When I meet a new artist for the first time, one of the questions I always ask is, “What’s a song you wish you’d written?” It helps me gauge the artist’s roots, and tells me whether or not we will be the same page.
So in walks Matt Stell. And right away, he tells me that he has a long list of those songs he wishes he’d written. These are his top two:
Deana Carter’s 1996 hit ”Strawberry Wine”
“It’s the best song ever written. I play it every time I play. That time in a person’s life is so formative, so I remember vividly that line about ’my first taste of love.’ That’s when you are learning what love is and what it isn’t. I still remember every word now, as an adult. It’s just such a perfect song.”
Thomas Rhett’s 2017 ballad “Marry Me”
“This one just hits you with that bridge, about hiding out in the back, drinking whiskey out the flask, and how her dad ain’t the only one giving her away. It’s such a monster song.”
We went on to talk about other obscure song favorites we had in common: Tim McGraw’s “How Bad Do You Want It,” Jamey Johnson’s “Lonely at the Top,” Trent Tomlinson’s “One Wing in the Fire,” and Jana Kramer’s “I Got the Boy.” That whole conversation told me everything I needed to know about the singer-songwriter behind “Prayed For You.”
More importantly, that kind of love for powerful lyrics is what Stell brings with him into songwriting sessions in Nashville. “The first song I remember writing was ’Sheepskin Road’ about where I grew up. But when you get to Nashville, writers say, ’Don’t tell me. Show me.’ It’s a craft,” he said. “Creating music is an exercise in humility. It’s like, ’You don’t like this song? Here’s a guitar. Have at it.’ So that changes the way you listen to other people’s songs. That’s why lyrics are so important, and why they matter in a different way in country music. The narrative is one of the only things that makes a song country anymore.”
As for his own breakout single, he told me it has some pretty universal truths and feelings about love. “I’ve had such a charmed life,” Stell admitted, “so it’s hard for me to not think that surely someone is responsible for this. And yet, I’m not that guy — the church pew regular, quote-you-the-scripture kind — but I’m still a believer. Stell wrote the song with Ash Bowers and Allison Veltz, and the newly engaged Savannah Chrisley and Nic Kerdiles star in the video together.
Just last year, Stell was named to the CMT Artist Discovery program.