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

Truck and Bus Tests Help Suss Out the Keepers

You already know that when I was in Nashville for CMA Awards week, I pestered artist after artist about how to write a hit song. (I know, I know. If there was an instruction manual, we’d all be doing it — and we’d all be stupid rich with royalties.)
Still, there has to be some moment or some epiphany you have as a songwriter when your gut tells you that the words you just wrote down on that cocktail napkin could one day win you a song of the year award. Right?
That’s what I asked the songwriters I chatted with at the ASCAP Country Music Awards and the BMI Country Awards.
Dierks Bentley: “Some songs feel like big hits from the beginning. But the most odd songs, like ‘I Hold On,’ wasn’t even a song. I was just thinking about my dad passing away and the road trip we took out here and why I still drive that truck. And we ended up writing a hit song. Something just snapped.”
Thomas Rhett: “After I hear the demo, if I listen to it three times in my truck and feel the same intensity all three times, I know it’s a hit song.”
Cole Swindell: “I would like to say I know a good song when I hear it, but when I’m writing, there’s just something inside of you when you know. It’s that feeling when you’re more fired up than you’ve ever been. It’s all gut. And you gotta go with your instinct.”
Rascal Flatts’ Joe Don Rooney: “The best songs can be sung with just a piano but can completely rock somebody. If a song has great depth, great melody and a great hook, you don’t need all that production. If you can blow people’s minds with an acoustic song, that’s when you know you have something special.”
Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley: “On one of our buses, when we play a demo, if we turn it up to a certain level, it just cuts out. And I know it sounds crazy, but our tests have shown that if the sound’s messed up on the bus, it will go on to be a hit.”
Justin Moore: “A lot of times, you write one that you don’t think is any good, but everyone else likes it, and then you see it work out on the road. It was like that with ‘Til My Last Day.’ I liked it, but I didn’t love it until I cut it and started playing it live.”
Dustin Lynch: “For me, it’s all about the melody. Is it infectious? Or am I going to get tired of it? I start there, and then let the words fall into place.”
Kip Moore: “I’ve only had that feeling one time — without a shadow of a doubt — that I was on to something special. That was with ‘Hey Pretty Girl.’ I knew if that if that song ever got heard, it was gonna work.”

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