how to write a country song

Five lyric pitfalls to avoid when writing Country songs – or ANY songs!

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Want to know how to write a country song? This Nashville songwriting teacher lists five pitfalls to avoid when writing songs for any genre.

In the 18 years I’ve been teaching BMI’s Nashville Songwriters’ Workshop, I’ve listened to 40-50 songs 10 times a year or more. if you do the math, that means I’ve reviewed more than 8,000 songs in the past two decades – and that doesn’t include the songs I critiqued in the song camps, master classes, and workshops I’ve taught all over the world.

I’ve watched a handful of students learn how to write a country song, grow into exceptional songwriters, establish relationships with music publishers, and land staff-writing deals – some even have credits on number one singles. But most of the songs I’ve heard were just “good,” and that isn’t good enough to compete with the work being produced by the top hit makers.

Artists who write for themselves need to write exceptional songs that define and support their artistic identity, while having an emotional impact on the listeners. Those of us who write songs for artists other than ourselves need to come up with material that compels artists, producers, publishers, and A&R executives to choose our songs over all the others being submitted for a project – including those written or co-written by the artist, the producer, or someone else on the “inside.”

One of the most important jobs I have as a teacher is to identify and share the common elements I observe in successful songs while steering students clear from the pitfalls in songs that fall short. Here are some of the biggest lyric pitfalls I consistently notice.

1. Writing for an audience of one

Many songwriters write as a means of introspection and catharsis. They bleed onto the paper, communicating their angst on the wings of intensely personal lyrics.

Some of these songwriters rely on abstract poetry and imagery, effectively shrouding the meaning of their lyrics to the point that they exclude listeners from understanding or empathizing. They are writing for an audience of one.

The goal of effective songwriting is communication – and that requires bringing your audience into the equation. If you want your songs to affect me, don’t write about your life – write about mine. Some of the most successful writers are those who write about their lives in a manner that makes listeners wonder, “How did she get inside my heart and know exactly how I feel?”

Few artists record songs with non-linear, non-literal lyrics. This approach might work for Coldplay, Train, or other artists writing songs for their own bands or projects – as long as they’re attaching them to amazing melodies. But it is a rare songwriter who can evoke emotion by writing in this style.

If your goal is to share your music with the world, write in a style that speaks to your audience and clearly communicates the message you intended.

2. Telling, not showing

One of the least effective ways to evoke emotion is to write lyrics that state how you feel. Reporting that you are “sad and lonely” might clearly convey how you feel, but typically fails to arouse emotion in the listener.

One of the most effective ways to evoke emotion is to invite listeners into your world by allowing them to “watch” a story unfolding. Compare the two lyrics below and note which one makes you feel something.

Lyric 1
I’m sad and lonely without you
I never knew a heart could hold so much pain
All I have is hurt and regret
I’d give anything if only you would love me again

I wish I could go back in time
To when our love was new
Cause I miss you more than words can say
And I hope you feel it, too

Lyric 2
Last night I woke up from a dream at 2 a.m.
Watched the cold, gray shadows cross this empty bed
A sliver of moon shone softly through the curtains
To the tear-stained pillow where you used to lay your head

I stumbled to the closet – pulled on your Titans T-shirt
And breathed a memory of summer in the scent of your hair
Then I fell to my knees and said, “God if you’re listening,
Answer this heartbroken lover’s prayer”

Lyric 2 never stated how the writer feels; it never said, “I’m lonely, I’m sad, I miss you, I’m hurting.” Instead of reporting the songwriter’s feelings, action, images, and detail were used to “show” the scene, as if it were a video. You were able to surmise the writer’s feelings from the actions that unfolded in the lyric, and more importantly, you felt the emotions the writer strove to evoke.

Incorporating action, imagery, and detail in your verse lyrics is virtually mandatory for success in the current country music market; it forms the foundation of today’s Music Row hits. But a look at some of the best lyrics in songs by artists such as Katy Perry, TobyMac, Kanye West, Guy Clark, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, and others will reveal that this technique is used in some of the most successful songs in a wide variety of genres.

An easy acronym to remind you to use this tool is, AID:
A (action/verbs)
I (images/nouns)
D (detail/adjectives)

Note that most often, the function of the chorus is to present a summation of the concept, and to hammer home the title. The “story” is most often told in the verses. Not every song will necessarily tell a story, but this is a crucial tool to master and have in your toolbox regardless of the style in which you write.

3. Failure to support the song’s title

Ideally, the title is the heart of a song – the focus – and every line of lyric will contribute to leading your listener to the title. When we hear the title, it should be satisfying because it is the organic result of the lines that preceded it. Verse lyrics that neither support nor logically lead listeners to the title tend to leave listeners unsatisfied.

