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THE HITMAKER

Taylor's Triumph

When she's not selling a gazillion records, Swift's really just another Nashville songwriter with stories to tell

When she sat down to write Fearless in 2008, Taylor Swift's goal was simple: to tell stories of heartache and hope. "I write songs about boys and love and relationships. I write melodies that inspire me," says Taylor. "I really don't sit down and think, 'Alright, let's make an album for this demographic, and let's make it this type of country." But the songs that poured out of Swift on her sophomore effort hit a chord with music fans everywhere. "Love Story," "You Belong With Me," "White Horse" and "Fifteen" were all in the Top 10 on the charts.

Having reinvented country-pop in only her second decade, CMA's Entertainer of the Year is already working on songs for her next release. "I write stuff down in my journal, then rip the pages out and stuff them in my guitar case," she says. "I've written on hotel stationery, on envelopes, on napkins, on my laptops-pretty much everything." And her life in the spotlight won't change her songwriting. "I've never felt like traveling on planes and staying in hotel rooms and playing on stages in front of thousands of people should affect the way you write songs," she says. "It's not about the accomplishments. It's about what your heart is going through."

TAYLOR ON TOP

Fearless was the bestselling album of 2009 and helped make Swift Billboard's Artist of the Year across all genres. She is also the bestselling digital artist in music history.

HEARING A HIT

"No one wanted me to record 'Love Story,' " she says. "Nobody thought it was good. But I heard it in my head. I thought it could be magical."

HE'S STILL GOT IT!

A 'River of Love' for King George's 44th No. 1

THE SONG: Written by Billy Burnette, Shawn Camp and Dennis Morgan, "Love" has a calypso groove.

WHAT MADE IT FUN: Burnette had returned from a trip to Hawaii with a ukulele. Camp also had one with him, and from there, the song "just kind of fell out.... The good songs do."

A NEAR MISS: All three are prolific writers, and "we kinda forgot we wrote it," admits Camp. A week or so later, Billy said, "That 'River of Love' was pretty good."

BY GEORGE: According to Burnette, Strait heard the song, liked it, but said, "It's not for me." When he couldn't get it out of his head a week later, he realized he should record it.

DIERKS'S PARTY SONG

THE SONG: "Sideways" by Bentley and Jim Beavers was Dierks's seventh No. 1 and spawned a funky club mix.

HOW THEY DID IT: "I started it on a plane in 2008," says Bentley, who wanted to do a tune about "getting loose and having fun." After having breakfast with Beavers at Nashville's Sam and Zoe's, Bentley persuaded his pal, who was supposed to write with someone else that day, to cancel his session. The two started working on "Sideways," and "we were done by lunch," says Beavers.

THE SECRET FORMULA: "I still write for the kid in me," says Dierks. "Does this song go well with Bud Lite? Yes it does."

A CRAZY LITTLE SONG FOR BILLY

THE SONG: Currington's third No. 1, "People Are Crazy," written by songwriting legend Bobby Braddock and Troy Jones, has been nominated for everything. It was recorded by Kenny Chesney too, but never released.

HOW THEY DID IT: Jones started with three statements-"God is great, beer is good, people are crazy." He brought that to a session with Braddock, who suggested that the old man die in the third verse.

BILLY'S TWIST: "When I do it in concert," Currington says, "I change the next-to-last line to 'Women are crazy,' which gets a laugh."

THE DYNAMIC DUO

It Happens...To Be a Hit

How Sugarland scored with this upbeat tune about life's lows

Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush knew from the start that "It Happens" had hit written all over it. "We all know what it's like to have one of those days," she says. "The concept speaks to every person on the planet." Despite lyrics that start with a missed alarm clock and are followed by a car wreck, "It Happens" is a decidedly cheery song-and a No. 1 hit for Sugarland. "They just know how to make things lighter than they really are," says cowriter Bobby Pinson. "I love the line 'Let's go laughing,' " adds Nettles. "Laughter is the best release and, to me, feels like the healthiest reaction to the ridiculous things that can happen in your day." Though the idea had pretty broad appeal ("How many times do you say, 'S--- happens'?" asks Pinson), because the word wasn't exactly radio-friendly, they "Sugarlanded it up." Nettles loves performing it live: "I take the liberty to string together the 'Psssh...It happens.' As we all know, that is the play on words anyway!"

JASON'S MONSTER HIT

THE SONG: "Big Green Tractor" by Jim Collins and David Lee Murphy, which spent four weeks at No. 1.

CLAIM TO FAME: Changing the career of Aldean, 32, who says he didn't think too much about the song's sexual innuendo until "people started bringing it up."

HOW IT BEGAN: Murphy says, "One day, I was bush-hogging on my John Deere 5300." The next day, he ran into Collins, who wrote Kenny Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," and this ode to farm life was born.

THE FUNNY THING IS: Jake Owen planned to record it but then passed. "I thank Jake every time I see him," Aldean jokes. "I have to take him to dinner."

