Thomas Archer: The Stories Behind Hits By Luke Combs, Jason Aldean, Mitchell Tennpenny
The 100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers limited series podcast gives music fans a front-row seat for conversations with songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of yesterday and today. You’ll learn the stories behind the songs from the people who wrote them. Each episode will focus on one writer: sometimes, they’ll just talk about one song, other times, they’ll talk about a number of hits.
New episodes will be released each Monday through November of 2020.
100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers special podcast series is produced in partnership with Beasley Media Group, XPERI (HD Radio), and BMI in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast.
Thomas Archer is quietly becoming one of Nashville’s hottest writers. He’s worked on a couple of huge Luke Combs songs — “Lovin’ On You” and “Hurricane” (the latter of which they wrote the day they met), as well as hits for Jason Aldean and Mitchell Tenpenny. He told us the stories behind all of those songs, and gave some insight on what it’s like to be a songwriter on the road with a major star.
Thomas, talk about writing Luke Combs’ “Lovin’ On You.”
We actually just stumbled on it one weekend. It was in 2017 and Luke had just gotten his first artist bus. So he took out a couple of writers. And I believe we were in Kansas City, Missouri when we wrote this song. Funny fact: a guy brought us barbecue that day on the bus and he said, “Hey, y’all mind if I sit here and watch you write a song?” So we tossed around some ideas and he sat there and watched us write “Lovin’ On You” in about an hour and a half.
What are you playing when you’re writing? Are you playing guitar? Are you playing keyboards? Are you writing lyrics with him?
My wife had actually just got me a 1956 Gibson LG1, one that I was so proud of, and happy to bring out. She brought it for me for a present for [Combs’] “Hurricane” going number one. And so I was excited to take it out on the road, so I think I was actually holding the guitar and we started riffing around a little bit when we wrote it on that guitar.
So what is that like when you’re going on the road with a guy like that? I mean, obviously, his main concern is playing their shows every night. How how does your day go when you’re touring with Luke and getting to write songs around his schedule?
We’re on his time. We just try not to get in the way and enjoy our time and respect their space and their time. And we just kind of sit around, toss some ideas and wait on when they want to write. Like, Luke might be a guy that he might not wanna write on Thursday night or Saturday. And so, we write on Friday. I mean, you just never know. I remember we went to play golf one day and played football in a parking lot one day. And then finally we wrote the song the next day. So it’s always different. It depends on who you’re going out with.
I’m guessing at some point you’re like, “We’re out here for a reason. We’ve got to start writing.”
Oh, yeah. You start pushing them a little bit. If it’s Saturday and you haven’t written anything yet, you definitely wonder what you’re doing out there. But the artist, if they bring you out there, they definitely respect your time as well. And they want to make the best use of it and try to get a great song out of it.
Do they pay you for the time to be out there? Or is it just like, “If we get a song, we get a song. If not: hope you had a good time?”
We always get something. We don’t come home empty-handed. But you’re never paid for your time. We don’t get paid to go to writes [writing sessions]. And we’re all buddies. So it feels like we’re hanging out and we’re investing our time into something that we love and that we think that everyone else will love as well.
So talk about the intent of the song. What’s it about?
It’s sort of fast and it just felt like an up-tempo good ol’ boy redneck love song. And around the second verse, it wasn’t till then that I figured, okay, I guess we can go for this. And that’s where the “Sunrise, duck blind, birdie on a par 5” came from. I love huntin’ and golfin’ and Miller Lite. So that was selfishly some of my brain there.
A lot of times you chip away at a song and chip away, chip away. But this one, it just kind of wrote itself. It felt right all along and was just one line led to the next. And it may have taken less than an hour. And it was done.
Wow. And do you remember the first time hearing it on the radio?
I do. Funny thing is, I feel like I hear my songs for the first time on the radio in the same place. I live in Nashville now. But our families are all in Georgia and we have to go to Atlanta. And every single time we go to Atlanta, we hit traffic. And I feel like I hear my songs in traffic for the first time in Atlanta.
Have you had the experience of finding yourself in a bar or restaurant or a supermarket where somebody is listening to Luke Combs song that you co-wrote, and they have no idea they’re standing next to the guy who wrote it or co-wrote it?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, the funniest time was a guy we were in Key West on a vacation and a guy came down Duvall Street on a motorcycle, like a biker guy, singing “Hurricane” as loud as he could. I was on the sidewalk. And he would have never known. But it made my day.
Do you ever say, “Hey, that was me?”
No, I haven’t. I did that an Uber one time, my Uber driver was singing one of our songs. And I said, “Hey, I’m actually one of the writers in that song. Thank you for loving it.”
So what did he or she say?
Well, first off, he called me a liar and then he said, you got to be s—ing me. Excuse my language. And then he turned the radio off and said, “Will you sing it?” And I said, “No, you’re doing a great job. You finish it.”
So “Hurricane” was the first time you worked with Luke, right?
Right. That was the first time I met Luke: the day we wrote “Hurricane.”
How is it presented to you? Does the record label say, “Hey, we’ve got this new guy, we think he’s got something? Can you write with him?” How does it work?
I actually heard his voice on… maybe “She Got The Best Of Me” from a buddy. And I said, “I don’t know who this is. Is he in Nashville? I love his voice. We should write with him.” And Taylor Phillips, the co-writer of “Hurricane,” set that up. And I didn’t know who Luke was, some of my buddies hung out with him. The first time I was able to be around him was the first day in the writing room.
A lot of times collaborators know each other. So this situation was like, “OK. Here are the guitars, here’s the piano or whatever. Let’s write a song.” Is that how it works? Could it be uncomfortable? What is the vibe like?
