The Songwriter Q&A with (Ashley Gorley)

All He Wanted Was to See His Name in Parentheses

There are a lot of things country songwriter Ashley Gorley never dreamed about. He didn’t ever want to be a celebrity, he didn’t even want to rub elbows with celebrities, he didn’t want to perform in front of fans, and he certainly didn’t want to see his name in lights.

He just wanted to see his name in parentheses.

That’s what Gorley told me when we caught up right after he earned his 50th No. 1 country song, and right before he was headed into yet another songwriting session. We talked about the hits, obviously, but we also talked about some of the first songs he wrote. The ones that weren’t official chart toppers, but still put him right where he wanted to be.

“I got my publishing deal really early, but even after that, it took me seven years to have a top 40 hit. So I had to practice for a while. And even with the first song I had a country artist cut — Joanna Janét’s ’Since I’ve Seen You Last’ — it didn’t crack the top 40 for whatever reason. But it was one of those times I remember turning on CMT, seeing the video, hearing it on the radio a couple of times, and seeing it on the actual Billboard chart. I always loved charts and countdowns and things like that. So to have a song on there and see my name in those parentheses,” Gorley told me about that song from 2002, “that was awesome.”

His name has been in hundreds of parentheses since, most notably after the title of one of Carrie Underwood’s first big hits “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” off her 2005 debut album Some Hearts.

Since that No. 1, Gorley’s had songwriting credits on 49 other country No. 1 songs, with LOCASH’S “One Big Country Song” being his latest. That makes Gorley the first songwriter in country music to reach 50 No. 1s — and actually the first songwriter in any genre to earn 50 No. 1s — in the history of the Mediabase and Billboard Airplay charts.

On top of that, his accolades include being named Billboard Country Songwriter of the Year four times, NSAI Songwriter of the Year three times, ACM Songwriter of the Year nominee eight times, and ASCAP Songwriter of the Year seven times. Obligatory songwriter question: Do you remember the very first country song you wrote?

Well, I grew up in the country in Kentucky. So I understood what country songs were about. But I was really enamored with pop music, MTV, hip-hop, and 90s R&B. And then as time went on, from when I was 16 through when I moved to Nashville, I started to put away the production equipment and the drum machines and focus on the melody and lyric. That’s when I just became a country music junkie. And when I was at Belmont University, I wrote a terrible country song — like a wanna-be Diamond Rio song — called “Promise Land.” One of the singers at Belmont needed a song for a showcase, so I went to my room, wrote the song, and gave it to him. He’s like, “I love it.” Then he sang it and it won the contest. And as the crowd was clapping, and I was like, “Okay, this is weird.”

So did that first song teach you the secret to writing a song that gets that kind of reaction? Or do hit songs just fall out of the sky for you?

They do not fall out of the sky. I don’t think anybody’s that lucky. I mean, every now and then one does, but you still gotta know how to catch it. The people I always studied, like the Craig Wisemans, guys like that came in early and were the last to leave every day. And I noticed that the people who did that had the most hits. And the people you saw every now and then only had hits every now and then. So I always had that same work ethic. So I don’t think there is a secret, but it’s more like a book of secrets: some of them are mysteries and some of them you can teach. Like that the song doesn’t have to be over just because you run out of time at the end of the day.

Well, even if you don’t share the secret, you’ve obviously figured it out. But it’s not just that you’re good at what you do, I’ve heard you say that you love what you do. And that you love the process of songwriting. So what is your process?

I’m very all over the place, and I have to have two or three things happening at the same time to have anything happen at all. So when I write, the melody and the lyrics come out at the same time. I love when somebody has some type of concept, and I can take it and take it to another place. I’m not stingy with ideas. But I feel an obligation to do it all: the melody, the instrumental lick, the hook, the lyric. I’ve got to be good at all those. Everything kind of inspires something. And I love that. It’s very free form and is different every day. There are some people who prefer to work off the title and some people who prefer to work with the track. I like all of it. And I like to write it in a different room every day. I like to travel to write. I like to write on the bus. I like to do writing retreats at the beach. I try to keep it fresh every day and leave some room for last-minute things to be sporadic and spontaneous.

I know that as a creative person, there’s a tendency to have some insecurities. I always worry that I won’t be able to fill up that blank sheet of paper. Do you ever worry that you’re going to run out of great song ideas?

I don’t. That sounds really weird. But it’s because I write with enough people, that I continuously surround myself with writers. As soon as I think, “Man, I got nothing today so what’s going to happen?” And it’s always proven that somebody else in the room says something amazing and inspiring and I take off running with it. I just don’t believe in writer’s block. I’m known to sit there for hours and be like, “We’re going to sit here and keep filing it off until we get something.”

Every once in a while, I hear a new country song and I’ll feel like it’s been done before. Like it’s a re-do of an old idea. But then I hear one like Sam Hunt’s “Hard to Forget” and I’m like, “How has this never been done before?”

That’s our favorite emotion in the room. When somebody says something, and I sing something, and we go, “Wait. Is that not a song?” And you look it up and there’s nothing called that. And you keep looking and digging and you’re like, “Oh my God, it isn’t.” That’s the best feeling.

So is that kind of what happened the day you wrote “Don’t Forget to Remember Me”? Do you remember that day?

I wrote that with Kelley Lovelace, and he was always one of my heroes. He brought this idea to me and Morgane Stapleton. And Kelley has just always been great at country turns of phrase, and this one sounded like it should’ve already been done before, but it hadn’t. So he had that title and I started playing that melody and mumbling things and that drives some people crazy. I process things out loud like that. I have no filter. And I will say I hadn’t had a lot of writing experience at that time. So I remember when we were done with the song, I was like, “Oh, that’s okay. I guess we did it? Is that cool?” Like, I didn’t know because I didn’t have the radar. So then Kelley called me on the way home and he was like, “Hey, that was really, really good today. I’m just letting you know. I couldn’t tell that you understood that.” And I was like, “Is it?” Then when we took it to Carrie’s camp, it just really hit home with her and her mom. And that was just magical because I actually watched American Idol in real time with my wife and friends. And I’d be like, “I have got to write a song for this girl. She’s insane.” So that was kind of the kickoff for me. That was the first instance when I thought, “Hey, I can really dream this into existence and get songs recorded by people.” I’d never met Tim McGraw or George Strait, but I could get some of these bucket-list artists and get my songs on their records. That can really happen here. That’s when I started loving Nashville. I’m not sure if that happens anywhere else, when the song really is the king.

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