How to Write a Country Song
I used to view songwriting as a nebulous creative process. Over the years I’ve come to realize that there is an unconscious method to my seeming madness. This article is a collection of tips I’ve developed – based on self-observation – for writing a Country song. I’ve chosen Country as the genre for this article because in some ways it is the easiest style to write in and in some ways the most difficult. No matter, it is the style in which adherence to a framework seems to produce the best results.
I wrote my first song at fourteen. I can still play it, though I would never do so in public. Over the intervening 35 years I’ve written many songs and even more partially developed song ideas. Many of my best songs have been fully developed within a span of 15-20 minutes. Others have taken years to complete. Most have come to me in flashes of inspiration, though many songwriters are much more deliberate. I once heard Nick Lowe joke that John Hiatt, regarded by many as “the poet laureate of Nashville”, “kisses the wife and kids goodbye every morning and goes downtown to his office to write music.” Unfortunately I don’t operate that way. My best ideas come to me at the most inopportune times, like when I’m mowing the lawn or driving on the highway. This leads me to my first tip:
Always Carry a Pen and Pad (or better yet a recording device)
When the muse hits you must be ready. It is absolutely crucial that you be ready to record your song idea in some way. I have often been caught without a method for doing this and have lost ideas because of it. In some cases I was lucky and had enough free time to memorize ideas by rote; many times the idea was lost forever. I used to associate socially with a world-famous guitarist (whom I will leave unidentified lest I be branded a name-dropper). I was struck by the fact that he always carried a small pad and pen. He would often be in a room full of people and produce the pad to jot down an idea.
That was many years ago, before the advent of cheap, tiny, hi-fidelity audio recording devices. Nowadays, of course, you can use your smart phone as your recorder. Ain’t technology great?
Start with a Hook
This is the best thing that can happen to begin writing a song. A “hook”, of course, is a catchy musical or lyrical passage (or a combination of both). Think the guitar riff for “Day Tripper” or the lyrics “I’ve got friends in low places”, Garth Brooks’ smash hit. Hooks don’t have to be complex. One of the greatest hooks of in country music history was one word: “Crazy”, by Willie Nelson. It was a very simple combination of lyrical and musical hooks. Apart from one another neither was remarkable; but together they spelled H-I-T.
Often a lyrical hook starts as a play on words. When I was around eighteen I wrote a song called “Warm Beer and Cold Women.” It was maybe not terribly original but you get the point.
A musical hook is heavily dependent upon phrasing (combinations of notes in a scale and the syncopation of those notes). I have always found musical hooks more difficult than lyrical hooks, mainly because I am so heavily influenced by my listening history that I can never be sure that what I come up with differs enough from existing songs not to get sued à la George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (Doo Lang Doo Lang Doo Lang).
The best of both worlds is, of course, to combine a lyrical hook with a dynamite musical passage. There are hundreds upon hundreds of examples of this winning formula. When it comes to writing a country song, a hook of some sort is a must. The catchier it is the better.
Turn Hook Into Theme
Once you have a hook, you are ready to flesh out the rest of the song. The body of the song should build on the theme of the hook. Let’s take my example of “Warm Beer and Cold Women”. A hook like that should create an image in your mind’s eye. (Side note: MTV began broadcasting when I was eighteen years old. I hated it, because I felt videos stole from me the ability to provide my own mental context to the song. They provided the visuals instead of letting me form an image in my mind to accompany the song). The phrase “Warm beer and cold women” triggered in my mind a guy sitting in a bar in Texas lamenting that the bar had changed. That expanded to include the entire state of Texas. The first verse goes something like this:
Warm beer and cold women
The night life here ain’t livin’
And the guitars don’t pick here no more
The jukebox plays show tunes
They planted ferns in the spittoons
And no one rides the bull anymore*
The song goes on to talk about how Texas has changed and the character is not happy about it. So the hook serves as focal point around which you build the rest of the song.
Structure Your Song
The flaw in “Warm Beer and Cold Women” is that the hook only occurs twice in the song: in the first and last verses. While this is not terrible, ideally the hook is absolutely central to the song. In order to give the hook the attention it deserves we need to make it stand out. We do that by structuring the song in one of two ways.
The most popular and effective way of drawing attention to the hook is to structure the song in a “verse/chorus” pattern. This pattern consists of two separate elements. The song usually starts with a verse, which sets the stage for the chorus. Many songs have two verses before the chorus to build tension in preparation for the first chorus. The end of the verse may also have a sort of linking musical and lyrical phrase that builds up to the chorus to provide the tension and highlight the hook.
The verse introduces the theme of the song. The chorus drives it home. The chorus usually contains the hook. It may consist solely of the hook or it may have a couple more lines. I wrote a song called “The Soul in Me”, the chorus of which goes:
I’ve got a hole in me
The size of the soul in me
I thought she would be holding me
For the rest of eternity*
Obviously the hook is the first two lines of the chorus. The second two lines complete the thought, so to speak, and tie the hook back into the rest of the song.
