Successful country songwriters know how to embed their songs with just the right amount of repetition.
The performing rights organizations set the top of their 2020 winners’ lists to repeat as the ASCAP, BMI and SESAC country songwriter and publisher of the year awards all went to entities who have previously taken top honors. Ashley Gorley (“Catch,” “Living”) hooked ASCAP’s songwriter medallion for the eighth time, and for the seventh year in a row, when victors were unveiled Nov. 9. Ross Copperman (“What She Wants Tonight,” “Love Someone”) swiped BMI’s songwriter title for the fourth time on Nov. 9. And Matt McGinn (“Homesick,” “Cool Again”) picked up SESAC’s songwriter award for the second time in three years on Nov. 5.
Warner Chappell cinched two country publisher titles, taking the ASCAP honor for the eighth consecutive year and the BMI honor a third straight year. SMACKWorks claimed its second SESAC publisher award.
Additionally, Wyatt Durrette III repeated as the SESAC song of the year victor for co-writing the Luke Combs hit “Even Though I’m Leaving.” Old Dominion’s “One Man Band” took the ASCAP country song trophy for three of the group’s members — Trevor Rosen, Brad Tursi and Matthew Ramsey, who previously earned the ASCAP songwriter-artist trophy in 2017 — plus songwriter Josh Osborne, who adds the title to two song of the year winners he co-wrote with Sam Hunt: 2018 champion “Body Like a Back Road” and 2015 victor “Leave the Night On.”
Even Ben Burgess, who won his first-ever BMI award with “Whiskey Glasses,” cruised to the PRO’s country song title while incorporating bold repetition into the “Whiskey” bridge: “Line ‘em up, line ‘em up, line ‘em up, line ‘em up/Knock ‘em back, knock ‘em back, knock ‘em back, knock ‘em back.”
However, the whiskey glasses are being lifted over virtual connections this year instead of at the traditional black-tie dinners, thanks to coronavirus-related precautions.
“It feels weird to celebrate things when a lot of people are having a really, really hard deal,” says a circumspect McGinn. “It feels almost like I should feel guilty celebrating.”
The PROs still surprised the winners, though. McGinn was dragged to SESAC president/COO Kelli Turner’s house under a ruse that he needed to pick up a pie (“My girlfriend lied,” he deadpans), while others were lured into Zoom calls with cryptic warnings.
“We were told not to be in our underwear,” says Old Dominion’s Rosen with a laugh. “If they tell you you can’t be in your underwear, you probably won a major award.”
Joking aside, the victories carry some weight. Externally, fellow creators recognize the achievement. Internally, writers often feel pressure to repeat.
“The minute I find out, I start panicking that I’m not doing enough for next year,” confesses Copperman. “It’s a good reminder to celebrate things. I just find out the news and think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to go harder for next year.’ “
The PROs’ country awards are historically handed out on successive nights in the run-up to the Country Music Association Awards, slated this year for Nov. 11. While there are no formal ceremonies in virus-plagued 2020, the achievements are still being celebrated with online videos and announcements. Music has been an important source of relief for many amidst the isolation of the era, and the writers do not take that lightly.
“I’ve always been such a fan of the power of music,” notes Durrette. “I fell in love with its ability to connect people and heal people and make them feel not alone in their sadness or despair or happiness, for that matter. It’s just the ultimate connector.”
Thus, even after all the repetition, Gorley continues to pursue the vocation with a passion, even responding to a last-minute call to write at 10 p.m. with Lee Brice when he helped pen the recent No. 1 single “One of Them Girls.”
“It’s almost like a workout kind of energy,” says Gorley of his approach to the job. “It only has one gear for me. I can’t casually do it. So when we’re on it, we got a task at hand and we’re just kind of attacking it.”
Gorley’s success ratio is not the only reason he gets repeat business with many of Nashville’s songwriters and artists: He also brings an adaptability to the appointment.
“He’s really good at writing for the artist in the room and understanding what his needs are,” says Brett Young, who co-wrote his recent hit “Catch” with Gorley. “Aside from getting along really well, which helps a ton in a writer’s room, he knows me well enough now to know how to use his skill set, to really help me rise on my record.”
Not that the writing room is the only creative source. The opening line of “Whiskey Glasses” was inspired by a chorus that Burgess’ now-deceased father made up decades ago.
“He was a fireman, he was a first responder, and a singer-songwriter as well,” recalls Burgess. “He was always singing and coming up with little songs, and some of them were the most annoying things you’ve ever heard.”
The winning country songwriters, of course, aspire higher than annoyance. Burgess believes “Whiskey Glasses” succeeded because it was an honest assessment of heartbreak; Carly Pearce, whose “I Hope You’re Happy Now” was among ASCAP’s most-performed, sees her song in a similar light.
“Songs are vessels for truth, for making somebody feel comforted — no matter if it’s a good feeling or a bad feeling — to feel like you’re not alone,” she says. “To me, it’s my duty as a songwriter to write exactly what I go through in my truth because I know there’s somebody out there that needs to hear it.”
In the end, it’s the possibility of succeeding in that endeavor that leads country songwriters to repeatedly hunker down in small rooms and craft 3-minute pieces of commercial art.
“It’s the one thing to me that never gets old,” says Old Dominion’s Tursi. “I wake up every day excited to do it again.”