Hit songwriter Justin Ebach is the latest recipient of the Country Music Association’s prestigious Triple Play award. The honor is given to songwriters who pen three number one songs within a 12-month period. Impressively, Ebach topped the country charts by co-writing the hits “Good Girl” (by Dustin Lynch), “Here Tonight” (Brett Young) and “Singles You Up” (Jordan Davis).
Ebach, who was the SESAC Songwriter of the Year for 2017 and 2019, also co-wrote Young’s Top 5 hit, “Sleep Without You.” In addition, he was a co-writer on Dan + Shay’s “When I Pray for You,” which was a promo single and featured in the 2017 movie, The Shack.
Originally from Florida and now based in Nashville, Ebach has co-written songs for Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, Craig Morgan, Josh Turner, Jake Owen, Maddie & Tae, Mitchell Tenpenny and Jimmie Allen, and he’s been a songwriter/producer/engineer in other genres including hip-hop, rock, and Contemporary Christian music.
Ebach is signed with Universal Music Publishing in Nashville.
We are pleased to present this new Q&A interview with Justin Ebach. In this interview, he talks about the story behind his triple play hits, choosing writing over performing, and why he stays in the moment as a songwriter.
BC: When did you first get interested in music?
Justin Ebach: I think I started in music in fourth grade. My brother picked up a guitar, and I wanted to play drums. So I put a bunch of shoe boxes together, and pretended like they were drums, and that’s how I started playing. Eventually, my parents bought me a drum set, and I started playing a lot at church and got in bands. In high school, I went to a leadership and music conservatory. I came out of high school either wanting to do film scoring or songwriting, and I couldn’t pick between the two. Finally, I [decided] to go to Belmont (University) and pursue songwriting. So, here I am!
BC: You’ve come a long way since then. When did it start to click for you in Nashville?
Ebach: I had always written songs, but a lot of it was for bands I was in. I was in a band in college, and we had some success. At some point we were doing a bunch of shows, and I realized that wasn’t what I loved. I didn’t love playing live…I loved the creating part. Creating music was what always made me happy, and made me fall in love with music in the first place. So I eventually left the band around 2011, and started writing and producing for other people. I signed my first publishing deal in 2012, which was primarily for writing worship and Contemporary Christian music.
Here’s the video of Brett Young’s hit “Here Tonight,” which
was co-written by Justin Ebach
I had always kind of written country but never had any success in it, and then a publisher, who’s actually [now] my wife (Janine Appleton Ebach), came over to the company I was at and was like, “I’ve heard your country stuff. I would love for you to write more of it.” Then about two years after that, “Sleep Without You” (for Brett Young) was a hit, and the rest is kind of history.
BC: So, performing wasn’t for you, but did it give you a special insight to approaching songwriting with an artist background?
Ebach: It’s so funny being a songwriter. We get to create and people will be like, “I heard your song on the radio.” It’s such a funny thing for somebody to say your song. Your job as a songwriter is to really get in the heads of the artists and the audience and go, “How do I make these two people communicate?” What do they want to hear from this artist? What does this artist want to say that the audience wants to hear? It’s a funny thing how you really are trying to put words in other people’s mouths in a sense as a songwriter, but it is still the truth all at the same time.
BC: How are some of the ways the songwriting process works for you?
Ebach: I would say 95% of what you hear on the radio started in a room with a title and an idea in Nashville. Somebody said something to a songwriter, and that songwriter wrote that title down on their phone or made them think of something and then you build off that. Then, every once in a while like (Brett Young’s hit) “Here Tonight,” which is actually one of the songs that’s in the triple play—we worked on the bus with Charles Kelley and he was playing the verse that you hear…“If ever I get lost in your eyes.” He starts singing that over those chords, and that’s actually how that song started. That song didn’t start from a title. But (Dustin Lynch’s hit) “Good Girl” was the complete opposite—total title thing. It was kind of more structured like that. (Jordan Davis’ hit) “Singles You Up” was the same exact way where it was a title-based thing.
