Interview with the songwriter behind Diamond Rings and Old Barstools, Pontoon, Girls Chase Boys and
If you read yesterdays blog you will know all about my dissertation which I’m hoping to publish as a book this year entitled Controversy in Country Music:Politics, Religion and Social Issues and the Changing Fan Demographic. As part of my research I spent an hour with hit writer Barry Dean in Nashville chatting to him about Country Songwriting and the themes and case studies examined in my dissertation. I have split the interview into two parts due to the length with the first instalment focussing on Barry’s experience as a writer and the second being more focussed on controversies in Country music. I really could not have done my research without Barry’s help and I’m very grateful to him for being so lovely and helpful during my time in Nashville. For any aspiring writers out there if you never read another one of my blogs I urge you to read this interview as I learnt so much from the conversation I had with Barry Dean.
So first of all could you tell me a little bit about how you got into songwriting?
I wrote when I was young and then I stopped when I was 19 or 20 and I didn’t write any songs for the next 10, almost 15 years. I did write in my journal and I still loved music but I didn’t do anything musical. I wasn’t the guy that played songs at the party or any of that, I’m still not. But then I was in Kansas, a little town in Kansas, my wife and I were talking, I’d been offered a job in the town, and she said well if it’s your passion, you do that. And I laughed and she said why are you laughing, I said well it’s a great job and I like to help kids and do well in education but it’s not my passion so she said well what is? I said I don’t know, she said well when you were young what was your dream, I said well it’s going to sound weird but my dream was to go to Nashville and be a songwriter. What? That had never come up and we’d been married almost two years. I said well it went away, it’s too late but I wish I had. So then about 2-4 weeks later she comes in and says for our anniversary will you take me on a cruise and I said yeah she said, this is the one and the Nashville Songwriters Association did a cruise they’ve only done two of them ever and they had writers like Hugh Twitters and Angela Kaset and Gregg Wiseman was on there and a few others so I went and sat in the back room and took notes and I listened to them talk about songwriting and of course I already wanted to be a songwriter but I got to hear how they perceived it and how they thought and in the last day Gregg Wiseman had me play a song for him and he heard it and said, don’t quit your day job! You should start coming to Nashville, we’re doing this thing in a couple of months, you should come, so I started making trips for several years. After many years and many trips I got signed to BMG and I still lived in Kansas for another two years because by the time I got a cut and it got on the radio it had been almost two years. And even then I was like I don’t know because I had a whole life there, I had two kids, but my wife was supportive so we moved here and we’ve been here almost 11 years now and we’ve loved it. But it’s harder than I thought it would be, it’s more intense than I thought it would be. There’s the struggle of learning how to write, you’re always wanting to learn how to write better, then it becomes a real struggle to find ideas you want to write, find things you want to write and keep your voice, the things you want to say.
So even now after having a number of hits do you still worry about where your next bit of inspiration is going to come from?
I am always looking for that, it’s very perceptive because most people don’t realise that’s what I worry about. That’s what I spend a lot of my time focussing on, getting in a space to stay open to discovery, to see things and read things and hear things that move me, to journal and I never realised, that’s really the thing I spend a lot of time on, getting my head in that space. Some days it’s just fun and we’re laughing and it’s easy but normally when I’m not writing I’m either with my family or I’m still studying or taking guitar lessons. I said to somebody the other day you know, you know how to write a song and at a certain point you internalise how to write a song but I think the thing that makes you a professional songwriter is not so much knowing how to write songs but having a passion for looking for something, why does that phrase mean so much why does that bother me, trying to do that and most of my time is taken up doing that. So yes I’m always worried, I try to be positive about it but I’m just hungering to find the next thing that makes me go wow, yes that makes me feel great. Because you don’t want an ok kiss, you want a great kiss, you don’t want an ok ice cream you want a great ice cream and that’s the same with songwriting, you want to write a great song.
Was it always Country music, growing up to now?
