How To Write a Country Song

Tips from one epic musical hangout in Nashville (that you can learn from, too)

Photo: Kirsten Holliday Photo

At the Four Seasons Hotel in Nashville.

“Heartbreak is collateral around here,” says the Nashville-based singer-songwriter Heather Morgan. That might sound like a country lyric, but it’s just part of a story she’s telling about a song she wrote after a man did her dirty. Morgan, who composes hits for country superstars including Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney, is sitting on a chair in my hotel suite at the new Four Seasons Hotel Nashville, strumming her guitar. I watch from the couch, sipping a smoked Old Fashioned.

This private concert is part of Suite Sounds, a quintessentially Nashville hotel package that provides a peek behind the country song-writing curtain: Local songwriters hang out in your suite’s living room, playing their original acoustic music, telling the stories behind the lyrics, and imparting their songwriting wisdom. After the short private concert, you can go down to the hotel bar Mimo to have drinks with the musician and learn all about how to write a country song.

photo: Kirsten Holliday Photo
Singer-songwriter Heather Morgan.

Morgan shared her country songwriting lesson in five steps: 

1. Have a great idea. That means staying open to brilliance striking anywhere and everywhere—even out of nowhere. About “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt once said, “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing because it came from out of the blue. It came through me, and it’s a real nice song.” A more quotidian origin story: The seed for “Jolene”was planted in a bank, after a teller flirted with Dolly Parton’s husband.

2. Conjure a mood. “Decide what you want the listener to feel,” Morgan says. Country lyrics often center around heartbreak, but that doesn’t mean the songs have to be downers. Consider the playful mood of “All My Exes Live in Texas” or “Achy Breaky Heart.”

3. Let the whole thing come out in one inspired sitting. “The writer’s room is sacred,” Morgan says, adding that an actual writer’s room isn’t necessary. “Tour buses can be writer’s rooms. Hotel rooms can be writer’s rooms.” Songwriter Billie Jean Jones recalled her then-fiancé Hank Williams describing his ex as a “cheatin’ heart.” They were driving to Louisiana and he was behind the wheel, but his own phrasing got him so excited, he composed “Your Cheatin’ Heart” right then and there: “Get out my tablet, baby,” Jones recalled him saying. “You and I are gonna write us a song.” She added, “Just about as fast as I could write it, Hank quoted the words to me in a matter of minutes.”

4. Edit. That one inspired sitting probably leaves some room for improvement. In one interview, Johnny Cash talked about laboring for nine months over the rewrites to “When The Man Comes Around.” “I wrote verse after verse,” he said, “probably twenty-five or thirty verses, before I was satisfied with the verses I wanted to use in the song.”

5. Let the song come to life—sing it, add guitar solos, add harmonies, get it produced. Musically inclined Four Seasons guests can do all five. Courtesy of the nearby Gibson Garage, a magnet for music lovers, many of whom make the pilgrimage to get a guitar custom-made from scratch, you can borrow a guitar in your suite throughout your stay. If you’re extra inspired, the options are endless: taking guitar lessons at Gibson; getting a private tour of the Gibson Garage, including the super-secret guitar vault that houses treasures like Keith Richards’s amp; even writing your own song and leaving Nashville with a demo tape.

If you’re going to feel moved to write a country song anywhere, you’re going to feel moved to write a country song in Nashville—the city of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, the city Taylor Swift calls “the reason why I get to do what I love,” the city Kris Kristofferson credits with saving his life. As Morgan puts it, “This town really knows how to get you inspired to string words together.”