The Writers Round with Luke Laird

Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Luke Laird sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including his most recent No. 1 with Luke Bryan’s “Fast,” Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name” and Rodney Atkins’ “Take a Back Road.”

Throughout most of junior high, Luke Laird enjoyed writing songs. A fan of all genres, the Pennsylvania native cites his first concert as an introduction to country music. Witnessing Randy Travis live had the young songwriter paying close attention to the lyrics within each song and growing up in rural America, to which he could relate. A family vacation to Nashville between his sophomore and junior year of high school forever cemented his decision to become a professional songwriter. As Laird recalls, he was immediately sold on Music City during that first trip after catching a show at the Bluebird Cafe and witnessing writers perform the songs he heard on the radio.

“That really triggered, ‘Oh, this is really, actually a possibility,'” he tells Sounds Like Nashville, seated comfortably in his upstairs writing room at Creative Nation on Music Row. “My mom found out about MTSU and the recording industry program and that’s the only school I applied to. Fortunately, I got in and that got me down here to Nashville. Once I finally had a car my junior year of college I would drive up here and do writers nights and open mics.”

In 2000, while still a student at Middle Tennessee State University, Laird met Chris Oglesby from BMG. Two years later he’d find himself signing his first publishing deal with Oglesby and BMG where he’d stay until about six years ago when he and his wife, Beth, opened their own publishing company Creative Nation.

Before he signed his deal, Laird worked as the tour manager’s assistant to Brooks & Dunn. His first job out of college, he learned about the inner workings of the industry and what it’s like being on the road. He also made sure to find time to write in the mornings and on his days off.

“My ultimate plan was to get a publishing deal but at that point nobody had offered me a deal. It was an awesome first job in the music business,” he reflects. “When I was in town I’d be trying to get meetings with publishers. There was a guy I knew who had a publishing deal named Bill Luther and he’s the first writer who really encouraged me to shoot for it and believed in me. I’ll never forget that. He introduced me to his publisher at BMG at the time. That’s who eventually ended up signing me.”

It would take years of writing before he saw his first chart topper in 2007 with Carrie Underwood’s “So Small,” the lead single off her sophomore album Carnival Ride. Laird vividly remembers hearing the song on the radio for the first time while driving in his truck to a co-write.

“It was very surreal to hear that. It was like, ‘Wow!'” he recalls nostalgically. “The most surreal part for me writing songs in the beginning was if I would go back home for Christmas and hear a song I wrote on the station I grew up listening to. That’s when it’s like, ‘Wow, this is crazy!’ Still, it’s such a thrill when you get to hear the song on the radio. For some reason, they always sound better on the radio.”

Laird credits Underwood for taking a chance on him as a writer. Before they had met, he didn’t have any hits. He and Hillary Lindsey teamed up with Underwood in the writers room and penned both “So Small” and “Last Name,” the latter of which would become another No. 1 for the songwriter. As Laird recalls, the three songwriters got together and came to write “Last Name” after a story the American Idol alum told them.

“This was back before she was married — a good 10 years ago. She was telling us a story about some guy at a party that she had met and then she realized she didn’t even know his last name,” Laird recalls. “She said that line… and we were like, ‘Well, there’s a song,’ and we just started writing it. That was a really exciting time because she really took a chance on me. Coming off her first album that sold like 7 million units, to work with someone like me who was basically unproven, I’m forever grateful for that.”

Laird now has 23 No. 1 songs to his name, his most recent being a co-write with Luke Bryan and Rodney Clawson with “Fast.” He tells us he wrote the hit in the very room we were sitting in and it was the second song the three writers started that day. After deciding to give up on the previous track they were working on because it wasn’t going anywhere, Laird threw out what would become the first line: “Fast, that’s the kind of car you want to drive when you’re 16.” Immediately, Bryan and Clawson began spitting out lines.

“When you’re a writer, that’s when you know you have a good idea because you’ll say that idea and it will spark a lot of things. Other times you’re trying to start something and it’s like trying to start a fire with wet matches,” he explains. “That’s what we were doing on that other song. This song, we got started from that first line and took it from there. That was a really cool day. You wish they could all be like that.”

Laird says there are no guarantees when it comes to songwriting and he advises new writers to enjoy the process as much as possible. It’s something he admits that he has to remind himself every day he wakes up. While the accolades that come with having 23 No. 1 songs is incredible, he says nothing beats the feeling of getting into a room and witnessing a song come together.

“Any kind of accolade is nice but it doesn’t really compare to that feeling that you had when you’re a kid and you’re in the room creating something out of nothing,” he notes.

One songs that holds a great deal of meaning for Laird is Rodney Atkins’ “Take A Back Road.” The first song he wrote with Rhett Akins, “Take A Back Road” has survived the test of time for Laird. He remembers Akins coming in with the idea “ride a dirt road” and eventually they switched gears to turn it into “Take A Back Road.”

“I think the best songs and the ones that last are the honest ones. He was talking about where he grew up and I was doing the same and we just related and we hit it off,” Laird recalls. “When we were finished with it, it felt really good and fortunately it got a shot to be on the radio and be a hit. Most of them don’t.”

While Laird has seen much success over the past decade as a professional songwriter, he admits that some days he still feels like he’s just getting started. He remains passionate about music and the projects he works on, whether it be producing an album or writing with artists he admires. He adds that there is no secret to becoming a songwriter and instead stresses the importance in getting started by simply writing songs.

“If you want to be a songwriter, then just write songs. If you’re trying to get a publishing deal and you have five songs to play and a month later you still only have those same five songs to play you probably don’t have a very good shot,” he explains. “You need to be getting up and writing songs and not all of them are going to be amazing, but when you do this for a job you have to treat it like a job. I can’t believe I get paid to do this. I’m grateful and hopefully I can do it for a long time.”