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What is Country?
Before we get into tips for writing your Country song, it is necessary to talk about what country is. Few genres are as wide open as Country is today. If you pull up Spotify or Apple music and click on the Country genre, what comes up sounds like Easy Listening, Classic Rock, Hip-hop, Pop, and Country all wrapped up in the same package.
There are more opinions out there about Country than you can shake a stick at. Some say country music is the spirit of America, some say it’s the word of God, and others say it’s working folks’ music.
It’s also difficult to identify the exact sound of country. The genre grew out of the Blues, Gospel, Old Time, Folk, Bluegrass, Western Swing, and Rockabilly traditions.
Elvis started out in Country music. Ray Charles was shifting the sounds of Country in 1962 with his all-Country album. John Denver re-joined Folk and Country in the 1970s. Garth Brooks went in every Rock, Easy Listening, and Pop direction he could in the 90s. And then, there’s Lil Nas X.
(See here for all our tips on how to write a song.)
The Benefits of Tradition
Is the whole point of having a genre simply to serve up the exact flavor that consumers crave? Can we say that whatever is a hit and calls itself Country, is Country?
Genres are musical traditions passed from one generation to the next. With each new round, the pot gets richer, more complex. The tradition of singing songs that your mother and father sang allows us to connect to the past, to feel places and times through songs.
Each genre has its own special qualities that it passes on to the next generation. The result of this passing of the torch is that individual songs are connected to a tradition of songs. Each song is richer because it is part of a whole tradition. And somehow, the whole genre becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
So we whole-heartedly acknowledge that all genres have room to grow and change and that there is room for interpretation on what country is. Still, there is value in tradition.
When Lil Nas X sings about riding a horse through the old town over a Roland 808 drum machine, he connects himself to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry who made cowboy songs popular in the 1930s. And that’s kind of cool. But if he wasn’t connecting to that tradition, who cares? The song would be a lot less interesting without the tradition behind it.
There’s a difference between writing a hit and writing a country song. A hit is anything to get the ball over the profit net. But a Country song connects itself with the roots of the genre.
So, if all you want to write is a hit, then check out our Songwriting Template. But if you want to write a Country song, then we have to go to the roots. The hope is that with each of the tips below, you’ll be closer to that tradition.
This is the number one rule of Country music. Tell the truth. That’s what they all say. It’s got to be honest.
‘True country music is honesty, sincerity, and real life to the hilt.’ – Garth Brooks
‘Country music is the people’s music. It just speaks about real life and aboutt truth and it tells things how they really are.’ – Faith Hill
‘Three chords and the truth, that’s Country music.’ – Willie Nelson
‘Honesty is something you can’t wear out.’ – Waylon Jennings
‘There’s a place for all types of country music as long as there is honesty and realness and a real human experience for the fans.’ – Wynona Judd
Songs about working the land, the rural life, and blues are as old as the hills. Country has always had these themes in its roots. But somewhere around the time of Hank Williams things started getting confessional. Hank set the bar high for honesty and Country has never recovered. That feeling that the message has to be the truth flows through the veins of Country.
Everything in the Country sound has also aligned itself with this “honest music” ethos. If you start wandering off with weird modulations it could venture into something high falootin’. That’s not country.
Outside of specific sub-genres of Country like Western Swing and Country Pop, almost all Country music sticks with the I, IV, V, vi, and ii chords. Occasionally, there’s a key change, up a half step, in strophic songs or after a bridge.
The popular progressions are I – IV – V or I – V – vi -IV and their variants. The use of 7th chords is standard, mostly just V7. Soloing allows for a little bit more harmonic complexity, but if you start using 9th and 11th chords on the rhythm guitar, you are leaving Country land.
(See here for more on chord progressions and other approaches to writing songs )
Country is still guitar-based music. Even if the guitar is just there to hide your gut, most country stars will hold one. Along with the cowboy hat and cowboy boots, the steel-string acoustic guitar is one of the icons of Country.
‘I still use the guitar pretty much just to hide my gut.’
Country guitar licks are the essence of the country sound. You don’t have to be the next Lester Flatt to country up your basic chords. It’s a bit of magic. You add a country lick to a I – IV – V progression and suddenly you’re somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. When you use these licks, you are referencing the whole tradition behind you and that becomes part of your song.
