written by Autumn Marie Buysse
For this new OMG! I’m A Songwriter article series, I wanted to highlight a music creative that’s rarely featured in articles: pure writers. I’ll be using this term, “pure writer,” to refer to songwriters who write for artists, instead of for their own artist project. While many artists like Meghan Trainor and Julia Michaels double as artists and pure writers, for the sake of this series, I’ll be spotlighting creatives who pretty much exclusively write songs for other people.
I couldn’t think of anyone better to kick off this series than Downtown Music Publishing’s Andy Albert. If you’ve heard Blake Shelton’s “She’s Got A Way With Words,” Mitchell Tenpenny’s “Truck I Drove In High School,” Dustin Lynch’s “Good Girl,” HARDY’s “REDNECKER,” or Devin Dawson’s “Dark Horse,” you’ve rocked out to one of his creations.
I sat down for breakfast with Andy at Hillsboro’s Fido to learn more about how he became a pure writer, the craft of songwriting, and his opinions on the music industry and country music.
I’ll get into Andy’s songwriting beliefs in the second half of this article, but first, you’ve got to see how he got here. Andy grew up in Roswell, Georgia, about 40 minutes north of Atlanta, and in eighth grade, he picked up his mom’s guitar and started teaching himself how to play. He started bands in high school, and at the end of high school, he started recording his own songs, making records in his buddies’ attics. Once he graduated, he moved to North Carolina to major in economics and entrepreneurship at Wake Forest University, but dropped out Junior year to tour as the frontman and songwriter of his band, Holiday Parade. The band became a finalist for a MySpace battle of the bands and consequently won a bunch of free PR from morning shows and radio stations. Holiday Parade used this momentum to start touring regionally, which led to selling over 300,000 iTunes digital downloads, and then touring internationally. Holiday Parade even did three tours in Japan, and signed a deal with Japanese record label. The band ran its course though, and shortly after, Andy met Dan Smyers.
Andy’s journey is full of crazy coincidences— one of the wildest being how he met Dan Smyers, long before Dan was opposite to Shay. Andy met Dan in Jacksonville Florida, when Dan was on the road with Cassadee Pope’s punk rock band. Shortly after, Dan and Andy met up one night and each started playing new music they were working on. Andy was still living in Georgia at the time, and Dan was in Pennsylvania, so they flew between Atlanta and Pittsburgh, co-writing and recording alternative rock songs reminiscent of bands like Matchbox Twenty, Augustana, and the Foo Fighters. They became too obsessed with co-writing to stay where they were, but they were too broke to move to LA, so they both agreed to move to Nashville instead, since it was the only big city they could afford. Neither of them were focused on country music yet— they were still trying to figure out what they wanted to make. While they got close to signing a deal a couple times, nothing ever really panned out.
Andy was driving Ubers, bussing tables, and trying to squeeze in writes every night with his roommate Justin Richards, the guitarist for Dan + Shay. Back then, Andy could only write two or three times a week, so he had to make every song count. Getting your writing schedule together is everything. “If you’re in better rooms, more will come from it.” Andy had shifted to writing mostly country at this point, and caught his break when ASCAP introduced him to Steve Markland at Downtown Music Publishing. At the time, Downtown was just getting going in Nashville, and they didn’t even have an office yet, so their first meeting was at ASCAP. The two of them hung out for two hours, swapped stories and playing songs. At the end of the two hours, Steve offered Andy a publishing deal.
Once Andy got the chance to pursue writing full time, he fell in love with the craft of a great country song: the storytelling, the linear nature of the lyric, and the ability to distill complex ideas into simple language. A great country song is “written to appeal to everybody, it’s lowest common denominator, but not in a negative way. It can appeal to the “simplest person out there and the smartest person out there, it touches everybody.”
Andy believes that “first and foremost, [a great country song] has to have a great melody, something simple, something memorable, something that reflects the tone of the lyric in the music.” Having an incredible, fitting melody isn’t enough though, because “in order for it to be timeless, it also has to have a great lyric . . . for the lyric to hit people, something about it has to grab their attention, whether it’s a turn of phrase or a cool rhyme or something to make it sizzle or something that just makes it connect on a level, or else it’s just gonna be another cool catchy song.”
Andy tries to leave his Fridays free for last minute revision writes, and last minute weekends trips going on the road with artists. It’s one of his favorite things to do, because he can “really get in their headspace,” and “when you’re out there for four days or five days at a time, you start to understand what their live set is missing.” Being able to watch an artist’s live set allows Andy to identify what kind of feel their setlist is missing. Andy pays attention to what the audience responds to— for example, if there’s a cover in particular that the audience loves, he might want to write a song with the artist that resembles that energy. When he’s profiling the audience and gauging their reactions, he picks out one specific person in the crowd to watch. “Alright, this guy in this row, I would watch him stand there with his arms crossed for these songs, but this song, he would look over, he would nod, and start headbanging and singing along. When we’re writing the next day, I’ll think about that exact guy, like would he like this song we’re trying to create right now, or would this just be another song he crosses his arms to . . . that really helps cut through to the next level and fill the gaps in the artist’s catalog, which is the goal at any point in time.”
Andy wrote his first #1 song on the road with Dustin and Justin Ebach in February of 2018. “Good Girl” was the third and final song the three of them wrote on that trip. Since they all thought the second song they’d written was the smash of the weekend, this final write was more of a victory lap which took the pressure off, and as Andy says, “that’s when the magic usually happens.” Andy pitched the “Good Girl” title and turn of phrase, and even though Carrie Underwood already had a song with that title, Dustin was sold. Justin improvised a chord progression on the keys, and the song was written in about an hour and a half. “If you can ease off the gas a little bit, that’s usually when the coolest, most creative, most fun ideas come out.”
