Writer Of The Week: Barry Dean

Barry Dean is a veteran Nashville songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Alison Krauss, Toby Keith, and more; but he doesn’t limit himself to strictly country. One of his most recent collaborations, “Girls Chase Boys” was a hit for Ingrid Michaelson on the Adult Contemporary and Pop charts. He spoke with American Songwriter about writing with Hunter Hayes, his big hit “Pontoon” for Little Big Town, making the move from Marketing Director to songwriter, and more.

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When did you decide you wanted to pursue songwriting full time?

When I was young, I started writing as a kid. Secretly. It was something I dreamed about, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. Saying you wanted to be a songwriter in rural Kansas was almost like saying you wanted to go to the moon. I gave it a little run (I went to LA) but quit dreaming when I was 20 or so. I guess even then, I wrote secretly, in my journals or on bits of paper. It wasn’t for another decade or more before my wife, Jen, encouraged me to pursue songwriting more aggressively. I started making trips back and forth between Kansas and Nashville, eventually moving to Nashville.

Moving to Nashville really opened my eyes to the 110% commitment it takes to being a writer full time. There isn’t anyone doing this full time who doesn’t want to be here more than anything else. I still think about those days, writing music in secret, and it is such a blessing to be able to say I get to do this for a living now.

What was your last day job?

I was a Creative & Marketing Director for an Education company. I played many different roles there, eventually overseeing all of the marketing, curriculum and product development. I realize now I was a shadow artist – helping others pursue their creative passions while ignoring my own, but we were able to help a lot of kids and teachers and grow the company so I am really proud of that time. They were all pretty surprised when I became a songwriter in Nashville!

Story time. What’s the story behind the song “Tattoo?”

It was the day after Troy (Verges) and I wrote “Day Drinking” with Little Big Town. Hunter was just getting back off the road, as in he literally got in 30 minutes before we wrote that morning. He showed up and mentioned that he liked the idea of writing a song with the word ‘tattoo.’ Hunter is always good about not going with the obvious, so we came up with the angle of the song coming from his perspective instead and the song just took off from there.

How about “Girls Chase Boys?”

We were working on an initial idea – a ballad – and it just kind of stalled. We decided to look around for a minute at other ideas. Trent had that little beat you hear in the beginning of the song and I added a little piano riff in. I had the phrase, ‘Girls chase boys, chase girls,” but didn’t know what to do with it…but Ingrid and Trent did!

That cool “ohh” vocal phrase in the chorus is a case where the vocal hook really just came from Ingrid playing around with her voice, trying to find the melody. I didn’t feel like we had to find words there, we could just enjoy her voice. Ingrid’s voice is like a Formula One car – it can go to all these wonderful places.

I didn’t think much of the song after the write until I got a call that it was going to be the first single off Ingrid’s record. Ingrid wasn’t feeling well during the write, but she was such a trooper. That’s one of the fun things about songwriting, you never know what you’re going to get that day and where the song may end up!

When people put down modern country music, do you take it personally?

I think the reason why people love music in general is because the possibilities are endless. There are so many genres and sub-genres to pick from and that’s what makes each song unique. There is no genre or time period where everything is great or everything is horrible. Songs can be interpreted in a lot of ways – Billy Sherrill took flack for being too modern, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Dixie Chicks, they all took flack at some point for what they were doing…and the list goes on. My job is to show up, to do my best, bring the best out of myself and everyone in the writing room, and try to create something that will impact whoever hears it. I’m grateful I get to have a voice in that and be part of such a great community of songwriters.

How did you learn how to play guitar?

I started learning when I was making trips to Nashville. This didn’t seem like a very piano friendly town at the time. I started taking lessons with Ellen Britton and I still do as often as possible because she helps me be a better player.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

Tough question. I probably have the same global list of iconic songwriters that everyone has (Beatles, Petty, Randy Newman, Henley, etc.), but I also have a list of local songwriters who really helped me when I showed up– Mike Reid, Hugh Prestwood, Tom Douglas, Seskin, Don Schlitz, and it keeps going…so many.

Another songwriter hero for me is Roger Miller. I remember hearing him in the fourth grade and becoming addicted to his songs. And also when I first heard John Hiatt’s “Bring The Family” album, it changed the way I listened to music…from that point on I listened for the writer’s voice.