The verse/bridge structure is used less often than the verse/chorus structure. It consists of multiple verses interspersed by a bridge. In this structure the hook is usually contained in the verse, preferably in the last line or two of the verse. An excellent example of a verse/bridge structure is George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Give it a listen and see what I mean.
Whatever structure you choose for the song, its sole purpose is to highlight the hook. A verse/chorus pattern should contain the hook in the chorus. A verse/bridge pattern should contain the hook in the verse.
Make It Rhyme
Rhyme is crucial to good songwriting. It makes the lyric interesting and engages the ear and the imagination. There is an almost endless array of rhyme patterns. We are all familiar with the ABAB pattern and variations on that. However, there are many others you can use. I wrote a song for one of my daughters’ baptism that was AAABCCCB. The first verse goes like this:
As I sit with pen in hand
The daughter of this humbled man
Is gazing at her biggest fan
With an infant’s eyes of blue
And while I don’t feel very qualified
To give you words by which you should abide
I can say in truth I’ve not yet lied
Rhyme does not always have to occur at the end of a line. There is a concept called “internal rhyme” in which a rhyme can occur within the line. One example of internal rhyme is an incomplete idea I got while driving (sober):
I’ve been cruisin’ in the left lane
I’ve been boozin’ and the next thing I see
There’s a blue light in my rear view
And I’ve got nowhere to steer to, guess he busted me*
Internal rhyme can occur within the same line, too:
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain
is an extreme example.
Finally, rhyme does not always have to be perfect. Back to my “Warm Beer And Cold Women” example, there are a finite number of words that rhyme with “women”. All I can think of is “swimmin’”, “brimmin’”, “lemon”, “trimmin’”, “slimmin’”, “dimmin’” and “Ian Flemin’””. “Livin’” was close enough and I could build a sentence around it that fit into the theme of the song. But if someone can think of a better rhyme please feel free to comment.
Chords and Melody
The chords and melody of your song can present a chicken and egg scenario. Sometimes I will write a chord progression that dictates melody to some extent; other times I have a melody in mind that I need to write a chord progression around. Usually the result is a standard country-style progression and melody.
Stylistically you want to fit into the genre you select. It’s tough to write a straight country tune using minor ninths and seventh flat fives, though guys like Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett can pull esoteric stuff like that off. I find that if I keep it simple in the beginning I don’t get into trouble stylistically. I may be able to produce something more nuanced during recording, but for the writing process I like to simplify as much as possible.
Some standard country chord progressions are:
I-IV-V + II(min)-III(min)
What Comes First: Lyrics or Music?
I once heard Mike Douglass ask Jose Feliciano during an interview, “What do you write first: the lyrics or the music?” Feliciano’s response: “Well, when I’m drunk I write the lyrics first and when I’m stoned I write the music first.” While I don’t condone such reckless behavior (you should never write music first when stoned) it was pretty funny.
Personally, I have had much more success when I find myself putting music to words than words to music. In other words, I usually write lyrics first. The melody usually comes with the lyrics and dictates the progression. I occasionally discover a musical hook that sounds interesting but have difficulty coming up with lyrics to match.
Others may not have this issue, in which case it won’t matter what comes first. The important thing is that the two have to go together seamlessly. Lyrics don’t always dictate melody, but they do provide stricture with respect to syncopation. This can color the feel of a tune significantly. So if you write the lyrics first they will have some bearing on your melody.
Likewise, coming up with a lyric to go with a tune can require adherence to the framework of the tune. Alternatively it may require changes in the tune that detract from the original concept. It can be a tricky balancing act to get it just right.
The bottom line is that the melody and lyric must go together like beans and cornbread. They must exist in, um, harmony. (Sorry, it was impossible to resist.)
Piece It All Together
So now you have it: a hook, a theme, good structure with great rhyme and a wonderful melody and chord progression. Now all that’s left is to write it all down and record it for posterity.
If you don’t read music there are several ways you can lay it out. You can write it in a chord chart or guitar tablature. The downside of this is that there is no record of the melody, tempo, time signature or syncopation. You can combine a chord chart with an audio recording to accomplish these ends. Another option is to pay someone to transcribe it for you or buy transcription software.
Where to Go From Here
There are myriad books on songwriting. Among my favorites and the source of some of the material in this article is “101 Songwriting Wrongs and How to Right Them”, by Pat and Pete Luboff.
I hope this article has been helpful in giving you some ideas on how to write a country song. The methods herein need not be restricted to country music, of course. I have found that when I write with these guidelines in mind they improve the quality of my work substantially. Thanks for reading.
* All lyrics copyright Tom Swanton. All rights reserved.