Your Take: Strength in Numbers

Karlie Justus Marlowe | September 11th, 2010

On Tuesday, Blake reviewed Sara Evans’ new single “A Little Bit Stronger,” sparking a debate about some of the songwriters responsible for many of country music’s modern hits.

The tune is part of the catalogs of in-demand Nashville songwriters Hillary Lindsey and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, whose names are closely related with other of-the-moment songwriters Ashley Gorley, Chris Lindsey, Jeffrey Steele and Aimee Mayo.

Commenter Kyle took note, offering up his thoughts on these “genre-defining” songwriters:

It’s always interesting for me to see who the “hot” songwriters are at a given time, and how their style affects what’s being put out. Right now, everyone and their mother seems to want a Akins/Hayslip/Davidson song, and everyone and their mother wants a Hilary Scott/Lady A song. Unfortunately, I think that’s resulting in a lot of hooky but production-driven, inconsequential, simple songs that you get the feeling will be quickly forgotten.

I don’t have anything against Hilary – I think she’s a great writer for her age – but I don’t think she’s good enough to be in that genre-defining position, nor do I think those other three are. Hopefully somebody who packs a little more punch steps in and gets hot soon.

Country music has a history of developing close-knit songwriting communities – from Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson and Dallas Frazier to those listed above – that often work together and are behind the sound and trends of their generations’ popular artists. Commenter Fizz, however, expressed his thoughts that this approach increases the homogenization of the music:

If you have the same small group of people writing most of the hits, then SURPRISE! they’re going to sound pretty similar. For real! Of course, folks could always write their own damn songs, but I guess that’s just me attempting to apply rock aesthetics to country music again.

In the same thread, Jon countered that diversity doesn’t automatically equal supremacy:

Why is greater diversity intrinsically preferable? If fabulous results can be produced by small pools of songwriters (like, for instance, back in the 50s and 60s), then why is having a small pool of songwriters a bad thing? Greater diversity sure hasn’t produced stellar results on a song-by-song basis, like when you have 5 or 6 or 7 names on a song, has it?

What’s your take? Do a small number of hit-producing songwriters warrant less diversity and variety available to country music artists and fans? To answer Jon’s question in the thread, is greater diversity intrinsically preferable, with more quality results?

Also, to Kyle’s point, is the current crop of hot songwriters helping or hurting the industry? Who are the up-and-coming songwriters that country fans should keep an eye on?

  1. Occasional Hope
    September 11, 2010 at 7:38 am

    I have to say I agree with Jon on this: it depends on the quality of the writers involved. The problem for me at the moment is that a lot of the “hot” writers just aren’t that good, imo. (Although of the names you mention I’ve registered liking a lot of Ashley Gorley’s songs lately).

  2. SW
    September 11, 2010 at 9:47 am

    This is an interesting topic, especially considering the Nashville model is built to support groups of writers. You don’t need to be in Nashville long to hear individuals espousing the need to co-write and the axiom, “a rising tide…” In regards to the homogenization of hit music at a given time, I think in many ways the onus of differentiation is passed off to the producers. If a core group of writers is getting a large number of cuts, then there will likely be some similarity in writing style. In order to create a diverse listening pool, the production side needs to bring in new ideas and back away from the ‘copy the demo’ mentality.

  3. Razor X
    September 11, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I have to say I agree with Jon on this: it depends on the quality of the writers involved. The problem for me at the moment is that a lot of the “hot” writers just aren’t that good, imo.

    I agree. There just doesn’t seem to be many writers of the caliber of Howard, Anderson and Frazier these days.

  4. luckyoldsun
    September 11, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    I have to say that there are very few country songs that are clearly great on paper.
    Most of the great ones became great because of how they were produced and sung. Lyrically and musically, “I Walk The Line” is similar to 50 other songs that came before it. It was made great by Johnny Cash’s recording.