WHERE I WRITE

Kicking Up His 'Boots'

With help from Elvis and 'Jack,' Randy Houser shares the inspiration behind 'Boots On'

Inside the den of his Nashville home, Randy Houser, 34, "lights my candles and listens. The songs are in the air." Having plucked out Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," Houser, working with cowriter Brandon Kinney, penned "Boots On" as "a tribute to people who ain't afraid to get dirty." The phrase is usually used with gunmen like Billy the Kid who went out with their "boots on" if they were killed in a gun fight. But another kid, Drake Dixon, 5, son of writer Dillon Dixon, turned the song into a sensation with his boot-kicking MySpace video. "It was hilarious," says Houser. "People didn't think he was real!"

1. THE JACK BARREL

"This was a Christmas gift from my guitar player Keith Gattis. My daddy was a Jack drinker. I've always been a Jack drinker. I love the logo, the look of the bottle. I drink it with Diet Coke. I can't drink it straight up. That wouldn't be a good idea."

2. LOUIS ARMSTRONG

"This was a gift from my mom, about 10 years ago. It's gone with me everywhere I've lived. He belongs in here. He's got a little chunk out of him in the back.... [Louis knows] being on the road will take something out of you."

3. MY BOOTS

"I have about 12 pairs. I once worked at a store that sells boots. But it's not like I'm buying them like girls buy shoes. I just resole them. The ones I've been wearing lately are Old Gringo. If I'm going somewhere fancy, I'll just polish up a pair."

4. & 5. MY PAINTINGS

"I love Elvis and the meaning of this painting by singer Ronnie McDowell. The kid holding the guitar reminds me of my life. Elvis is looking back, remembering being that kid. And the boots painting was a gift to represent the work of last year. I like having things that tell a story."

DARIUS'S DAZZLING DEBUT

THE SONGS: Two chart-topping hits-"It Won't Be Like This for Long" (by Chris DuBois, Ashley Gorley and Darius Rucker) and "Alright" (by Rucker and Frank Rogers)-give the former rocker true country cred.

THE FUNNY THING IS: Rucker and his cowriters wrote "It Won't Be Like This" as "a lullaby for our kids," he says. "We never thought it'd be a hit."

NOT SO "ALRIGHT": Rucker was "in a lot of pain" the night he and Rogers started the song. The next morning, he called Rogers to say he couldn't write that day because he was in the hospital. (He would need three surgeries to treat a staph infection in his knee.) Later, as the duo were finishing the song at Rucker's house in South Carolina, they came to the rescue of a neighborhood girl who toppled over a fish tank and needed to go to the hospital for stitches.

APPEARING ON OPRAH: "I was scheduled for a vacation, and on the calendar it said, 'Darius off-unless Oprah calls.' And the call came!"

RADIO POWER

On a tour of 85 stations, Rucker says, "every time we played 'It Won't Be Like This...,' somebody cried."

SORRY, BILLY

"Alright" pushed "People Are Crazy" out of the No. 1 spot.

ZAC'S EASY RECIPE

THE SONGS: With "Whatever It Is" and "Chicken Fried," written by Zac Brown and Wyatt Durrette, the Zac Brown Band garnered both CMA and Grammy nods.

WHAT IS THE MESSAGE BEHIND "CHICKEN FRIED"? "Simple pleasures," says Brown, who was a chef in his previous life. "As long as we have those things, everything's good."

TRY IT AT HOME: "People can't understand the chorus of 'Whatever It Is'," says Durrette. "Keith Urban gives Zac a hard time about the beginning. We've all had a good laugh about that."

THE BREAKTHROUGH

Lady A's 'Need'

The trio finished the year on top with their hymn to heartbreak

THE SONG: Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," written by Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Josh Kear. It's the title single from the band's new CD.

IT STARTED WITH THE MUSIC: "Charles just started to learn the guitar, and he used the two chords he knew-the C and E minor-and was like, 'I have this little verse melody!' " says Haywood.

HARVESTING HEARTBREAK: The lyrics had special meaning for Hillary, who had just gone through a breakup. "I was in a devastated place," says Scott. "It was Lifetime movie-esque. I was cheated on, lied to, made to feel stupid." But, she notes, unlike in the song, she said she wouldn't call-and she didn't.

LYRICAL LESSON: "My favorite line is 'I guess I'd rather hurt than feel nothing at all,' " says Kelley. "It's so true. We had that conversation with Hillary, and I told her, 'The fact that you loved so strong that it hurt means a lot.' "

RECORD BREAKER

"Need You Now" topped the country singles chart for five weeks in 2009.

NEAR MISS

"I Run to You" was named Billboard's top country single in '09, but "it was the dark horse," Scott says. "It was the last song we recorded on our album."

