In the constant, eternal, and sometimes nauseating back and forth argument about the direction of country music, it is easy to focus in on the big celebrity franchise names who sing and perform the songs as the primary culprits for the consternation about what country music has become. But it may be short-sighted to think that these select few celebrities, or even the industry professionals behind them, are singularly to blame, or even deserve the majority of criticism.
In Zac Brown’s recent disparaging comments about Luke Bryan’s hit “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Zac went out of his way to lay as little blame as possible on Luke Bryan. Instead it was the song itself, and its songwriters that drew the brunt of Zac Brown’s ire. “You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs,” Zac said. “There’s been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and it’s the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”
Though Zac didn’t name any names, the likely target of Zac’s criticism was country songwriter Dallas Davidson. Davidson was one of three songwriters on “That’s My Kind Of Night,” and is one of Nashville’s hottest songwriting commodities with a string of major hits to his name.
As one of the primary originators of the current country checklist / tailgate craze in country music, as well as the trend of instilling urban jargon and themes into what is traditionally considered rural music, you can point to Dallas Davidson just as much as the artists that perform his songs as one of the primary drivers of country music’s current mainstream sound.
Dallas Davidson is the reigning ACM Songwriter of the Year, was the 2011 Songwriter of the Year for BMI, and has also received 3 CMA “Triple Play” awards, which recognize songwriters for having three #1 songs in the same year, including six #1 songs in 2011 alone. As songwriters go, Davidson is as decorated as any at the moment. Dallas isn’t just one of the most influential songwriters in Nashville, he’s one of the most influential individuals right now in the entire country music business, with his songs dominating the charts and influencing the current direction of the format.
Davidson’s first breakout song was “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” co-written by Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser. The troika wrote the song in 2004 when hanging out at a club together, and reportedly completed it in an hour. When Trace Adkins released it as a single in 2005, it became a huge commercial success. “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” is given credit for launching the careers of all three of its songwriters, but where Jamey Johnson would veer towards becoming one of the mainstream’s few traditional-leaning singer/songwriting performers, and Randy Houser would go more in the pop country performance direction, Dallas Davidson stuck to being primarily an off-the-stage and behind-the-scenes writer of hits.
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” could be counted as mainstream country’s first major country rap hit, making Dallas Davidson one of the first country rap hit songwriters, predating Colt Ford and Cowboy Troy. But Davidson wouldn’t stop there. Here 8 years later, Davidson is responsible for both the #1 country rap singles of 2013—the aforementioned “That’s My Kind Of Night” performed by Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.”
In between, “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” and today, Dallas Davidson had Luke Bryan cut his country rap dance tune “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” and wrote many other prominent singles that have made it onto the Billboard charts, including Luke Bryan’s 2010 #1 “Rain Is A Good Thing,” Lady Antebellum’s #1’s “Just A Kiss” and “We Owned The Night,” Justin Moore’s #1 “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” Brad Paisley’s #1 “Start A Band,” and Billy Currington’s #1 “That’s How Country Boys Roll.”
Dallas Davidson has accumulated more songwriting success in the last 3 years than anyone, but his output would probably be better characterized as potent as opposed to prolific. He’s not one of these songwriters who seems to have half a dozen singles on the charts at any given time, but the songs he contributes to tend to have demonstrative success and impact on the sonic and lyrical direction of country.
Another prominent songwriter who is contributing to the sonic direction of country music and the emergence of country rap is Luke Laird. Luke was the writer of Jason Aldean’s “1994” and Trace Adkin’s “Hillbilly Bone.” At the same time, Luke Laird has worked intimately with many other stars from a wide swath of the country music world. Laird co-wrote the majority of songs on Kacey Musgraves’ recent album Same Trailer, Different Park. He co-wrote 3 songs on Eric Church’s 2012 CMA and ACM Album of the Year Chief, he co-wrote Little Big Town’s big hit “Pontoon,” and 10 songs for Carrie Underwood in the last 5 years. In fact it might be easier to list the artists Luke Laird has not worked with than the elongated list of artists that he’s contributed lyrics to since starting in 2005.
