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How a Utah musician’s forgotten song became a No. 1 hit

‘It kind of got lost in the shuffle, to be honest,’ Ryan Innes said of a song he wrote five years ago. ‘I wasn’t known for it; people weren’t aware of it.’ Until recently.

Ryan Innes sings his original song, “Long Way Home,” for Lady A on the NBC show “Songland.” The episode aired April 13.
Trae Patton/NBC

SALT LAKE CITY — On NBC’s “Songland,Ryan Innes lost creative control.

The Utah musician’s soulful ballad transformed into a poppier, more upbeat tune — a radio-friendly song that could potentially be cut by country trio Lady Antebellum.

He wasn’t surprised. After all, the whole point of “Songland” was for undiscovered songwriters to pitch original songs to chart-topping artists and music producers. To get recorded and released worldwide by one of those artists, a song is likely going to have to change.

Innes knew that going in, but that didn’t make it any easier for him.

“You’re attached to your song,” he told the Deseret News. “You’re attached to the meaning, you’re attached to the way that it’s presented.”

So the songwriter had a conversation with himself.

If chosen by Lady Antebellum — who recently announced the band name is changing to Lady A — his song “Long Way Home” could be heard by more people, he reasoned. It would have wider reach. It would have more opportunity to inspire.

“I had to kind of sacrifice that song for the greater good,” Innes said with a laugh. “And I’ve never had to do that.”

Innes’ “Songland” episode aired April 13. The musician stood in front of Lady A and performed the updated version of “Long Way Home” — the product of two songwriting sessions (about eight hours of work) with hit songwriter Ester Dean.

Ryan Innes performs his new version of “Long Way Home” for Lady A on the NBC show “Songland.” The song ended up going to No. 1 on the iTunes charts.
Trae Patton, NBC

Although Lady A had nothing but praise for the new “Long Way Home,” the band didn’t end up cutting the song.

But the song also didn’t end up on the cutting room floor.

Last month, to Innes’ surprise, “Long Way Home” fell into the hands of Todd Tilghman, a Mississippi pastor with eight kids who won “The Voice.” And just like that, a 5-year-old song Innes had considered to be “lost in the shuffle” unexpectedly reached great heights, soaring to No. 1 on the iTunes country chart, and No. 1 on the iTunes overall chart.

‘Lost in the shuffle’

It started in a small cabin.

Nestled in Big Cottonwood Canyon, a few miles outside of Salt Lake City, Innes and his friend/fellow songwriter, Dustin Christensen, started an afternoon songwriting session. They volleyed ideas and lyrics.

“You can go through five different ideas before you land on one,” Innes said.

A line emerged out of the brainstorm — a lyric that became the driving force of the song: “Sometimes the heart takes the long way home.”

From there, the songwriters developed scenarios to fit that concept: people figuring out what they want to do in life; a person learning a lesson the hard way; someone struggling to forgive.

They wrote the song in a few hours. And then they met a second time to tighten it up and record a demo. But aside from performing it a few times, Innes didn’t do much with “Long Way Home.” The demo sat in his Dropbox for five years, collecting dust.

On NBC’s “Songland,” Ryan Innes works with hit songwriter Ester Dean on his original song “Long Way Home.”
Evans Vestal Ward/NBC

“It kind of got lost in the shuffle, to be honest,” Innes said. “I wasn’t known for it; people weren’t aware of it.”

Until recently.

Applying for “Songland,” Innes submitted anywhere from 12 to 15 original songs. “Long Way Home” came during his last round of submissions and rose to the top.

“The song just has a lot of depth from that one line (‘sometimes the heart takes the long way home’), which is why I think it resonated with so many people,” Innes said. “There’s more heart and depth to it than what the lyrics on the page are, and I think people got that pretty quickly.”

It wasn’t until the second day of being on set that Innes knew he’d be pitching it to Lady A. He wondered how the song could be altered to better appeal to the country band. But with Dean at the helm — and occasionally Face-timing Christensen during the process — Innes created a second version. He sped up the tempo, tweaked the lyrics and added a chorus that went higher.