The licks are based on the same scales that rock and blues genres use (major and minor blues scales, Mixolydian and Ionian scales) with some added country charm.
There are loads of great free resources online full of country licks. Learn a few of the basic ones and start adding them to your chord progressions.
We all have a Mama. In most cases, she keeps us honest. Maybe this is why she’s such a major theme in country music.
And we’re not talking about some minor theme! Mama’s everywhere in Country. In the storytelling style of many country songs, she’s a major character. She’s good, she’s bad, and everything in between, but she’s always around somewhere. She’s often mentioned in passing like in Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty:
You weren’t your Mama’s only son, but her favourite one, it seems.
She began to cry as you said goodbye, and sank into your dreams.
Towns Van Zandt – from Pancho and Lefty
Or, she’s the whole reason for the song. If you want to know how to write a country song, you talk about Mama. This list below is only the very tip of the iceberg that is Mama Country songs:
- I Dreamed About Mama Last Night – Hank Williams
- Don’t Take Your Guns to Town – Johnny Cash
- Coat of many colors – Dolly Parton
- I’m the only hell Mama ever raised – Hank Williams III
- Mommy please stay home with me – Eddy Arnold
- Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
- I called Mama – Tim McGraw
- She’s Everything – Brad Paisley
- Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys – Waylon Jennings
The roots of Country music ground themselves in humble beginnings: work songs and rural ballads. These roots were based in times when cowhands and cowboys were not legends but working-class people.
At some point in our lives, we probably all long for a simpler life, a closer connection with the land, with nature, away from city-slicker worries. A lot of today’s country is written by ghostwriters living in big cities who have probably never touched soil with their hands. But even that doesn’t change the theme. The land, rural life, and a nostalgia for simpler times define the geography where Country resides.
Like Waylon Jennings says here: “In Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain.”
The land that Country musicians talk about is usually in the South. All of the trials and tribulations of the American South have somehow composted into the most fertile ground for musical expression of all kinds. Country grew out of this compost and pays tribute to it.
So if you’re looking for a place to start your country lyrics, something about rural life in the south is a good place to start.
Except for Country’s grandaddy the Blues, few genres revel in depressing songs like Country. Songs about feeling blue and lonesome are yet another way in which Country abides by its number one rule: tell the truth.
There are a lot of things, including some of the other themes mentioned below, that might cause you to be blue. But simply “feeling blue” is reason enough to write a country song.
Love songs are in every genre, but Country has its own special take on the love song. If you sing about how much you love someone in a Country song, no one will believe you unless you also tell the backstory of the hard times you went through to reach that conclusion. Again, it’s about honesty.
You need to be honest about the whole story of love. And that’s not all rosy.
‘Ninety-nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play’
Betrayal, broken hearts and betrayal are absolutely country. Lines like this one from George Strait are commonplace:
All my ex’s live in Texas, and Texas is the place I’d really love to be. But all my ex’s live in Texas. And that’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee.
Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E is also a classic example of Country’s unvarnished take on love:
According to the National Center for Drug Abuse, every day, 261 Americans die as a result of excessive alcohol use. If you look by state, all the southern states have even more alarming numbers.
So there you go, people drink a lot, especially in the South. If you’re gonna be honest, this should probably come up as a major theme. And in Country, wow, does it ever.
Pedal steel, the table-top horizontal guitar with pedals and knee levers, is about the countriest sound there is. Developed from the Hawaiian Kika Kila, it was brought to the mainland USA around 1915 and became popularized in Country music by Bud Isaacs when he used pedal steel on Web Pierce’s song Slowly, here below:
When Country, Folk, and Bluegrass became different things in the 1950s, Bluegrass and Folk took the fiddle, banjo, and harmonica down their respective trails. The sounds of the Fender Telecaster and honky-tonk piano went with Rock n’ roll, but pedal steel never really left Country. It remains one of Country music’s most identifiable sounds.
So use it in your Country song! Not a whole lot of people have a pedal steel console sitting around. But you can mimic the sound of pedal steel with an electric guitar. This is a standard trick used often by the likes of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and others. The video below gives you some ideas.
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