Many country fans never know the songwriters behind their favorite songs. Sure, there are plenty of singer-songwriters out there who, at the very least, co-write their own music. Most songwriters stay behind the scenes and enjoy watching artists take their works to the top of the charts. On the other hand, some country songwriters make the transition to performing. From legends like Willie Nelson to up-and-coming hitmakers like HARDY, several country stars got their start writing songs for other artists.
This list is made up of songwriters who found success on both sides of the divide. They started out writing behind the scenes and broke onto the scene with successful careers as performers. Some are icons, some are just starting to break, and others you may not have heard of until now.
Willie Nelson is a country music icon. He was one of the pioneers of outlaw country in the seventies. These days, Willie is a household name. He is known for his acting, his impressive pot consumption, and his affable personality just as much as for his decades-long musical career.
Before he was an icon, Willie Nelson held many jobs. He was a radio disc jockey for a while in Washington. Then, he moved to Texas after signing a contract with D Records. He would play the Esquire Ballroom in Houston weekly. However, he wasn’t releasing any music at the time.
While in Houston, he wrote several songs that would go on to become iconic country hits. For instance, Willie Nelson wrote Patsy Cline’s hit song “Crazy.” He also wrote, “Hello Walls” which was made famous by Faron Young.
Nelson would get his first number-one hit with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. At the time, the song was over thirty years old and had been recorded by several different artists.
Chris Stapleton got his start as a songwriter. In 2001 he moved to Nashville to pursue his music writing career. While working as a songwriter, he co-wrote hits for some of country music’s biggest names.
Many country fans are well-acquainted with Stapleton’s work and may not even know it. He co-wrote “Never Wanted Nothing More” which was a number-one hit for Kenny Chesney. Stapleton also co-wrote Josh Turner’s chart-topper “Your Man.”
He even co-wrote a tune for the King of Country Music, George Strait. “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright,” went to number three for Strait.
Stapleton started performing as a vocalist a few years after moving to Nashville. He was one of the founding members of The Jompson Brothers in 2007 and started fronting The Steeldrivers in 2008.
The Jompson Brothers were a southern rock band and The Steeldrivers are a bluegrass ensemble.
Muck like Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton got a huge break when he performed a song written by someone else from years prior. After performing his cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” on the 2015 CMA Awards with Justin Timberlake, Stapleton’s career exploded. While that performance was a huge moment for him, he was already off to a great start. That night he won multiple awards including Album of the Year for “Traveller”.
Brandy Clark is an up-and-coming country singer-songwriter. She has released three studio albums, an EP, and a live album. Clark has only had one minor hit with 2016’s “Girl Next Door” which reached number 39 on the country airplay chart.
She has some serious country music street cred, though. Clark made her Grand Ole Opry debut playing Mary Stuart’s Opry Aniversary celebration, Later, she shared the stage with Stuart at his Late Night Jam at the Ryman. She has also written chart-toppers for some of country music’s brightest stars.
For instance, Brandy Clark co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart” for Miranda Lambert. The song went to number two on the hot country chart.
She has written or co-written songs for Jennifer Nettles, Gretchen Wilson, Darius Rucker, Reba McEntire, and LeAnn Rimes, and several more.
Her 2020 “Your Life Is a Record” is getting positive reviews from critics and fans alike. The album peaked at number two on the UK Country Albums chart. Maybe Nashville and country radio just don’t have room for Clark right now. It’s a damned shame, really.
Maybe Brandy Clark needs to go the Willie Nelson route and do a cover so that people take notice.
HARDY, or Hardy, if you don’t want to wear out the shift key, released his first EP in 2018. His first album, “Hixtape Vol.1” dropped in 2019 and his sophomore album “A Rock” came out earlier this year.
He has written hit songs for some of the best artists in mainstream country music including “God’s Country” for Blake Shelton. He has also written a couple of hit songs for Florida Georgia Line and several for Morgan Wallen.
The fact of the matter is that Hardy knows what it takes to write songs that go to the top of the charts. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him dominating the charts within the next couple of years. He’s already getting plenty of buzz and the critics seem to like him as well.
The songs on his releases are usually fun, clever, and a little tongue-in-cheek. Hardy may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he’s fun to listen to and he knows how to work the system. Expect to see more of him soon.
Maren Morris is one of the hottest artists in mainstream country today. Her 2019 album “Girl” won the Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards.
That same album set the record for debut week streams for a female country artist. Her single “The Bones” was the first multi-week number-one song in nearly a decade. She is also a member of the female supergroup The Highwomen.
Before she was bringing home awards and smashing streaming records, she was writing tunes for country stars. Artists like Tim McGraw, Kelly Clarkson, and Jessie James Decker have cut songs that she wrote.
Between her solo career and her work with The Highwomen, Maren Morris has carved out a place for herself in coountry music. Artists like Morris and the Highwomen can bring women back to prominence on country radio.
Lee Brice released his first studio album, “Love Like Crazy” in 2010. Since then, Brice has released five more albums. In his relatively short career, he has landed seven number-one hit songs.
One of those hits, “I Don’t Dance” helped to launch Jimmie Allen’s career. When Allen posted a cover of the song online, he blew up. Now, he’s releasing hits of his own.
Years before Lee Brice was writing hits and unintentionally launching careers, he was writing monster hits for various other artists. The list of artists who have cut Brice’s songs is as long as it is diverse. To name a few, that list includes Jason Aldean, Trailer Choir, Sister Hazel, The Eli Young Band, and country icon Garth Brooks.
In fact, Brice co-wrote Garth’s number-one hit “More Than a Memory” with Billy Montana and Kyle Jacobs. The song was the first to debut on The Hot Country Songs Chart at number one.
Townes Van Zandt
The best possible introduction to Townes Van Zandt comes from the intro track on the posthumously-released “Somebody Had to Write It” album. “Townes Van Zandt was a traveling troubadour whose body of work rivals that of any writer. His songs came from his life and he lived his life with a robust abandon that made those songs some of the best literature of the twentieth century.”
Van Zandt didn’t reach any real prominence until after his death. In recent years, he has gained popularity as fans of folk and alternative country discover his music. In fact, he spent most of this life playing dive bars and avoiding the limelight. Some of his story can be seen in the outlaw country documentary “Heartworn Highways.”
While Van Zandt didn’t seek fame, he wrote some of the biggest hits in country music history. In fact, the tune made famous by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard “Pancho and Lefty,” was written by Townes Van Zandt.
In the end, Townes Van Zandt was the very picture of the tortured genius. He wrote songs that other artists made famous. He, on the other hand, just wanted to write songs and live his simple but free life.