One of the most engaging singles of Carrie Underwood’s early career was “Cowboy Casanova,” a warning to other women about a “snake with blue eyes” posing for his next victim in a barroom, delivered as big, KISS-quality guitars bashed out power chords underneath.
Matt Stell’s “Breakin’ In Boots” is the male version of that song. Though the artist says, “I’ve never thought about that,” the similarities are all there: the night-spot locale, the exhortation to another guy about the danger an alluring female patron poses and even a reference to snakeskin. In this case, the serpentine comment is a note about the other man’s leather boots, but it’s easy to see the reptillian innuendo as an allusion to the woman’s forked tongue.
More than anything, it’s Stell paying homage to an item in his own closet.
“Years ago, I bought this pair of boots that I had no business buying,” he says. “It took them, I don’t know, about a year’s time to make ‘em. They drew ‘em to my foot and made ‘em and I remember when those boots came in. I’ll be married and buried in those boots. They’re python.”
The storyline of “Breakin’ In Boots” is personal, too. Stell had spotted a woman at a Nashville bar in March wearing boots that looked quite similar to his. He was in the process of closing his tab, and by the time he was free to go introduce himself and compare footwear, she was gone.
Within a few days, Stell staked out a writers room at Apple Music’s office in Nashville’s Wedgewood-Houston district for a local writing retreat. After a morning co-write, he shared the space that afternoon with writer-producer Joe Fox (“Last Night Lonely”); Los Angeles-based Nate Cyphert (“H.O.L.Y.”); and Ben Stennis (“’Til You Can’t,” “Make You Mine”), who presented the “Breakin’ In Boots” title. Everyone liked it, particularly Stell.
“The great thing about Stell,” says Stennis, “is he knows what he wants to do, and he’s very direct about it.”
The title allowed them to paint a barroom Barbie as someone who gets a kick out of using and abusing men’s emotions, and it was ideal for an aggressive musical framework, which would assist Stell’s concerts. With that in mind, Fox kicked into a four-chord progression on guitar that’s either in the key of C-major or the related A-minor; since each chord keeps rolling into the next, the home base isn’t as clear as it would have been if they were adhering to the rules that guided music-theory icon J.S. Bach.
“If you understand Bach, you could definitely understand Matt Stell,” Fox deadpans.
Stell wanted to drop John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night” in the opening line – that 1992 chart-topper documented a similarly bitter beauty – and it set a proper tone, but the writing wasn’t entirely linear. They bounced a bit between the opening verse and chorus.
“It’s like tightening up the lug nuts on a tire you’re changing,” Stell says. “You get them all started, and then you cinch ‘em down in kind of a star pattern. You don’t go one after the other. Somehow that kind of works.”
Midway through the chorus, they ID’d the woman as a “cowboy killer” who’s “shootin’” bourbon.
“Cowboy Killer” was a title Stell had tried to write previously – it’s also been the hook for album cuts by Jason Aldean and by Ian Munsick and Ryan Charles. And Dustin Lynch named his current album Killed the Cowboy.
“We all grew up talking about Marlboros being cowboy killers, at least in Georgia,” Stennis says. “We knew cigarettes are called cowboy killers, and so we kind of just thought calling a girl a cowboy killer instead was kind of cool.”
It certainly implies that she’s smokin’…
“Smokin’ cigarettes or just smokin’ beautiful,” Stennis quips. “Either one.”
The writing progressed without a lot of setbacks, but “Boots” still needed a bridge, and maybe a little more work on the second verse. Apple, unfortunately, was closing up shop for the day, and since they had maybe just a half-hour of work left, they went out to Stell’s Ford F-150 in the parking lot and kept writing there in public, undeterred by the prospect of passersby hearing their unfinished work.
“I didn’t really think about it at the time,” Cyphert says. “But I think we were excited about the song and were pretty wrapped up in it. We already had the chorus where we knew there’s something here. So I think that we didn’t even put that much thought into who could have heard or who was walking about.”
Despite that public-facing scenario, the parking lot is where “Boots” reached its most vulnerable moment. They fashioned a bridge that temporarily broke the repetitive chord structure, and the singer doubled down on his warning that the smokin’-hot woman would leave potential suitors broken. He implied that he had firsthand knowledge.
“Bridges are always my favorite part of the song,” Cyphert notes. “I think it’s nice to give a listener one more new little piece of something before you launch them back into a chorus, and in this case, I feel like the bridge is the most emotional part of the song. It’s kind of the soft side of the whole situation.”
In the ensuing days, Stennis built a demo with a four-on-the-floor drum pattern that felt sort of danceable. Stell liked it, but had other ideas, and asked Fox to work something up with a little more of a rock tone. Fox infused more dynamics into it, paring back at the end of the first verse to a haunting piano background, which made the launch of the anthemic chorus even more pronounced. He also developed a down chorus for the post-bridge section, and rolled in a high-energy banjo part on the chorus to amp it even further.
“There’s a banjo on meth cranking through that song,” Stennis says.
Stell began using “Breakin’ In Boots” as the closer for his concerts almost immediately, replacing “Shut The Truck Up.” They subsequently recorded the final master at the Black River compound on Nashville’s Music Row during the summer with a cadre of studio musicians playing on top of Fox’s demo. Most of his playing on that demo bit the dust, though some of it remained intact.
“I would have programmed drums, but those would be replaced,” Fox says. “It was mostly the little things [that stayed in] — the baritone electric guitar that’s in there, that’s my guitar from the demo. Same with some of the other guitars that are in there, and there was my banjo from the demo.”
RECORDS Nashville released “Breakin’ In Boots” to digital service providers on Oct. 6, then shipped it to country radio via PlayMPE on Nov. 6. The woman who inspired it will likely never know she’s the subject.
And Stell still doesn’t know if she really is the heartbreaker the song implies.
“She could have very well been,” he allows. “I never got a chance to find out.”