Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown takes a look back on 10 years of incredible music with Decade, a weekly segment that features a modern country classic that made its greatest impact between 2010 and 2019. This week, Cam talks about her 2015 single, “Burning House.”
Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown airs at 9/8c Saturday and Sunday mornings. Here’s Cam, in her own words:
“Burning House” started for me with a personal story and it came from an experience I had dating a guy in college. He was really important to me, meant a lot to me, and our breakup wasn’t very nice on my part. I felt really bad about that.
I was going to see him at this party a few years later and I thought, “This is my chance to apologize.” Don’t know if he’s gonna want to hear it from me but I’m going to think of something great to say and let him know that I know that wasn’t the right way to handle it.
I went to bed the night before the party with all this on my mind and dreamt about this house on fire and I’m running toward it. I get there and the emergency crew and the firemen are all outside and they said, “He’s in there but you can’t go in, because the house is about to come down.”
And I’m like a superhero in my dream so I run straight in and there he is — and he’s trapped and I can’t get him out. So, instead of leaving and saving myself, I lay down next to him and put my arms around him and we die together so he doesn’t have to die alone.
It was a really heavy dream, obviously a lot of guilt there. I remember calling my co-writer Tyler Johnson, my musical brother who’s been with me through all this music, and telling him the story. He was like, “This is a song.”
He started singing back to me what I said to him and it was like, “Wow, this is amazing and we gotta make this into something.” He had this beautiful guitar part and we were recording it in front of a fireplace as we were demoing it together, so there’s pops in the background.
We sent it to Jeff Bhasker, who is my executive producer / coworker sort of guy that was the big champion of me, in the beginning especially. He heard it and said, “This is amazing,” and he said, “I have an idea for a chorus, too.” So it came together. When something is inspiring enough, and it means something enough, and it hits the right people, it lights something up in each of them. And then it comes together to make this very vulnerable, tragic song.
I know in retrospect, we’ve talked about having a visual first line and how impactful that is. But I don’t know that it was really calculated in that way. I think it’s a story and “Let me tell you this story. Last night I had this crazy dream.” It’s definitely an opening to a conversation you’re about to have.
We had a single out called “My Mistake” And it was doing all right, but not that great. We went on The Bobby Bones Show and he said, “I heard you at the Opry and you played this other song, not your single. What was that one? I really liked that.” I sang “Burning House” and it shot up the charts on iTunes.
It was like a direct reaction, an organic response. Like, “Wow! That is unreal.” A cool thing to hear, especially in those beginning moments. Artists and fans and songwriters would come up to me and say, “I remember where I was when I first heard it and I stopped.” That is a really, really good feeling.
I was living in an apartment shared with my manager and it was not a nice apartment. We were barely getting by and were holding out. I’m really glad we did, on a lot of different business decisions and contracts, because we were like, “OK, I know the potential of this, and I know where this can go, but we gotta wait till the world sees it that way before you jump into a lot of things.”
So we were definitely hustling. I was working my butt off doing radio tours and I think with “My Mistake” not hitting super-hard, when we went into “Burning House,” I had lost that glimmer of anything’s possible and I’m a star. You have that moment of, “Oh shoot, not everything is going to work out perfect.” You get nervous.
And watching it react the way it did — obviously you start to get really busy because you have a lot of stuff going on. I was 29 and I think I had a good head on my shoulders, and I had a career before this, too. But you have no clue what to expect. Nobody sits you down ahead of time and says, “So, this is what’s gonna happen to your schedule. This is what’s gonna happen to your privacy. This is how your mom’s gonna feel when you can’t call her all the time.”
It’s a lot of weird things to navigate that don’t happen to other people — and you’re going through all those. You’re still the same person, just busy running around, but you exist in a lot of people’s minds all of a sudden.
I remember it was a big discussion whether we should release [the album] in December or not, because the timing of it and the Christmas sales and blah blah blah, and it worked out really great. It did really well — and that week, or the week before, I got the Grammy nomination. I was in Vegas to do a radio show. I was sitting in the hotel and I remember being so busy that I just wanted this moment with my grapefruit to eat breakfast.
That sounds so silly but when you’re that busy and you have this moment [of downtime], it’s like, “I’m gonna set my phone down and I’m going to enjoy this grapefruit.” I sat there and I was looking at the desert, everything’s OK, and my phone was just like buzz buzz. And I was like, “Just enjoy your grapefruit.” And then finally I was like, “OK, look at your phone.” And it was like “OMG, this song got nominated for a Grammy!”
It’s not even humility, it’s like a normal work ethic to think you don’t get a Grammy until later — you work towards a Grammy. So, to have that happen so early on for that song totally blew my mind and was very validating, but also very new.
To have that happen early on for the work that I was doing, and will be doing, told me you don’t have to listen to all the logical stuff of what music is supposed to be to be successful. And for better or for worse I got the validation that you can do something that’s very unique — a ballad and vulnerable and dark and sparse and no drums — and people will respond. It shaped me and it definitely has shaped all the work I have been done since.
The further away I get from it, the more I realize how big it was. I knew it was big and I still know how much it means because I’ll sing it and it gets the same response at every show. This song still moves people. There’s a lot of great music and to say that it can stand the test of a decade and still emerge as one of the songs that people still remember and care about, it’s really cool.