Behind the Song: Little Big Town, “Pontoon”

Videos by American Songwriter

Written by: Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird
Recorded by: Little Big Town
Peak Chart Position: No. 1 Billboard Country

What’s a typical day like in the life of Barry Dean? 

Dean: They’re probably like most people — busy, I have four kids. I write almost every day. Then you’re finishing songs up or you’re in the studio finishing and recording songs. You’re always trying to read and experiment with new sounds and grooves to create the next thing. It’s an “all in” sort of career.

When and where did you, Natalie and Luke write “Pontoon?”

It was started in a writing room at Universal Music, but we didn’t get very far. First verse, a few lines of chorus, but the music was clear. It was months later before the three of us got back together because our calendars were crazy. We met at Luke’s office and it was right around the time Natalie was going to have her baby. We got together for a few hours, finished the chorus first, then wrote the second verse and bridge. They were both fun days.

How much or how little did you edit it, during or afterward? Were there any phrases or words you can remember that were especially tough to make a final decision on?

There wasn’t a whole lot of editing afterward. The notable change was that the original first line was “back that bitch up into the water” which got changed to hitch. I don’t think we saw the motorboatin’ line as big a deal as it became. We just thought it was fun.

Could you tell us some of the back story of the song? Did you guys demo it or simply worktape it? How did it end up getting to Little Big Town, getting cut and becoming the single?

It was the first time the three of us had written together. We had each written with the other, but we were excited to get to write together. Natalie and Luke had a song recorded by Miranda Lambert called “Fine Tune.” Natalie was telling us a story about a guy who mistakenly referred to “Fine Tune” as “Pontoon.” When she said that, Luke and I looked at each other, then we all knew. Luke started playing the groove. I started playing bass on a synth. Pretty soon Natalie sang the first line of the song. When we got back together to finish it – which was really writing it — we used the same track we’d started. It was essentially a drum groove, electric guitars, and a bass line. Natalie who was quite pregnant sat on the couch, held an SM58 and sang it once, and that was the work tape.

Luke and I were both signed to Universal and they pitched it to a couple of artists. We both became a part of Creative Nation. Even though Universal owns the song, Beth Laird (co-owner of Creative Nation) thought it would be great for Little Big Town and she pitched it. As far as the cut and the single, you can’t overestimate how great Little Big Town actually is. They did that whole Tornadoalbum in a couple of weeks. It’s incredible. Jay Joyce’s production is incredible. It sounded different and fresh. Also, the opening lick was played by Jedd Hughes on the mandolin and Jay Joyce doubled it with a mellotron mandolin sample. That lick is incredible.

What do you enjoy most about writing songs in general?

I love coming up with or finding that inspiration for the song. I love helping artists say what they want to say or find that fresh thing they’re looking for. I see myself as some sort of extension of or part of their team. I’m on their side. Hopefully I’m helping them answer “what could it be?” or get where they want to go. It’s a great blessing to have this job. I work mostly with friends, and we have a lot of fun. It’s a lot of hours, but it’s worth it. I like going out on the road and writing with artists in their world with their fans.

What was the overall experience like, collaborating with Natalie and Luke?

The three of us are a great team. We try to write together as much as possible. Luke is pretty well known for being a whole lot of fun, and if the three of us are together, there’s a lot of laughing going on. Our interactions are a lot like brothers and sisters in every good way. I think Natalie is known for having really strong concepts and she’s driven to write these very air-tight songs. And her vocals… she just brings groove and emotion (you should ask Luke and Natalie what I do). Really in that atmosphere you’re trying to do something interesting and different. Fresh. And we all kind of believe if there’s a way to do it we can figure it out.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for aspiring or newly professional songwriters? Is there a particular period or moment in your career when you were faced with adversity or doubt and had to dig deep to stay the course? 

My mentor used to say “creativity is an act of courage.” So the whole journey is about continuing to learn and push yourself and being open. I think it’s important to remember that this is supposed to be fun. I think in the race to learn the craft and study the business, I would just remind you to have fun. It’ll connect you more to the music and ideas. It’ll be fresher, and that will lead to good things.

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