. Shane started looking at his phone and read off a list of working titles he had. “Just saying the titles was like this snapshot of America,” he said. Laird started pulling out his notes and Shane said they started creating what he described as a “slide show” of American life. He imagines any of us could insert our own images into that slide show. Between the three writers, they had four children. McAnally said they were all thinking about growing up in small towns and wishing how they could hold on to some of that for their kids.

If “American Kids” was created spontaneously, Casey Beathard found that Eric Church had something more definite in mind when he met up with the singer. As Beathard recalls, Church said: “I don’t know what you brought or what you want to do, but I want to do this.” Beathard said Church had a concept for a love song that he called “Wrecking Ball.”

Beathard started laughing about the task of letting Church know that there was already another song called “Wrecking Ball” and it was pretty big.

Church shot back, “Well this is ‘Like a Wrecking Ball.’”

Beathard admits the topic wasn’t what he was thinking about that day. Beathard laughed thinking of the imagery of the singer backing up his lover to the wall. “I know his wife and I went ‘Oooh!’ It was kind of like when I told my kids we were having another baby.” Beathard has five children and joked that he and his wife are so fertile they can pass each other in the hall and get pregnant.

The self-deprecating Beathard, a onetime BMI Songwriter of The Year, deferred from performing himself. With a dose of humility, he reflected, saying: “I’m just thankful to be there and watch him write this song.”

About Steve Wosahla

Steve Wosahla's interviews and reviews have appeared in Song Hits, Rock, Good Times, Circus, the Messenger-Press, New Haven Register, Soap Opera Digest and the New York Times. He is a member of the Americana Music Association and lives in Bristow, VA. You can follow him on Twitter: @swosahla.
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