  5. Mayor JoBob
    September 11, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I’ve always clumped most country artists together as one artist since they all use the same writers and most of the same session players in the studio. Brad Paisley being one of the exceptions on all counts.

    Back in the day you got to recognizing Paul Franklin’s steel or Rob Hajacos’ fiddle and especially Brent Mason’s guitar. Just like back then everybody wanted a Skip Ewing penned song.

  6. Vicki
    September 11, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    There seems to be a real push for writing your own songs nowadays and unfortunately, good singers are not good at this at all. It’s like if you don’t write your own songs, and play a guitar and sing decently, then you are not a real bonified country artist. Very few country artists can do this with great success but there are a lot trying and giving us half as*ed country songs..well, I would much rather hear a great singer sing a song from a great songwriter. Let’s give the great song writers in Nashville a try again…like Trisha Yearwood did in her “Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love”.

  7. Leeann
    September 11, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Good singers can’t write good songs?: Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Peters, Kelly Willis, Ashley Monroe, Chris Stapleton, Gary Allan, Randy Travis,, etc.

    My favorite singers have written good songs.

  8. Thomas
    September 11, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    …not to forget dwight yoakam. otherwise dito, leeann.

  9. Leeann
    September 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Dwight is just one of the very many not on my admittedly short list.

  10. luckyoldsun
    September 11, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Probably a mainstream country artist should write–or co-write a substantial portion of his/her songs (anywhere from, say, 40%-75%) and use outside writers for the rest. George Strait is obviously the exception, but artists who only use outside writers tend to become interchangeable generic country singers.

    Alan Jackson and Toby Keith are perfect examples. I don’t think they’re “better” singers than Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Lawrence, Sammy Kershaw, Daryle Singletary or others among their ’90s contemporaries, but Jackson and Keith are still in the major leagues while the others are not. Jackson and Keith wrote a lot of their own material and fashioned themselves into distinctly recognizable personalities; the others faded in part because they became interchangeable “hat acts.”

    Then there’s Clint Black, who insisted on writing ALL of his material, even when the public became sick of hearing what he had to say.

    I thnk there’s a happy medium there.

  11. Razor X
    September 11, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Many of George Jones’ biggest hits were not self-penned. I don’t think Charley Pride wrote any of his own songs at all. Nor did Trisha Yearwood. Keith Whitley wrote songs but recorded very few of his own compositions. Patty Loveless has recorded some of her own songs but used outside songwriters most of the time. Ditto for Reba and Tanya Tucker Were they all interchangeable, generic singers?

  12. luckyoldsun
    September 11, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    If you’re a distinctive enough singer to establish yourself singing entirely outside material–like those above–then great!

    I’m just saying that given the quantity of competition today, it’s difficult to stand out by doing entirely outside material. Daryle Singletary’s a good example. Everyone said he’s a great country singer.

  13. sam (sam)
    September 11, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Luckyoldsun says that “probably a manstream country artist should write-or co-write a substantial portion of his/her songs” and then cites the fact that writers Jackson and Keith are still having hits while Chesnutt, Lawrwnce, Kershaw, et cetera are not.

    But several country singers from the 1990s who wrote their own songs are no longer having hits on country radio. Clint Black, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Garth Brooks, Bryan White, Vince Gill.

    I certainly can see a benefit to writing songs – It might provide an extra source of income and it might make the singer less dependent on songwriters.

    But even if being a songwriter leads to a longer career, I’m not sure that this is a reason for singers to write their own songs. After all, one must not only write or co-write, but also do it tolerably well.

    Would Mark Chesnutt or Sammy Kershaw have had longer careers had they released to radio songs that they wrote? Its far from certain, especially if the outside songwriters could have produced better songs.

  14. Razor X
    September 11, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    “Would Mark Chesnutt or Sammy Kershaw have had longer careers had they released to radio songs that they wrote?”