[The song] can start in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it starts with a track, a vibe, something like that, but collaboration, man, that’s the big thing. It’s just like the going back and forth between all the people sitting here and the community of ideas. It really makes songwriting what it is and what you hear.
BC: What do you feel is the biggest strength you bring into a songwriting session?
Here’s the video of Dustin Lynch’s hit “Good Girl,” which
was co-written by Justin Ebach
Ebach: I’d say, being able to read a room is one thing. We just went on a writing trip; it was me, Jimmy Robbins, Jon Nite, Ashley Gorley, and Brett Young. All of our writes were five-way writes. That is the ultimate (too many) cooks in the kitchen situation (laughs). At some point everybody wants to get their line out there, but being able to read a situation and going, Jimmy Robbins, who’s doing tracks, is great at it. Then you have two great topliners in Jon Nite and Ashley Gorley, and me also toplining, and then you have Brett Young, who is also a great writer himself. So, you have to find somewhere in there to get your words in. Sometimes it’s sitting back and keeping track of what other people are saying. Literally, the songwriting process is almost being an organizer of thoughts. It’s not always writing a melody. Then, you have another room where you’re sitting there, and you’re writing all the melodies and you’re writing all the lyrics. It’s kind of knowing what you need to be that day.
I wrote with a guy today—he’s a young artist but also a great writer, and today what I was for him was a sounding board, tweaking stuff, and being the track guy. Two days ago, I wrote basically the song in the room, and other people were other parts. Being able to read that, I think, is a big strength. There are some people who can’t do that…they are one thing in every room.
BC: What’s the story behind your hit “Good Girl,” with Dustin Lynch?
Ebach: I was out on the road; we were in Chicago with Dustin. Me and [co-writer Andy Albert] had been out with him all weekend, and we had already written, I think, three other songs. Basically, we got to this day and looked at each other and said, “You know what y’all? If we get a song today, great. If we don’t, don’t worry about it.” We wrote some great stuff, but we hadn’t written “Good Girl” yet. Then Dustin finally says, “Man, I just don’t think this is for me or my audience. I don’t really love it.’ We had committed to an hour of writing. So, in the last few minutes of it, Andy goes, ‘I’ve got this one thing.’ And he sang the top of “Good Girl,” but he sang it clipped from what it is now. I had been playing the chords to “Good Girl” and then I said, “this might go with that,” and he sang that chorus. I was like, “Oh, my gosh! That’s great!” And Dustin freaked out too. We finished the demo on the bus in two hours. Then the label heard it that night, and they basically said, “This is your next single.” That stuff just doesn’t happen. We wrote it in February, and I think it went to radio at the end of April.
Here’s the video of Jordan Davis’ hit “Singles You Up,” which
was co-written by Justin Ebach
BC: Last year, you also had a huge hit with “Here Tonight” with Brett Young.
Ebach: I had my first hit with Brett, “Sleep About You.” He’s a really big part of my career. I love writing with the guy,[and having hits with him. He’s just a good one…a preacher’s son, just a good dude. That was a special one.
BC: Thank you Justin for doing this interview. What’s coming up for you next? Do you have new singles and cuts coming out, that you can talk about?
Ebach: I found out I have another single coming out on a new artist. We’ve also had cuts with Lady Antebellum, Luke Bryan, Chris Young, and a bunch of pop stuff that’s been really cool. For me, it’s so funny. I just have to show up and write another song tomorrow…that’s what my world is. We are literally songwriters. We don’t get paid to love songs. We don’t get paid to pitch songs. We don’t get paid to do anything other than write songs. That is our job, so I try to honestly write stuff and let it go even after it’s cut. I try to keep my head in a hole and just write, write, write, and not get too caught up in releases. My job is to write songs, and then move on from that song and go on to the next song, and try to be great at that. It’s hard to do that when you’re looking back (laughs).
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].