During the 31st annual Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival, held March 28 through April 1 in Nashville, Tennessee, hit songwriters Ashley Gorley, Taylor Phillips, Wyatt McCubbin, and Casey Brown performed to a sold-out crowd at 3rd & Lindsley. Organized by the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival spanned 10 different stages over the course of five days, offering fans the unique opportunity to hear the stories behind the songs they know and love, as well as hear brand new songs that may become the hits of tomorrow.
With 65 No.1 songs under his belt, Ashley Gorley could have easily played a marathon show of just his own hits, but it was easy to see how much pride he takes in shining a spotlight on and mentoring others. Gorley is the founder and owner of the music publishing company Tape Room Music, who curated the show.
Out of his more than five dozen chart-toppers, Gorley performed “One of Them Girls” (Lee Brice), “You Should Probably Leave” (Chris Stapleton), “She Had Me At Heads Carolina” (Cole Swindell), and “Sand in My Boots” (Morgan Wallen). Before each song, Gorley took fans into the writing room and shared how the tune was written.
“We wrote this, we started this song at about 10:30 PM, finished at about 3:00 AM, then he [Brice] cut it at 10:00 AM after that,” said Gorley, recalling how quickly “One of Them Girls” was recorded after writing it. He jokingly warned songwriters in the room, “Don’t get used to that.”
In contrast, Gorley shared the story of a song that took 10 years to go from a hold to a No.1 hit. Talking about Chris Stapleton’s “You Should Probably Leave,” Gorley said “It was fun that a song we wrote in, 2011, 12? Something like that. Was number one last year. So anybody that is holding onto them holds for a while. Keep on holding on. So this is a 10-year hold that ended up being number one.”
Gorley described the songwriting process as he recalled writing “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” with Cole Swindell while on tour with Thomas Rhett. “Cole loves nineties country music. He’s a walking talking jukebox, you know, like he’s all about it. He was just kind of flirting with the idea of trying to, figure out how to kind of flip an old song into something new. Thankfully I was there, and we were kind of talking about it and we went through it.” There were so many 90s hits to consider, but Swindell suggested Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” Gorley says they worked on it for a long time. “There are so many different angles as writers. We prewrite, write and rewrite. So we did a bunch of different angles and landed on this one.” The track recently won iHeart Radio Country Song of the Year.
Morgan Wallen’s “Sand in My Boots” was written by Gorley along with HARDY and Josh Osborne, who had never written together before. “We kind of threw around some ideas. Already had a title that honestly thought was gonna be a beach cowboy redneck song. One thing we do in the room when we’re writing and we’re just like, okay, what about that title? What’s something nobody would think to do with that title? So we kind of went down that road for a minute and they said, hey, get on the piano and just start doing stuff, which I’m like, oh, we want a piano ballad. I’m in heaven. I love it. We don’t do a lot of those. There’s not room for too many of those, but that’s what this ended up being.” Gorey admitted he thought that a slow piano song cut would get kicked off the record or be a “Walgreens bonus track,” but it ultimately became the first song on the album. “Just from the iPhone voice memo, which I still have, just a one take kind of playing it down, to us talking in the background and everything, Morgan Wallen heard this and said, Hey, don’t play that for anybody else. I’m gonna record that.”
Tape Room Music writer Wyatt McCubbin performed two songs that he’s recorded as an artist, “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floors” and “Honky Damn Tonk,” as well as a song cut by Kameron Marlowe (“We Were Cowboys”), and a song that’s on hold with Eric Church (“Boy in the Boat”). McCubbin talked about the evolution of the song from a Zoom write to hearing Church’s vocals on the unreleased track. “I wrote this with a buddy of mine named Erik Dylan. We write every Tuesday, and it just happened to be one of those Zoom Tuesdays where we didn’t feel like getting out of the sweatpants or our house. He was like, man, let’s just, I’ll see you at 10:30 on the computer from the waist up and we’ll call it good. Erik was kind of hunkered down at the time. He had just had his third son and that was kind of a big inspiration for this song.” The song about a father and son going fishing didn’t go anywhere for a few months, until it got into the hands of Eric Church. “A good buddy of mine, Jonathan Singleton, had sent this on to Eric Church and somehow some way got it right to him when he could listen for three minutes. A day later we had a work tape of Eric Church doing it on our phones. And it’s unreleased and I hope you don’t mind, but I’m gonna test it out on y’all, so fingers crossed.”
Casey Brown also previewed an unreleased song by a superstar artist. He recalled the moment he found out “Heart Like a Hometown” had been recorded by Keith Urban. On a Friday afternoon around 4:30 pm, Brown was shutting down his computer for the day when he got a call from producer Dan Huff. “If you don’t know who he is, he’s produced every song you’ve ever loved. He’s the man and I’ve gotten to work with him a little bit and he’s awesome. And he calls me up and he goes, Hey, did you write a song called ‘Heart Like a Hometown’? And I was like, I did. And he goes, we cut it. It sounds amazing. It’s going to mix.” Brown asked who cut it and Huff replied that it was Urban. “And so all that to say, I have no idea what it means,” he laughed. “If the record comes out, you can call me a liar or you can comment on the Instagram and be like, Hey, where is Heart Like a Hometown?” Brown also performed his cuts “Blue Tacoma” (Russell Dickerson) and “Cowboy Boots” (Dierks Bentley, Ashley McBryde).
One of the most fascinating stories behind a song came from Taylor Phillips, who says he “held HARDY hostage” to write “Better Boy,” recorded by Nate Smith. “I had this song idea I’ve always wanted to write and nobody would write it with me. So I literally held HARDY hostage in a Tahoe in Texas. We pulled over on the side of the road and I said, man, I know we don’t have a guitar in this car, but, we got some creative minds and… I ain’t writing with 25 songwriters when we get back down this gravel road, so we’re gonna have to just pull over right here. He’s like, well, we’re gonna have to go get me a can of dip. So we went and did that and we wrote this like a poem.” The original work tape even has NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr. in the back reacting to the song as they recorded it. “He says, ‘God almighty, that is amazing!’ So that’s the work tape that I pitched to my buddy Nate Smith and he recorded this song.” Phillips also performed his cuts by Morgan Wallen (“Thinkin’ Bout Me”) and Brantley Gilbert (“Heaven By Then”), as well as an unrecorded tune called “One of My Songs.”
This round of chart-topping hits was just one of 98 shows held at 10 different venues across Nashville during the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival, featuring more than 400 performers. Each year, Tin Pan South selects a nonprofit organization to receive proceeds from one of the participating shows. The official charity for 2023 was The Store, which is a free year-round grocery store on 12th Avenue South at Caldwell Avenue in Nashville that allows qualifying families to ‘shop’ for their basic needs with dignity. The Store collaborates with other organizations to solve hunger issues through food security and community empowerment programs. Established in 1967, NSAI is the world’s largest not-for-profit songwriters trade association with a membership of nearly 5,000 professional and developing songwriters of all genres. The organization’s mission is to advocate, educate, elevate and celebrate songwriters.
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