“Tattoos On This Town” recorded by Jason Aldean
Songwriters: Michael Dulaney, Wendell Mobley, Neil Thrasher
First of all, let’s take a look at this amazing song title – “Tattoos on This Town.” It’s a tremendous example of a short phrase that can support and inspire an entire song. It’s unique and fresh, and immediately made me wonder what the song would be about. Before even hearing the song, listeners are bound to ask: “What does this phrase mean?”
When you have an intriguing title like this, you’ve got to answer the questions it brings up and do it in a way that’s creative, yet clear and understandable. That’s just what these writers did: A tattoo is a permanent mark on the skin. The first line of the chorus is “It sure left its mark on us…” Got it! The town left its mark on the singer. The title is tied right into the lyric. But the writers went further: the images in the lyric show us the marks the singer and his friends left on the town. The whole song is framed by the title and satisfying the questions it brings up for listeners. (For more on answering the questions the title asks, read Shortcut #44.)
You can find the lyrics to this song online.
Shortcut # refer to my book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting.”
The genre is Contemporary Country. It’s a style that blends the melodic Rock sound of the 1970s with today’s songwriting techniques – vivid lyrics and melodies with a lot of forward momentum. We’ll take a look at both of these in a minute.
The song has a basic VERSE/CHORUS structure
VERSE – 2-LINE PICKUP -CHORUS
VERSE – 1-LINE PICKUP – CHORUS
BRIDGE – CHORUS
There’s a very short pickup to the chorus; it’s so short it’s hard to call it a pre-chorus. The first time around it’s “Take a ride, look around, there ain’t no doubt…” Then the song launches into the big, powerful chorus section with the line “It sure left it’s mark on us.”
At the end of the second verse, the pickup line is even shorter: “It’s everything we’re made of.” Just one line – that’s all. If you’ve got a pre-chorus, try shortening it the second time around to surprise the listener and get to the chorus sooner.
The song has a short two-line bridge. The focus is all on the picture-painting verses and big, powerful chorus melody.
The song is a tribute to a young man’s life growing up in an all-American town. But it doesn’t exactly say what you expect it to.
There’s plenty of detailed, physical imagery: skid marks on a county road, a rope burn on a tree branch, and a scar from a childhood accident – more of the “tattoos” the singer is telling us about. There’s a rough, scuffed feel to these images that gives the town a real, honest presence. It’s not just a remembered dream – it was a real place. You can almost smell the wind blowing across empty fields.
And that’s a great lesson to learn from this lyric. The writers could easily have painted this place as a fantasy Mayberry, all apple pie and tidy streets. That’s the first place most writers would have gone. Giving the town some grit while still painting it with a nostalgic brush is a challenge, but it gives this lyric its unique appeal and, more importantly, it adds believability. (You can find out more about writing with images and busting through clichés in “Hit” Shortcuts #57 and #67)
One more thought about nostalgia themes: Aldean was 35 years old when he recorded this song, old enough to have some distance on his high school years and be willing to admit it. But not all artists will go there. Before pitching a song, study the other songs an artist has recently recorded. If he’s still presenting himself as a young, single, carefree guy, he might not want to record a lyric that looks back on life. Although nostalgia is a powerful and appealing theme, it may limit your pitches.
This is a very well-constructed melody. If you are thinking about writing in the Contemporary Country market, I would definitely recommend learning to play and sing this melody.
VERSE: The verse melody has a clear pattern, but one that’s somewhat unusual. The first phrase starts on Beat 2: “There’s still black marks on that County road…” Instead of pausing for a break at the end as we expect, the line rolls right into the next phrase (“Where we drag raced our pickups…”) The pause doesn’t come until he sings “pickups [pause] and mustangs.” Then there’s another short one-beat pause after “mustangs”, before the phrase heads right into “And weathered all the summer rain.”
Pausing in the middle of a lyric idea keeps listeners waiting to hear what you’ll say next. Eliminating a pause at the end of a line where we would expect to hear one, keeps the melody (and story) moving forward.
CHORUS: There’s a nice lift starting with the line “Take a ride…” This builds into a big chorus release (“It sure left its mark on us…”) starting with a big jump up to the highest note in the song.
The same melody line is repeated in the second line with a different lyric. The melody starts to repeat on the third line but he stops halfway through, then goes to the title line to wrap up the chorus. Because he started the third line the same way he started the first two lines, listeners were expecting another repeat but the melody tricked us and went somewhere else. A surprise move like this (I call it a “fake out.”) is a great way to keep the listener interested in your melody. (“Hit” Shortcut #94)
DO IT NOW!
I strongly recommend learning to play and sing this song both for the lyric and the melody/chords. Embed it; get it under your fingers and in your head.
Try writing a chorus like this one with a melody line that repeats on the second line then starts to repeat on the third line but ends up going somewhere else. Use a different lyric on each line. Then wrap it up with your title. It’s great songwriting practice!
You’ll find the chords and lyrics here. The Ultimate Guitar web site will show you the guitar chord when you mouse over the chord name above the lyric lines
by Robin Frederick
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Reprints by permission.
This post is based on my books Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. In each book you’ll find over one hundred valuable, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.