Country music is having a moment.
While country has traditionally thrived in live music venues, from arenas to local bars to county fairs and everywhere in between, the genre has been slower to embrace technological change.
Other genres, like hip-hop and pop, have embraced social media and streaming services, which generate 80% of today’s total music industry revenue. When live music ground to a halt during the pandemic, country artists and other industry pros realized they had a lot of catching up to do.
The pandemic forced change, but in a good way. Country music is now thriving with record streaming numbers.
“Growth snowballed,” according to Dave Bakula, Senior VP of Analytics, Insights and Research for Nielsen Music/MRC Data. “… Country fans are becoming more and more engaged and the fanbase is growing at streaming platforms.”
Overall, in early 2021, streaming was up 2.6% over pre-Covid numbers, while country music rocketed up 15.8% according to MRC Data/Nielsen Music. Streaming at iHeartRadio’s country stations also rose 7.4% in early- to mid-2020, and country music concerts have been among the first to rebound.
Why the surge in popularity? Experts believe listeners are seeking the emotional comfort and nostalgia that country music provides, while other fans who might have been slow to transition to streaming technology finally embraced it.
Today, both the country music industry and its fans are starting to catch up — and that trend is likely to continue.
That means that now is a great time for up-and-coming country songwriters.
If you’ve ever thought you’d like to try your hand at writing a country song, this article will help.
But first, you need to know what makes a country song country, and then what makes a country song good.
What Makes Country Music Country Music?
Modern country music has been influenced by many musical traditions and styles including Appalachian, folk, Celtic, blues, Western, and many more.
Despite the variety of influences, country songs do have some key characteristics that set them apart as distinctively country:
Country songs are essentially stories about life. They touch on experiences that everyone can relate to. They make it easier to get through tough times and help listeners celebrate the good times.
Example: “Starting Over” — Chris Stapleton
Heartfelt, strong emotion is conveyed by simple yet powerful words and music. Don’t mince words or skirt the truth. Instead, be authentic, down-to-earth, and take inspiration from all around you.
Example: “Die From A Broken Heart” — Maddie & Tae
Hit country songs touch on popular themes like love, family, values, drinking, and having a good time. Of course, you can deviate from these themes, and there’s a lot of variety within each, but take some time to get to know the themes that resonate best with audiences and become hits.
Example: “Stick That in Your Country Song” — Eric Church
There’s a catchy melody sung with a Southern drawl, strong harmonies, simple chord progressions, and at least a smattering of traditional instruments like fiddle, banjo, steel guitar, harmonica, and more.
Example: “Lovin’ On You” — Luke Combs
So how do you write songs that tick all the right boxes?
Let’s look at that next.
How to Write a Country Song
Even though modern country music borrows from many popular genres, country music as a whole embodies some basic rules of the road and traditions that you won’t find in other genres. At their essence, country songs are easy to remember, easy to digest, and catchy.
Keep that high-level vision in mind, and then make sure your song includes the following ingredients.
1. A memorable melody
Melody is becoming more important than ever — it’s arguably the most important ingredient of a country song. While country music has historically been lyric-driven, it’s becoming apparent that melody comes first, because it’s what makes listeners want to learn the words to your song in the first place.
Hit songwriter Dallas Davidson explains that you must have a great melody before anyone will even listen to your lyrics. When listeners hear something that makes them feel good, they want to sing along to it. “Then they learn the words to your song.”
Country music tends to follow pop trends with about a 5-year lag. Pop is driven by melody and groove, and both are now becoming more important than ever in country music.
So start with a great melody.
2. A little bit of rule-breaking
Country music has always been a little rebellious. As a songwriter, you can be too — just learn where you can experiment and where you can’t.
For example, you might decide to play with song structure and start with the chorus, or a hook/part of the chorus. Post-choruses are popular today, another trend that is catching up to pop music.
Keep your verses short, simple, and memorable. There is something to the old standard, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!” But lyrics still matter. Even short verses should be well-written, add something to the song, and move the story forward. So don’t skimp on your verses.
You can balance out short verses with a pre-chorus. They add excitement and an emotional payoff as they build up to the chorus.
Take care not to try everything at once, especially in the beginning. I recommend you start with this simple song structure. As you get comfortable working with it, you can experiment with more complex structures.
Solo or instrumental section
Remember, your hook(s) can be anywhere, but your main hook is likely to appear in the chorus at least once.
3. The rules that matter
These days, hit country songs are generally between 3 to 3-1/2 minutes long. You may have heard that Taylor Swift’s All Too Well (10 Minute Version) recently knocked out Don McLean’s American Pie for the record for the longest #1 song — a record Don held for the last 50 years. (Asmelash)
Still, this is a rule I don’t suggest breaking.