    Do you think radio programmers care who wrote the song? You hit the nail on the head earlier in your comment when you said one must be able to write or co-write songs reasonably well. Recording artists who are talented songwriters have an advantage over those who don’t write in that they get the first crack at the very best of their own compositions. But writing one’s own material is no guarantee of longevity.

  15. Jon
    September 11, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    I don’t see what the point is of formulae like luckoldsun’s. It’s obvious that it doesn’t conform very well to what actually goes down in country music. And the problem (so to speak) that Daryle Singletary has had with country radio has almost certainly had nothing to do with using outside writers vs. writing his own stuff. Because people who write their own stuff in that same vein are no more successful at mainstream country radio than is Singletary.

    The key point is that country music has a different underlying aesthetic than rock does. I think it’s generally true that for the past 40 years or so, the operative assumption in the rock world is that artists express themselves by writing and performing their own songs, thanks to the models provided by artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, etc., etc., etc. But from its start, country has operated without that assumption, and while it’s been influenced by the singer/songwriter aesthetic of rock, that influence is overlaid on, rather than replacing, other approaches. From the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, both of whom did a lot of “outside” material, to modern times, there’s always been lots of room for songs from writers other than the performer.

  16. Vicki
    September 11, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    LeeAnn: I also said “Very Few Country singers can do this..” If you count how many artists are out there trying “very few” would include the ones you’ve named and I agree with most of that list.

  17. Jeremy Dylan
    September 12, 2010 at 6:51 am

    I retain great affection for many artists who rarely write their own material – George Strait, George Jones, Reba McEntire, etc., singer-songwriters like Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller write almost all of their material and artists like Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley who are immensely talented writers, but aren’t afraid to cut outside songs when they suit.
    I recall that Gary Allan, a wonderful songwriter, took one of his own compositions off It Would Be You to make room for an outside song No Judgement Day because he thought it was a better song.

    None of these approaches is inherently superior to the others.

  18. Leeann
    September 12, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Ultimately, I support the mix of artists who will cut their own songs along with outsiders’. That’s probably the most effective strategy. Personally, however I’m most drawn to artists who can write over those who can’t, which is not to say that they should only sing their own songs. I also don’t think that someone isn’t an artist if he/she can’t write songs, it’s simply that I most admire artists who can do it all.

  19. Barry Mazor
    September 12, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Songwriters should write songs.

  20. Leeann
    September 12, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Deap.:)

  21. Barry Mazor
    September 12, 2010 at 9:52 am

    By any means necessary..

  22. Janet Goodman
    September 12, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Songwriters try hard not to “steal” from their own songs; they don’t want them to sound like their last.

    There is a small number of hit-producing writers today because there are less and less song openings available to them. There are fewer labels and shorter artist rosters. More country artists are recording their own material, leaving fewer spots than ever for the pro writers. For many, the only means to getting a cut is by writing with the artist.

    Hillary Lindsey is a bright spot lately, with writer credits on “Jesus Take the Wheel” and “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” and “This One’s for the Girls.”

  23. luckyoldsun
    September 12, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    I guess my point is that to last a long time, artists must have or do SOMETHING to separate themselves from the pack. In the case of George Jones, it’s that VOICE. In the case of Alan Jackson or Toby Keith, it’s the personas that they established, largely through their songs.

    A singer who just has a voice that sounds like recycled Merle and recycled Strait will probably be recycled himself pretty quickly if his songs are interchangeable with those of all the other similar singers.

  24. Occasional Hope
    September 12, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    True enough; I’m just not convinced that an artist’s own material is more likely to be distinctive than that of a career songwriter. Whatv if our hypothetical average singer is also an average songwriter, whose songs are indistinguishable from thsoe of his/her competitors? Surely that depends on the quality of the songs, whatever their origin. And commercial success and artistic quality are not always as closely connected as one would like to believe.

