With 24 Number One hits to his credit, Luke Laird is one of the talented writers behind some of modern country’s most iconic songs. He’s left his mark with tracks from Carrie Underwood’s “So Small” to Sam Hunt’s recent “Hard to Forget,” and even Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy winning “Space Cowboy,” among many others. But with a new album of his own, he’s taking fans where they’ve never been — behind the scenes of Music Row.
Released in September, Laird’s artistic debut takes a candid look at the world of a professional songwriter in his own words, laying out everything from the Pennsylvania native’s first Nashville visit to why he believes “Country Music Will Never Die.” And for once in his career, he only had to please himself.
“In a way it kind of felt like my turn to write the songs I wanted to write for myself,” Luke Laird tells Sounds Like Nashville. “When you are writing for other artists, and especially when you’re writing for radio, so many times you’re thinking ‘OK, is this uptempo enough? Would so-and-so say this? Would radio play this?’ There are all these different rules. But doing this, I didn’t have to think about any of that. It was kind of freeing.”
The autobiographical project describes a familiar story among Nashville’s residents — how a small town kid comes to town and chases down a dream, and ultimately finds his calling. The album touches on Laird’s early impressions of Music City, meeting his heroes and of course, some bumps and bruises along the way. But overall, it’s a testament to country music’s spiritual center, the not-so-famous names who’ve built it and to what anyone can accomplish with enough determination.
Laird starts off at the beginning, singing in a relaxed vocal that recalls Whispering Bill Anderson of his first trip to Nashville as a high school student. A mix of steel guitar and beat-box percussion backs him up and foreshadows the future, as Laird narrates the experience of a youngster who would help infuse country with a new energy. He was already writing songs on his own, he explains. But a city full of people making music as job blew his mind.
“Of course my parents thought [my songs] were good, and I thought it was cool that I could put a song together – but I didn’t really know any other songwriters,” he says of his early days. “Then once we came to Nashville on a family vacation, I saw Tony Arata [writer of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance”] at the Bluebird Cafe and it changed my life. I was like ‘Huh.’ It made me realize this was an actual thing people do, like it was a career.”
The story continues with tracks like the good-vibes-only anthem, “Good Friends,” a nostalgic tribute to people you can lean on that features a sunny, pop-rock sway. Luke Laird goes out of his way to namecheck his own real-life good friends — and in the process uncovers one of Nashville’s worst-kept secrets. Namely, that songs are often written by teams of co-writers, and they often become friends. Much of the songwriting community is built on collaboration, and it’s something every hopeful hit maker has to get used to.
“Going into a room with somebody else and needing to be open and honest, it’s like ‘How do I not be self conscious about what I’m writing?” Luke Laird says. “But then after several years it’s basically like a bunch of blind dates. You kind of find your people, and then once you find those people you work well with, in a lot of ways it’s actually easier than writing by yourself.”
“When you’ve got good good friends, what else do you need / Ones from the past and the ones down the street,” goes the chorus, sounding reminiscent of Sugar Ray’s Y2K-era hits. In fact, Laird’s willingness to toy with sounds like that — ones more typically found on the pop charts — is a hallmark of the country format he’s helped create, and it’s found all over Music Row.
“I’ve definitely seen different trends come and go, and really as songwriters, we should be on the front end of whatever the next trend is,” he says. “You try to think about where an artist would go next and what that would sound like. It’s a guessing game, but it’s kind of fun. … To me what makes country music great is that it’s still mostly just about a great song in its simplest form … those songs about the basic human condition – love songs, breakup songs – those are the stories of peoples lives.”
Like anyone else, the story of Laird’s life includes some difficult moments, and he makes sure not to shy away from them on his album debut. Songs like “One More Divorce” and “That’s Why I Don’t Drink Anymore” are deeply personal (but equally relatable), while others tap into the joy of family. “Hanging Out” describes the beginning of a new romantic connection, and “Jack and Mack” captures a father’s love with a proud smile.
But it’s with the closing track where Laird’s hope for the album comes full circle. An acoustic ballad aimed at why Music Row means so much to so many, it’s called “Country Music Will Never Die,” and Laird means every word. The world will keep turning, and things will change with time. But the country lifestyle will always inspire songs — and the people who write them.
“There are the mega famous writers like Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton who everybody knows,” Luke Laird says. “But outside of the writing community, people aren’t that aware of Harlan Howard and Bob McDill, these people who’ve literally defined country music. I thought it was cool to namecheck them, and maybe it’ll make somebody go out and check out their work.”
That reverence for the job and the unsung heroes who have done it before him is all over Laird’s Music Row. He still gets that tingling feeling when he drives down Nashville’s 16th and 17th Avenues today, he says, just like all those years ago. And with any luck, this album might inspire another young writer to check it out for themselves.
“I hope they get to know me a little better. And I hope if any aspiring songwriters listen to it, they get a little of that passion I got the first time I saw Tony Arata,” he says. “Nashville is a magical place. Just to be a part of this tradition of what’s gone on in this town for so many years, it’s cool to be a part of it.”
Editor’s note: For all those aspiring writers and producers, Laird has teamed up with Splice Sounds to offer an exclusive sample pack of pre-made loops. Learn more about how to subscribe and use the musical building blocks here.