Like most industries, country music halted in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with elements beyond tours, awards shows and other front-and-center pieces of the entertainment puzzle remaining touch-and-go nearly two years later.
For example, "social distancing" becoming a shared part of our vocabulary changed how country songs got written on Music Row and elsewhere, with the brains behind some of your favorite hits collaborating digitally though Zoom (used here as a blanket term that also represents FaceTime, Teams and other audio-visual apps).
Just as switching from in-person gatherings to Zoom meetings disrupted the routines of students and workers from various walks of life, going digital presented specific challenges for co-writers used to giving and receiving in-person feedback while singing and playing along to works in progress.
"It's an adjustment, no doubt," Chris Young told Wide Open Country and other outlets while promoting his Famous Friends album. "It doesn't sound like much, but try to sing at the same time on a Zoom and see how that works. It doesn't work very well. It's hard to get everything lined up because it staggers and then people have clipping audio... It's just not the most conducive.
"It's not like sitting in a room across from somebody with two guitars, trying to write a song," Young continued. "Even outside of them trying to build tracks. You can send tracks back and forth, but getting it to that point and exchanging melodies back and forth... It's like, if I have an idea right in the moment when somebody's singing something, I can't sing over what they're doing. I have to wait for them to get done and then go, 'What about this?' That little moment of lag doesn't seem like much, but it can cause stuff to be like, 'Alright, I have to wait. Now I have to respond. Now I have to wait.' You don't get that feeling of back-and-forth you get with someone."
Lags and other downsides of video chats frustrated one of Blake Shelton's go-to hit-writers, Jessi Alexander, during the early weeks of an unexpected trend.
"We live kind of out where my service just isn't good for Zoom," Alexander said in April 2020. "I can FaceTime, but I can't Zoom. I spend most of a co-write booted off and trying to get back on. I equated it the other day to I'm out on the football field with all the players, but I keep running back and forth to concessions and coming back and missing the plays. A whole verse will go by and I've missed it because I'm trying to get back on."
Multiple songwriters asked about their digital experience pointed out that it's much easier to write with friends online than it is to build creative bonds from a distance with strangers.
"I look back on it like my dating years," Fish Fisher, a member of the East Tennessee singer-songwriter scene, explained. "If you dated somebody and you knew you were falling in love and then you had to be apart for a while, you could write each other and that's fine. It'd be really hard to start the other way around and just write each other and then consider yourself getting somewhere. I kind of feel the same way about co-writing. It's such a bond between people that if you already have the relationship, doing it online and stuff like that is no problem. I still want my first time co-writing with anybody to be where I'm in the room with them. You get to know each other as you're writing. That's how the friendship galvanizes."
For some, a needed feeling-out process for new co-writers didn't equal long-term defeat.
"I found the first 30 minutes of the write was getting to know each other, and I found when writing with someone new through Zoom it took more than one session," Stephanie Jacques said. "With people I work with all the time, we could still get a song done in one session."
Others appreciated the freedom of working at home enough to not sweat Zooming with new faces.
"If you were someone like me who was stubborn about only using Zoom, you had no choice but to start writing with people for the first time over Zoom," history-making producer and songwriter Alex Kline said. "Honestly, maybe the first couple of times it was a little odd, but then you got used to it. We'd still get on there and have conversations and get to know each other. I had a ton of first-time writes over Zoom, and it ended up to me not being weird. But some people had different experiences than I did. I'm a little bit of an introvert sometimes too, so I will say that sometimes it was nice to hang out in my sweatpants and write for a few hours. And then when the song is done, you can close your computer screen and everybody's gone and you can just do something else with your day."
Even when friends gathered digitally in search of a hit song, disrupted routines and missed physical cues sometimes equaled frustrating sessions.
"One thing that is missing is, let's say we get stuck on the chorus and we're like, 'Man, we're just not hooking it.' Someone will inevitably go, 'Hey, I'm going to get a Coke.' Another goes, 'Yeah, I'm going to get one, too.' And then you all stand up and get out of the room," Alexander explained. "Someone might go smoke a cigarette. Someone might walk around. It's just getting away from the song. Then when you get back in the room, you're fresh and you've gotten away from it and you're like, 'There it is. That's the line.'"
"I'm not a fan of the Zoom," Clay Walker added. "If it's all you got, you might try it, but body language is a big key in songwriting if you're going to co-write because it's a conversation. You could go down a rabbit hole if you don't pick up on somebody's body language pretty quickly. You can tell, 'Oh man, that's not laying in right,' and you abandon it quickly so you can move on to the next song."
The quietness of a writer or their collaborators' living space had some bearing on who missed in-person co-writes the most.
"I only did that like four times and it drove me crazy, so I just waited until we could get in the same room as people," Kane Brown stated. "You've got dogs barking in the background and all the distractions at home that you need to get away from to write, so Zoom was not for me."
On the flip side, some veterans with decades of songwriting experience embraced new technology while sequestered.
"It actually surprised me, and particularly with Brad Paisley," Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson said. "When I've written with Brad in the past, his mind is so full of so many different things. He'll look out the window and get up and get coffee or whatever. I had his undivided attention on Zoom, and I don't know that I ever had that before. It was really kind of fun once we got into it."
"It's not any different than sitting in the room with you," added Mike Dekle, the songwriter behind Kenny Rogers' 1983 hit "Scarlet Fever." "You can't go out to lunch with them, but I guess we're just having to improvise. The songwriting process is still the same. You've got to have a good idea and some idea about how to pursue it and get it on a guitar and tape."
Like most things in society, in-person songwriting sessions have been back longer than they went away. Socially-distanced backyard co-writes in the summer of 2020 restored some sense of normalcy, and the rise since then of vaccines and testing reopened writing room doors.
While some bid good riddance to Zoom months ago, others view skills learned at home in 2020 as a practical means to write songs on tour or with out-of-town colleagues.
"If I wanted to write when I was out on the road, I used to have to bring songwriters out on the bus with me," Wade Bowen said. "Which was fun, but it's also so difficult. It's difficult as a songwriter to come out and try to nail a couple of hours down for the artist who is so busy working all day and getting ready for the show. So now the fact that we can save some time and money and just hop on a Zoom together, I've been doing that a lot lately in the back of the bus."
"The positive to it is that it added that option," explained rising artist Tyler Braden. "Two years ago, no one would've thought to do that. Now, if someone's out of town, that option is still there."