  25. Kyle
    September 12, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    I’ve always thought the songwriters were the heart and soul of country music – they’re the ones with the undeniable gift for writing great songs, who are tapped into some undercurrent that blesses them with a great song once in a while. I love a great country singer almost as much as a great song, but their gift is the ability to give life, emotion and subtlety to those writers’ creations. That’s one of my favorite things about country music – at its best, it’s not about an image or a personality, it’s just the best songs in the world sung by the best singers.

    I personally don’t like to see major country artists – i.e. signed artists being pushed on country radio – writing their own songs unless they’ve proved they can write with the best in Nashville. I don’t necessarily see it as a singer’s “right” to write all their own songs, IF they’re trying to be successful in the mainstream country industry. There are a given number of country songs released by a given number of country singers on major labels each year. For every “Bonfire” Craig Morgan co-writes and releases, there’s an “Almost Home” that sits wasted in a publisher’s drawer somewhere, or there’s a potentially great songwriter that never gets a chance to pursue a career in the industry.

    I also think there’s a difference between what’s good for an artist’s career versus what I would like as a country music fan. I’ll take an album of Mark Chesnutt singing random great outside songs any day over a Toby Keith album with a general theme and a bunch of cowrites… but unfortunately, that appears to be a minority view in the current country audience.

    My opinion is that if you want to profit off of the institution of country music, it’s your responsibility to at least try your best to do so with songs that add to its legacy, rather than dilute it. And how many classic, memorable country songs were artist written (especially by artists under, say, 30)? A decent amount, maybe, but nowhere close to the amount of outside written ones. Now consider the fact that the majority of current songs being released ARE artist written – many of which by young, inexperienced artists – and it’s a little concerning to me as a fan of the genre.

  26. Jon
    September 13, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Now consider the fact that the majority of current songs being released ARE artist written – many of which by young, inexperienced artists…

    Nominally, maybe, but see Janet Goodman’s comment about full-timers co-writing with artists.

  27. Janet Goodman
    September 13, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    In the record labels’ eyes, an artist who writes his own material is a real money saver. They cut a different mechanical royalties deal with the artist and all the other co-writers on the record in these situations. The standard mechanical rate of 9.1 cents per record sold (per song)is negotiated down to somewhere around 6 cents – so labels can pay out a third less money to songwriters. And with fewer records being sold today, labels are more anxious than ever to cut this deal. Songwriters don’t have much of a choice.

  28. luckyoldsun
    September 13, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Seems to me a lot of artists define themselves with self-written songs. Look at John Anderson and “Seminole Wind”. Could Joe Diffie or Tracy Lawrence have cut that song? I’m sure they could have, but I think there was a passion that Anderson had for the song that came through and made it a hit. Or look at Toby Keith and “Should Have Been a Cowboy.” Yes, George Strait could have done that song, but would it have worked as well (and become the most played song of the ’90s, by one account)? I have my doubts.

  29. Jon
    September 13, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    In the record labels’ eyes, an artist who writes his own material is a real money saver. They cut a different mechanical royalties deal with the artist and all the other co-writers on the record in these situations.

    Well, ah, they cut deals with the writers’ publishing companies, which isn’t quite the same thing. But the underlying point is basically sound, especially given that publishing companies have, to a large extent, taken over the artist development functions that labels used to carry out. Now a promising artist often gets signed to a publishing deal – regardless of his or her actual abilities at and interest in songwriting – and set to work writing with other writers (who do much of the heavy lifting), with the goal of eventually getting a deal that will result in this “writing” artist’s songs getting cut (and the publisher recouping and more as a result).

  30. anonymous..
    September 13, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    what good is an artist co-write if it doesn’t turn out to be as good or sell as well as a song written by hit writers?.. I mean wouldn’t the hit serve as fuel to sell more for that artist? Get more fans interested? so on and so forth??

    I mean Miranda Lambert, tho she was good, she wasn’t great until this latest hit of hers.. her biggest yet.. written by songwriters..

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