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, Blair Daly sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including John Michael Montgomery’s “How Was I to Know,” Kip Moore’s “Beer Money” and Rascal Flatts’ “Stand.”
Blair Daly never intended to write country music when he first moved to Nashville in the early 1990s. Instead, the Louisiana native had his heart set on rock music. A chameleon when it comes to songwriting, Daly has penned hits for artists in countless genres including country, pop, rock and alt-rock. He continues to be a mainstay in the Nashville songwriting community, having signed a new publishing deal with Concord Music earlier this year.
During an in-depth three-hour interview at his studio in Nashville, Daly explains how writing for multiple genres of music keeps songwriting from feeling like a job. A lover of all types of music, Daly tries his best to keep his calendar balanced with a mix of rock, country and pop co-writes.
“To me, writing rock songs makes me better at writing country songs and writing country songs makes me better at the other,” he explains, settling into a desk chair at his studio. “[You’re] exercising all the muscles and it keeps you fresh.”
Daly has penned songs for a wide range of artists. His studio’s walls are covered in plaques from songs he’s written for Kip Moore, Kelly Clarkson, the Backstreet Boys, Carrie Underwood, Halestorm and Little Big Town. Just a glimpse at his catalog, other acts who have recorded his music include Rascal Flatts, Uncle Kracker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Veil Brides and Sixx:A.M. While he’s found success in the country genre, it was rock music that laid the groundwork for his lifelong passion of music.
Daly grew up in a small town in Louisiana playing in rock bands. His high school only had two bands so he found himself alternating between both and playing whatever instrument was needed. The songwriter admits that he never thought about writing songs until it came time to decide what he would be doing after high school. He wanted to move to Los Angeles to be in a rock band and play famous venues on the Sunset Strip like the Whiskey a Go Go. His parents vetoed the idea and suggested looking into colleges in Nashville instead.
“In 1990, Nashville was still mostly country music and I was like, ‘What? Nashville! Country music?’ I grew up on rock and hard rock in the ’80s when rock was king,” he explains. “When I started investigating Nashville and coming up here to look at schools, I started running into people who wrote songs for a living. I never knew it was a real job until right before I moved here.”
Daly attended Middle Tennessee State University for a while — until he found his first “legit out” going on the road with a family member of his, Will Rambeaux, who was pursuing an artist career. His experience qualified as an internship and he got credit for helping with radio promotion. Soon, he began co-writing with his cousin. Daly realized that he could potentially make a living as a songwriter if he worked hard at it so he and Rambeaux continued writing songs throughout the ’90s, eventually amassing several hits with John Michael Montgomery.
“He really, really encouraged me to write and sing and play live and he pushed me out of my comfort zone way more than I ever would have,” Daly says of his cousin. “At the time, he was writing for a company in town called Wrensong that Ree Guyer had and still has. He was writing there and I was hopping from one thing to another to pay the bills and writing when I had a day off, or at night, or on the weekends.”
Daly says he and Rambeaux hit a sweet spot and started writing some cool songs with another friend, Troy Verges. Rambeaux took them both under his wing, helping on co-writes. Eventually his cousin’s publisher took interest in him and Daly signed with Wrensong Publishing around 1995. By 1997, he had his first single on the radio with Montgomery’s “How Was I to Know.”
The songwriter vividly recalls penning “How Was I to Know” with his cousin at his old house in Sylvan Park that he and Verges were renting at the time. He had several ideas and melodies prepared and played one of them on his tape recorder for Rambeaux.
“I played it for him and he was like, ‘Yeah, this is something. This is definitely something,’ and he picked that title to go with that melody and we wrote it,” Daly recalls with a smile. “I don’t remember us really having to wrestle it down or anything. I think it was a pretty natural write and I do remember being in that old dingy rent house in Sylvan Park writing it. Most of that time period was kind of blurry but three dudes living in a rent house and then all of a sudden you get publishing deals and you’re getting a draw. It’s like, ‘Wait, I don’t have to go to a day job? I can go and buy beer and write songs and play guitar all day?'”
The song’s success surprised Daly, who thought he was writing a rock song that he could envision Aerosmith, Def Leppard or Bon Jovi singing but his publisher saw otherwise. She felt he was creating country songs and Guyer suggested Daly sing them because she also saw an artist career in his future. While Daly wasn’t keen on being in the spotlight, he continued to sing the songs he wrote, pitching himself as an artist as well. His career soon shifted, though, when Montgomery cut his song.
