Makin' Tracks: Dan + Shay's Stark Treatment Of 'Speechless' Speaks Volumes


When Dan + Shay flew to Des Moines, Iowa, for a June 23 appearance at the Big Country Bash in St. Charles, the duo was overwhelmed by the reception. The Middle America fans practically shouted the words to "Tequila," which ended up peaking at No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart dated July 7.

But surprisingly, the crowd was likewise enthusiastic about "Speechless." A video to the track, featuring footage from Dan Smyers' May 2017 wedding and Shay Mooney's marriage last October, was released May 17 in advance their self-titled third album. Even though it hadn't made its way to terrestrial radio, "Speechless" had clearly connected with fans.

"They sang every single word," recalls Mooney. "It kind blew us away a little bit, because we had just put out the record."

That live feedback was one several indicators that led "Speechless" to become the follow-up to "Tequila," released by Warner Music Nashville (WMN) to country radio through PlayMPE on July 30. Smyers sent video the performance to members the duo's business team in Nashville, believing the visceral images would demonstrate how well the song was performing with little promotion behind it.

"I like people back home to see what we're seeing on the road, not just base these decisions on the stats or the numbers," says Smyers. "These are the human reactions. That's what's going to happen when it's played on radio or when we perform it on TV."

"Speechless" wasn't just new to Iowans in June; it was still fairly fresh for Dan + Shay, who penned it in January at the East Nashville home studio cowriter Jordan Reynolds ("Tequila"). The Dan + Shay album was mostly done, so Reynolds and cowriter Laura Veltz ("I Could Use a Love Song," "Drunk Last Night") were under a bit pressure to write a high-quality song if they wanted to bump something else f the album. After an hour or two brainstorming, Veltz had to leave to chauffeur her kids. With both Smyers and Mooney enjoying newlywed status, talk with Reynolds drifted to their weddings, and from there to the magic seeing their wives in their bridal gowns for the first time. Smyers had a title that fit the subject matter, "Speechless," and when he came up with a twisting fivenote leadin on the word "I'm," they had a starting line. Reynolds built a complex sonic foundation by mixing jazzy sevenths and ninths amid minor triads, structures that ten don't appear in mainstreamcountry writing sessions in Nashville.

"We call them 'out town' chords," says Reynolds with a laugh.

They were perfect for Smyers' vision the song as a sort minitribute to Norah Jones' diamondcertified Come Away With Me.

"The musicianship is just out control," says Smyers the 2002 landmark album. "That record feels to me like a September day, a little bit rain, New York City, sitting in a cfee shop, looking out a window — that kind vibe, and that's sort what we did when we made this track. At least that's what I was going for."

Veltz returned just as the idea was crystallizing, and she wandered into a puzzle in which the lyrical goal was just as complex as the piano voicings. Everyone has heard an acceptance speech delivered by someone who claims to be speechless, but keeps talking about how he or she doesn't have the words. A song with the title "Speechless" ran the risk mimicking that faux pas.

"You just don't want to hear a song that is ironic: 'I have nothing to say, and here's some more,' " says Veltz. "You don't want to be that guy."

Compounding the issue, "speechless" is a word that is difficult to rhyme. They compiled a list options with a st rhyme, and inserted a handful — "secret," "weakness," "nervous" — into the chorus.

"All four us listen to a lot pop music, and the way that Eminem thinks about rhyming is just slowly peeking into country music," says Veltz. "It's more about the vowelsound rhyme than a consonantsound rhyme, so it just has to have 'ee' in it: 'speechless,' 'secret,' 'weakness.' It's all about the vowel sound."

They all felt that "Speechless" was special, and Reynolds ran through the piano chords for a spare work tape with Mooney singing lead before they adjourned around 5:45 p.m. He slipped a bass into the chorus later with light percussion underneath, but Smyers counseled against taking it any further.

"My job is to get everybody excited about the song at the end with the demo, and I wanted to add some stuff," says Reynolds. "But he was like, 'Don't add anything, just send it to me. We're going to cut it, so it doesn't matter.' "

They recorded with finger snaps in the background at Ocean Way as Gordon Mote made minor changes to the piano voicings to create a major emotional effect. The biggest battle for Smyers and coproducer Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton, Michael Ray) was to avoid cluttering those dense, long piano notes with other sounds.

"I've had really good luck with wedding songs over my career, starting with 'I'll Still Be Loving You' with Restless Heart," says Hendricks. "That was a]huge wedding song. John Michael Montgomery's] 'I Swear,' huge wedding song. And Montgomery's] 'I Can Love You Like That,' huge wedding song. This is a big wedding song for this generation coming up."

Smyers and Mooney built the harmonies on their own at Smyers' garage studio, and Mooney even did a vocal version  Derek Wells' guitar solo, which now appears almost imperceptibly in unison with Wells' performance on the single. Huge, stark harmonies usher in the chorus, and they're sleek enough that WMN released a vocals-only digital version the track.

The blend intentionally gets a deeper, richer treatment than on previous Dan + Shay albums.

"Dan's low harmonies are pushed up in the mix, especially when it comes to the chorus," says Hendricks. "That's one the things that's different about this record than the last records."

"Speechless" has already spent 11 weeks on Hot Country Songs, thanks to streaming and digital sales, and it debuts at No. 46 on the Country Airplay chart dated Aug. 18. Based on the duo's own relationship with the song, that enthusiasm Dan + Shay felt in Iowa is likely to last.

"If I can sing a song and hear it a million times and not get sick it, that usually translates to most people," says Mooney.

They're already getting the bridal feedback that Hendricks expected — numerous Twitter users have pledged to use "Speechless" for their wedding. "If I don't slow dance to 'Speechless' by Dan + Shay at my wedding I have failed at life," tweeted @TayTayGraves11 on Aug. 7.

"That's so flattering," says Smyers. "That's the biggest moment in their life, and for them to use our song, we couldn't ask for anything more."

Makin' Tracks is a weekly column found in Billboard's Country Update newsletter. here.