Songwriter Interviews

Colt Ford

by Carl Wiser

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Colt Ford has earned a reputation as a top-notch rapper, writer, and party-starter. These talents are best heard on his 2008 track "Dirt Road Anthem," a song we wrote with Brantley Gilbert that became a monster hit for Jason Aldean.

Ford writes and raps about the simple pleasures in life: a cold beer on a hot day, a tire swing on a riverbank, football on a Friday night. He's lent this down-home sensibility to songs by Jerrod Niemann ("She's Fine"), Tyler Farr ("Chicks, Trucks, and Beer") and Laura Bell Bundy ("Two Step"). On his solo tracks, a catalog of country stars sing the hooks - Darius Rucker, Jake Owen, Keith Urban and Lee Brice to name a few.

In 2014, Ford released the live DVD Crank It Up!, a 20-song set recorded in Valdosta, Georgia. Watching Ford work the crowd, you see why fans dig this unique entertainment experience - it's more party than concert.

Ford, an avid golfer, was taking a few swings when we connected for this talk about songs and songwriting.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What I love about "Dirt Road Anthem" is that it's not this idyllic scene where everything is sunshine and puppies. There's that dude that runs his mouth off and ruins the vibe. It's very real. Did you always write that way?

Colt Ford: Yeah. When I started to write songs, I just wrote about what I knew. So that's always been the deal for me. I just don't know how to do it any other way. I know what I know about and that's really just what I write about.

There's nothing wrong with that pie-in-the-sky kind of fantasy stuff. That's fine, but it's not what I do. I just like to talk about stuff I know or stuff that I've done, or I was there while somebody else said, "Hey, hold my beer and watch this." That's what I've always been about.

Songfacts: Where is the dirt road that you sing about in that song?

Ford: They're everywhere, man. They're everywhere. [Laughing]

Songfacts: They show up a lot in your songs. I didn't know if there was one specific dirt road and if it's now become a tourist attraction.

Ford: No. It's nothing like that. When Brantley and I were writing that song, it was just how we lived. We didn't really know. It wasn't anything particular and we didn't know when we were writing it that anybody would give a shit about dirt roads. We just were writing about what we knew and what we liked, and it turns out a bunch of people were into it.

When Brantley and I were writing that song, we were writing about what we knew and what we liked, and it turned out to be a pretty big deal. But those dirt roads are everywhere, and people all over the world seem to find them.

Songfacts: Do you write music as well as lyrics?

Ford: Yeah. Absolutely. It all coincides with one another. I do both.

Every song is different. Songs come together in a lot of different ways for me.

Songfacts: When you write music, what kind of instrument do you write it on?

Ford: Lots of different things. I'm a better drummer than anything. A lot of times it's beat for me. But a lot of times we're writing with friends, so there's a guitar lick or a melody. Sometimes you just try to figure that out. They come together in quite a few different ways.

Songfacts: It sounds like there's no typical way that a Colt Ford song is written, and you write with a variety of different writers. Can you take me through one of your sessions and explain what goes on?

Ford: I don't know that there really is an explanation. A lot of times you just sit down with different writers and you try to come up with an idea. You throw out titles, and a lot of times you're not really sure exactly what that may mean, or it may mean something completely different to me than it does to you.

I have a saying a buddy of mine used to say. He would say, "Hugh damn right," instead of "You damn right," and Craig Wiseman, he thought that was awesome. We wrote a song using that. So they really do come together in a variety of ways. I wish I could have a specific thing, but it starts off maybe this way or maybe it means a little of that. And sometimes it transforms into something else. It does that a lot.

Songfacts: You wrote a song with Brantley Gilbert called "Country Must Be Country Wide." And in that song you sing about how there are country fans everywhere. Not everybody believes that, but there are. Have you been somewhere where you were really surprised at the number of country fans that you saw?

Ford: Yeah. The first time we went up to Canada to play.

That idea came from when Brantley and I were just getting started. We were both branching out, and I went out into some places that we had never been to before, places way out of the South. I was talking to Brantley, and I said, "Man, there's rednecks everywhere." Like a lot of these mud bog things I play, one of the biggest one's I've ever played is in Vermont.

So I equate it a little bit to the NASCAR thing where people for years thought, "That's just a Southern thing." No, some of the bigger races are not in the South. You get outside of New York City an hour and there's as many country redneck kind of folks as you'll ever see.