You can avoid this pitfall by being certain to include phrases and imagery that have a clear connection to the title. Notice that in the example below, the first lyric fails to support or lead to the title, “War Of Hearts.” The second example benefits from phrases that relate to – and direct the listener to – the title.

Lyric 1
Please don’t say it’s over
Cause it’s tearing me apart
Once you were my angel
Now we’re in a WAR OF HEARTS

Lyric 2
Accusations rain like bullets
And they’re tearing us apart
Let’s surrender our weapons
In this WAR OF HEARTS

The first example fails to include any words or phrases related to “war.” The second example incorporates the words bullets, surrender, and weapons to lead to and support the title.

It can help to create a lyric palette – a list of words and phrases that relate to the title – that you can choose from and incorporate into your lyric. For the title “War of Hearts,” a lyric palette might include words and phrases that relate to war, such as battle, wounds, land mines, casualty, fallen soldiers, assault, white flag, battleground, peace, guns, bombs, attack, combat, and fight. If a lyric is written prior to deciding on a title you can go back during the rewriting process and add supporting words and phrases.

By using this tool you can effectively set up your title and add to its emotional impact. But careful not to overuse it or the result can seem contrived.

4. A redundant second verse

Imagine reading a terrific first chapter of a book, then eagerly turning to chapter two, only to find that the second chapter has essentially restated the information you’d already learned in chapter one. You’d be disappointed, and if this pattern continued, you’d stop reading the book. To hold your listeners’ interest, your songs need to develop and progress.

Many developing songwriters fail to bring new information into their second verses. An easy way to find your second verse is to answer: “Then what happened?” or “What else happened?”

By answering one of these questions, you will be ensuring your second-verse lyric advances the narrative and does not repeat the information already expressed.

5. Settling for “pretty good”

One of the biggest songwriting pitfalls I observe is the failure to use fresh, original images, or find new ways to express a messages. It’s easy to settle for a “pretty good,” serviceable line of lyric – but predictable, unexceptional lyrics won’t rise above the competition.

Leonard Cohen purportedly filled a notebook with 80 verses before choosing the strongest for his modern-day classic “Hallelujah.” I’m not suggesting that every writer writes eighty verses for each song. But it’s self-defeating to believe that the very first thing that pops into your mind, or comes out of your pen, is such sheer perfection that not even one word could possibly be improved.

The solution: rewriting. My entire career is based on having rewritten (and re-demoed) the same song seven times, at the request of an excellent publisher who refused to allow me to settle for less than my best work. That seventh rewrite led to my first chart single – which subsequently led to signing a staff-writing deal, and every milestone in my career. What if I had decided I’d had enough after the third rewrite? What if after the fifth or sixth I had said, “I like it the way it is. What does this jerk know anyway?”

When you’ve completed a draft of a lyric, look it over, one line at a time. Put a check mark next to the lines you are truly proud of, lyrics you know are better than “good,” lines that would make another songwriter say, “I wish I’d written that.” Then circle the lines that are predictable, mundane, “okay” lines – lines that anyone could have written or that you’ve heard before. Revisit each of those lines and explore new ways to convey those ideas until you land on “Wow!”

One amazing song will take you much farther than fifty well-crafted, “pretty good” ones.

Remember … if you don’t give publishers, artists, producers, record labels, and listeners compelling reasons to choose your songs over the competition – they won’t.

Successful lyric writing is not just about getting lucky. Luck is great, and I hope you find it, but it’s amazing how much luckier we get when we write lyrics that are truly exceptional – lyrics that rise above the pack. These tools may not necessarily come easily for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t acquire them with practice.

A staff-writer for Zomba Music since 1991, Jason Blume is one of those rare individuals to ever achieve the distinction of having songs on the Country, Pop and R & B charts – all at the same time. One of the nation’s most respected songwriting teachers, Blume presents seminars internationally and developed and teaches BMI’s Nashville Songwriters Workshops and “Demo Derby.” He has taught his songwriting techniques as a guest lecturer at UCLA and as a member of the faculty of Los Angeles’ Pierce College and Nashville’s Watkins Institute. His lessons are used by Nashville Songwriters Association International’s members throughout the U.S. and internationally.

MusicStartsHere_LogoThis article was originally published on MusicStartsHere.org. Reprinted with permission.

 

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30 thoughts on “Five lyric pitfalls to avoid when writing Country songs – or ANY songs!