Same could be said for the ultra prolific professional songwriter Shane McAnally, who co-wrote Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” with Luke Laird and Kacey, as well as 8 other songs on Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park. He also co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart” with Musgraves and performed by Miranda Lambert, giving McAnally two songs in both the Single and Song of the Year nominations for the 2013 CMA’s.
What’s quizzical about McAnally’s output is how he seems to be all over the map in regards to his tastes and influences. On the surface he seems to be a writer who works with more substance compared to Luke Laird and Dallas Davidson, but he’s also given credit for co-writing Florida Georgia Line’s “Party People,” and Lady Antebellum’s ultra-saccharine “Downtown.” But then McAnally turned around and wrote Wade Bowen’s recent single “Trucks,” which pokes fun of Music Row’s recent country checklist trends, perpetrated by songwriters like Dallas Davidson.
But more importantly, you put these three songwriters together, along with a handful of select few others, and they constitute and impressive block of what makes up mainstream radio’s playlists, while populating many of the top spots of the country music charts. The faces of the performers may change, but the names of the songwriters tend to stay the same. Where it is seen as counterproductive by the music industry to have an artist with multiple singles on the radio at the same time competing with each other, songwriters don’t have such restrictions, blending into the background and rarely being regarded by the mass public.
The mass public may also be perplexed why the songwriting process always seems to happen in 3’s. Dallas Davidson is from Georgia, and is a member of the industry famous “Peach Pickers” songwriting team with co-writers Rhett Atkins and Ben Hayslip. A long-standing tradition in country songwriting called “Third For A Word” makes it possible for songwriters and performers to simply contribute one word to a composition and be awarded an equal share of credit and royalties for the song. Recently this trend has seen some big name performers jumping on to contribute very little to a song, but snatching up lucrative royalty compensation for their small contributions. Songwriters might allow this to happen so their compositions will get cut by big celebrity performers. Similarly, if songwriters like Dallas Davidson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally have their names on a song, it can mean a significant spike in interest from labels and performers since they are such hot commodities.
Country music is a copy cat business, as can be seen in the continuance of using the same songwriters over and over in songs that sound very similar both sonically and lyrically. As explained in a recent article about the science behind music, popular music is losing its diversity. It is easy to single out the artists who are performing these songs, but many times they are simply following orders. Some artists are given certain latitude in picking the songs they will cut, and some like Miranda Lambert, or artists on Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records may have more latitude than others. But as industry professionals attempt to spy trends and exploit them commercially through a label’s talent roster, more and more the songwriting process becomes very streamlined, relying on formulas and professionals who know how to optimize ideas for optimum radio play.
But beyond the process, the songs coming out of the Nashville / Music Row system are stimulating a backlash from their lack of quality like never before. Since the beginning of country music, there has always been sects that believe country is being influenced too much by other genres, but in the last few weeks, artists who have reached the very top of success in the industry are speaking out in greater numbers. As much as Music Row and certain artists may want to laugh off this criticism, it speaks to the larger issue of substance in the genre, and how it could jeopardize the long term viability of the format.
In responding to Zac Brown’s criticism of the current state of country music, songwriter Dallas Davidson said, “We write about what we know about. What I know about is sitting on a tailgate drinking a beer. Hell I live on the river. When Luke called me to tell me about what happened, I was literally smoking Boston butts on my homemade cooker at my 800 square foot river house with about four of my buddies with their trucks backed up, sitting on a tailgate.”
Davidson’s comments reaffirm what an independent Texas songwriter named Possessed by Paul James told Saving Country Music in a recent interview. “When looking at the majority of music, it’s not a cultural voice of change, it’s just a reflection. It’s not encouraging us to do anything, it’s just reflecting, like on my ‘Red Solo Cup.’”
Songs about tailgates are not inherently bad, and certainly every song does not have to be about a deep subject. It is the monopolization of the format with the same homogenizing subject matter where it becomes a problem—where one tailgate song leads into another tailgate song, and yet another, regardless of the song’s performer because the person or persons that wrote the song are the same, or are being influenced by similar trends.
Whether it is a financial portfolio, and educational environment, or an environmental eco-system, diversity is always championed as the key to a healthy balance and to long-term sustainability. As the pool of songwriters contributing to mainstream country’s sound continues to narrow, it leaves country’s future resting on the output of a few select pens.