Country music gets a bad rap. When it’s not utterly despised, it’s often mocked and the butt of a joke. Listeners say it all sounds alike, that it’s always about the same things and there’s no originality. Some people have even gone so far as to make parody songs about common tropes in country music including twanging guitars, cowboy hats, cutoff shorts, blue-eyed farm boys, shotguns and trucks.
And I get it. There are definitely some overused clichés in country music and not every style is going to appeal to everyone. But not every song included in the genre deserves the hate it gets, and much of it is actually quite creative.
Lyrics that come out of Nashville have always fascinated me. They’re often full of wordplay and clever wit that particularly appeals to me as a writer. I love words. It seems crazy something so simple could be full of so much meaning and purpose. I enjoy reading and hearing the creativity you can squeeze out of them, and I constantly see that done very successfully in country songwriting.
I’ve found three integral elements to a “successful country song” — it’s worth pointing out this is my opinion and doesn’t exclude other genres from using these techniques, nor does this mean they are present in every country song — however, every country song I love includes a story, a hook and a payoff. When combined correctly with a catchy melody, a hit song is bound to come.
Country songs almost always rely on a story; they’re narrative by nature. Even if you don’t listen to country music, you probably know what I’m talking about. Think about some of the most popular songs in the genre: “Love Story” by Taylor Swift retells the story of Romeo and Juliet with a modern twist, “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood recounts the vandalism of an angry ex-girlfriend who was cheated on and “You’re Still The One” by Shania Twain is a love song about a couple who beat all the odds and stay together.
The lyrics are never just fillers for the melody; they’re carefully thought out to describe a person, place or event through a cohesive story arc.
Next in the equation is the hook. This can refer to a catchy melody, but it’s usually a clever way of presenting the story — similar to an angle in journalism. The hook should be a phrase or word that encapsulates the general idea of the song. Most stories are generic — love, heartbreak, friendship, family, loss — the hook is a new way to present an overused theme. It often appears as the title of the song, although it’s not completely necessary.
Lastly — the most exciting element in my opinion — comes the payoff. This is where creativity soars and what will make me hit “replay” on my Spotify account. The payoff has to do with combining the other two elements to create a twist, clever wordplay or a surprise for the listeners.
It’s the glue that holds the song together. In order to ensure the payoff “works,” songwriters often describe “writing to the title” or “writing to the hook.” Essentially, every part of the narrative/lyrics should point toward the hook so that it creates the biggest payoff when it’s sung.
I could write about this forever, but it might be easiest to describe with real-life examples. Sam Hunt gained national popularity with his 2017 single “Body Like a Backroad” — love it or hate it, it was everywhere. But his newest single, “Hard To Forget,” is a personal lyrical favorite of mine. The story tells the classic tale of being hung up on an ex that you just can’t get out of your mind.
It works so well as a concept because it’s a universal feeling, but must be told in a new or interesting way in order to make the track stand out among similar songs. Enter the hook and payoff. “Hard to forget” is the song’s hook and title, summing up the idea of the song.
Lyrics in the song point toward this idea of someone being “hard to forget”: “I see your face in the clouds / I smell your perfume in crowds” and “It’s kinda funny how I can’t seem to get away from you / It’s almost like you don’t want me to.” At the end of the chorus, listeners finally hear the payoff of all of this setup with the line: “Aw, you’re breaking my heart / Baby, you’re playing hard to forget.”
It’s a great twist on the classic phrase “playing hard to get,” and was one of those “how has no one said this before” moments when I first heard it. All together the song, in simple terms, works. Each element plays on the last to create an “a-ha” moment where everything seems to perfectly fall into place.
To capture the listener’s attention fully, the story, hook and payoff have to be a cohesive unit. A fantastic song might even make it hard to differentiate one element from the other because it’s so “tight.”
“My Church” by Marren Morris also follows this format, although not in the exact same way. The song tells the story of a person’s love for driving with music blaring, probably one that a lot of people can relate too. The hook and payoff involve the same phrase, “my church.”
As a payoff it works because of the extended metaphor that her car is her church. Throughout the song there’s a lexical field in the lyrics pointing toward religion and sacred spaces, mixed with the story of a single person enjoying the act of driving: “I’ve cussed on a Sunday / I’ve cheated and I’ve lied,” “When Hank brings the sermon / and Cash leads the choir,” and “But I find holy redemption / when I put this car in drive.”
When we get to the end of the chorus “yeah I guess that’s my church,” all of the lyrics click into place. “My church” works as a payoff and at the same time summarizes the song the way a hook should through the extended metaphor. I find it really special the way an “ordinary” idea can be reworked into a poetic masterpiece filled with effective literary devices.
Similarly, another great example comes from the band Midland’s debut project, “On The Rocks.” “Drinkin’ Problem” describes the familiar event of going to bars as the baseline of the story. Lyrics in the verse set up the hook of a “drinkin problem”: “One more night, one more down / One more, one more round.”
The song talks about the reputation and the town talk of a person who drinks way too much. The payoff comes in the chorus of “People say I got a drinkin’ problem / but I got no problem drinking at all.” It’s the slight twist that seemingly clicks everything into place.
It’s worth noting that not every song has to use a play on words to create a successful payoff. “More Hearts Than Mine” by Ingrid Andress tells us the story of bringing home a new boyfriend or girlfriend to your parents for the first time. Andress describes everything that will happen once they get there including “We’ll probably have to sleep in separate bedrooms / Pack a shirt for church because we’ll go” and “If I bring you home to mama / I guess I better warn ya / She falls in love a little faster than I do.”
By the time we get to the hook, “if we break up I’ll be fine, but you’ll be breaking more hearts than mine,” the payoff is simple — involving families in a relationship inevitably ups the stakes. The creativity comes from finding a new way to share this idea that seems to fully encapsulate the concept in just a few words “you’ll be breaking more hearts than mine.”
The creativity in combining these elements is what truly piques my interest as a writer. It feels like a puzzle, and when done correctly you can finally see the picture. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had my headphones in, listening to a new song, and suddenly I’ll just smile and nod my head because it’s all there. While there are countless examples of songs that follow this structure, I’d recommend listening to “Redesigning Women,” “Song For Another Time” and “Space Cowboy.”
As mentioned, this method of crafting songs is not exclusive to country writing — I personally believe every great song across any genre should follow this outline — but it seems prevalent in country music, especially payoffs that involve wordplay.
Country music may be about cowboy hats, cutoff shorts or blue-eyed farm boys — but if written well it will get my attention every time.