Stylistically, it was completely different. But in many ways, the song was still the same.

“The heart of the whole song … that didn’t change,” Innes said. “It does feel like the same song to me even though it kind of got dressed up in a new suit.”

The band Lady A was featured on Ryan Innes’ episode of “Songland” on April 13.
Trae Patton/NBC

Lady A loved the new version.

“I believe in this song, man,” Lady A member Dave Haywood told Innes. “I believe in you. I think you belong doing this.”

The country trio chose to go with another song, though, leaving “Long Way Home” up for grabs. Producers told Innes they would actively try to get his and other contestants’ songs placed with artists, but Innes didn’t know how — or if — it would happen. And at that time, he couldn’t have known that “Long Way Home” would end up being a breakout song for a rising star on “The Voice.”

A No. 1 hit

Tilghman loved it the minute he heard it. The style, the message, everything.

“It’s a beautiful song, and it’s a moving song,” the pastor recently told the Deseret News.

“I thought, ‘Man this is really right up my alley — like directly in the center of my lane.”

“The Voice” finalist was prepping for the show’s finale. The remaining contestants were required to sing an original song, and in a new collaboration, “Songland” had pitched a few original songs to “The Voice.”

Although the pastor already had other songs in mind, he decided to go with “Long Way Home.” And with help from Dean and country songwriter/record producer Shane McAnally, Tilghman made his mark on the song, adding in some new lyrics that reflected his own experiences.

Todd Tilghman, the season 18 winner of “The Voice,” ended up releasing Ryan Innes’ song “Long Way Home.” Upon the release, the song reached the top of the iTunes charts.
Mitchell Haddad, NBC

Singing from his church in Mississippi, Tilghman debuted that new version to millions of viewers during “The Voice” finale on May 18. Shortly after, “Long Way Home” started climbing the charts.

Innes couldn’t believe it.

When producers first told him his song might be used on “The Voice,” he thought it would be used in a promotional video or as background music. He never imagined it would be sung by a contestant on the show, much less the show’s winner. He didn’t know it would officially be released. And he never dreamed it would reach No. 1 on iTunes charts.

“It was very surprising to me,” said Innes, who himself appeared on season 4 of “The Voice” in 2013. “I really hope that it was the combination of Todd’s vocals and his heart and his delivery, and then the song just resonated with people.”

Tilghman is the first artist to release “Long Way Home,” so the song is listed as his. But the pastor — who has since become a fan of Innes’ music — has been vocal in giving credit where its due, shedding light on Innes and the other songwriters involved.

“I’m really glad that ‘Long Way Home’ landed with someone like him,” Innes said. “This is actually a really beautiful way for this to happen.”

‘Let the song live’

Innes has had other recent successes, too. Last year, his song “Restless” was featured on an episode of the Netflix show “The Punisher.”

Since “Songland,” one of his latest songs, “I Got It,” was used on “America’s Got Talent.” And his song “Born to Win” was the backdrop to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers video promoting Rob Gronkowski joining Tom Brady in the upcoming NFL season.

Ryan Innes pitched his song “Long Way Home” to Lady A on the NBC show “Songland.” Although the song didn’t get selected, it ended up reaching No. 1 on the iTunes charts thanks to Todd Tilghman, the season 18 winner of “The Voice.”
Trae Patton/NBC

Eventually, once the coronavirus pandemic subsides, Innes hopes to visit Nashville and dive even deeper into the songwriting business. He wants to create more music, for himself and for other artists. He’d also like to put out his original version of “Long Way Home” — an idea that makes him laugh because his original version would now be a cover. With all of the names attached to “Long Way Home” now, though, that could take a while.

But in the meantime, the songwriter is just happy that after five years of sitting in his Dropbox, “Long Way Home” has finally reached its destination.

“When I wrote ‘Long Way Home,’ I didn’t write it with the intent of it being cut by someone else,” he said. “But I’m glad that I got out of my own way, basically, and let the song live.”