Stars Reveal Their First Songwriting Epiphany

“God Gives Every Man One Great Hound” Was Lee Brice's

Lee Brice, who is nominated for single of the year at Wednesday night’s (Nov. 4) CMA Awards for “I Don’t Dance,” has really been honing his craft since he was 11.

That was when he wrote his first truly great song. It was called “God Gives Every Man One Great Hound.” He told me about it on the red carpet at the BMI Country Awards on Tuesday night, when I asked him and all the other singers and songwriters there and at the ASCAP Awards one question: “What was the first song you wrote that made you think, ’I could make a living at this’?”

(This is part one of two, because I talked to a lot of songwriters.)

Lee Brice

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“When I was 11, I wrote a song called ‘God Gives Every Man One Great Hound,’ for my daddy’s hunting dog Train who’d passed away. Then when I was 12, I wrote ‘Fall.’ Then one called ‘Sandy Beaches.’ I was in school talent shows, and I didn’t know that you were supposed to sing other people’s songs. I thought if I’m gonna sing, I better write some songs. So I’d do my original songs, put a cowboy hat on, and go out there just me and my guitar. I won it six years in a row, with a different song every year.”

Dierks Bentley

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“You can’t tell how bad your first songs suck, because your friends and family all tell you it’s a good song. Then you actually play it for real songwriters and they give you criticism, like, ‘It took too long to get to the chorus’ or ‘I didn’t get the hook.’ Then you realize you’re not that good. But I appreciated that honesty. When you first start writing songs, they’re all typed up on paper and they’re in a clear sheet. Because you’re protecting the lyric. You’re so precious with your song. For anyone to critique it, that felt like the beginning of many long doses of reality.”

Maddie & Tae’s Maddie Marlow

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“Writing ‘Downside of Growing Up’ meant the most to me. That was a song I just needed to write. I was homesick, I was 14 hours away from home. We never got to see our families. I’m proud of how vulnerable that song is. Both of us were going through struggles, so I would listen to it to get me through the day.”

Cole Swindell

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“I’d written some OK songs in college, but it was when I got to Nashville that I wrote one called ‘Country Boy Can.’ That got Luke (Bryan)’s ear, and it was right after he’d recorded his second album. He told me, ‘Man, I would’ve put that on my album.’ Even if he didn’t mean it, it made me feel so good. I am so hard on myself, so it’s a personal thing to share songs with people.”

Cam

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“One of the first songs I wrote ended up on Miley CyrusBangerz album in 2013. It was called ‘Maybe You’re Right.’ And when that album went platinum, and people were coming to me even from other countries and telling me what that song meant to them, I was like, ‘Wow, that was just me being me, and it was such an honest version of myself, and it connected with so many people because of that.’ I wrote ‘Burning House’ around the same time, and really all the songs on my album are ones that I cling to and edit and pick at them and sprinkle them with goodness.”

Ashley Gorley

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“I grew up loving music, was a little bit of an MTV junkie, and I wanted to be a spinning dance club DJ. That was my plan. So when I wrote a song for Carrie Underwood, ‘Don’t Forget to Remember Me,’ one of my co-writers called me later that day and they had to tell me it was good. Because I wasn’t really sure. I needed people to tell me it was good. Something just started clicking after that. It came a little easier, and I got a better radar on what to keep and what to not keep. What makes a good writer into a great writer is to know when to stop on a bad song.”

Michael Ray

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“I started writing in middle school, and my dad said my songs were good. They probably weren’t, but that gave me the confidence to keep going. When I first started coming to Nashville at 18, and meeting songwriters I looked up to, I wrapped my head around the songwriting world. I was like, ‘I can make a living doing this? This is something I can do more of.’ Then when someone who doesn’t know you at all goes, ‘Hey I like this,’ then it’s not like your grandma telling you it’s a nice song.”

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