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Makin‘ Tracks: Tyler Hubbard Enlists Keith Urban for Upbeat ’Dancin’ in the Country’

todayJanuary 9, 2023

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It’s not a song that will change the world, but it might well change a listener’s mood for three and a half minutes.


Tyler Hubbard’s second solo single – “Dancin’ in the Country,” released to country radio by EMI Nashville on Nov. 21 via PlayMPE – is 21st-century redneck disco, a four-on-the-four backbeat topped with a joyous melody, carefree lyrics and an unfettered country band, freed to play smart fills and jaw-dropping passages that defy the genre’s historically conservative approach to arrangements.

It’s generated from Hubbard’s home life, where rambunctious energy is welcome.

“Every night after dinner, we have a dance party,” he says. “A lot of times I’m playing them songs that I’ve written, and when the kids love the songs, whether it’s songs I’ve written or other songs, it just makes them feel good and want to dance.”

Hubbard brought a story about that experience into the room and submitted it as a guiding principle when he wrote the song on Nov. 3, 2021, at a Black River studio. Originally, the writing session was booked with fellow composers Jon Nite (“Pick Me Up,” “You Didn’t”) and Ross Copperman (“Gold,” “I Lived It”), but Hubbard amped it up a few days early when he invited Keith Urban to sit in.

“I don’t think I even slept the night before,” Nite recalls, “because I was all keyed up on the nerves of like, ‘Do not screw this up.’“

Nite wasn’t sure if they were writing for Urban or for Florida Georgia Line – he didn’t know until sometime during the co-write that Hubbard was cutting some solo material – and it wasn’t fully verbalized during the process. “The whole time I was laughing because I felt like I was writing for the song,” Nite says. “Keith would be like, ‘This would be great for Tyler’ when Tyler was in the bathroom. And then Tyler would be like, ‘This would be great for Keith’ when Keith was in the bathroom.”

It took a bit to find a direction, though Hubbard was definitely in a mood to write something cheery and upbeat, and he had the “Dancin’ in the Country” title as workable idea. Copperman built a rhythm track, and Urban kicked into a guitar groove that launched with a C chord, complicated by an extra D note that creates dissonance with two of the three foundational tones in that chord.

“That [note] is what’s giving you the disco vibes,” Copperman says.

They fashioned the chorus first, starting with the title and capping the stanza by repeating it two more times. In between, the melody pushes forward with a relentless repetition, each of the first four verses ending with the same melody. It’s an approach that wouldn’t work in another setting – it would have killed a thoughtful ballad like “The House That Built Me” – but it enhances the sing-along quality of “Dancin’ in the Country.”

“It’s an ear worm, and it’s hooky, and it’s really repetitive,” Hubbard agrees. “But it still feels right, you know. It feels appropriate.”

When they developed the verses, the narrative began in a bar, where a couple yearns for a little privacy. They end up in a pasture, playing “some Alabama and Jackson” – presumably, Alan Jackson, though with the danceable beat, one could make a case for Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson or even Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.”

With the plot serving up a little romance in a field, it’s tempting to call it a bro-country story, though it stays away from the drunken-group dynamic. And it bears some authenticity for Nite, whose first date with his wife ended with the two of them dancing in a field along Soncy Road in Amarillo, Texas during their high-school years.

“That’s where I fell in love with my wife,” he says. “We were out there listening to George Strait on the radio. Our trucks were parked off the edge of this road, and we were just watching stars.” (Romantic sidebar: Some time later, Nite draped flowers over the fence posts and barbed wire in that same location to propose.)

The musical format of “Dancin’ in the Country” got an extra boost of energy from a hip-hop-like pre-chorus. The supporting instruments dropped out, except for a volley of tribal toms and a growling bass, and that chord-less section makes the chorus feel like a blast of sound when the whole band re-emerges. “It just felt like we needed that musical break,” Copperman says. “Maybe that’s why the nursery-rhyme chorus works. You drop out all the chords, and then the chorus hits, and it feels so good.”         

Hubbard laid down a vocal for the demo, then split for a late-afternoon appointment, though before he did, Urban created some clarity about which artist would keep “Dancin’ in the Country.” “When we got finished writing, Keith said, ‘I think we just wrote your first single,’” Hubbard remembers. “It was nice that Keith put his stamp of approval on it.”

Urban and Copperman stayed for another two hours, playing with a multitude of sounds and instruments as they completed the demo, stopping occasionally to ask Nite if he thought what they were doing was working. “It was like watching an artist paint the Mona Lisa,” Nite says.

Hubbard co-produced the final version with Jordan M. Schmidt (Mitchell Tenpenny, Ingrid Andress) at Ocean Way in Nashville, assembling an A-list team of musicians and letting them follow Urban’s template from the demo. Bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas provides the melodic movement in the intro and offers a few uncharacteristically bold fills, guitarist Rob McNelley recreated a key riff and fashioned a compact burning solo, and banjo player Ilya Toshinskiy wraps the whole package with a wicked flurry of notes.

“What got me into playing and learning instruments was hearing cool s–t and just being like, ‘How did they play that?’ and then sitting there and trying to learn it,” Schmidt says. “Sometimes I feel like as producers we can dumb stuff down so much, but I’ve really taken the opposite approach now. Like, ‘Let’s inspire newer generations to be players and come up with that s–t, because that’s awesome.’”

Justin Schipper’s steel added a little extra country flavor to offset the dance groove in what proved to be a drama-free experience. “We just had a lot of fun,” Schmidt says of the tracking date. “There wasn’t really anything crazy that happened. It was just a great energy, and it felt like a good new start for T-Hub.”

“Dancin’ in the Country” made its debut on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart dated Dec. 10, 2022 and steps to No. 40 on the Jan. 14 list. Hubbard is convinced that the good-time vibe that music generates in his household is the right tonic for a much wider audience.

“We’re at this point in culture and our lives where everybody needs an escape from reality for three-and-a-half minutes,” Hubbard says. “That’s kind of the intention behind this song.”

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todayJanuary 9, 2023

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