This will be very archaic. I grew up listening to the radio and my parents music so what I think of Country I think of Roger Miller and a lot of original artists even before my time, my grandfather was huge Eddie Arnold fan and Jim Reeves, my Grandmother, I came from the middle states Kansas and Oklahoma and there was a lot of church music so she knew the Blackwood Brothers and the Oakridge Boys a lot of quartet singing. So she was into that and my Grandfather was a Country Gentleman, cosmopolitan sounds and big string arrangements, really old and it was old when I was a kid, and Johnny Cash of course. I loved that era of Country music and then I became a teenager and I loved Rock and Roll and that era of Rock and Roll after Zeppelin was The Clash, The Fix, Talking Heads, Michael Jackson, Madonna, that era, so I knew all that music, Billy Joel and all those people and I did know 90’s Country Artists but I skewed towards Lyle Lovett, Patty Loveless, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson a lot of the traditionalists, you can see that direct line to what I grew up listening to so I relate to that more than the 90’s stuff. I mean I loved Dwight Yoakham, but that’s sort of what I listened to. I thought these people wrote these songs and had an emotional connection to it and I still have trouble with that, I don’t care what the market is, if I don’t think you mean it, that’s what I don’t like. There’s not good music and bad music I just want to know if you’re really committed to it. When we moved to town we were having dinner and Eddie Arnold was having dinner and I almost lost it because I’d grown up listening to him, I’d listened to so much of his stuff through my Grandad and I couldn’t believe he was just sitting there having dinner. I loved Tom T Hall and Charlie Rich as well. I just did a thing over the summer where I listened to Tom T Hall the whole box set of all his work, I drove my family crazy. And right now, because Merle just passed I think I need to go back and just listen to it all as a progression and hear him winding his way through. Which is kind of what you’re talking about, how does he address these cultural issues and there’s so much I need to learn about. I don’t feel like I know some of these artists as well as I should.
Did you ever consider being an artist yourself?
When I was a kid I wanted to be a singer and a star and all that but first of all I don’t really have that personality so when I came back to writing there was obviously no consideration of that, I don’t look like one, I don’t sing at that level, I can sing songs but an artist is really great, they love the stage, they love the fans, I love writing the songs and I love artists. I love getting to work with artists, I’m a real fan of what they do, I like how they sing and how they form the words and I just want to help them. I think that’s what makes me a little different as a writer because a lot of writers in Nashville were artists, or wanted to be artists or had a label deal and it didn’t work out and they became great super successful writers and having that experience helps them. In my case not having been an artist and just sort of acknowledging that hey I’m not the one whose the artist in the room, I’m the one who knows that this person is magic and if they’re painting I’ll love the lights around and help mix up different colours and try to inspire them as they’re painting that canvas and I like playing that role. Whereas I think if you still think of yourself as the artist it can get a little confused in the room, who’s going to sing this. I love playing the shows with my friends and I get very nervous…
Yes I’m terrified when I’m up there, I really am scared, well you saw last night I literally stepped off stage for a minute when Natalie left, I left too and I thought I’ll just step off because I was so nervous, I’ll come back and be calmer so that’s what I did. I just took a break, took a minute and walked off and I think Luke talked smack about me, I didn’t hear but I think he was saying some stuff about me, I’m sure it’s untrue haha.
Do you have favourite people to work with, artists and writers?
Well I love writing with Lori McKenna and Luke Laird, I don’t think that’s any surprise and Natalie. I got to write with Marren Morris for her new record and I think she’s really something special, I think Steve Moakler is, I think he’s awesome, he’s so talented. I’ve never had an Eric Church cut but I wrote a couple of songs with Eric Church and Luke Laird and I will tell you Eric Church is one of the finest writers in the whole of Tennessee. He’s a great writer and I’ll say this too, you know, Miranda Lambert is a great writer, she knows where she’s going and she’s a wonderful writer. I write a lot with a guy named Troy Verges who is kind of a quiet monster hit writer, if you look up Troy Verges it will blow your mind but he is one of the kindest, he’s the ultimate hit songwriter because he doesn’t draw a lot of attention to himself but he’s kind and gracious but he has got all the skills and he can be what he needs to be in a room to get a great song. I fortunately get to work with Tom Douglas and I learn something overtime I work with him, he’s a great teacher and a great mentor. I’ve actually gone and sat in his classes at Belmont and listened to him talk and so have other writers and he’s a great talent. Josh Osborne’s a wonderful writer we’ve only written a few songs but I love them. I’ve written with this young man who’s a producer, writer guy, Jimmy Robbins and he’s very young he’s maybe only 24 or 25 years old but he’s just really good, he does a great job. There’s so many great writers. That’s the thing, there’s more great writers that I see and I think wow I love that song, I love the way that young writer thinks but there’s so many writers and you really only have a few days to work with, you don’t realise it. You get in there and you only have this little handful of days and if I give Luke every Tuesday and I give Lori every other Thursday and now I just have this many days and the artists demands these days so now I only have one or two days a week or per month and all of a sudden you’re like I really want to write with that person but it might take seven to ten months to write with them. I was chatting about this with the radio guy who was just here and we wrote Pontoon on one day and it took seven months before the three of us, Myself, Luke and Natalie’s calendars lined up so we could finish it, it’s really stupid! And this song Free that we sung at Tin Pan South that Lori sang, we started a different song that we really loved and we really wanted to finish it, well it was two years later that we finally got all four of our schedules to line up, because everyones travelling and they have their families and schedules so we got together to finish this other song and we didn’t finish it we wrote Free but it just tells you how long it takes to get there.
