CMA Songwriters Series for many UK country fans, signifies the start of the best weekend of the year – Country 2 Country! For me personally it has always been my favourite night, an intimate writers round with some of the best songwriters in the genre sharing the stories behind the hits they penned for the stars.
This year, arguably the most successful songwriter in country music hosted the round, Ashley Gorley. At present he has 62 number one hits and has had over 400 of his songs recorded. He has won 20 CMA triple play awards and last year was named NSAI Songwriter of the Decade. There couldn’t have been a worthier host! Lainey Wilson gave him a brilliant introduction saying, “every song you’ve ever heard, Ashley probably wrote it.” In the first round, situated at the keyboard, he opened the show with ‘One of Them Girls’ which went on to become a smash hit for Lee Brice in 2020. Instantly the crowd loved what they were hearing with many singing along.
In every round Gorley played a song that had topped the charts. He spoke of what it was like to develop the next song with Chris Stapleton. ‘You Should Probably Leave’ was another released in 2020 but it topped the charts last year. The next time his turn came around he had everyone bouncing along to a song Cole Swindell made famous, ‘She Had Me At Heads Carolina’ which Gorley explained came from a session where they looked to take a country song and flip it. Being big fans of nineties country they chose the Jo Dee Messina’s ‘Heads Carolina, Tails California’. Worley, Swindell, Jesse Frasure and Thomas Rhett made lyrical and melodic references to that song and credited the original writers on their chart topper.
For his final song of the night, Gorley finished on a ballad, explaining that he loves to write piano ballads but they don’t always get cut, let alone be chosen as the single. He went on to play one of his biggest hits last year, made famous by the man of the moment Morgan Wallen, ‘Sand In My Boots’. The unsuspecting audience members who were perhaps not aware previously of the talent Gorley possessed were blown away by him. Those of us who were aware were just grateful to have been able to see him and hear the stories behind some of these record-breaking songs.
Many were delighted to see Lainey Wilson in this setting who was sitting to Gorley’s right. Dressed in her signature style of bell-bottom jeans and a cool hat, she endeared herself to the crowd with her talk between songs. She opened with a song she wrote about her Dad, telling the story of how the biggest win for her at the CMA’s was getting to walk in with her dad. She went on to play ‘Those Boots’. She had many fans in the crowd who sang along to her second choice, ‘Heart Like a Truck’ whilst ‘Hillbilly Hippie’ had them bouncing in their seats. Wilson who had been suffering all week having lost her voice was nervous about hitting the high notes but the delivery of her hit ‘Things A Man Oughtta Know’ was near flawless.
Dalton Dover was a fairly new name to me when he was first announced but I am walking away tonight converted. I enjoyed what I knew of his catalogue before but he’s a really exciting artist who is certainly going places. He joined in tonight with some backing vocals here and there when his fellow writers were performing. In the first round, he introduced himself with ‘Giving Up On That’ which was released earlier this year. He also shared a new one, fresh from the writers room which was exciting to hear and has a lot of potential called ‘You Need A Rock’. The song he concluded with was actually penned by the man sat next to him, Nate Smith. ‘Baby I Am’ changed and shaped Dover’s early career and the two men shared a moment of gratitude for each others roles in that song. Dover has a lovely voice and is full of enthusiasm, I think he has a bright future as both a writer and performer ahead of him.
Nate Smith is a man quickly on the rise. Wilson says he is as lovely as he is talented and he certainly seems happy to be here. His voice grew as the show went on, that grittiness from his records shining through but he kept that power as he hit the big notes too. ‘I Don’t Wanna Go To Heaven’ really tugged on the heartstrings as he told of the different ways that people have connected with this song and written to him about it. He saved his first number one until last as the audience joined in with him for ‘Whiskey On You’. Smith is one of my favourite new artists and I’m looking forward to seeing where he can go as both a writer and artist.
For the first three rounds, a special guest joined them for a song at the conclusion of the round. To begin with, we had the talented Alana Springsteen who played a song that clearly resonated with a lot of people in the room, myself included as she performed ‘Twenty Something’. Second was Tyler Braden who blew me away as he belted out the cleverly crafted, ‘Try Losing One’ which Ashley Gorley said he wished he’d written. The way that chorus builds to that pay off line is brilliant. He signed a copy of his CD and gave it out to a fan in the front row. Finally, Caylee Hammack took to the stage, a popular addition as the audience whooped. She played ‘Small Town Hypocrite’ and told the story behind how Chris Stapleton came to duet on the song.
A special mention has to go to the two musicians on stage who accompanied our songwriters, jumping in and adding extra licks to the songs. It was a fantastic evening put on by the CMA and really eased us in to this phenomenal, country filled weekend!