According to Sundown Sessions, more current “rules” show that:
- Most modern hits get to the chorus in less than 1 minute. This is an important guideline to follow.
- The sweet-spot tempo for upbeat pop tracks used to be around 120 BPM, but recent hits are clocking in closer to 135 BPM. That’s not to say you can’t experiment, but know where to start and what’s working today.
Beaird Music Group also recommends to:
- Make the title obvious and use it in every chorus.
- Use the title in the first line of your chorus, a major recent change from using the title in the last line of your chorus.
- Use similar structures like in recent hits. 74% of recent hits include 2 verses, at least 3 choruses (85% of hits), and a short bridge, if any. Less than half of recent hit songs have a bridge, and if they do, it’s short.
And although country follows pop trends, it isn’t quite ready yet for high-energy verses and broken-down, lower-energy choruses. So build energy to your choruses.
4. Classic country music themes
These days, feel-good themes are popular in country music. Listeners want an escape from the pressures and negativity of daily life. Popular themes may change in the future (after all, music is constantly evolving), but this is the wave we’re riding right now. Your goal is to meet your listeners where they are. They’ll relate to your songs when you write about what they’re actually doing and experiencing in real life.
I strongly encourage writers to always start with a solid, intriguing theme or concept. If you come up with a good enough theme, your songs will not only be better, they’ll be much easier to write. Often, your concept is a phrase that grabs you. “When I taste tequila” is one example, a hit I co-wrote for Dan+Shay.
We’ll always write and release slower ballads and sad songs, but those are less likely to be top hits. Know your goal for every song you write.
When it comes to being controversial or pushing the envelope, you can write about sexual and other touchy themes — just keep it clean. Avoid swearing. Soccer moms playing the radio in their cars don’t want their kids hearing colorful language.
And as always, keep tabs on what’s popular. You can’t go wrong with themes like partying, love, and values.
5. The right chord progressions
Chords have the power to evoke certain emotions. It’s up to songwriters to understand this and to use the chord progressions that will create the emotions you want your listeners to feel. Think of the chord progressions you choose as the emotional foundation of your songs.
You’ll notice that most popular songs are written in major keys.
That goes back to the fact that today’s audiences prefer songs that make them feel good rather than bring them down. That’s not to say that you can’t write songs in minor keys, but you’ll find that it’s harder to get a #1 hit.
So study popular chord progressions and use them.
In general, skip fancy chords — 3-4 chords are usually enough.
A few examples include:
I-V-vi-IV — The Heavy Hitter (the most popular chord progression)
- “Glad You Exist” — Dan + Shay (I was a co-writer)
- “Buy Dirt” — Luke Bryan
I-IV-vi-V — Heavy Hitter, Variation
- “Home” — Daughtry
- “Temporary Home” – Carrie Underwood
I-IV-V — The Big Three
- “I Walk the Line” — Johnny Cash
- “Chicken Fried” — Zac Brown Band
I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I (or V) — The 12 Bar Blues
- “Folsom Prison Blues” – Johnny Cash
- “Tush” – ZZ Top
Three hugely popular chord progressions in Hit country radio today include:
- IV I vi V – “Somewhere in My Car” by Keith Urban
- IV I V vi – “Tequila” by Dan + Shay
- vi V IV I – “Chasin’ You” by Morgan Wallen
6. Pop, rock, and R&B elements
Modern country music borrows heavily from other genres, and writing a crossover hit is a Holy Grail to many songwriters. As a matter of fact, many country songs could easily pass for pop with only an element or two to give it a slight country twang. These are potential crossover hits.
“Even 20 years ago, it was really looked down upon when a country artist tried to go pop or was having pop success,” says Melinda Newman, Billboard’s executive editor of West Coast and Nashville. “We’re seeing that border coming down, and a lot of that has to do with streaming. People who stream don’t look at genre.”
So while country music hits use pop elements, the conventional wisdom is that they’re usually five years behind pop trends. Pop, rock, hip-hop, and R&B influences are all fair game.
After all, hip-hop writers are country, too. They grew up in the same towns and had many of the same life experiences. If there’s a country band playing a show, they’re playing hip-hop on breaks and the girls are dancing. Audiences know hip-hop. It’s everywhere.
The music business has changed in recent decades. Artists used to have 2-3 albums to hone their craft — now that process is purposely accelerated.
Streaming puts more pressure on artists to be releasing new music constantly. It’s more than one person can handle realistically, but it’s possible with collaboration.
Writing with co-writers helps you to write better songs, faster. It’s an example of two heads being better than one, but also of specialization. If you’re a stronger lyric writer than music composer, you can lean into that (and vice versa), while you hone your skills in other areas of songwriting.
