Ashley Gorley, Nashville's king of No. 1s, reveals why it's so hard to write a song with Carrie Underwood
If you’ve never heard of songwriter Ashley Gorley, then that’s his fault. After all, he doesn’t have a publicist, doesn’t do social media or even have his own website. But make no mistake: With 37 No. 1 country hits (and counting), we all live in Ashley Gorley’s world.
It is an astonishing number, no doubt making him Nashville’s biggest hit-maker of the last decade. Since his first No. 1 (Carrie Underwood‘s “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” in 2006) to his latest (Thomas Rhett’s “Marry Me”), he has received a slew of industry awards and nominations, including being named ASCAP’s songwriter of the year a record five times.
Still need more to be impressed? Consider this: Gorley has little formal music training, can’t read sheet music, and by his own admission, he’s a pretty average keyboardist. So what’s the secret to his success? Here are five things to know about the 41-year-old songwriter who enjoys being behind the scenes.
1. He developed his musical ear as a party deejay.
Raised in rural Kentucky, Gorley grew up living the country life but avidly listening to R&B, hip-hop and pop music. He started deejaying parties and dances when he was just in middle school.
“I could see what people would respond to when I’d play songs,” he says. “I just got a feel for what made songs sound more like hits.”
He graduated from Nashville’s Belmont University in 1999 with a degree in music business, hoping to be a songwriter but intent on any career in the industry – except artist.
“There’s no ‘Oh, I really wanted to be an artist and ended up being a songwriter,’” he says. “This is what I wanted to do and I’m doing it, so that’s a very fortunate place.”
2. There’s no such thing as an Ashley Gorley sound.
While some songwriters may have recognizable signature sounds, Gorley doesn’t aspire to one. (Consider these three wildly different No. 1 Gorley songs: Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here,” Luke Bryan’s “Kick the Dust Up” and Underwood’s “All American Girl.”)
“I kind of purposely don’t have a thing,” he says, “because I like to disappear into the song.”
He also prides himself in bringing a full toolbox to his songwriting sessions. Starting out in Nashville, he says, “all I knew was, if there were some people who were only good at words or some people who were only good at melody … then those people only got certain calls. So I wanted to be good at everything.”
3. He’s happy to share the credit.
Gorley is a committed co-writer, whether it’s with seasoned peers, rookie songwriters or the artists who will eventually be doing the singing.
“I used to write a song occasionally by myself just to remember that I can do that, but I quit doing that a few years ago,” he says. “Co-writing’s just more fun. … I like the excitement, like when somebody gets a melody or a line that’s great. I like to celebrate that. Or when you get stuck, I want somebody to get me unstuck. I don’t want to sit there for an hour and think in silence.”
“The trouble with writing with Carrie is that, when she sings it back, it’s going to sound amazing,” he says. “So you can get away with a bad line or two if you’re not careful.”
He’s been known to solve the problem by taking over singing duties with his untrained voice. “It has to be awesome if I’m singing it just to sound okay,” he says.
Underwood’s songwriting skills, says Gorley, can make him forget the talent she’s famous for – until she warms up her pipes. “Everyone’s just shaking their head like, how’s this happening?” he says. “It’s like working with whatever is the best-of-the-best instrument.”
- Want to keep up with the latest from PEOPLE? Sign up for our daily newsletter to get our best stories of the day delivered straight to your inbox.
4. He believes in songwriting “magic.”
Songwriting sessions can be “grueling,” he says, but every now and then “the heart of the song flies out.”
“It is magic,” he says. “That is true. It’s fun because it does just happen … There’s a good five-minute moment of the magic, and that makes it worth the other 10 hours of torture.”
Thomas Rhett, he says, makes the most of those moments, jumping around like a kid. “Everyone knows when you hit it, when you get that moment,” Gorley says, “and you listen back and think, how did this even happen?”
5. He can’t explain his streak of No. 1s.
Incredibly, 20 of his 37 No. 1 songs have been in just the past three years. Among them: Underwood’s “Dirty Laundry” and “Heartbeat,” Paisley’s “Today,” Bentley’s “Black,” Jon Pardi’s “Dirt on My Boots” and Rhett’s “T-Shirt” and “Unforgettable.”
How’s Gorley doing it? “I have no idea,” he says. “I don’t know what’s happening. I honestly don’t try to think about it at all or I’ll feel pressure.”
He says he also knows it “doesn’t last forever. I’m very, very aware of that, so I’m trying to make the most of it.”