It's the same out West and it's the same everywhere, really, and that's where that whole idea evolved. They're everywhere. Everybody thinks that where they're from is this and that, and sometimes you don't know about other areas or what's there, because you've never been there. And you could be intimidated by it a little bit or think they're not going to get you or they're not going to know what you're about or who you are. Then you get there, and you're like, "Wow, these people are pretty much just like me. They like the same things. They just talk a little different."

Songfacts: One of your early songs is "Ride Through the Country." That song seems to be a mission statement for you and really explains what you're all about. How validating was it when that song became so popular and got such a great reception not only from fans, but also from your peers in the industry?

Ford: I think that's still one of the most special things I've ever written. When you come out as an artist, you need to plant a flag and go, "This is me, this is who I am." And then you can build from that.

Some artists don't do this, and I don't think it's intentional: you get caught up and pushed by a record label to do this, do that, and they're not really sure who they are. I think your first record should be black and white: This is who I am, this is the deal. And after that, your next record's black and white and you add some green. Then when it's black, white, and green, you add some red. That's kind of the process I've gone about from the songwriting perspective.

A big record executive from another label told me: "I think someday you're going to come back to that song and do that with somebody or release that as a single." He's like, "I still think that's one of the greatest country songs I've heard in 20 years. It encompasses everything that country folks believe in. It's God, family, friends, America, hard work, having fun."

If you really break that song down, it doesn't fit into the mold - it's not a typical three-minute song. When I wrote that, I didn't know shit about somebody wanting a three-minute song. You write what you write and if it's four minutes or four-and-a-half minutes, that's just what it is.

So that's why I wrote that: I wanted to plant that flag and say, All right, this is me, this is everything that I stand for, that I believe in. You listen to that song, you don't much have to ask about who I am and what I believe in. It says it all right there.

Songfacts: It reminded me of a very early AC/DC song called "High Voltage," where they explain, "We play high voltage rock and roll." This was in 1975, and they've been doing it for 40 years.

Ford has a far-reaching range of influences, which include rappers like Run-D.M.C. and country stars like Johnny Cash. Rockers are also in the mix, including AC/DC, a group that like Ford, is remarkably consistent.

When AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott died in 1980, it was crucial that his replacement could not only sing like hellfire, but also write songs that carried on their tradition of hard-charging rock and roll. They found him in Brian Johnson, a frontman who has helped the band remain vital and ballad-free for decades.
Ford: Yeah. One of my friends is good friends with Brian Johnson. I got to spend an afternoon with him one day, and it was just the coolest friggin' experience I've ever had. Just like you said, when you see him and talk to him, it's like, "This is what we do. This is who we are." And for me it's the same thing.

I've never tried to change. I've certainly tried to add some new dimensions or some new colors to the canvas when I can and push myself, but as a whole, I'm the same artist that I always was. I'm never going to be anything different than that. There's no reason for me to be. It's who I am, it's what they like about me. I'm not going to change that.

Songfacts: That doesn't mean you're not adaptable, though. In your song "The High Life," the party starts not with word-of-mouth getting around, but a post on Facebook.

Ford: Sure. That's the reality of today: you post it on there and everybody's like, "Okay, this is where it's happening." And that's from the city to the small town.

In the second half of that song, you ride uptown and see where everybody's going to be. The sheriff stops by and says, "Hey, Scott just got home from Iraq." That's what it is. I mean, that's the life.

I want that song to give you some sort of visual. If you ain't never been to where I'm from, you can kind of see it - you can see what I'm talking about. I think that's really important.

Songfacts: There are definitely some very strong visuals that come across in your songs. There's one in the song "Back" that you did with Jake Owen, where you talk about your friend David. Can you tell me about David?

Ford: Yeah. I grew up next door to David. We lived next door to each other for the first 14, 15 years of our lives, and then still we were around the corner from each other. But David was a poster kid for spina bifida, born with an open spine. He never walked a day in his life, but I think till the day he died he thought someday he would.

But where I grew up, he was just one of the kids in our neighborhood and we were just friends. If we rode motorcycles, we figured out a way to strap him on. If we played hide and seek, we pushed him. We went to the skating rink, we pushed him around. And when I said I'd give a million bucks if that old boy was still here, man, I would. For whatever reason, he thought that I was the greatest thing in the world. I'd have given anything for him to see what's happened. He was just always so positive.