I mean, as a writer in the music business, I feel like you’re pretty numb to “uncomfortable.” It’s just another day at the office and it’s just another roll of the dice. “Let’s see if we can come up with something that people love.” And that day, in particular, we did. Writing “Hurricane,” I was tuning the guitar, I played the intro to “Hurricane” and Luke said, “What is that?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Let’s write to that.” And then I said, “Well, what are we gonna write?” He said, “I have a title: ‘Hurricane.'”
I said, “So what’s it about?” He said, “I don’t know.” So we just had we kind of made up a story that everyone could relate to that day. And all days are different. That was definitely a rare day.
At that point, you probably had no idea he would get as popular as he has gotten.
Oh, no. I was like, “All right. See you later. What’s your number again?” I mean, it was just another day. With a lot of songs, you don’t realize how good they are — if they are good — until later down the road.
With that one in particular, remember, I was writing with my buddy Jon Langston. I think we were going huntin’ and he was playing. We were swapping demos and he played me “Hurricane.” He said, “Have you heard this song?”
And I said, “Buddy, I wrote that song.” And he said, “No way!”
So when you wrote that with him, did you know that it was for him as an artist making a record, or was he just presented to you as another writer and you were writing a song that somebody, somewhere, might record?
A little of both. He didn’t have the biggest artist career going on at the time. But we wrote it for him. But you always think of like, “Who else could do this song?” And I don’t even know if we sent it around [to other artists] at all. I mean, from the moment I got it back, it felt like the only person that could do it is Luke, because it was so good. I can’t hear another voice on it.
Do you remember where were you when you found out you had a number one song?
Luke called me. He was in Key West at a BMI songwriters [camp] and he Facetimed me. I knew we were close [to having a number one], but the song at the top of the charts at the time was [Sam Hunt’s] “Body Like a Back Road.” And that was a monster song. The song behind this was [Brett Young’s] “In Case You Didn’t Know.” We were in the middle of two monster songs… And then Luke Facetimed and said, “Hey, buddy, we’re going number one this week.” And that I was in Georgia at my family’s farm. And that just felt like a lot of years of hard work and being told “No” was paying off.
Are there a lot of other songs that you wrote with Luke that haven’t come out yet, or are there things that he’s planning on using in the future?
I’d like to think so. You always want to have more irons in the fire, but we haven’t written the most songs. I’m sure he’s written a lot more with a lot of other songwriters. But we’ve we’ve definitely made our ones count.
Talk about writing “Got What I Got” for Jason Aldean.
“Got What I Got,” we wrote in August of 2018. And one of my buddies, Alex Palmer, was in town from L.A. So whenever he comes to town, we try to make time for him and write. And so myself and Michael Tyler called him one afternoon. And I brought the idea in, and he had that funky track. They built the song around his track. And honestly, it took about forty-five minutes, it kind of fell out. I really didn’t go back to it for a couple of months. And after then I kept going back to it because it was just so different. And we had written maybe three songs that we thought Jason would do, and they sent us an email saying “He’s cutting ‘Got What I Got.'” And I remember texting the songwriters saying, “Are you sure he’s cutting that one? You sure it’s not one of the other couple that we wrote?” And they said, “Positive.”
So you guys do a session saying, “We know Jason Aldean is working on a record. We know that he’s looking for songs. We’re going to knock out a few and we hope he takes at least one.” Is that how that works?
Right. Usually, we think, “All right. What would Jason say? How would he do this? How would he do that?”
But on that day, we just wrote a song that we thought was cool. I don’t think we brought up his name. We didn’t bring up anyone’s name. We just wrote a song that we all liked. And I think that’s what made it authentic and made it stand out.
Tell me about “Somebody Ain’t You” by Mitchell Tenpenny.
That’s a weird story. It’s the weirdest song I’ve ever written, [because of] where I wrote it. Mitchell invited me to Lincoln, Alabama to a songwriting retreat. We weren’t even really writing for him. We were just all just a bunch of people, writing. And there’s about ten of us. We had a schedule. And it felt like you were being, you know, told you had to do something at a certain time. And then everyone cuts loose at night and you’re all drinking, hanging out, telling stories. And I noticed Mitchell sitting down by the lake with Dallas Wilson. And I said, “Well, let me go see what they’re doing.” And there was a boat under the dock at the lake. You could sit on the back of the boat just kind of hang your feet off and hang out. And I went down and they said, “You wanna write a song?” This is probably about one in the morning. And I said, “Sure.” And kicked my shoes off, jumped over on the boat and a storm came up, but it wasn’t lightning, it was just a storm. And we wrote the song during that storm on the back of this boat on a lake in Alabama.
We’d been up all night, having fun. And the next day I said, “Did anyone record what we wrote last night? I’m not sure if I remember how it goes, nor do I have a lyric.”
And Dallas Wilson had the recording of it, and I don’t think we changed one word before [Tenpenny] cut it. That story of how he wrote it and where he wrote it is by far the most unique songwriting experience I’ve ever had.
What is next for you? Do you have writes for specific artists coming up or are you going to do your own record?
Never my own record. I’m always just thinking, you know, two, three years down the road. I mean, after having a little taste with Jason… that’s always something you always want to have: more success. I have more irons in the fire. Always writing with Luke in mind. Trying to get cuts on some of these young guys’ [records] that are coming to town and just, you know, try to beat last year.
Do you guys have plans to get together with Luke?
He had mentioned to me he was trying to put together a songwriting retreat. I flew up to Minneapolis last year to see a show. I hadn’t seen him in a long time and sometimes to get a little face time and actually take in the show, you have to go a good ways from Nashville to get on the list, so to speak. And we flew up there. It was a great show. It sold out. It was St. Paul and he killed the show. And we talked, and he said, “Man, I’m putting together a writing retreat.” And then the pandemic happened.
So I think we’ll get around to it for sure. Hopefully here in the near future and start working on the next record.