Jon Loba, the president of Broken Bow, surprised Dustin by coming to his show that night, and when John heard them play “Good Girl” on the bus afterwards, he was hooked. A couple weeks later, the three writers got back together to re-write some of the second verse and some lines in the chorus. Almost exactly a year later, the song hit #1 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay.
Andy’s had a part in writing countless songs that’ll stop you in your tracks, but my personal favorite is HARDY’s “REDNECKER.” Two years ago, Andy was invited on a skiing/writing retreat in Colorado, hosted annually by Jimmy Bell and Seth Ennis. The artists, writers, and producers would ski everyday, and then write songs and hang out every night in a huge Winterpark cabin. A couple weeks before the retreat, Andy, Jordan Schmidt, James McNair and HARDY had written a song called “Redneck On.” Jordan was supposed to finish the demo and send it to the writing crew after the session, but with all the insanity of the holiday season, he’d been too busy. When they got to the cabin, HARDY and Andy begged Jordan to play the demo. As much as they loved the song, Andy thought the track was too hip hop leaning, and asked Jordan, “dude that’s really sick, but is there any way you could make it a little rednecker?” HARDY’s face lit up like Andy had never seen it before. It was one in the morning and they didn’t have a guitar, so HARDY just started spitting bars. Two hours later, they’d written an entire song lyric and were laughing hysterically. The next morning, they told the other guys on the retreat that they’d written a ridiculous song and read it to them, with lines like “My town's smaller than your town/And I got a bigger buck and bass on my wall” and “I piss where I want to/And I fish where I swim.” To their surprise, everyone on the retreat lost their minds. It wasn’t until a couple months later in March that the three of them got back together again to actually write a melody to the lyric and build a track. This anthemic chorus and relentlessly clever lyric became HARDY’s first single.
In Andy’s experience, the “REDNECKER” writing process is a good example of how co-writers decide on a song idea. Once the actual writing starts, artists vary— some are very hands on, while others like to sit back and listen to what’s going on in the room, cherrypicking their favorite moments from which the writers can then build a song around. “I like to get inside the artist’s headspace: what they’re thinking about, what they’re living right now, what they’re going through, and try to tap into something that’s real for them, so when we write a song and they’re singing it, they’re singing it from the heart, and not just singing the melody and the words we wrote that day.” Tapping into the artist’s emotions means that the artist gets “more connected with the track and they’re more likely to cut it, and then when they’re singing it, it evokes more emotion out of the listener.”
There’s few people that understand artists better than pure writers, so I asked Andy for his opinion on what separates a good artist from a great artist. Immediately, Andy said that with great artists, their writing comes from the heart, “it’s noticeable, as a listener we can pick that out pretty easily.” When artists are willing to open up, their material will connect with fans on a deeper level. It also means something when an artist is truly devoted to their fans. For artists like Dustin Lynch and Granger Smith, their fans are everything to them, and when they’re writing, they’re consciously trying to make sure the song will resonate with their fanbase. When Andy and Dan were a duo, Dan would spend hours straight responding to every tweet and comment from a fan, to make sure their fans knew he cared.
As incredible as Andy’s successes have been, the music industry can get on creatives’ nerves sometimes. I asked Andy what annoys him most about the industry, to which he replied “everything takes so fricken long.” Because of radio politics, it takes months, sometimes even a year, for a single to climb the charts. “In this day in age of consumption on Spotify, what song is its most popular a year after it comes out? Especially for a major artist with a fanbase and traction behind it, that doesn’t make sense to me. If the radio is truly trying to reflect the listeners’ enthusiasm, if it’s a listener driven thing, it would be so much quicker and work more like pop. It’d come out, go #1 for six weeks, sit there for 12 weeks, and then drop off.” Not only do writers have to wait months to see if their song will hit #1, but they also wait months and months after that to get paid from the radio airplay. However, as aggravating as it can be to wait so long to see how a song reacts, “it’s nice to have a song on the charts for a year, because you’re racking up spins that whole time.” Therefore, Andy says “it’s all about setting irons in the fire and working on the next big thing . . . you’ll drive yourself crazy watching the charts and waiting on holds.”
Andy thinks that country music is in a really exciting position right now, “things are moving towards a more emotionally driven place than they have been for the past ten years.” Andy loves bro country as much as everyone, but “the bar is being raised writing-wise and emotionally . . . it’s challenging me to dig deeper every day . . . when we’re in the room, everybody’s trying to find the bigger but simpler idea.” Unfortunately, “country music doesn’t get as much synch placement as pop, indie, singer-songwriter, and other formats, so it’s important for us to be writing something that will connect on a national FM radio deal, just in order to pay our bills and pay off our draw and everything else.” While country music is still pretty beholden to radio, streaming’s allowing some artists to push the envelope. With radio, the programmers are in charge of what people listen to, but with streaming, consumers can choose to listen to exactly what they love. “Streaming opens the door for a truly great song that’s not catered and trimmed and tailored for FM radio.” Diverse playlists and crossover hits are helping introduce listeners to country music. For example, when “10,000 Hours” was released, it was displayed on the Spotify profile pages for both Justin Bieber and Dan + Shay, which exposed more listeners to country music and multiplied streams.
I hope that learning more about Andy’s story and process has given you more insight into the incredible contributions of the writers behind the scenes. To listen to more of Andy’s work or catch him at a writers round, you can follow him at @andrewalbert on Instagram.