He wasn't supposed to live probably till he was 18, and he lived 30 years instead. The day we buried him is when I found out that his middle name was Reynolds. I had no idea. And that's what I named my son.

Songfacts: Oh, wow.

Ford: Yeah. I told him his whole life: I was hoping you get some of his spirit and that fight that David had in him. Because a kid like that had every reason to give up, and he never did. Just never did till the day he died. But knowing him all my life, I never knew that his middle name was Reynolds. And I was trying to figure out what I was going to name my son, and the day we buried him is the day I found that out, and I asked his mom if I could name my son that.

Songfacts: And she went with it. That's terrific.

Ford: The first time I ever played that song was in front of my parents, because that's very real, that's my life right there in front of you, and it's very real as far as what I'm talking about. Everything there is really my life.

The first time I ever played it in front of my folks here in Georgia, David's mother was there, too. I got to that last verse and I just couldn't get it done. I was probably on stage for a minute and a half, the band just kept playing. But I just couldn't... because it's real. I mean, when I talk about my dad and my son being best friends, you do wish that could last forever.

But I'm not a moron, it's not going to last forever. The reality is it's not. When you start thinking about reality, my mom, I do talk to her about stuff, and what will I do when she's not there? Well, I don't know. But there'll be a day I'll have to figure that out. So that's as real as it can possibly get for me.

And it was awesome to have Jake be a part of that. He's one of my best friends in the music business, and he instantly related to that. He said, "I want to be a part of this song." I thought he conveyed the message I was trying to say in his vocals, and it meant something to him, too, so that was cool.

Songfacts: Our writer Shawna interviewed Jake back in 2009 when he was still coming up. And one of the things he stressed was how important friends and family are to him and how that shows up in his songs.

Ford: As you get older you realize, when you start talking about real friends and people that you can count on that you can call that'll show up for you, for most people you don't have as many as you think you do, or that you'd like to. If you get a handful of them that you can really call no matter what, that's a pretty cool thing.

That song means so much to me, it was important. And it was important for whoever sang that with me to really get what I was talking about, because I'm letting them be a part of something that's really special to me. So it was very cool to have Jake do that, because we're more than just acquaintances in the music business, for sure.

Songfacts: Earlier in your career you wrote more songs that were more character driven. Almost like what Bruce Springsteen would write. One of them is "Waffle House."

Ford: [Wicked laugh]

Songfacts: Can you talk about your mindset back then and writing that song?

Ford: Yeah. That was based on a story a friend of mine told me. I still do some stuff like that - I just kind of let the music take me. I don't have any rules or anything, it's just wherever it takes me.

It's amazing how many people come up and go, "'Waffle House,' man, I live that dang thing!" And you're like, Wow, that's sad, but it's cool.

To me as a songwriter, there's nothing more humbling than somebody telling you what the song means to them. I can't tell you how many parents I've talked to in the last four or five years that walk up and go, "My son or daughter died and we played your music at the funeral." There's nothing I can say that's going to make that okay, but how humbling it is to go, "So my music's a part of your happiest times and a part of your saddest time."

That's unreal when you really break that down. And to think that parents go, "It feels like he's still here when we hear your music, because that's who he was. Your music was his life." Man, that's cooler than any friggin' award you could ever give me.

Songfacts: Which of your songs seem to grab people the most in that regard?

Ford: They're just different for different reasons. I don't think there's one particular. "Back" has a lot of that sentiment in it just based on what we're talking about. Just the whole chorus: "I wish we could go back."

And "Sip It Slow" is a new song I did with Lee Brice. That's a song that I wrote to my son, who's 15 now, just saying, Don't be in such a hurry to grow up. Take your time, just enjoy what you're doing.

But they mean something different for different people, and that's what's neat about music. That's what transcends the politics and religion. Every song means a little something different to somebody else.

Songfacts: How did you come up with the line "No Trash In My Trailer"?

Ford: Well, that came from a guy that I've known my whole life, a songwriter from Athens named Mike Dekle. Mike's written a lot of big hits, "Size Matters" [Joe Nichols]. He wrote "Scarlet Fever" for Kenny Rogers. He's been writing songs forever, has lots of cuts.

He wrote that song years ago and I always loved it. I said, "Mike, I love that song." And here's a hard thing to ask a songwriter: "Hey, man, I love your song. Do you care if I change the words to it?" But that was really the question. "I love the chorus. Do you care if I change the words to more me?" And him and Byron Hill, who he wrote it with, were both, like, "Cool." So it was pretty nice of those guys. And that's still a very popular one. But it was nice of those guys to let me do that.

