Lyrics Uncovered: Carrie Underwood, ‘Church Bells’
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Carrie Underwood‘s “Church Bells” lyrics add another body to the list of no-good men she’s put away in song, and according to one of the songwriters, it was fun to have the freedom to write that kind of ending.
The superstar stretched out into some new territory for her latest album, Storyteller, releasing her first true blue collar anthem, “Smoke Break,” as the lead single. “Church Bells” is a track that ties the album in with Underwood’s past efforts, which is something Zach Crowell, Brett James and Hillary Lindsey were aware of when they were writing it.
“Oddly enough, I’m usually the music guy, but I’d had that title for a few weeks, and I’d looked on my calendar and thought that would be a cool Carrie Underwood thing, so I should wait to write that with Brett and Hillary,” Crowell tells Taste of Country. “I didn’t necessarily know how to write it; I just knew I had the title.”
Crowell also laid out a blueprint for the music track, and when James and Lindsey came in, “with them being the genius writers that they are, they took it to the next level, with the story and the killing and that sort of stuff,” he says with a laugh.
“I don’t know if I had ever written a song before where you have to kill off one of the people, and it was kind of fun. I remember kinda giggling, talking about, ‘Okay, how should we kill this guy?'” he recalls with another laugh. “I remember sitting there saying, ‘Oh, this is kind of awesome, to think kind of like a Hollywood screenwriter would come up with something.”
The “Church Bells” lyrics are classic Underwood, spinning a tale of a young girl who marries up, but faces hard times at the hands of a man who turns out to be abusive. In the end, of course, she ends up turning the tables: “Jenny slipped something in his Tennessee whiskey / No law man was ever gonna find / And how he died is still a mystery / But he hit a woman for the very last time.”
The final chorus is a classic country twist on the rest of the story: “She could hear those church bells ringing, ringing / And up in the loft, that whole choir singing, singing / Fold your hands and close your eyes / Yeah, it’s all gonna be alright / And just listen to the church bells ringing, ringing / Yeah, they’re ringing.”
Underwood has described the character in the song as “Fancy’s little sister,” and in fact, the songwriters took part of their inspiration from “Fancy,” which was written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry and then re-recorded by Reba McEntire.
“Not that it’s a murder song, but we were just kind of inspired by, it’s a story of a girl who’s abused in other ways, and it was definitely inspired by that,” Crowell confirms.
"I remember kinda giggling, talking about, ‘Okay, how should we kill this guy?’"
Given Lindsey and James’ past connections to Underwood, the trio were writing the song specifically to give to her, which Crowell says empowered them to pursue the story of killing the wayward man in a way that they might not have for another artist.
“We knew that she’s not afraid to do it,” he observes. “You might stay away from that kind of stuff if you’re just writing a general pitch, but this one, we knew that she’s willing to say that. If we got the song right, she would definitely sing a story song with an ending like that.”
Writing specifically for Underwood’s powerhouse voice also removed any barriers in terms of melody, since she’s capable of singing virtually anything. Crowell was responsible for much of the music track, and being newer to Nashville than his co-writers, he let them mostly take the lead in crafting the melody.
“I definitely let them do their thing on this,” he says, adding, “I remember talking about how we could write it, and I’m guessing Hillary just started singing some stuff, and it just kinda went from there.”
They collaborated on the “Church Bells” lyrics, though Crowell admits, “I would say I did the least of the lyrics, probably. In a room like that, that’s one where I would sit back and let them do their thing.”
Underwood was just getting back into work mode after having a baby, and “Church Bells” ended up being one of the last songs recorded for Storyteller. “We were all surprised that she hadn’t cut it, because we knew she liked it,” Crowell says. “We were kind of wondering why she hadn’t cut it, but luckily, they came in at the end and did it, and did it well.”
Crowell says the Underwood recording is “pretty similar” to the original demo. “I definitely give [producer] Mark [Bright] credit; I think he liked the demo, and he embraced the cool parts and just made them bigger, better, a little slicker.”
“Church Bells” sounds more like Underwood’s previous efforts than some of her other new songs. “I do think this sounds like classic Carrie Underwood,” Crowell states. “For anybody that has always loved that stuff, this is definitely one for them … I’m thrilled to have a Carrie Underwood cut with Hillary Lindsey and Brett James. Those are cool writers to have cuts with, and obviously having a Carrie song — it’s a little shocking to me, on the front side of my career, to have that cut with them, and it’s definitely a blessing.”
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