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Three men on a stage in casual apparel, two with guitars.
Lifestyle, Travel

How To Write A Country Song

Advice from 2 seasoned Nashville songwriters and 1 rising star

In the music industry, it’s the singers who are better known than the songwriters. But singers need songs, or they don’t have anything to sing, amiright?

I recently was privileged to view the fascinating process of writing songs as part of a media trip themed “Nashville’s Big Back Yard.” The itinerary focused on the culture and energy of small towns along the scenic Natchez Trace Parkway between Music City and The Shoals, Alabama. There’s a lot of fine music going on in that part of the world.

On this particular afternoon, a handful of travel journalists and I met with a trio of outstanding songwriters who regaled us with stories about their lives and work. They offered advice on how to break into the business and led us through an interactive exercise in writing a song. The songwriters were:

Roger Murrah, a 2005 inductee to the Nashville Hall of Fame, is one of Nashville’s most prolific songwriters and successful independent music publishers. Among his 62-and-counting hits are Al Jarreau’s “We’re in This Love Together” and Waylon Jennings’ “A Man Called Hoss.”

Scott Anders, who was mentored by Murrah, has collaborated on songs for Alabama, Oak Ridge Boys and Conway Twitty. He wrote “High Cotton” for Alabama among other hits.

Andrew Grooms is a Belmont University graduate who is “on track to become the next big thing,” according to Scott.

Street view of a small white church, 3 people are entering the front door
Hay Long Chapel in Mt. Pleasant, TN, was transformed into a music venue and event space.

Talk About Songwriting 

Our session took place at Hay Long Chapel in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee. The chapel is a sweet white church built in 1903 enjoying new life as an acoustics-friendly music venue and event space. The journalists assembled in the pews, and the songwriters took the stage and invited our questions. Here’s an edited sampling: 

Q: How do you get your name out in Nashville when there are so many musicians out there?

Andrew: One way is through what is called writers’ rounds. Virtually every small restaurant or bar has writers who play throughout the night. They can have as many as 16 writers who circle through their sets. You don’t get paid anything, you just go there, and it’s an exposure thing. You’re just trying to stand out and meet people and show what you can bring to the table. I go every day.

Q: After you write a song, what happens next?

Roger: You need some kind of decent recording, a work tape or demonstration tape, which is having musicians in a studio doing a real professional job. Then you try to get it to an artist you have in mind to record it. That can be done in a lot of different ways. You can get it to their bus driver (insert laughter here), producer, manager, maybe the artist. The longer you are in the business, the more contacts you have, so your opportunities open up.

Andrew: It’s going to take a while to get any kind of commission or any kind of contact and getting songs to people. What I’m focusing on is writing the best songs I can and building connections.

Andrew Groom, a young man with dark curly hair wearing a striped shirt holding a guitar and smiling at the camera
Songwriter Andrew Groom

Q: How long does it take to write a song and get it published?

“You never stop writing,” Andrew said. “Somebody says something, and I write it down. I’m putting songs into my phone or recording conversations. I have all kinds of lists and ideas, possible lines and possible melodies for songs.”

The process can take years, Roger said. A song he wrote 35 years ago, “Immigrant Eyes,” became a cut (or placement) on Willie Nelson’s 2019 studio album “Ride Me Back Home.” “It waited around for its time,” he said, referring to the immigration discussions and controversies of recent years.

“Sometimes the magic can happen when you’re not looking for it,” Scott said.

Roger digressed into entertaining tales of producers who turned down “The Gambler” by Don Schlitz and who passed on Jimmy Buffet. About collaborating with Waylon Jennings, he recalled, “He could be ornery and mean, but he had a big heart.”

Songwriters Roger Murrah and Scott Anders share a laugh.
Songwriters Roger Murrah and Scott Anders share a laugh.

It was our turn to collaborate. The first step was deciding what to write about. Quickly, we zeroed in on Nashville’s Big Back Yard. The songwriters asked us about our experiences in and impressions of the region. Our words gradually turned into phrases, phrases turned into lines, and lines turned into verse. Often, we skipped around from idea to idea. Andrew typed the chatter into his phone. He and Scott came up with a simple tune and chord progressions on their guitars. Roger offered gentle advice and gesticulated wildly with his hands.

