The Writers Round with Nicolle Galyon

Galyon is the woman behind hit songs like Kenny Chesney's "All the Pretty Girls," Keith Urban's "We Were Us," and Miranda Lambert's "Automatic." 

Written by Annie Reuter
The Writers Round with Nicolle Galyon
Nicolle Galyon; Photo Credit: Jessica Steddom

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, Nicolle Galyon sheds some light into her life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of her many hits including Keith Urban’s “We Were Us,” Lee Brice’s “Boy” and Lady Antebellum’s “Heart Break.”

There’s a very good chance when you turn on the radio one of Nicolle Galyon’s songs will be playing. Ten years since signing her first publishing deal, the songwriter currently has five singles at country radio including Kenny Chesney’s “All the Pretty Girls,” Lady Antebellum’s “Heart Break,” RaeLynn’s “Lonely Call,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Smooth” and Lee Brice’s “Boy.”

The Kansas native’s songwriting journey is more than a decade in the making as she moved to Nashville in 2002 with the plan to pursue a career in artist management. During her time as a student at Belmont she worked as a personal assistant for Greg Oswald at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment (WME) where she was frequently surrounded by music and industry professionals. She recalls being mesmerized while attending guitar pulls her first year in Music City and it’s there that she was first hit with the songwriting bug.

“I was like, ‘Wait, this is a job? You can do this? I think this is actually what I should be doing,'” Galyon tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone.

Galyon grew up around music and played classical piano. Her real passion was country music though and somewhere between classes and acting as a personal assistant, songwriting spread like wildfire in her heart and overtook all the things she previously thought she’d pursue. By the time she graduated from Belmont her dream of a career as an artist manager changed to becoming a songwriter. She took all the lessons from working for a booking agent with her and admits that one of the most important things she learned was to have thick skin.

“It really taught me to not take anything personally and to have a thick skin and to see behind the curtain of how deals get done and how business really goes down,” she explains of her time shadowing Oswald. “That perspective has really helped me, even as a songwriter, when something doesn’t go my way or my song isn’t a single or my song doesn’t make a record. That job gave me the 30,000-foot perspective to realize it’s not all about you and it’s not about the song. There’s a lot of moving parts here that has to go right in order for something to happen.”

Her time as Oswald’s assistant frequently had her in the presence of other songwriters, publishers and producers. Galyon vividly remembers parties where she’d be cleaning up and someone would ask her to play them a song she wrote. She says it was in these moments that she earned her stripes in bravery and thanks to Paul Worley, one of the people in the room that heard her songs, she was introduced to BJ Hill from Warner/Chappell Nashville where she signed in 2007.

“I met so many people through that job,” Galyon reflects. “I say I got my degree from Belmont, but my education from working for Greg Oswald.”

In 2013, Galyon saw her first taste of success when Keith Urban recorded “We Were Us,” a song she co-wrote with longtime collaborators Jimmy Robbins and Jon Nite. Galyon recalls writing the No. 1 song shortly after she came back from her 10-year high school reunion. Robbins and Nite had written with Thomas Rhett earlier that day and played her an idea that they didn’t wind up using. She says they had the beginning of the song’s chorus, “Back when that song was a song I could sing along.”

“They had the top of the chorus written, but they didn’t know what the title would be. There was really no idea yet. Because I had just come back from my hometown, this little rural farm town in Kansas, all of this small town imagery started coming out of my mouth. Then I started singing some of the verses,” she recalls. “I was really nostalgic thinking about my whole class because I had just seen all my classmates. We’re all married and some are pregnant and have kids and I’m just looking at us going, ‘Man, that’s when we were us. Now we’ll never be us again, me and my class. You can never go back to that time.'”

It’s hard to envision “We Were Us” being sung by anyone other than Urban and Miranda Lambert, but Galyon admits that they first sent the track to Lauren Alaina who was looking for a duet for her album. Robbins’ publisher was Urban so he heard every song that he wrote and fell in love with “We Were Us.”

“Keith had heard it and before Lauren could ever get back to us, Keith hit us back and was like, ‘I want this song for me,'” Galyon explains. “Then it was one of those things where we had a good problem on our hands where more than one artist wanted to cut it. Ultimately that stuff is out of our hands as songwriters. I wouldn’t change history. I love the way that it all worked out. The song takes on a life of its own after it leaves your hands.”

Galyon has penned hundreds of songs over the years and cites Lee Brice’s “Boy” as the most honest one she has ever written. She says the song, which she co-wrote with Nite, wrote itself.

“On a deep level, I feel like God told me who my son was going to be through the words of that song before my son was born,” she confesses. “It was the last song I wrote before I had my son. It just felt like a really natural thing for us to write together. Now I look at my son who’s two years old running around the house going, ‘How did every line of that song work for you? I had never seen your face yet.’ That song was really honest and powerful for me personally. If that’s all that it ever was, for me to hear, it would have been enough, but now hearing the stories and seeing other people relate to it is really powerful.”