Recent top hits have at least 3 writers.
While many popular songs list large numbers of writers, not all of those people contribute to the same degree. Many songs contain samples or “lyrical fragments” from other songs. When those writers are rightfully credited, it can inflate the number of writers.
Still, co-writing is more common than ever. Often one or two writers will take most of the credit, with others adding essential parts and earning a small, not-equal share; for example, a writer contributing a riff or fill might get only a 1% stake.
In general, 3-4 co-writers are plenty. Too many writers can make it feel like some people are fighting for attention while others’ contributions may get lost in the shuffle.
Country music has always been lyric-driven and heartfelt. It’s one of the main aspects that differentiates country from other genres. Listeners expect songs about real life and they expect the truth.
Get in the habit of constantly noticing the inspiration that’s all around you. Observe people and take notes, especially from conversations. Capture moments, like photos snapped in time. This is one of the best ways to “write what you know.”
And when you write descriptions, challenge yourself to use all the senses — don’t just describe what people see or say, but think about how a friend’s touch feels, what scents bring back memories from home, or what kinds of foods taste like summertime.
Country music fan Grady Smith recently completed an informal but interesting study on the most common words used in country songs between 2014-2019, with the goal of determining whether the conventional wisdom around country music was true. “Yeah” was the most common word used, featured in 62% of songs. “Girl” took second place. “Love” and “little” are also very popular. “Trucks,” “tailgate,” “jeans,” and “beer” are definitely used but not as frequently as you might think.
It can be helpful to check our assumptions about modern country music against the reality. It opens up more creative avenues to songwriters when they realize the variety that actually exists.
9. An unforgettable hook
Your hook (or hooks) are another one of your country song’s most important parts. Think of it as the one big thing listeners will remember about your song. It’s got to be simple, catchy, and memorable.
Many times, your main hook is the last line of your chorus or your song’s title (essentially, it’s your song’s concept.) When Nashville writers say, “write to the hook,” this is what they’re referring to. But a hook isn’t only a lyric.
A hook could really be any recognizable, repeatable part of the song — including a groove, riff, motif, vocal line, or any other unique feature — and you could have more than one hook in a song. Don’t overdo this: one to three hooks per song is plenty.
The Anatomy of a Country Hit
Let’s look at a couple different examples of #1 hits to see what makes them tick.
First, Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope,” which garnered close to 20 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, aided by a crossover duet with Charlie Puth. (Dukes)
Gabby co-wrote the song with Jon Nite and Zachary Kale. They meant for it to be a song wishing for her ex to be happy, but it evolved into something deeper, admitting some vengeful feelings we might usually keep to ourselves.
Theme — I hope she (your new love) cheats, like you did on me. I hope you feel the same pain I felt.
Hook — “I hope” is repeated 31 times throughout the song and twice in each chorus.
Emotion — Who hasn’t wished that someone who did you wrong could feel the same thing they’ve put you through? This is an experience we all can relate to.
Structure — 2 longer verses, pre-chorus and chorus repeated 3 times, short bridge.
Tempo — 75 BPM
Chords — Am, G, C, G, F
Next up, “Does To Me” by Luke Combs ft. Eric Church.
Luke is the first-ever country artist to have his first eight singles all reach #1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. He wrote this song with Ray Fulcher and Tyler Reeve, and recorded it with Eric Church, his “number one songwriting hero.”
Luke thought it was important to highlight the accomplishments that mean a lot to us as individuals, but that might not be a big deal to others. He even engaged his fans to share their stories as inspiration for the song. Obviously, it resonated.
Theme — Things that might not mean much to you, matter a lot to me.
Hook — And that might not mean much to you, but it does to me.
Emotion — Celebrating ourselves, feeling pride in our accomplishments and big and little victories alike.
Structure — Intro, 2 verses, chorus repeated 3 times.
Tempo — 113 BPM
Chords — C, F, C, G, Am, F, G
Become County Music’s Next Hit Songwriter
There’s no surefire formula to a country hit, or else we’d all be using it.
And of course, times do change. Advice that worked 10 years ago might not apply today.
Still, there are definite trends you can follow and approaches you can take to improve your chances of writing a hit country song — and this article will get you moving in the right direction.
The good news is that the time is right.
As Johnny Chiang, director of operations at Cox Media Group Houston, puts it, “Because all these writers and singer-songwriters are stuck at home, I fully expect Nashville to start pumping out some of its best work in years.”
So start gathering inspiration today. Study today’s country hits and find co-writers who share your vision.
You could be on your way to writing the next big country hit in no time.