Nashville songwriters Luke Laird, Lori McKenna, and Barry Dean have individually and collectively written some of the biggest hits in country music over the past 20 years. They are well-known within the industry but are far from household names. The trio decided to issue an anthology of some of their most successful works with a twist. They would put out three separate releases with four songs apiece. Three of the tracks would be brand-new recordings of three past hits. The last would be a new song they penned and performed together. The volumes were released on 3 March (The Songwriter Tapes Vol. 1), 17 March (The Songwriter Tapes Vol. 2), and 31 March (The Songwriter Tapes Vol. 3).
The purpose and market for these albums are unclear. Three of the four songs on each record (and why are the digital recordings called “tapes”?) are well-known hits by stars, such as Kenny Chesney’s “American Kid”, Eric Church‘s “Give Me Back My Hometown”, and Tim McGraw‘s “Humble and Kind”. There’s a reason these songs were hits. The more stripped-down versions by the original writers on The Songwriter Tapes are not as good as the previously successful renditions, partly due to their added instrumentations, arrangements, and production values.
It might have made more sense to re-release the demo versions, which show how the songwriters pitched their tunes to the bigger-name artists. This would reveal the tweaks made from the originals and provide interesting information about the songwriting to hit process. Instead, we get the stripped-down versions that don’t seem any closer to capturing the heart of the songs. It’s not as if these renditions are bad. Anything Lori McKenna sings is enchanting just because of her charisma. Are the new songs meant to be demos for famous musicians to hear and record? That seems a bit strange in the context of the rest of the content.
Reportedly, the trio collaboratively chose what songs belonged on The Songwriter Tapes. The date of earliest selection was Dean’s 2004 hit with Martina McBride, “God’s Will”; the most recent is the Highwomen‘s “Crowded Table” from 2019. The three volumes of The Songwriter Tapes reveal a mix of musical styles and an obsession with deep emotions. What binds the story songs together is their shared emphasis on feelings. Whether their protagonists are innocent spirits who brighten the world with their presence or low-down drunks trying to ease their pain, the songs aim right at the listener’s heart.
The success of these three songwriters suggests that the key to making it in Nashville is through compassion and empathy, in contrast to the more stoic front its practitioners often present. Laird has had more than 50 radio singles, including 23 number-one hits. McKenna won two consecutive Grammys and made history in 2016 when she was crowned the first female songwriter of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Dean has had over 100 cuts of his songs recorded by artists such as Alison Krauss, Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett, Meatloaf, and Eric Church, as well as number one songs like Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication”, Michael Ray’s “Think a Little Less”, and Little Big Town’s Grammy-winning “Pontoon”.
Whether the three new songs here will become chart successes is unknown. Judging by the stripped-down versions of previous hits, one can never tell. Taken as a whole, they present a mixed bag for those wanting sentiment with their country music.