Top Songwriter Hillary Lindsey, Grammy Winner & Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Inductee, Talks About Her Hit Songs And Great Career
Over the past two decades, Hillary Lindsey has been one of the top songwriters in Nashville. Starting with her first number one country hit (“Blessed” by Martina McBride) in 2001, she has co-written over 40 country & pop hits, with such artists as Carrie Underwood, Lady Gaga, Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and Miley Cyrus.
In addition to writing many hits, Lindsey is one of the most acclaimed, award-winning songwriters in Nashville. She has twice won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song, for “Jesus, Take the Wheel” (Carrie Underwood) and “Girl Crush” (Little Big Town). In 2020, she was named Songwriter of the Year at the ACM Awards, and she’s won three CMA Triple Play Awards, for writing three number one songs within a year. She also won the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media, for co-writing with Lady Gaga the song “I’ll Never Love Again” (for the movie, A Star is Born).
On top of this, Lindsey is being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. She will be honored (along with inductees Shania Twain, Steve Wariner, David Malloy and Gary Nicholson) at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala on Sunday, October 30, at Nashville’s Music City Center.
Besides her first #1 hit “Blessed,” Lindsey has had many other chart-topping songs. For Carrie Underwood, she co-wrote the #1 hits “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Church Bells,” “Just a Dream,” “Last Name,” “Legends,” “So Small” and “Wasted.” Her other #1 hits include “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (Keith Urban), “Knockin’ Boots” and ”What She Wants Tonight” (Luke Bryan), “God, Your Mama and Me,” (Florida Georgia Line feat. Backstreet Boys), “American Honey” (Lady A), “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” (Gary Allan),” “A Little Bit Stronger” (Sara Evans), “One Beer” (Hardy) and “Shotgun Rider” (Tim McGraw).
Lindsey has also co-written hits for Lady Gaga (“Million Reasons”), Taylor Swift (“Fearless”), Runaway June, Jordan Davis, Carly Pearce, Kelsea Ballerini, Miranda Lambert, Chris Lane feat. Tori Kelly, Rascal Flatts, Miley Cyrus and Carolyn Dawn Johnson.
Lindsey grew up in the small town of Washington, Georgia, and she began writing songs when she was 10. After high school, she moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University, and within a few years she signed her first music publishing deal. Then in 2001, she had her first #1 hit with “Blessed.” And when she won a Grammy in 2005 for “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” she was on her way to becoming one of Nashville’s top songwriters.
Here’s the video of Carrie Underwood’s hit “Jesus, Take the
Wheel,” which was co-written by Hillary Lindsey.
Lindsey is a versatile songwriter & musician who can sing, play guitar and piano, and plays other instruments. She is equally adept and writing melodies and lyrics. Lindsey is married to hit songwriter Cary Barlowe, and she is signed to a worldwide co-publishing deal with Concord Music Publishing.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Hillary Lindsey. She tells how she got started as a songwriter, and how she co-wrote such classic hits as “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Girl Crush” and “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”
DK: Congratulations on being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. What does it mean to you, to receive this honor?
Hillary Lindsey: It really is mind-blowing to me. When I moved to Nashville, I wanted to be a singer and artist. I didn’t realize you could actually be a songwriter as a proper profession. Then once I learned that, I got a publishing deal, and from there it’s been an unbelievable journey. Early on, I didn’t know that there was a Hall of Fame for songwriters. And once I knew that, I would go to the ceremonies every year and sit at the banquet tables. But it never occurred to me that it might be something in my future.
[As a working songwriter], you show up to write, you keep your head down, and you write day-in and day-out. And that’s what I did all these years. But this award made me look up and think…Oh wow, I have been doing this for a long time. So it’s been a very interesting couple of months since this has happened. I’ve done a lot of reminiscing and walking down memory lane. And I’m super thankful and very honored.
DK: I read that you grew up in a small town in Georgia. How did you get started with music and writing songs?
Lindsey: I grew up in this little town called Washington, Georgia. It’s between Athens and Augusta in Georgia. My grandfather was a musician and my grandmother sang. My dad also sang and loved to dance, and he grew up playing drums in bands. So music was always part of my life. There was always music in the kitchen, with dancing and singing…making up silly songs. And singing in the station wagon with my sisters on road trips. My mom always says that when I was wee little, that in the grocery store I would take out a tampon out of her purse and walk around and pretend it was my microphone (laughs). It was hilarious.
Here’s the video of Little Big Town’s hit “Girl Crush,” which
was co-written by Hillary Lindsey.
DK: Besides playing guitar, do you play other instruments?
