How Songwriters Know When a Hit Is a Hit (Part One)

Songs Must Pass Morning-After Test

Chris Young knows he might have a hit song on his hands if he still loves it the day after he wrote it.

When Young and I caught up at the ASCAP Country Music Awards in Nashville during CMA Awards week, he told me the morning-after test is usually a good indication a song will mean something to his fans.

“When I wake up with a fresh mind and listen to it one time, that’s usually when I know,” Young said of the telltale moment. “With ’Tomorrow,’ I woke up the next day and thought, ’I think I love this.’ Until I get away from it and come back, I don’t know if I love it. But I never write anything off. I never give up too easily.”

After Young and I had that talk, I asked all the songwriters I saw at the ASCAP and the BMI awards how and when they knew they were on to something big.

Jake Owen: “If it goes from your guitar to your heart and back to the guitar again. If it hits you like that. If it connects with you.”

Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus: “For me, it’s the goose bump factor. When you sit there and you sing the chorus — and then you look at each other and everybody has the hair standing up on their arms — then everybody knows you’ve stumbled onto something.”

Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox: “For me, it’s after we’ve demoed it. If I listen to an acoustic demo, and we get emotional even after spending an entire day writing it. After you hear the final product, and you go, ’Wow. I don’t know what that was, but I’m glad I was a part of it.'”

Hunter Hayes: “I kind of love the cluelessness of it. That’s why I have to write 80 songs to get five. With ’Storm Warning,’ I didn’t even want to play it for my management because I thought it was too weird. I thought it was too quirky. I like not knowing and just writing.”

Angaleena Presley: “I just get a feeling like this one came from a higher power. Or like this one’s gonna make someone cry. Or that this one tells a story. That’s when I think I know.”

Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard: “To be honest, I don’t know if you ever know. But I guess the hit meter for us should be how many days we continue to play it after we wrote it. Like when we’re riding around in our truck to see if we get tired of it.”

Editor’s note: See part two of Alison’s songwriting investigation.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.