Writing Country Songs Plain and Simple
Country music prides itself on being the heartbeat of the working class. The common messages and plain language (“Write it like you talk it” is a popular saying among country songwriters) of its song lyrics have been the benchmark of a form that started in the rural south and spread like a wildfire to all points North, East, and West. Nashville, Tennessee, has been this genre’s launching pad since the 1930s and is now Music City to practically all types of music. This category breaks down into two primary types:
- Traditional country includes hillbilly, country and western, and blue grass music.
- Pop country, also known as new country, is where pop rock arranging meets the more traditional style of country.
If you live and breathe traditional country and it feels as comfortable as a broken-in pair of cowboy boots, then by all means, follow that old dusty road, no matter where you hail from. But if you don’t really feel natural or are just trying to “cash in,” you’d better know that no one can spot a wooden nickel quicker than country folk.
If you want to write country songs, it’s good to know your roots — the flowers of today come from seeds of yesterday. The following segments will fill you in on the parts (or seeds) that can help you create your country song. Find some of the songs by the people or groups we mention and pick them apart to see what made them so successful.
Traditional country’s appeal lies in its simplicity. It can be clever and intelligent, but it never aims over the head of the common man — nor does it talk down to him.
Traditional country music originally came from the Appalachian Mountains where people sang and played fiddles (violins), guitars, autoharps, and banjos. During the 1960s, Johnny Cash became a superstar followed by Willie Nelson, and George Jones is considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, traditional country singer around. One of the most popular traditional country artists today is singer/songwriter Alan Jackson. In 2002, he won three Academy of Country Music awards including Top Male Vocalist of the Year, and his song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” won Song of the Year and Single of the Year.
There are two types of traditional country:
- Country and western: Western music came about when country musicians, many from Oklahoma and Texas, started using western themes (cowboys, life on the range, horses and cattle, and of course, the girl that waits back home) in their music and began wearing colorful western clothes. The biggest stars were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Country music grew dramatically in the 1940s. In order to market both country and western music in the same genre, the record industry came up with the name “country and western” to include both genres.
- Bluegrass: This type of music is acoustic (meaning they use no electronically amplified instruments). Typical instruments used are the upright bass fiddle, acoustic guitar, Dobro (the metal-bodied guitar-like instrument usually played with a metal or glass slide), banjo, fiddle (violin), and mandolin (the small-bodied instrument comprised of four pairs of strings). With a continued up-shift in popularity of bluegrass music, you may want to consider songwriting in that genre. In order to become successful, it’s necessary to immerse yourself in the music, especially in its roots. There are fine anthology CD sets available for Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and that’s a good place to start. Then familiarize yourself with current artists, especially Allison Krauss who finds herself regularly on the country charts, Ricky Skaggs, ex-Stanley brother Ralph Stanley, and the “new grass” sensation Nickel Creek — three talented songwriters/performers from California.
The bluegrass soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou won the Best Album of the Year Grammy award in 2002, to the shock, surprise, and delight of many in the industry.
Pop country or new country
Pop country is a wayward cousin of country who came to visit for the weekend and somehow became a permanent member of the household. In doing so, some of the rough edges of country were knocked off and substituted with some of the slick chord changes and production values of pop and rock.
Pop country is quite a different genre than traditional country. In traditional country, the songs were simple, using three-chords, and dealt with real-world issues. Pop country songs, on the other hand, are often simple pop songs with a country feel and usually use more chords than the typical three-chord traditional song (like using the 2, 6, and 3 chords more frequently and even other more tantalizing chords such as the diminished, half-diminished, and sustained forth chords). The hit song “Amazed” (written by Marv Green, Chris Lindsey, and Aimee Mayo; performedby Lonestar) that crossed over into the pop charts actually uses three separate keys: one for the verses, one for the pre-chorus, and another for the chorus.
The fact is that there is little difference in the structure of many pop country ballads and those sung by “boy-band” groups such as the Backstreet Boys and N Sync. The song “I Can Love You Like That” (written by Steve Diamond, Maribeth Derry, and Jennifer Kimball) and “I Swear” (written by Gary Baker and Frank Myers) were both number one country hits for John Michael Montgomery as well as hits on the Top-40 when they were sung by the group All-4-One. The song “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You” (written by Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers) was recorded not only by N Sync (reaching number eight on the pop charts), but by the country group Alabama (featuring N Sync), which hit the country charts, as well.
When you’re writing for the new country marketplace, remember that songs with a negative theme will have trouble finding a home. Also blatant “lost my baby and I’m gonna drown my sorrows in Jack Daniels” weepers go in and out of style — refer to today’s music charts for reference.
Arrangement-wise, many stylistic elements have been added in country’s quest to cross over to the general populace. In the mix, there are now rock electric guitars (more distorted and hotter in the blend) and nontraditional elements like strings (Chet Atkins turned the country world on its head when he started adding string sections to county songs in the 1950s), synthesizers, and even drum loops like the ones found on urban tracks. You can even hear the gimmick of misusing the pitch correcting devices to create the robotic vocal effect heard on Cher’s hit, “Believe” (written by P. Barry, M. Gray, B. Higgins, S. McLennan, T. Powell, and S. Torch). Certain elements from traditional country are often added to put in the “down home” elements listeners are accustomed to hearing, such as fiddle and pedal steel (that’s the unit that sits on four legs in front of the player and is picked with finger picks, chorded with a steel bar, and pitch-shifted by manipulating levers with your knees — it supplies the “crying guitar” sound you hear on many country songs). Also incorporated are the banjo, dobro (the steel bellied guitars you see on the cover of the Brothers in Arms album by those English hillbillies, Dire Straits) and harmonica.
Sometimes a song can straddle more than a single genre by changing the arrangements, instrumentation, and vocal style. Producers can sometimes change a song from pop to new country with the addition of certain key Nashville instruments like pedal steel and fiddle. “I Swear” (written by Gary Baker and Frank Myers) was not only an R&B hit for All-4-One but a country hit for John Michael Montgomery, as well.