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.

And especially in your case, looking at your list of hits, and knowing you didn't even know those artists you were writing for at the time. So it's not like you got a cut because you knew someone who knew someone. It truly is a case of the best song wins.

So true. And even songs that weren't No. 1s that I wrote for Tim McGraw, George Strait, and Randy Travis, those were ones when my mom and grandmother were freaking out. And they're like, "Oh my gosh. What were they like?" And I'd say, "I don't know. I've never met these people. They don't care about me. They don't know me." You know what I mean?

But that doesn't matter to you either, because again, what you care most about is having your name in the parentheses. Still, though, after that first No. 1, and now with your 50th No. 1, do you walk into a write with a little more swagger?

I'm not sure I have any swagger. I was just trying to see if it was something I was capable of, and there's a different type of pressure. Sometimes there's even more pressure after you write a No. 1. What it is is knowing that it can happen. It's like once you actually score X amount of points in a game, you're like, "Well, I'm capable of that so I need to do it again." Also, over the years, you cover subjects and you cover melodies and it becomes a little trickier to try to do something that you haven't done before but is also something familiar. It's the weirdest thing. That's what country music is for me. If you can hit that mark, then it usually works.

And can you tell when you've written a No. 1 song right after you finish it?

I need some time to step away from it before I can listen to it and think about it like that. I have to have that little time. And then I'm like, "Oh, this is a smash." Or like, "Oh, this sucks." The stepping away lets me be really be honest about it. The only thing I have the confidence about comes from being such a music fan and such an avid listener and appreciator of hits. I will say that I trust my instincts when it comes to a melody. And that can rub people the wrong way. You have to be pretty vocal about that. There's no right answer sometimes. Every now and then I will be like, "Hey, this is getting recorded. This is unreal. Forget it." Even halfway through the song, you can just feel it. And that's my favorite feeling.

And with your last No. 1, "One Big Country Song," did you have a feeling that that would be one big No. 1 country song when you wrote it?

We thought it would be a smash, we just didn't know who for. But when LOCASH recorded it, and they released it as a single, I was like, "This could work." And then 70,000 weeks later, they were great about really like hanging on while it climbed up the charts. You just have to really believe in a song.

What keeps you on the straight and narrow country path, knowing that you have a passion for so many other genres of music?

The lyrical box that country can play in. It's just the best, you know? The fact that you can talk about kids growing up, you can talk about your dad, you can talk about your inner struggle, you can talk about God and Jesus, or you can talk about being so heartbroken by somebody that you can't function. You know what I mean? It just seemed so honest and true, that I got so enamored with that and hooked on the fact that I can talk about these random things.

That's so true, and you don't even have to be living through those things yourself to be able to write meaningful songs about them. Right?

Right. A lot of what I do is fiction. Like I'm an actor taking on a character. And I love taking on other people's stories. When I hear those, I'm like, "That has to be a song, right?" And I'm pretty proud of anytime I can make somebody think or reflect or remember or forget, I feel like I'm doing my job. And so that's why I guess I keep getting fired up and I always want to write more and more.

And now that you've broken this record with your 50th No. 1 song, you really truly don't want to be in the spotlight? At all?

No, definitely not. I don't like that. I don't have social media. I don't like cameras. I don't do press. It all makes me so uncomfortable. And this will probably make you mad, but I can't even read any stories from the few interviews I've done. One hundred percent of me coming out of my shell happens in a writing room. Period. I've never been in a band. I've never been a performer. You could not pay me enough to be on a reality show. I wouldn't do it for a hundred million dollars.

I kind of think that's the measure of a pure songwriter: that you don't want to do more than just use the gift that God's given you.

That's the process I love. The process that was tailor made by God for me is: get in a room, have different beats going on, just go crazy as fast as we can to try to make up the most creative stuff we can, then go back and fine tune it, and then get that to the artist who is perfect for it. And I never want to sing it. I'm one of the few. I can't read music or anything like that. I just want to do exactly what I'm doing. I want that song to take that artist from opening act to headliner because of how that song connects. I can actually help make that happen because of something I made up in the room. And there's no part of me that wishes I was the one on stage singing it. There's a great quote from somebody like Elton John and Billy Joel or somebody that says, "I don't like writing songs. I like to have written songs." When I heard that quote, I was like, "Oh my God, that is me." I still freak out when I hear a song I wrote on the radio for the first time. That never gets old to me. And I think that's a blessing. I love thinking I did my job well.

Here are all of Gorley’s 50 No. 1 hits so far:

“Don’t Forget To Remember Me” (Carrie Underwood)

“All-American Girl” (Carrie Underwood)

“You’re Gonna Miss This” (Trace Adkins)

“Start A Band” (Brad Paisley)

“It Won’t Be Like This For Long” (Darius Rucker)

“Then” (Brad Paisley)

“American Saturday Night” (Brad Paisley)

“Good Girl” (Carrie Underwood)

“Crash My Party” (Luke Bryan)

“Runnin’ Outta Moonlight” (Randy Houser)

“Don’t Ya” (Brett Eldredge)

“Hey Girl” (Billy Currington)

“That’s My Kinda Of Night’ (Luke Bryan)

“Play It Again” (Luke Bryan)

“Rewind” (Rascal Flatts)

“Yeah” (Joe Nichols)

“I See You” (Luke Bryan)

“Just Gettin’ Started” (Jason Aldean)

“Don’t It” (Billy Currington)

“Tonight Looks Good On You” (Jason Aldean)

“Kick The Dust Up” (Luke Bryan)

“Young & Crazy” (Frankie Ballard)

“Nothin’ Like You” (Dan + Shay)

“Heartbeat” (Carrie Underwood)

“You Should Be Here” (Cole Swindell)

“T-Shirt” (Thomas Rhett)

“American Country Love Song” (Jake Owen)

“Middle of a Memory” (Cole Swindell)

“Dirty Laundry” (Carrie Underwood)

“A Guy With a Girl” (Blake Shelton)

“Dirt On My Boots” (Jon Pardi)

“Today” (Brad Paisley)

“Black” (Dierks Bentley)

“Do I Make You Wanna” (Billy Currington)

“Unforgettable” (Thomas Rhett)

“Fix a Drink” (Chris Janson)

“Marry Me” (Thomas Rhett)

“Life Changes” (Thomas Rhett)

“What Makes You Country” (Luke Bryan)

“Eyes On You” (Chase Rice)

“Love Ain’t” (Eli Young Band)

“Rumor” (Lee Brice)

“Living” (Dierks Bentley)

“I Don’t Know About You” (Chris Lane)

“Good Vibes” (Chris Janson)

“Remember You Young” (Thomas Rhett)

“Ridin’ Roads” (Dustin Lynch)

“Catch” (Brett Young)

“Hard To Forget” (Sam Hunt)

“One Big Country Song” (LOCASH)

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