And it's funny, too. I like fun stuff, I like happy stuff. I just like life. And life is full of fun, happy, sad - it's full of all of that, and that's what makes it great.

Songfacts: Speaking of fun stuff, on the Laura Bell Bundy song "Two Step," you didn't just do your verse, you also appeared in the video. But I noticed in the video, you don't do the two step.

Ford: No, they had their little routine. I move around. I dance pretty good for a big ol' boy, but I'm not a choreography kind of guy. I like to do my own thing.

Songfacts: So it wasn't that you were too cool to dance?

Ford: Absolutely not. If you come to my show, I dance more than anybody. I've been trying to get Luke to have a dance-off with me forever. What I want to do with Luke is for him and I to reenact the Chris Farley/Patrick Swayze bit from Saturday Night Live, the Chippendales thing. I'm like, Dude, we'll get 20 million hits on YouTube if we do that.

Songfacts: That was one of the great skits in Saturday Night Live history.

Ford: Yeah. I was like, That would be so funny for you and I to do that and get somebody sitting up there judging us. That would be so funny.

But Laura Bell, I'm telling you, she's so friggin' talented, I don't know that people realize how friggin' talented she is.

Songfacts: There are some songs that you didn't write that you recorded, a decent amount. "Farm Life" for instance. I don't know if you grew up on a farm or not, but how do you take a song that you didn't write and really make it your own?

Ford: Well, first of all, you need to know something about it. I know a lot about farm life. My dad grew up on a farm, and I grew up picking cotton and stuff. So I know that life, and I've spent a lot of time out there.

Anything that I've cut that I haven't written, I think that most people would never know that I didn't write it. I work hard for someone to go, "Oh, that's really who he is." So I think they would get it. And I love that song. Justin Moore is maybe the most underrated country singer in our business. I think he's phenomenal. And it was cool for us to finally get to work together.

"Drivin' Around Song," from Ford's 2012 album Declaration of Independence, has some top talent behind it. Jason Aldean sings the hook, and the video stars Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The song was written by Craig Wiseman, Chris Tompkins and Rodney Clawson - three of the top writers in Nashville.
Songfacts: I think that if you can write a Colt Ford song, then you've probably established yourself as a writer. And one of the ones I think of is "Drivin' Around Song." Craig Wiseman, that's a tribute to his genius that you could record a song that sounds like it's inconceivable that you didn't write it.

Ford: To me that's probably the best example. Three of the greatest songwriters in country music are Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins and Craig Wiseman. It don't get no better than that.

When my manager and best friend heard the song, he said, "Oh, that'd be awesome if we could publish it." And I'm like, "I didn't write that." He's like, "What? You didn't write that?" I'm like, "No, I didn't write that one."

So that's a perfect example of that. There's people in town that can certainly write, and you see that based on that song.

Now, you've got a lot of artists doing some different things, and that's allowed a lot of writers to go, "Oh, okay, I can write this now," instead of just going, "I don't want to waste a good idea and write this song that's a recitation kind of talking thing and nobody's going to cut it."

Look at some of what's going on out there with Jake and FGL, and with a lot of the artists that are out there. Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt, and a lot of these new artists that are coming out, they're wearing it out with that.

Songfacts: What's the song that you're most proud of writing?

Ford: I don't know that I could answer that. To me, it's similar to which kid's your favorite. I like them all for various reasons. The easy answer would be "Dirt Road Anthem." That's huge. But honestly, some of the things I've written, like "Back," they are so very real. A song like "Ride Through the Country," it's going to stand the test of time, and people still love that song as much as anything else I do.

So that's a cool one. I don't know that I could say one particular. I really don't. I like them all for different reasons. I've been lucky and blessed to not have to record something that I didn't like. Some artists have that, "We need you to cut this, or do that." Luckily, I haven't been in that situation. So I'm proud of that.

Songfacts: What's the one that came fastest to you?

Ford: Well, Brantley and I wrote "Dirt Road Anthem" in 30 minutes. It happens like that sometimes. That's not a cocky thing, it just came together like that. I've written songs that we've spent weeks and hours and months on that never amount to nothing, so there's no rhyme or reason as to why that is. That's honestly just how it goes sometimes.

February 3, 2015
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