  1. As we have seen over the last 75 years or more is that song writing is contemporary, generational and cultural. What works now would never have worked 10 -15 years ago. Songs that have a simple, straight forward meaning with the right beat, hook and unique sound are always money makers; but, songs that take a long time to sink in are my favorites. I love songs that are multi-interpretational. I was with friends a while back talking about “Puff the Magic Dragon”. There are still people out there that have no idea that the song is about pot. I like songs that have an entangled meaning and one so well written that it can last forever. Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel are two of the best at drawing you into their provocative lyrics.

  2. In my opinion it seems it’s best to fInd a way to communicate the passion and story in your lyrics.. the topic is up to you.. You don’t need to have a good voice but it must be in tune. so nail those intervals and try to follow some decent part writing in order to create certain musical ideas along with what you are singing.. If you understand jazz theory then maybe you can substitute a certain chord to create a cool bass line or some other musical gymnastics.. I think that’s where the Beatles were lucky to have Sir George Martin fill in their songs with interesting arrangements and orchestration which none of the young bucks could do as easily..

  3. Thanks for the “distance” that your article gave me. I’ve been working on a one particular song for over ten years now. I think that it’s almost emerged, fully pure now? I’m going to test it out with your five rules and hear how it stands up. Fascinating work!
    Cheers, Robin

  4. Yikes!!! The writing examples that the author holds up here as “good” is the typical mumbo jumbo lyric crap that (after they find out you’re a musician) you get from people who don’t play an instrument and can’t sing but fancy themselves a “songwriter” and want YOU to put their masterpiece to music. ” pulled on your Titans T-shirt
    And breathed a memory of summer” ? Good Lord! I’d be embarrased to claim that lyric as my own.

    Write from your heart and your gut and you’ll get it right. Avoid this sort of dribble!

      1. So, who do I listen to? The staff writer at Zomba who has had charting success? Or the nobodies in the comment section who haven’t achieved jack sh*t. Wow…that’s a hard choice.

    1. I think the intent was to make the example blaringly obvious to someone who might be a tad slow on the uptake. And let’s face it, there are a lot of listeners out there that just don’t get “subtle”.

      Having said that I’m glad it’s not just me finding it hard to appreciate the examples.

  5. I write songs and poems as a hobby. I’ve been doing this for years and I’m quite old now, but still enjoy it. When I write a song, it just seems to come out of me along with a tune. I can’t play guitar that well, but I can play the tunes that I write (note by note). I usually tell people that I’m an idea man, not a songwriter. My songs are more old style country, but I guess some could be considered just novelty songs. I did co-write a song with a friend who is a lot better songwriter than I am, but I’m the one who came up with the idea and a lot of the verses. I also told him to make it a country waltz. He’s a good singer and guitar player as well as a good songwriter. He contributed some lyrics, the bridge, and the music.
    I think these articles are good, but for me, I don’t expect that anyone would be interested in what I write other than family and friends. I just enjoy writing poems and songs. And, I’ll keep reading these articles ’cause maybe some of it will rub off on me.

  6. Great advice, maybe, if you’re looking to be commercially successful. But, to the true artists……….be yourself and do your thing. There is an audience out there that LOVES that and LOATHES what the radio stations play in regular rotation. There’s an audience for all music. Don’t let the market dictate your creativity. If everybody followed the rules would we have ever had the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, or Nirvana? For me personally, I love to listen to new music from trailblazers rather than those that try to fit the mold of what commercial radio wants to play. Be yourself, write in your style, and maybe you could be the next big thing from outta nowhere.

  7. I am skeptical of formulas and rules for writing, there are so many of them out there, and they so often conflict. Thanks for the opinions, some of them may be useful guidance to a certain population of songwriters (including me). Pick and choose what serves you!

  8. If you are dead set on making music a career, then you should follow this advice. Polish up your lyrics. However, if you look at your music as an outlet to share with others (and just maybe something comes from it ), by all means, do what the voices in your head tell you to. Seek critical advice from those you can trust to give you the right critical advice if you are stuck.. At one point I knew I had a pretty good song (Steppin Forward). So, I visited a Broadjam panel in NYC a while back. Panelist gave me some good advice(too much repetition in the chorus). I looked at it (he made sense), so I changed it up a bit. Got another reviewer from TAXI to look at my song called “Gift you gave me”. From the write up I could tell she was a young girl. She liked the song but wondered what the gift was. Well, I can’t give everything away in a song. I wanted to reply “Well, the b1tch left. That was the gift”). IMPORTANT – Get advice from others just be selective in where you get it.

    There is an audience out there for everyone, Music is pretty diverse. There is nothing more important to me now in these times than making and playing music. Also, it’s a great constructive talent to pass down to your kids.