Three male songwriters in casual clothing, two holding guitars, on a stage, in the foreground are the backs of two women sitting on a bench facing the songwriters.
Songwriting session with travel journalists during a Nashville’s Big Back Yard media tour.

We Write A Song — Sort Of

(To give you an idea of how the session went, for the remainder of this post I put the general discussion in regular type and proposed lyrics in bold italic type.)

In Nashville’s Big Back Yard

That could be an ending, a big finisih.

The word “constellation” was tossed out as a way to describe the cluster of small towns. Roger was unsure. “‘Constellation’ can be a killer word in a song,” he said. “I don’t know if we can get it in today, but it’s one of those words that can be cool.”

Words that rhyme with “constellation”: station, nation, equation, congregation, elation.

A big constellation of little bitty towns

“You can bring in something about the stars shining brightly over little bitty towns,” Scott said.

Stars shining brightly over little bitty towns

OR

There’s nothing like living beneath the stars in Nashville’s Big Back Yard

We got a little stuck, so we decided to move on and deal with the stars later.

They come from cotton fields

Words that rhyme with “fields”: reels, feels, deals, steals, ideals.

They come from the cotton fields, Bend their backs to pay their bills

The sun comes up and turns on a new day

“‘The sun comes up’ is clear out of the blue,” Scott said.

They come from the cotton fields, Bend their backs to pay their bills

Strapping on boots at the start of a new day

“‘Strapping on boots’ isn’t working,” Roger said. “Let’s try something else.”

They come from the cotton fields, Bend their backs to pay their bills

A rooster crows, It’s the start of a brand new day

Lengthy discussion of “rooster crowing” versus “rooster crows.” 

A seated songwriter Andrew Groom strums his guitar
Songwriter Andrew Groom

“Another thing about songwriting — you don’t want to go for proper grammar, OK?” Roger said, and everyone laughed. He veered toward a song he co-wrote with Mark Allen Springer called “Where Corn Don’t Grow,” sung by Travis Tritt among others.

“The proper way to say that is ‘where corn doesn’t grow,’ but we never would have gotten that cut,” he said. “I didn’t realize that at the time. I just thought it sounded good to say ‘where corn don’t grow.’”

(Seems to me there must be another rule about dropping the g’s in “ing” endings, as in “nuthin” and “fishin.”)

Songwriters Roger Murrah and Scott Anders
Songwriters Roger Murrah and Scott Anders

From Leiper’s Fork to Muscle Shoals, Tractor plows and fishing poles

People living in almost forgotten ways

“‘Almost’ is a problem,” Roger said. “It either is or it’s not.”

From Leiper’s Fork to Muscle Shoals, Tractor plows and fishing poles

People living in forgotten ways

Lengthy discussion on “tractor plows” versus “tractor’s plow.” 

“One thing is to sing them over and over, and usually we’ve got some kind of bad lines that come out,” Roger said. “They won’t survive.”

Good people living in forgotten ways?

Honest people living in forgotten ways?

The afternoon wound down, and this is how far we got with out song:   

They come from cotton fields, Where they bend their backs to pay their bills

A rooster crows, It’s the start of a brand new day

Leiper’s Fork to Muscle Shoals, Tractor plows and fishing poles

Honest people living in forgotten ways

A big constellation of tiny little towns

There’s nothing like living beneath the stars in Nashville’s Big Back Yard

A fun experience, and in my view one that is best left to the professionals! 

(Many thanks to the songwriters, Hay Long Chapel and Nashville’s Big Back Yard for hosting our visit.)

4 thoughts on “How To Write A Country Song

    1. I noted the songwriting process is similar to my writing process — I try out different words, I jump around to another section if something isn’t coming to me right away, etc.

  1. What a great insight into this fascinating field of the record industry. We visited a small town in Arkansas one year and were surprised to meet a local who wrote songs for many famous country artists. He was such a down to earth individual.

    1. What a cool chance encounter you had. This trio was also down-to-earth and natural. Scott Anders’ day job is a high school teacher of building trades, and Andrew said he figured he’d be cutting grass for a living.

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