Lindsey: I play guitar and I play piano. You would never want to hire me in your band by any stretch of the imagination. I can play pretty decent rhythm guitar. but not lead guitar. I just play enough to write and get the songs out. I play a little bit of mandolin, and I’ll pick up whatever instrument that feels inspiring.
DK: I read that you attended Belmont University (in Nashville), and it was around that time that you signed your first publishing deal. How did you start making connections and getting your songs recorded?
Lindsey: I moved to Nashville when I was just shy of 18. I graduated high school in 1994; Belmont was the only school I applied to. I heard that it had a music business program and a music program. For me, if I wanted to pursue the music thing, in my mind it was either going to be Nashville, New York or L.A. Nashville was about a six-hour drive from my hometown in Georgia, so I was like…Okay, I think I can do this.
Then I got into Belmont and went there. I was just going to school and making friends that were also musical. Doing a lot of open guitar mic nights, which was great. This town has always been super encouraging with all the venues that support young and new talent in town.
So I was doing that and I had some internships. I interned at MCA Records in the publicity department. And I interned for Patrick Joseph’s music publishing company. I met a lot of writers there that I was completely in awe of, like Matraca Berg. I worked in the tape room and that was a big education for me, because I was able to listen to all of their work tapes and their demos. It was my job to make copies of them and put them on DATs. This was long before the computer age (laughs)…we weren’t emailing songs to each other yet. But that was great and it created some good, lasting relationships, with (music exec) Pat Higdon and Matraca.
Fast forward, I was about to go into my senior year of college, and a cassette tape of my songs had been passed around, and I got offered a publishing deal with Famous Music. So I took the gig and I never looked back. Then four years later, we celebrated our first #1 hit.
Here’s the video of Lady Gaga’s hit “Million Reasons,” which
was co-written by Hillary Lindsey.
DK: Your first #1 hit was “Blessed” for Martina McBride. What’s the story behind writing that song?
Lindsey: I wrote that song with two of my very dear friends, Brett James and Troy Verges, and we wrote it my apartment. I remember thinking…Brett lived in a beautiful house with his young children at the time. And we were writing in my crappy apartment which had a terrible carpet with stains all over it. Then Brett started saying, “I get kissed by the sun each morning, I put my feet on the hardwood floor.” I remember thinking…this is literally the polar opposite of my life right now. I was like, “I wish I could put my feet on a hardwood floor. That sounds nice (laughs).” But we started writing this song and once we got a few lines in, we all had this “A-ha” moment like, “Oh my gosh, this would be amazing for Martina McBride, and wouldn’t it be awesome if she cut this song.” Then we started to write it for her in our minds. In many cases, we would write it for an artist but the artist would pass. But Martina heard it and loved it. She released it. and it was my first number one.
DK: In 2005, you had a big hit with Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” What inspired you, Brett James and Gordie Sampson to write this song?
Lindsey: When we get together to write, we talk, have coffee, talk about our families, and about life going on. Then you start talking song ideas and titles. Nobody really had anything, and Gordie says, “I don’t know what this is, but there’s this saying that my aunt always says. It started with “when Jesus takes the wheel,” like “when Jesus takes the wheel” life is a lot easier, or something to that effect. So we were like, “Hmm…Jesus take the wheel…when Jesus takes the wheel.” We were messin’ around with this. It was one of those songs that it’s really hard to remember after that. It happened so fast…it’s like we weren’t the ones writing it. We were just a vessel for it, because it came out really quick. I think I might have said the first two lines, and I remember goin’, Why in heck did I say Cincinnati? I don’t think I’ve even been to Cincinnati. Why did that word come out of my mouth? And then Brett started coming up with lines and Gordie started. It was hard to keep up with who was even saying it. It happened so quickly.
Here’s the video of Taylor Swift’s hit “Fearless,” which was
co-written by Hillary Lindsey.
So we wrote the song and then we didn’t think much about it. And as usual, we walked away and ended up demoing it. And at the time, Leslie Roberts was working A&R at the label, and she had always been a champion of the song. But it sat on the shelf for a long time.
Around that time, I kind of hit the wall. As a writer, you have your highs and your lows…everything is like a rollercoaster. I was on a downturn, and it felt like nothing was happening and I wasn’t getting any cuts. But my dad remembers what happened then. I called my dad and said, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I’m going to give myself six months to a year, and then I might have to call it. But if this girl (Carrie Underwood) wins American Idol, and if I could get a song on her record, I swear things could turn around. Fast forward, and Carrie wins American Idol and Leslie Roberts played her that song, and she cut it. It became her first single and things just took off.
DK: You’ve had many hits with Carrie Underwood, and you’ve written many songs with her. What makes you and Carrie such a good team?