    This article suggests on how it should be done. It is worth the attention. However, what feels right to you? I don’t think Kurt Cobain cared one lick about what others thought. He was pissed and he showed it. Sucked everyone else in. Let the music be what you want it to be. I have always felt you should write for yourself first. You should be able to listen to your own music in the car and enjoy it. Egotistical – Hell yeah!

    As to point 4, I am pretty sure there have been some pretty successful artists that repeat their verses (Nirvana?). If the melody kicks @$$, the audience will go down that path again with you.

    Happy music-making!

  9. Horrible article. Think of all the REAL hits that do not follow this formula. REM had quite the career, for instance, not writing like this. Also, what musician purposely chooses to write music about stuff that doesn’t express how they feel? Who writes about stuff that isn’t personal to themselves? And since when is it not ok to write about personal introspection or the events in one’s life directly? Alanis Morrissette, anyone? For christ’s sake, the aforementioned Taylor Swift doesn’t even follow this guy’s formula… how many hits does she have writing directly about her many failed relationships? And for the record, album sales pale in comparison to critical acclaim for REAL ARTISTS. As a guitarist, I’d much rather have the respect of my peers – Satriani, Vai, Lynch, Beach and the like – than sell millions of records to fans who don’t actually understand my music or music in general. After-all, I don’t do this for them… I do it for ME. If other people like it, then that’s ok too. Why did music ever get away from the artist (the one who CREATES ART), and get strictly into tha hands of the marketeering puppet masters?

  10. Pretty good advice, but the truth is, every genre on the radio is dominated by songs that just aren’t that good. The best songs rarely get on the radio. Why is that? It’s the audience. Mediocre, predictable and unoriginal is what sells.

  11. Good comments.

    I’ve noticed recently the separation of the lyric intent from the musical backing too often on pop, country and rock songs, more recently it appears to have increased.

    John Lennon noted a similar vibe with the early Beatle works compared to (some) of the latter.
    Example: words and music for Long and Winding Road.
    vs Most any track from their first or second album.

    It is educational to listen to an instrumental version of a song you know and emotionally connect to, then sing your vocal over it, then compare to the original.

    Freddie Mercury (love him or hate him) was truly one of the greats at emotional connection. So was Sinatra in his genre.

    Some times I’ll go renegade and do the opposite of the emotional intent with the lyrics.

  12. This is why I tell people to never take songwriting classes. The author of this article states “the goal of effective songwriting is communication”. I say he is wrong. The #1 goal should always be to write something great. By this I mean write something that you think is great. If you are bogging yourself down worrying about if this will be communicated to the average bozo music listener, if it will sell, etc you will NEVER write anything great.

    The radio is filled with dreck so stop trying to add to it by following insipid format rules such as those listed by this author. Case in point under item #3 (Failure To Support the Song’s Title) the author gives us two choices, the second containing a horrid set of cringe-worthy metaphors. Of course he uses that second set of lyrics as an example of what you should write. Need I say more?

    1. Amen. I believe the goal of effective songwriting is to make your audience feel something. Great art makes you feel something, that’s what it boils down to.

  13. Good article with sound advice. Suggestion for next article may incorporate how to best meld the musical side of the song. Lyric is very important but even the best lyrics won’t connect without a well matched catchy tune with a unique hook. Glad to see reference to the great Leonard Cohen vs earlier refs to pop stars like Taylor Swift, Kanye, Katy Perry, etc. Certainly not the lyrical pinnacles I care to emulate in any of my own singer/songwirter compositions.

  14. Great article. Thank you!
    Once written what can I do with a song? Who can I send it to? What would be the next step? Would there be an article about the next steps to take?
    GC

  15. I thought this was an excellent article. It was very informative… It had actual useful advice that I could use. I’m primarily a visual artist, but I also write poetry and song lyrics. With the hope that these lyrics will be put to music.
    I play guitar, but think, sometimes, that someone else may do a better job, due to my playing limitations.
    I do this just for my own enrichment/need, but still want to do the best I can. So…thanks for the arrival.
    Paula from Durham, CT

  16. Great article, very informative! I am actually an instrumental guitarist, focusing on Latin and contemporary music but I do write instrumental music occasionally and have played country music in the past. I like to read about all aspects of the industry. I also think that the guidelines that apply to lyric writing can also apply to composing instrumental music and in particular, soloing. I try to establish my setting, take it out a bit and then bring it home again.
    So, thanks for the good read!
    Tom

  17. I would love to be a music critic. The gentleman mentioned he listen to 8k songs in 20 years. Really that is a small#. I can tell after 1 minute if the song has a chance.

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