COWGIRLS GET AIRPLAY

THE SONG: Performed by Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire, "Cowgirls Don't Cry" was written by Ronnie Dunn and Terry McBride, of McBride & the Ride, who now plays bass in the B&D band. It was the 42nd Top 10 hit for B&D and the 56th for Reba.

THE MAGIC MOMENT: The song was on the duo's 2007 Cowboy Town, but it wasn't until they rerecorded it with Reba as a single that it hit the charts.

A FAMILY AFFAIR: Dunn thought of Reba while writing the song, and his daughter Haley, 15, played a young Reba in the video.

THEY SAID WHAT?

The Lyrics That Weren't

Brad Paisley reveals his wife's talent for mishearing songs and shares his fave mix-ups

For Brad Paisley, it can be summed up in five simple words: "Hold me closer, Tony Danza."

That misguided take on the Elton John lyric ("Hold me closer, tiny dancer") was just one of his favorite responses to his recent Twitter call for misunderstood song lyrics. But the singer doesn't have to look any further than wife Kimberly for other examples. "Kim has a knack for getting words wrong," says Paisley. "She thought that the 'Heart of Rock and Roll' was 'The heart of rock and roll is forbidden, and from what I've seen I'm the reason.' " But Kim's not alone in her gift for gaffe. Paisley's tweet yielded mangled gems for the Eagles ("Desperado, you've been outright offensive"), Bon Jovi ("Your love is like bad venison") and Creedence Clearwater Revival ("There's a baboon on the rise"). "Some of them were awesome," says Paisley. "It's funny, when you say some of these lyrics, you can't remember the real ones."

OUR FAVORITE MIXER-UPPER

ERIC CHURCH'S MOM

"My mom thought my song 'Two Pink Lines' was 'Two Pink Lions,' so she was confused about what two big pink cats had to do with a pregnancy test. I unfortunately had more explaining to do when she found out what the song was really about!"

LOOK WHO ELSE HEARD IT WRONG

JASON MICHAEL CARROLL

Song: "Fancy" by Reba McEntire. "I thought it was 'To say the least, we wore hard breasts,' and not 'were hard-pressed.' I didn't know what that meant, but I was thinking, 'Wow, that's poor!' "

JESSICA HARP

Song: "Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks. "My little cousin sang, 'I'm not big on social graces' as 'I'm not big on sausage gravy.' It was so cute we all started singing it that way."

BLAKE SHELTON

Song: "These Are My People" by Rodney Atkins. "I thought he was singing, 'This is my peehole, this is where I come from.' Now when I hear it, I can't help laughing."

HOLLY WILLIAMS

Song: "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. "When I was 15 or 16, I sang, 'Wheat fields keep on burning, taking me home to see my friends.' "

EMILY WEST

Song: "Amazing Grace." "I thought it was 'How sweet the sound that saved a wench like me.' "

FLASHBACK TO A CLASSIC

Garth Gets Rowdy

It's been 20 years since Garth Brooks introduced us to his rafter-raising 'Friends in Low Places'

WRITTEN BY: Veteran songwriters DeWayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee.

HOW IT BEGAN: The two were eating lunch at a Nashville tavern in the mid-'80s when Blackwell asked Lee how they'd pay the bill. "I said, 'Don't worry about it. I've got friends in low places,' " recalls Lee. But it was another year and another meal that got them to put pen to paper-or, in this case, napkin. At a champagne brunch the words, like the liquor, started flowing, and they scribbled them on a long-since-disappeared serviette. "It came out in 20 minutes," Lee says. "We went to DeWayne's apartment, picked up the guitar and the melody came out."

THEN CAME GARTH: The pair asked pal Brooks, who had just released his first album, to sing the demo for "Friends" as a favor. Garth liked the song so much, he wanted it for his second album. But before he got to the studio, Mark Chesnutt recorded it. "Garth was pretty upset," Lee recalls. "But I had not licensed the song to Mark as a single, so Garth could still have it."

WHAT ABOUT THAT THIRD VERSE? In concert, Garth started adding a feistier stanza to reflect what he said he might do in such a situation. (It ends with "Then sweet little lady, I'll head back to the bar / And you can kiss my ass.") "After he performed it so many times, he needed to freshen it up a little bit," says Lee. "I was just as excited to hear it as anyone else."

SINCE "FRIENDS" MADE HISTORY...Blackwell took his royalty money and eventually moved to Mexico, while Lee continued songwriting in Nashville. Still, Lee says he has learned one big lesson: He doesn't throw away the napkins he writes on anymore. "I have a drawer full of them."

TROPHY HUNT

"Friends" won both the CMA and ACM awards for 1990 Single of the Year.

SINGING ALONG

Blackwell and Lee are among the crowd who sing backup for Brooks on the chorus.

IN STORES

The first single from Brooks's No Fences CD, the song helped sell more than 16 million copies.

  • Contributors:
  • Rennie Dyball,
  • Eileen Finan,
  • Melinda Newman,
  • Rob Tannenbaum,
  • Kay West.