“Hung Up” is a tale of two cities that conferenced in a third, as a budding singer-songwriter who opened for a handful of Texas red-dirt acts met up to write for the first time with an Atlanta-bred married couple, known professionally as the production team Yacht Money. Cartwright brought his typical guitar-and-vocal songwriting approach to a 2017 co-write at the Nashville-area home of the Yacht club, Solomon and Lauren Olds, who spin hip-hop, pop and EDM into an unpredictable sonic mélange.
Coming shortly after Cartwright relocated from Dallas, the writing session yielded music that’s squarely in the middle of the spectrum between their pop and his country.
“We just wanted to write something that was catchy and fun,” says Cartwright. “I had this title basically, and it was a true story. There was this girl that I was hung up on, that I really couldn’t stop thinking about. Some years had gone by and she was still kind of running around my head, and we made this little song.”
The Olds supplied a foundational track, and Lauren developed a melody to go with it. Cartwright gave voice to the girl out of his past, though Solomon encouraged him to tweak that voice and cling more tightly to the country half of the extremes they were melding.
“He was coming from an Americana type of vibe,” recalls Solomon. “I was like, ‘You’re from Texas, right? Can you sound like you’re more from Texas?’ Like, ‘Can you make this more country than singing like Tom Petty?’ I think he just dug down deep, thinking about singing at the bar that we’re talking about.”
The bar is the Lakewood Landing, a burger joint that The Dallas Observer has hailed for fielding the city’s best jukebox, with selections ranging from honky-tonk legend Ernest Tubb to alt-rock band The Pixies.
The Landing “has the world’s best corndogs after eleven,” declares Cartwright, though he’s uncertain how much the accompanying beers influence that ranking.
They knocked out the “Hung Up” chorus first, using short, melodic phrases to build its sing-along quality. Cartwright casually popped out the falsetto “woo hoo,” an afterthought that became a permanent puzzle piece, and Solomon solidified the dive bar scenario with a few general images, whether they apply specifically to the Landing or not.
“The biggest thing about nostalgic memories is the smells,” he explains. “What brings you to that bar? So I was like, ‘The smell of bourbon on the floor and cheap perfume.’ “
The first verse set up the song’s memory-lane aspect, unveiling a teenage scene of innocent kissing in a smoky, not-so-innocent corner. In the second verse, he fantasizes about reconnecting and meeting up again at the bar — “Do you feel it, too? Déjà vu” — and he’s back to the chorus.
“It is a fairly upbeat, positive song, but I think one of the things that is special about it is [the listener] sort of [has] to figure out, was he with this girl? Is she there or not? Did he get back with her?” notes Cartwright. “That kind of has like a choose-your-own-adventure element to it.”
The adventure shifts in the bridge, which is so melodic and unexpected that it almost feels as if they welded a different song into “Hung Up.” It finds its way back, of course, to the chorus and a closing vamp.
The test came when Cartwright played it live. The Olds were there on at least two occasions when he performed during the weekly Whiskey Jam at Winners Bar & Grill in Nashville.
“That’s the test of the song, you know; how’s the crowd going to respond,” says Lauren. “After he played that song, you could see the girls looking at him differently. And I’m like, ‘OK, we did our job.’ It’s like he became lover boy all of a sudden.”
Cartwright, meanwhile, met producer David Garcia (Carrie Underwood, Kip Moore) on a writers retreat in Mexico, and months later, he enlisted Garcia to produce what turned out to be five tracks at Zac Brown‘s Southern Ground Studio in Nashville. The original “Hung Up” demo leaned more toward the Yacht Money dance core, and Garcia’s key goal was to country it up. A big part of that shift came from Derek Wells‘ burning slide guitar.
“Derek does some great dirty slide,” says Garcia. “He does that really well, and it’s very tasteful.”
The original 12-note instrumental riff was reassigned to guitarist Rob McNelley, whose part was doubled with a higher-pitched acoustic guitar, then filtered with some effects to get that plucky string sound. Drummer Miles McPherson played Mick Fleetwood-like afterbeats in the verses, switching up to a more driving pattern in the chorus and providing a stark turnaround at the end of the bridge that leads “Hung Up” back to its concluding chorus. Cartwright eventually added a number of shadowy secondary vocals, a sort of ghost-like presence that emphasizes the nostalgic tone of the lyrics.
“The little tricks and stuff are cool if there’s a reason to do them,” says Garcia. “If there’s something in the lyric that makes you sort of want to do that, then you should do it. But if you’re trying to force it, sometimes it can just feel like a trick, and it’s just kind of like not cool.”
Warner Music Nashville released it to digital outlets in August 2019, and as individual tracks rolled out one by one, “Hung Up” invariably got the attention, including a run on SiriusXM. The label eventually issued it through PlayMPE on Oct. 19, and Cartwright was clearly emotional — judging from a social media video — when he heard it on a terrestrial station for the first time on Nov. 15.
“This song is like the little engine that could,” he says. “It came out, it did pretty well, and then right around April or so, it really took off on streaming. And now it’s my first radio single.”
Right where the hookiest songs belong.
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.