“John Michael was killing it at the time. He had, ‘I Love the Way You Love Me,’ ‘I Swear,’ ‘I Could Love You Like That’ and all those big massive ballads, and I had the next one in mind and that was when it all changed,” Daly reflects.
Daly was invited to the Atlantic Records office to hear his song recorded by Montgomery and says it was an out of body experience listening to the country singer’s take on “How Was I to Know.” While Daly’s demo wasn’t country, once Montgomery’s baritone was heard on the track alongside steel guitar, all of a sudden his rock song transformed into a country ballad.
“It was very, very surreal and that’s when it was like, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do.’ It was released as a single several months later and then a few months after, it got to number one,” he says, still in disbelief. “[My] first cut was a single and it went to number one and that’s when it was like, ‘All right, I think we’ll hold off on this artist thing and let’s see how this pans out.’ A huge weight was lifted.”
Montgomery wanted to meet the 25-year-old who penned his latest No. 1 song and a friendship developed. The singer went on to record several more songs written by Daly, including his next single, “Angel In My Eyes.” Daly says Montgomery kicked the door down for him as far as getting opportunities and telling other artists in town about his songwriting.
“He really, really helped me out in conjunction with Ree, my publisher, who was like a second mom to me here. It was a little mini run with him that I had,” Daly says of his back-to-back singles with Montgomery. “At the time, you don’t realize how rare that happens. It’s easy to lose focus and all of a sudden you’re on the charts and you’re getting a little mailbox money and it becomes this fantasy life.”
Following his success at country radio, Daly decided to move to New York to pursue his dream of writing rock and pop music. He’s cautious when telling the story, admitting that his first taste of success in country came easy at 25 and he thought that’s how things always worked in the industry. He soon learned the hard way that not every song he writes will go to No. 1.
“Instead of really hunkering down with, ‘Now let’s get with the next tier of writers who wouldn’t write with me ’cause I had never had a hit,’ I didn’t stay here. I went to New York. I wanted to write rock music. I wanted to write pop music. So, I learned the real, real, real hard way,” Daly reflects.
He adds, “Luckily, I had made enough money on those first few [singles] to sustain my experiment that completely backfired. So, I went up there during the big boom of Backstreet, Britney [Spears], *NSYNC, the Jive Records days. This was way before the cities were working together and people had the mutual respect. This was like, ‘Who the hell is this redneck hillbilly from Nashville country guy coming here to write pop music?’ I got in a lot of doors and I wrote with a lot of those people, but I spent way more money than I made. What was happening without me knowing, or without me really caring, is I was neglecting all the people here, the groundwork I had, all the progress I had made that I ended up falling through the cracks for several years. I didn’t really fit in up there, and then I neglected here to where I came back and people had moved on. It was a hard lesson learned. Climbing the mountain a second time is a freaking million times harder than the first time.”
Daly signed a new publishing deal with Combustion Music and slowly worked his way back into being accepted in the Nashville songwriting community. By the time he returned to Nashville full-time and got more traction within the country genre, it was 10 years from his last No. 1 hit to his next chart topper.
While it was a hard lesson learned, Daly realized that his roots and success was in Nashville so he slowly rebuilt his community here. He’d see another No. 1 country hit with Rascal Flatts’ “Stand” in 2007, which he wrote with another Louisiana native, Danny Orton. The first song they ever penned together, Daly vividly recalls their collaboration over a decade ago. The two men had been tuned into the news before their co-write and it was shortly after a bombing overseas happened, resulting in many U.S. troops being sent to war.
“I remember this part of the conversation: ‘Can you imagine what is going on in the minds and the hearts of the guys who are being shipped out right now who have no idea where they’re going and when they’re coming back?'” Daly says. “It was heavy on our hearts. Then, we both said, ‘It’d be nice to write something from the perspective where the listener can interpret if it’s a soldier going off to war, or if it’s somebody battling with an illness, or anyone who’s going through a tough time, which is most everybody we know.'”
Orton began playing a chord progression on the piano and things clicked. Daly remembers coming up with the first verse, “You feel like a candle in a hurricane / Just like a picture with a broken frame / Alone and helpless / Like you’ve lost your fight / But you’ll be all right.”
“It’s that hopeless feeling when you’re in the face of adversity and not exactly sure what’s going to happen. I think it’s something that if the listener heard it, you can maybe encourage them to keep fighting and make it through the other side,” Daly notes.
