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Story Behind the Song: Carrie Underwood, ‘Play On’

In November of 2009, Carrie Underwood released her third studio album, Play On. The 13-track project debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 and on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. The record spawned three No. 1 singles, and a No. 2 single; has since been certified double platinum; and was nominated for Album of the Year at both the ACM Awards and CMA Awards. Below, Luke Laird tells The Boot about writing Play On‘s title track — its final song — with Underwood and Natalie Hemby.

Natalie Hemby and I got together with Carrie sometime between January and March [in 2009] to write for [the Play On] album. Carrie had pretty much blocked out three months to write for this album, and she probably wrote over 60 songs during that period.

This was the first time Natalie and Carrie had met, and “Play On” was actually the second song we wrote that day. When we finished writing the first song, Carrie went downstairs to get a drink, and I told Natalie, “I’ll bet she’s going to want to write another song.” Because when Carrie comes in to write, she’s ready to work all day.

We didn’t have any ideas, but when Carrie went downstairs, I started playing a drum loop I had on my laptop, and I had my electric guitar there that day. So I started playing these chords, kind of fun stuff, and Carrie came back in and was listening to me … and then she just started singing, “Play on …,” And I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of cool and motivational … but just a little bit different way of saying it.” So we actually started on the chorus of this song. And from there, it was just like a stream of consciousness. Once we got the concept — play on, keep on when you’re up against adversity — then we had fun trying to think of all these cool, different images.

Once Carrie started singing, “Play on …,” it just sounded so cool. Of course, anything that Carrie sings sounds good; she could sing the phone book! But I thought this song had a good message, and there was some cool, different images. And it was really smooth. Nobody was like, “Oh, no! Let’s do it this way!” It just flowed really smooth, and all of us started throwing all these lines in, and it really came together, like a gift.

For a long time after we wrote it, it didn’t sound like this song was even in the running [to be included on the album], though. From what I heard, it was one of the last songs Carrie brought up to put on the album. She said she’d listened to it again and thought it might be cool. And next thing I know, I get a call. I was out working in LA, and they tell me, “Carrie’s cutting “Play On!”” And I was shocked. I called Natalie, and she just started crying. And I was so happy, too, because it was the first song that Natalie and I had written together. We had been friends for so long, and we write tons of songs together. And then a few weeks later, we found out it was going to be the title of her album, which made it extra cool, because it was the first song I’d ever written that’s been the title track of an album!

This story was originally written by Marianne Horner, and revised by Angela Stefano.

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