Lindsey: She somehow gravitated towards me early on when she moved into town, for which I’m so thankful for. It’s been so fun working with Carrie throughout the years. Right off the heels of American Idol, all the way fast forward now to her being a mother of two kids. And now I’m a mother. We both enjoy singing and we enjoy melodies. I think we come from the same lines of thinking, and it’s been fun being able to talk to her now, both of us being mothers, the ups and downs of all those things. It’s been a fun journey.
DK: What do you feel is your strength as a songwriter? Is it writing the lyrics, or is it the music?
Lindsey: I think it’s different every day, and I think most songwriters would say the same. Some days I’m more of the lyrics; some days I’m more of the melodies. Honestly, because co-writing is such a beautiful thing, you’re all just in it together. Sometimes I’m the one playing the guitar, and sometimes I don’t even pick up the guitar. It always depends on who’s in the room. Like if I’m writing with my husband Cary (Barlowe), I’m not gonna pick up the guitar because Good Lord, he can play like nobody’s business. So it depends on the combinations of the room that you’re in. But I think for the most part, all the writers here in Nashville can do all three—they can play, do the lyrics, and do the melody.
Here’s the video of Florida Georgia Line’s hit “God, Your Mama,
And Me” feat. the Backstreet Boys, which was co-written
by Hillary Lindsey.
DK: Around 2015, you had a big hit, co-writing “Girl Crush” for Little Big Town, which has a unique lyric story. What inspired you, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose to write this song?
Lindsey: Yes, that’s kind of the same story as “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” It started with the title…nobody knew what to do with it, but we liked and were intrigued by the title. But what in the world was this about? No clue. Then I picked up the guitar and that first verse just fell out. Then everybody was like, “Whoa, okay. So now we know what to do with it.” Each of us would throw out lines, and we finished it in about 40 minutes. It was so fast.
DK: You’ve had a lot of success writing with Lady Gaga. You wrote the hit “Million Reasons” with her, and then you co-wrote songs for the movie, A Star Is Born. How did you connect with Lady Gaga?
Lindsey: I got a call from an old friend that I met when I was in my 20s. She worked with Gaga, and said that she was looking to do some co-writing outside of her normal people, and my name came up. And I’m like, “How in the world does my name come up in Lady Gaga’s world?” Oddly enough, it was “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” She was a huge fan of that song, and she said it made her cry the first time she heard it. So they said, “Do you want to fly to L.A. and write with Lady Gaga?”
I wanted to say yes but I was scared. Anyway, I pushed through all the crazy doubts and I showed up. I was staying at the hotel, and I drove to her house in Malibu. I walked in…she was in the kitchen. She said she was going through a very hard breakup, and Lord knows, we’ve all felt that. It was pretty instant; she poured a glass of wine and we started hashing it out. She was like, “I gave him a million reasons, I just did,” and she’s crying. Then I started playing the guitar and she started playing the piano, and it just fell out. It was a beautiful moment. I had never met her, and to be with someone that was willing to be so open and so vulnerable…it was really beautiful.
DK: I like your song “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” which was a hit for Keith Urban. The title and lyric is so unique. Can you tell the story behind writing that song?
Here’s the video of Martina McBride’s hit “Blessed,” which
was co-written by Hillary Lindsey.
Lindsey: It’s funny, all the songs that you’re picking came out fast. Sometimes the bigger ones are the ones that come out fast. Steven Lee Olsen…he called me up and said, “Hey, I’ve got this title, Blue Ain’t Your Color. What are you doing this afternoon? Can I come over?” He was making a record at the time. So he came over and I’m like, “Yeah dude, that title sounds awesome.” So he came over with his producer Clint Lagerberg, and we wrote it. It came out really fast. Steven Lee is such an incredible singer.
Anyway, we wrote the song and Steven was in love with it. I can’t remember exactly, but around that time he asked off his record label. Somethng went down where he was no longer on the label, but he had completed this record. And the co-writers on his record wanted him to pitch these songs (to other artists). But he was like, “No, I’m not pitching any of these songs. The only one that I would even allow to get cut would be ‘Blue Ain’t Your Color’, but only if Keith Urban was singing it, and that ain’t gonna happen.” But then lo and behold, it was pitched to Keith and he heard it and loved it, and Steven let him have it. And I’m so thankful he did.
DK: Thank you Hillary for doing this interview. A lot of up-and-coming songwriters will be reading this article. So for new songwriters, particularly female songwriters who are trying to break into Nashville, what advice would you give them?
Lindsey: Whether it’s female or male, the only thing I can really say is just keep showing up. Just show up. There’s been so many days that I think I suck and I’m terrible and I have nothing to give and I’ll never write another good song. And I show up. I don’t want to, but I show up. And good things happen, although not all the time. Just keep showing up.