The song was written within an hour-and-a-half but had a much longer journey to country radio. Daly says their publishers thought their demo was a rock song and, as a result, couldn’t do anything with it. While their publishers pitched it to several country artists, “Stand” sat around for five years until Rascal Flatts finally heard it. Orton found himself on the bus with the country trio writing one weekend when the guys asked him if he had any songs he wanted to play for them. So, he shared “Stand.” The guys freaked out over the song, as did their producer, Dann Huff, who was also on the bus. All three bandmates agreed to record the song on the spot. One of his proudest moments as a songwriter, Daly says he has gotten many letters from listeners sharing how much the song means to them.
“We’ve gotten so many letters and messages, emails [saying], ‘I listened to this song while I was going through chemotherapy for six months. It was my song I listened to every morning. It was my anthem and it was the only thing that got me out of bed,'” Daly says. “Awards are great. Songs on the radio are great. Hits are great. They keep the lights on. They keep you in the game. But the ones where you really hit an emotional spot in certain people, those are the ones that you feel like you’re really doing your job, moving people or helping people. You can’t write those kinds of songs every day. But, man, when they do work it seems like they become anthems. I feel super blessed that we were given that song that day.”
Another track that holds great meaning to Daly is “Smile,” a song he co-wrote with Uncle Kracker. The 2009 single was penned on a cold day in a cabin in Northern Michigan with two feet of snow outside when Uncle Kracker decided he wanted to write a light-hearted song for his kids.
“It became the biggest song I’ve ever had in my career,” Daly marvels. “It charted and was never intended to be country but it charted on pop, AC, Hot AC, country.”
More recently, Daly has seen success with Kip Moore. While the longtime collaborators have penned many songs together, it was Moore’s 2012’s No. 1 hit “Beer Money” that kicked things off. The two men had been writing long before Moore got a record deal, and Daly says what he loves most about his co-writer is that he’s 100-percent authentic. He appreciates Moore’s loyalty and admits that there aren’t many artists who go back to the stable of songwriters they were writing with before their record deal.
“Beer Money” was written days before Moore was scheduled to return to the studio for the final tracking of his debut album, Up All Night. One evening he sent a text to Daly and Troy Verges, asking if they were free to write the following day. So, Moore and Verges headed to Daly’s house where they planned to write a song.
While Moore knew what he already recorded for the album, he wasn’t sure what additional songs he needed, Daly explains. The songwriters had a groove going and Daly was going through his title lists on his computer. He says title lists are often used as a backup or safety net in the writing room.
“We were getting some cool music but we weren’t exactly sure where to go theme-wise and I pulled open this [list]. ‘Beer Money’ was on there and I was kind of embarrassed. I was like, ‘I got one, a title I’ve written down for a while, but I don’t know what to do with it. It’s called beer money.’ And, he goes, ‘Hmmm.’ He sat there for a second and started playing the minor key guitar groove which I never would’ve thought to make that serious sounding,” Daly admits. “You see the title, you think funny, country, cliché kind of thing and it was like the stars lined up and we all started jamming and the beat that I had going worked with it. He started playing this groove and it fell out.”
Daly says he had the title written down for three years and never knew how to write it. Moore heard it and grabbed the reins on the song, knowing exactly what they needed to write that day. Penned in an hour, it went on to become the second single off Moore’s debut album and his second No. 1 song. While Daly gives the singer credit on the track, Moore has nothing but praise for the Louisiana native.
“Blair brings a lot of elements to the writing room. There’s a lot of guys now that maybe they just do melody, or they just do track, or they only do lyric. Blair is a chameleon,” Moore asserts. “He can make a track, he can play great guitar, he’s got great melodies, he’s going to always offer interesting takes on lyrics. He’s one of my favorites to write with in town and his spirit in the room — he’s not afraid to go for anything. I hate writing with people where I feel like there’s always limitations in the room in what we can and can’t say. Blair’s not scared to go for anything and that’s what I love about being in the room with Blair.”
It’s this chameleon trait that has helped Daly throughout his career. Whether he’s writing a rock, country or pop song, he’s able to effortlessly switch gears and remain authentic to himself and to the other writers in the room. He credits his longevity to the ongoing drive he has to create music and being able to stay active in an ever-changing business.
“I think a big part of it is because I try and stay current and study what is going on with music in multi-formats. You need to be ready for any kind of opportunity that may come your way, not just country opportunities, because so many acts and artists are making stops through here now when they’re recording records or when they’re writing for a record,” he concedes. “I think it’s staying true to who I am and what I love as a writer, and not trying to write the stuff that isn’t me. I’ve been really blessed to be able to continue doing this for a long time, and some days I don’t know why.”