A mother of two, Galyon says her writing time is her me time during the day. Instead of penning emotional or deep songs, she finds herself wanting to create fun moments in the writing room.

“Some days I don’t want it to be as heavy as maybe I used to want it to be,” she admits. “As much as I love writing really deep, heavy things like ‘Love Triangle’ and ‘Boy’ and even ‘Automatic,’ I see the value in ‘All the Pretty Girls.’ When it comes on the radio and I’m sitting in the pickup line waiting to pick my kids up from school, I see how it makes me feel good. I want to write more songs like that because I know when I look in the rearview mirror and I see my kids bopping their heads back and forth and we’re all singing along to a song, that’s a moment in itself. A song doesn’t always have to save the world to create a really special moment. I think having kids has given me more of that perspective as a writer.”

Galyon remembers getting the title for Chesney’s latest hit “All the Pretty Girls” while at the library with her daughter. She saw a book with a similar title, All the Pretty Girls Said, and she thought it sounded like an artistic title for a country song.

While Galyon is seeing plenty of success at radio, she remembers a time when she was first getting started and she couldn’t write as well as she had hoped. She said the early years can be deceiving for a songwriter and it’s usually then when one will give up entirely. It’s in these moments that she advises songwriters to “put your head down and write, write, write as much as possible.”

“For me it took a long time, but when that thing clicked, when I was writing songs that even I liked, then it just becomes like, ‘This is bonus. This is the coolest thing ever. It doesn’t feel like a job anymore. It doesn’t feel like I’m practicing to just get better,’ which is what the beginning many years of my career felt like,” she shares.

Another song Galyon wrote is Lady Antebellum’s new single, “Heart Break.” The title track to the trio’s latest album, she penned it while on a writing retreat in Rosemary Beach, Florida, with the band and Jesse Frasure. The idea of the song came from Dave Haywood, who suggested they write about a spring heartbreak. A pun on spring break, spring heartbreak eventually developed into “Heart Break.”

Galyon was joined by her husband, songwriter Rodney Clawson (Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids,” “Lady Antebellum’s “Bartender,” Luke Bryan’s “Crash My Party”), on the retreat and admits that there was some friendly competition between the two writers. Interestingly, Galyon and Clawson only recently began writing together this year. The couple has been married for 10 years and as Galyon explains, they had good reason for not getting into the writing room together sooner.

“We’ve been very deliberate about not writing together just because when we first got married, Rodney had a few hits under his belt and I was just getting started,” she explains. “I had just signed a publishing deal. He didn’t want anyone to think that I needed him to have a writing career and I didn’t want that either. We just kept our writing separate all these years. Now it feels like there’s been a shift where we don’t worry about that anymore.”

The couple has written several songs together this year and the second song they created was recently recorded by Luke Bryan. “Win Life,” the last track on Bryan’s forthcoming sixth studio album, What Makes You Country, was penned by Galyon, Clawson and Ross Copperman. Their latest cut may convince them to set aside more time in the writing room.

“It’s funny because when we do write together now, we both walk out of the door at the same time, get in different cars, and then drive to the same place because we’re creatures of habit,” she says with a laugh. “We’re just so used to walking out and going and writing with someone else that when we do write together now, we’re getting ready in the same bathroom, then we drive separate cars and then we walk in. It’s kind of fun.”

In addition to songwriting, Galyon has proven herself a successful producer. The songwriter co-produced RaeLynn’s debut album WildHorse and has been producing several songs for Jana Kramer including new single “I’ve Done Love,” which she co-wrote with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. Galyon says she’s proud of the new single, explaining that she and Kramer are pioneering their way through the industry as Kramer is currently without a label.

“When there’s a label involved, there’s a lot of people that all need to sign off on things. All of a sudden we realized, ‘Wait, I guess we don’t have to ask anybody for permission to record the songs since I want you to have them and you want to have them.’ I’m really excited for her to get to put out new music and to do it her way,” Galyon says.

She adds that being the same age of Kramer, working with the singer is fulfilling as they’re both in the same chapter of their lives.

“I love writing with young people. They keep me fresh and excited and inspired, but Jana makes me feel at home,” she says. “I don’t have to put on any other hat than the one I’ve already got on when it comes to songs for her.”

With the release of Kramer’s “I’ve Done Love,” Galyon has six country singles to her name on country radio this year. Ten years after signing her first publishing deal, Galyon is grateful for the success.

“All these years I’ve been so happy and satisfied with the crumbs of whatever falls through the cracks and I get to be a part of. Now it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh! I don’t know how this all happened,'” she concedes.