Keith Urban's "Raise 'Em Up" lyrics present some of the most imaginative imagery at country radio today, and according to one of the songwriters, that was part of the idea from the beginning.

"I had raise 'em up like this or raise 'em up like that saved in my phone, and I'd been wanting to write it," Jaren Johnston tells Taste of Country. "I had Jeffrey [Steele] and Tom [Douglas] coming over, and I wanted to write something smarter than just trucks and all that kind of stuff. So I knew it was gonna be a good idea to bring that title in with Tom, because he's just incredibly crafty. He's very good at taking a song in a way that you normally wouldn't think it was gonna go."

Johnston had the beginnings of the song, and Douglas immediately saw where he was going.

"He just jumped into that, 'Black umbrellas in the pouring rain ...,' that Townes Van Zandt approach," Johnston recalls. "So that was originally gonna be the only chorus, and I said, 'Man, this is really cool but this song's bigger than that chorus.' You hear that chorus first, it makes it kind of a sad song more than an uplifting one, so we wrote that 'White sails down in Mexico ...' to kind of give it more of an uplifting vibe."

Writing with two of the most celebrated songwriters in Nashville was an eye-opening experience.

"Jeff's one of these guys that, he'll sit there and just throw out something from the left corner, and you're like, 'Oh s---, that's genius!'" Johnston says with a laugh. "And Tom does the same thing, so it was a very, very fun day. That's the kind of day that you want to have as a songwriter, because there were good vibes."

With the ideas flowing rapidly, the "Raise 'Em Up" lyrics came out easily. "We literally poured that song out in an hour and a half," Johnston recalls. "The guys left, and we didn't have the bridge part yet. We just had the two verses and the two choruses, and I sat there as I was doing a little work tape, and I was like, 'S---, man, this needs to go somewhere else.' And I just kinda freestyled that whole thing, 'Raise 'em up trophy high ...' I just started singing over that, and I called them both and said, 'This thing just went to a whole new level.'"

I wanted to write something smarter than just trucks and all that kind of stuff.

The resulting song juxtaposes several different lyrical themes, urging listeners to raise up everything from lighters at a concert, to a salute to our troops, to the next generation of children, all tied neatly together in a tightly-written package with no wasted words. It didn't take much convincing for Urban to cut it.

"That thing was on hold — I sent it to Keith at 5:30 that afternoon, and he texted me, and he said, 'This is amazing, let me live with it for a day or two.' And that's what happened, pretty much," Johnston tells us.

His alternate choice to cut the song if Urban had not would have been Eric Church — who definitely would have been interested, according to Johnston.

"I sent it to Keith because I'd had some success with Keith, but it's funny how it turned out ... my only hesitation with Keith was the second verse, that has that thing about the stripes and stars. Him being from Australia, I wondered if he'd sing that," he says.

"The first time Eric heard it — at least that's what he told me — he was trying to talk Keith out of cutting it," he adds, laughing. "Saying, 'I don't know if that's right for you, man.' Which is really funny. Right around that time, [Johnston's band, the Cadillac Three] did a European tour with Eric last year, and he'd say, 'Aww man, I wanted that song, man. It's real special, Jaren. It's real smart.'"

It turned out that he got in on it anyway.

"That was a total Keith thing. He called me up one day randomly and said, 'Hey man, I'm at Blackbird [Studio], come over here, I want you to hear something,'" Johnston says.

Urban was in the studio with Nathan Chapman, listening to the playback of the completed track. "He said, 'It's a duet now,'" and I go, 'Oh, cool!" I was thinking any moment that Miranda [Lambert] or, anybody other Eric Church is gonna come in singing," the songwriter recounts, "And sure enough that second verse hits, and it's Eric Church, and I'm just like, 'Hell yeah!'"

Though he's grateful for its success, Johnston sees "Raise 'Em Up" as a possible breakthrough single for the Cadillac Three that got away. "Every band wants to grow. I think that we probably would have done really well with 'Raise 'Em Up,' and you know, that's one of those thing that you kick yourself," he reflects. "At the same time, it's a good problem to have! I'm really thankful that Keith did it, and what this turned out to be."

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