Elvie Shane topped the Country Airplay chart with his first single, “My Boy,” a life-inspired, parental ballad that revealed the singer as a sentimental soul.
With his sophomore release to over-the-air radio – “County Roads,” issued by Wheelhouse to broadcasters via PlayMPE on Jan. 19 – Shane takes the opposite sonic tack, serving up an anthemic sing-along with heavy metal roots. It’s possibly the hardest-rocking single released by a major country artist since Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country” (No. 1, 2009) and Eric Church’s “The Outsiders” (No. 6, Hot Country Songs, 2013).
Shane knows he’s pushing boundaries in the format – and he’s not apologizing. “That’s what you gotta do,” he reasons. “If we keep doing the same old thing, it’s all gonna stay the same.”
Despite its stark difference in tone from “My Boy,” “County Roads” is similarly drawn from Shane’s personal history. He grew up in the sticks in Grayson County, Ky., riding a school bus on a rural route and cruising a series of Mustangs down one-lane backroads at high speed.
“He is, by far, the biggest hillbilly I’ve ever been around,” says songwriter Dan Couch (“Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck,” “She’s Mine”). “I’ve been back home to where he grew up, and I’ve seen it firsthand, and I’ve been around his dad. It’s like something out of a movie.”
The biographical plot, however, was not the starting line for “County Roads.” It was a blast of sound – a “monstrosity of noise,” as Shane calls it – courtesy of producer/songwriter Oscar Charles (Boy Named Banjo, Jackson Michelson), who hosted a writing session at his garage studio on the west side of Nashville in 2019. Charles ran a Gibson ES-335 electric guitar through a distortion pedal and a chorus pedal, and after a bit of noodling, whipped out a series of block chords that tab site ultimate-guitar.com labels “absolute beginner.”
“Those are like a lot of people’s first chords,” Charles says. “You can play a ton of stuff with that.”
The progression generated a physical reaction from all three writers, so Charles created a loop they could play on repeat. They played with those chords for perhaps two hours, struggling to find a hook or a storyline that worked. Shane turned to his past.
“We had kicked around a bunch of ideas and just wasn’t getting anywhere,” Shane recalls. “I was like, ‘Dude, why don’t we just tell the truth?’ I was just talking, like, ‘I got a public education but it didn’t come from class/ It came from a long ride home with a bus in the back.’ And I was like, ‘That even kind of rhymes. Let’s just write that.’”
The writers ultimately weaved sexual and/or relationship lessons into each section of the song, with automotive elements in every one of those pieces, though the title wasn’t even clear for a bit. Finally, Shane suggested “County Roads” as the name, though he wasn’t even sure why. “Dan Couch walked in the kitchen,” Shane remembers, “and walked back in the studio and just sang the whole chorus. And I was like, ‘Well, that’ll work.’”
Those first lyrics were done in a half-hour, but since it had taken so long to get started, they tabled it for another time. Shane went off on a melodic tangent in the next few days, but when he shared his ideas with Couch and Charles before the next appointment, they talked him out of it. In the meantime, Shane watched two coming-of-age movies – American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused – and he decided to focus on that sort of ideal in completing “County Roads.”
Shane kicked off verse two with a line inspired by his father’s trucking company – “That wrench in my hands sure put a wrench in my plans” – that he’d tried to insert, unsuccessfully, in several other songs. And when it came to the bridge, Shane wanted a gnarly, modern rock guitar line to serve as the foundation, though it took some work to communicate it.
“He was trying to get me to understand how he was landing it,” Charles recalls. “The pocket of it is so weird, and he just kept singing it to me, and I kept hearing the downbeat somewhere different. So I kept starting it too early or too late.”
Before that second writing date was done, Shane recorded a scratch vocal for the demo, and he instinctively launched into a “nah, nah, nah” vocal hook during the second chorus. It became a lasting part of “County Roads.” They changed the key signature on it when they recorded the song at Southern Ground in Nashville with a studio band featuring guitarists Tom Bukovac and Rob McNelley, bassist Steve Mackie, drummer Fred Eltringham and keyboardist Matt Nolen.
Mackie enhanced the power-chord sensibility, playing roots and fifths in verse two, and Bukovac heightened the wildness of the foundational guitar chords, using a Boss chorus pedal and shifting the attack of those chords to the upbeat leading into each measure. It’s a classic rock approach, used in KISS’ “Calling Dr. Love,” Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” and AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell.”
“Oscar and Elvie work so, so well together, and they pushed each other so hard, trying to get something cool,” Couch says. “They really wanted to make a record that would kind of stand out and not just be down the middle.” Shane delivered a high-energy vocal later at Charles’ studio and doubled the chorus, singing the part in unison to give it electricity.
“Then he did the harmonies, which are super high,” Charles says. “When he nailed the harmonies, I was pretty impressed, man. And that whole vocal is not tuned at all, so that’s kind of where you get that extra looseness and wildness and energy from.”
The “nah nah nah” parts got special treatment. They drove back to Kentucky and recorded the Grayson County High School choir. They only had two headphones available for the group, so most of the roughly 30 singers performed a cappella, relying on the two singers with cans and the director to lead them through it. Shane did a second version with a larger group of students, though they used the 30-voice version in the final to avoid paperwork complexity.
Shane and BMG Nashville president of recorded music Jon Loba both agreed that the rocking “County Roads” should be the second Wheelhouse single, providing a counter-balance to the texture of “My Boy.”
The latter song being a smash “gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted after that,” Shane says. “We had ‘My Boy’ and now we have ‘County Roads.’ Those two songs don’t really go hand in hand with each other, but they were both very much part of who I am.”