NBC’s new songwriting competition Songland , a.k.a “Shark Tank for songwriters,” has provided a fascinating peek into the process of how raw songs, submitted by unknown composers, can transform in the studio once professional tunesmiths work their magic. That definitely happened this Wednesday, when country quintet Old Dominion guested on the show in search of a nostalgic anthem to record for an upcoming Jeep commercial. But interestingly, the Old Dominion guys thought contestant Katelyn Tarver’s winning entry, “Young,” was too “feminine,” and that it needed to be toughened up before they’d be willing to record it.
“We have to change something to make it for us, but it was just too good to let it go, “ lead singer Matthew Ramsey explained.
I suppose I could see where Old Dominion were coming from. Many mainstream country hits nowadays are all about trucks, and this week’s winning song would actually be used to sell trucks. But what was wrong with Tarver’s swoony lines about making out on the sofa and spilling wine on the carpet? Country bros don’t liking making out or sipping some refreshing rosé? All Tarver really had to do was switch the word “wine” to “whiskey” or “beer,” and the song would be ready to go, presumably.
Old Dominion were at least in touch enough with their feminine side to advance “Young” to the next workshop round -- where Tarver was paired with resident Songland judge and mentor Shane McAnally. Tarver had a big advantage over the episode’s other two finalists, since McAnally is one of the most successful country music writers of all time, with a résumé that includes several hits for his old pals… Old Dominion. Tarver had confessed that she often struggles with writer’s block and self-doubt, and Old Dominion’s gender-specific comments may have rattled her confidence even more, but with McAnally on her side, it seemed she could not lose.
McAnally said Tarver’s song needed to be “busted wide open” so it would be “tougher” and bigger. “Right now, it almost has a singer-songwriter female vibe, but it needs to feel like a band -- and that a guy could say this,” he reasoned. Shane’s solution? Pulsing ‘80s bass! To me that just made “Young” sound like “Kids in America” by (female) new wave artist Kim Wilde -- but hey, I’m not a professional song doctor, so what do I know? Plus, sounding like Kim Wilde is not a bad thing.
Returning during the final round, McAnally enlisted a male demo singer to perform the revised “Young’s” lead vocal, relegating Tarver to the harmony parts, so that Old Dominion and Jeep president Olivier Francois could get a better idea of how the final version would sound in the studio. It was a little hokey -- though not as hokey as eliminated contestants Maci’s “Take a Ride” and Jake Scott’s “Journey,” both which were too-on-the-nose and seemed blatantly calculated to soundtrack a car commercial. (Maybe their next compositions could be titled “Ranch Dressing Sure Improves a Salad” or “I Love My iPhone X.” Good luck, guys.) The new, slightly more macho “Young” did feel more organic than those songs, and its bright, wide-open-spacey festival feeling had McAnally’s fellow judge, Ester Dean, yearning to reach for a cigarette lighter and raise it in salute. So clearly this track will appeal to both male and female listeners – and I raise a glass of wine to that.
“When I first heard this song, I felt the heart in it,” said Ramsey. “Shane is really good at recognizing a great song but that it might be missing something. It really feels like you found a lot of special things in this song.”
This is a fantastic opportunity for Tarver, just like when previous Songland winner Kyle Williams had his tune recorded by Aloe Blacc for the Hobbs & Shaw soundtrack; in an age when it’s harder and harder to actually sell records or get on the radio, securing a TV or film placement is crucial for rising artists. But I do hope that another contestant this week, Jacobi.E, gets his shot eventually. His entry, “Westside,” while more Bieber-esque pop than country, was the by far the hookiest of this Wednesday’s song crop (Old Dominion said it had “so many cool melody nuggets”), and it even translated brilliantly to twangy acoustic guitar. The next time I am cruising down the highway in my non-Jeep, “Westside” is the song I’ll be cranking.