Study: More Writers = More Repetitiveness in Country. Zach Bryan is the Exception

You would think that if you had more cooks in the kitchen, they would come up with something more creative. But that’s not the case when it comes to country music songwriting, and a new study corroborates what our ears have been telling us for years. As the amount of songwriters per track in country has increased, the songs have become significantly more repetitive, and thus, less creative and intriguing.

Danny Katz from the music data aggregation company Chartmetric recently published the findings of a study that took 20,000 country songs from 500 relevant country artists from the past and present, and paired them with their lyrics to study the bigger trends in country music lyrics over time. What the study found is probably not especially surprising to you if you’re one of the many who’ve awakened to the shallowness of mainstream country radio. But what is surprising is just how pronounced this trend has been.

The songwriter-by-committee method of writing country songs has become more and more popular over time, as has been the practice of including the performer in the writing credits under the long-standing practice called “third for a word” or “word for a third” where if someone changes only one word in a song, an equal credit is shared with them among all of the song’s contributors. Sometimes songwriters are amenable to this practice, because relinquishing a credit to a performer means getting your song cut.

Danny Katz at Chartmetric analyzed country songs using the total amount of words in the song, the unique amount of words in each song, the amount of unique words compared to the 20,000 other songs that were analyzed, the repetitiveness of those words, and the average word length based off of characters. Lo and behold, the repetitiveness of the words in country songs has skyrocketed, even as the overall amount of words in country songs has increased, as have the amount of writers.

The reason for more words overall is likely due to so many popular country songs utilizing rapid-fire lyricism to replace melody with rhythmic appeal. Contributing to this trend is the utter disappearance of the third verse in many country music songs in lieu of another run through a catchy chorus. This confirms the long-held postulate here at Saving Country Music that overall, the problem with today’s popular country music is the replacement of stories for lists, and rhythm for melody. As the study concludes,

“While more repetitiveness in a song is not inherently an indictment of its musical quality, this metric can be used as a proxy for storytelling. The more unique words there are in a song, the more likely a story is being told beyond the repetition of a catchy hook. At its core, Country music has always been about storytelling. That is one of the anchors that differentiates the genre from other popular genres. The more repetitive Country music lyrics become, the more the lines blur between Country and Pop.”

This all is happening as more songwriters are participating in each song. In 2000, an average of 1.8 writers were involved in a country song. By 2022, that number had spiked to 2.9. That’s an increase of over 60 percent in the last 20 years. This chart showing the repetitiveness of lyrics in orange and the amount of songwriters in blue pretty much explains it all:

via Danny Katz / Hyperbot

Ironically, as more songwriters have been added to each song, the amount of songwriters working in the country music industry has dramatically decreased over the last 20 years, meaning even though you have more writers per song, you have less perspectives being brought to country music as a whole. This has certainly contributed to these adverse trends.

But there has been one very big exception to all of these songwriting trends in popular country music: Zach Bryan. The Navy enlistee tuned unexpected country music superstar has spent 38 weeks as the #1 songwriter on Billboard’s Top Country Songwriters chart. Despite the massive success of Morgan Wallen and other co-writers, it’s Zach Bryan’s success as someone who writes all of his own material that has put him in that spot. He also bucks the trends of repetitive lyrics.

In fact, it was Zach Bryan’s success that inspired Danny Katz at Chartmetric to conduct the study.

“[Zach Bryan] has charted an extremely unlikely, meteoric rise to the top by doing things his way: releasing unparalleled amounts of music featuring raw, poetic language over organic instrumentation. Bryan is arguably Country music’s most intriguing storyline due to his unconventional methods … Zach Bryan has been so successful, with such a wildly different approach, that it necessitates quantifying this difference and contextualizing his position among his peers to fully appreciate what he has accomplished.”

This study underscores so many important lessons about the current trends in popular country music, and potentially, how to reverse them. The success of Zach Bryan is making some in the country industry rethink the songwriter-by-committee strategy, and looking for solo songwriters like Zach Bryan who can grab the attention of the masses all by themselves.

One of the reasons that Zach Bryan has become so successful is because the public is starved for story in music, and for the poetic diversity Zach Bryan delivers in his songs. Many listeners are even willing to forgive Zach for some of the sloppiness that has come with his voluminous output, because ultimately he will deliver a line or story that connects more deeply than alternatives.

It’s a new day in country music, and like so many of the practices that came about during the Bro-Country era, songwriting by a select committee of hit writers is one that deserves to be scrutinized, and perhaps, retired.

There were many more findings from the Chartmetric study that can be found on the Chartmetric blog. It was the first installment in what Danny Katz says is a three-part study.

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