It must be hard to get back into the mind set?
For me yes, I find it very frustrating, so when we can we do a lot of things in our office to try to finish songs that day because it’s so hard to get back together and if you add an artist into that, they’re only home a couple of days a week. So in our office we bring in lunch everyday, I think we might be the only publisher that does that but we don’t do that to be snooty we do it because you go to lunch you loose an hour to two hours, by the time you get there and pick a place and come back and then if you go to lunch kind of late, you go at one, now its three o’clock, someone has to be somewhere at four. The tendency is to go, we’ll get back together, well we bring lunch in in order to finish songs.
From what people have said at Tin Pan South you seem to write in two’s or three’s but do you ever write on your own or is that not done so much here?
Not as much as I should but i think if you write by yourself then you should write by yourself and that’s the best way to get a deal because people can hear the song and that’s who you are, that’s how you write. I always wrote by myself and then I got here and I got heavily into it but it’s very rare I finish a song by myself, I start a lot by myself but I’ll start something and think this is really cool and the next day I’m with an artist, Hunter Hayes or Troy Verges and so you think what am I most passionate about and I think well this thing I was working on just yesterday that I’ve only got halfway done, I play it to them because I think maybe they’ll know how to finish it. I need to do more solo writing though, it’s my goal for this year.
That’s good to know, I get very nervous co-writing and hold back ideas but I thought I’d have to get past that very quickly because everyone seems to co-write?
I get very nervous co-writing too. Coming from out of town I didn’t have anyone to co-write with but felt I should do so I used to write fake names on my songs so it looked like they’d been co-written! Lori McKenna wrote Humble and Kind by herself though, Lori McKenna still writes by herself all the time and those songs are the best they can be. The other thing is, I was this way, I was very nervous in co-writes because I felt like I wanted to say something good or I didn’t want to say anything stupid so I used to write on my notepad when I went in at the top of the page “Make A Noise” because I would find that I’d be sat there thinking, and I’d be thinking so hard trying to get the right thing that I was just sitting in silence for a while. Just make a noise so I started talking through what was going on in my head and what I found was that a lot of people liked what was going on in my head. My whole life I’ve always thought i was kind of weird and my family love me but they always said, oh Barry, he’s always saying crazy stuff, he doesn’t think and all of a sudden these people liked the way I thought, the very thing that made me outside or different, made me fit this tribe of people. And I try not to write with people I don’t feel safe with, my first write, don’t expect me to be forthcoming but now with Luke I’ll say anything and the more I do that, the better it goes. I’m talking for about a year I used to get my clean page and at the top I’d write “Make a Noise” because I was always so nervous, I was nervous to sing in the room which you know worked out ok, I can sing at The Bluebird and everything but I was really scared and I didn’t know how to play guitar so I had to take guitar lessons. I felt like I shouldn’t touch a guitar but it’s amazing how many of my ideas that I was afraid I’d look stupid about suggesting have either become songs that people have recorded or have been the thing in a song that people will go, Oh I love that weird… whatever, and I think isn’t that crazy because I was terrified to say that. But I will say, and Luke and I have talked about this, all of this process, I believe creativity is an act of courage, that’s really what it is so the war is against fear and there are really only two responses and one is to love it and push forward and go fear is telling me to do something brave and so I do it and if you’re writing with someone who doesn’t understand that this is magic, its really fun and it’s neat we get to do this, and if they don’t see the little sparkle in you… That’s how I know someone is going to sign a writer to a publishing company is the publisher will say, they haven’t written a hit yet but I just love the way they think and sometimes they’ll say I don’t know what it is but I love their view of it. And that’s comforting to me because sometimes I think I’m not as great a singer as Natalie or Lori or I’m not as cool as Luke, true but I have this strange way I see the world and if I start I’ll be alright, but for me it’s getting started so I have to remind myself to get started. I came to town very confident of my music, very nervous about my words, now I’m much more confident about my words and I’m kind of nervous about my music and so I’ve found these days I’ll use Logic or Ableton and I’ll build a groove and some music and some melodies and if i have that before a person come in I’ll be a little more confident because i’m not that guy with the guitar I get nervous and it all sounds the same. So I do things to give myself a little artificial confidence, besides the drinking haha. That’s a short term game, drinking you get a little confidence but not always in the right direction!
So there you have it, part one! I hope to bring you part 2 very soon. I’ve never spoke to a nicer guy, Barry really is an inspiration to me and it was lovely to chat to him and learn about the craft of songwriting and Country music.