The House That Built Me – Miranda Lambert

There are many reasons why this is an unlikely hit song and yet it found it’s way to the top spot on the Country charts and it’s rapidly becoming a standard. The song itself sounds more like an album cut than a hit; while the chorus has a beautiful payoff line at the end, it lacks the huge hooks and big emotional release that usually drives a song to #1. So let’s see what it has that makes people want to hear it.

Writers: Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin

Lyrics are available on the internet.
Shortcut # refers to my book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting.”

This song explores an emotion we’ve all felt: a yearning to go back to the place where we grew up, to reconnect with the sense of security or simpler times we once knew, especially when our lives are troubled. There’s tremendous appeal in this theme and it’s handled well here. We’re right there with the singer as she knocks on the door, talks to the people who live in the house, and describes the things that happened there as she grew up, all the while hinting at the troubles that have driven her back home to try to heal.

While it’s possible to look at this as a VERSE / CHORUS / VERSE / CHORUS / BRIDGE / CHORUS form, it doesn’t sound like that to my ear. What might be called the chorus (“I thought if I could touch this place…”) feels like a continuation of the verse. Although the melody jumps up to a higher note range, as many choruses do, it doesn’t really release the emotions. Instead it seems to create an emotional peak of greater urgency that gradually works its way back down to a long slow release in the final lines (“Won’t take nothing but a memory / from the house that built me.”) In fact, it reminds me of Kenny Chesney’s hit “Better as a Memory.” The song form is VERSE / VERSE / BRIDGE /VERSE (Shortcut #24). A big #1 chartbuster in this song form can only happen in the Country market. I’m glad they’re still around!

Listen to this song and notice how the beginning of the chorus doesn’t have the catchy, hook-driven release that characterizes most big hits, it just seems to peak and then fall away.

This is a well-crafted Country lyric that walks a fine line between cliche and revealing honesty. It starts out with just the sort of thing we all say: “I know they say you can’t go home again …” and the rest of the song fills in the kind of history that gives a childhood home that dreamlike glow in memory. Even if we didn’t grow up in a home quite this homey, we wish we had! That’s the deep well of emotion these songwriters have tapped into.

Notice the conversational tone of voice. Never for a minute are we reminded that Lambert is singing someone else’s carefully crafted lines. The rhymes are simple but, by using a casual approach to rhyming (feel it / healing), they don’t draw undue attention to the rhyme scheme (Shortcut #64).

It’s interesting that the singer doesn’t tell us exactly what the “brokenness inside me” is that she needs to heal. The bridge offers the insight: “I forgot who I am” but still doesn’t really answer the question. It allows the song to apply to many situations but left me feeling just a little unsatisfied. The bridge could have pushed deeper for a Country hit song.

The verse circles around just a few notes, adding to the impact of the sudden jump up in note range on “I thought if I could touch…”. The melody emphasizes the line “I thought that maybe I could find myself” by stretching out the words “find myself” which are at the heart of the singer’s need. After that the melody settles down to a long three-line resolve that feels both wistful and resigned. Notice how the rising and falling arc of the melody underscores the singer’s feelings, rising in intensity and then backing away.

The film and TV market has trouble using Country songs. The lyrics are often too specific. But I’ll bet this one would work well in a number of scenes that have to do with returning home. If you write in the Country genre, choose a theme that has universal appeal, as this one does. For film and television uses, try to keep your lyric general enough that the song could be used in a variety of scenes. This song form, with it’s rising and falling arc of melody, also appeals to the film and TV market.

by Robin Frederick