Truthfully, there are so may great writers to study, so many new young writers that I get excited to write with and learn from and be inspired by. So my playlist is always this crazy mix of old and new and Tony Lane.

What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.

You might have to ask my mom that question! I’ve always been writing songs to help me process anything going on in my life. The first one I remember from childhood was one about my dad on Father’s Day when I was in middle school. As a teenager I started recording songs and foisting them on the world. Then, in my early twenties I just stopped.

One of the first songs I wrote while I was going back and forth from Kansas to Nashville was a song called “Moving Oleta.” I had written the song by myself and sort of by accident, it ended up going into a pile to my publisher when I was first signed. The song turned out to be my first cut by Reba.

What’s the last song you wrote or started?

I wrote with Troy Verges and Jimbo Barry, a writer from the UK (who has written so many of those cool songs for THE SCRIPT), on his first writing trip to Nashville. We had a wonderful time! Every day is a different deal; it’s always something new and that’s what makes it exciting.

What’s the best song you ever wrote?

The songs I tend to be the most proud of are the ones that say exactly what I wanted to say. There are also other factors too – like the surrounding stories around a song. There’s “Moving Oleta” which was my first cut and the first connection I had to bravely share what I was feeling. And then there was the song “God’s Will” which was inspired by my daughter. All of these songs have meant something to me in different ways and encourage me to always be honest and to be myself in my songwriting.

How do you go about writing songs?

Before coming to Nashville I really only knew how to write by myself. Now, it’s so much fun and interesting to write with other people. It goes so much faster when you have someone there to help you through all your second guesses.

The process of writing songs is always different depending on who I am writing with. I really enjoy listening to artists during a co-write and finding the words to match the emotions or melodies they bring to the room. Some come in with a really unique sound like Brothers Osborne and we’re able to write a song that capitalizes on their sound, their instrumentation and their voices. Someone like Hunter will have lots of things he wants to say and he’s capable of playing anything so it’s just a matter of walking with him and pointing him down these paths. I’ve also really enjoyed working with Little Big Town, they have great personalities and such amazing voices. They’ve been really open to going out and trying new things. They each have their own uniqueness and I like being able to serve that and magnify that.

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

In a sentence, I’m trying to find a fresh or unique way to tell the next truest thing. With any song idea, it takes on a lot of different forms depending on who I’m writing with and what we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes someone can have an idea and it’s hearing them sing nonsense syllables and you hear words from that. Another process is, if there isn’t a concrete idea, I’ll bring in titles and phrases. I do a lot of journaling and writing about an idea. Hopefully it’s inspiring to them and something they’ve been looking for. I like to call these my fireflies in a jar – sometimes they spark something.

What sort of things inspire you to write?

I think it’s an important part of my job to stay inspired; to keep finding new inspiration. I read a lot. I listen a lot. I live a lot. Also, I find when I’m writing with people, sometimes they don’t realize that they’re speaking in lyrics. One of the things I’ve tried to be better at is recognizing the song when it flies through the room; when someone says it, even if it’s just in casual conversation.

What’s a song you’re particularly proud of and why?

The first song that comes to mind would be “Moving Oleta” because Reba cut it and it really kicked things off for me as a songwriter. I wasn’t living in Nashville and it was a personal song for me. Reba ended up singing it on tour every night and that has a really special place to me.

“Pontoon” is also a really special song to me. It’s the first or second song that Luke and Natalie and I ever wrote together and it was my first No. 1 song and also the first No. 1 song for Little Big Town. They are incredible people and great talents; we all got to ride that song together and have great fun.

(Read the story behind “Pontoon”)

I’m also proud of the song “Where We Left Off.” It’s a song Hunter Hayes and I wrote for the movie, “Act of Valor.” One of my best friends as a kid, grew up to be a squadron commander for special forces, drones. He’s a real hero; literally flew night vision helicopters. I got the opportunity to help Hunter write this song for this movie honoring Navy Seals and that allowed me to really express how much I thought of my friend and his wife, it meant so much to be able to do that through this song.

What’s a lyric or verse you’re particularly proud of?

It’s a lyric in the song “Still Down Here” that I wrote with Lori McKenna. She asked me to help her write a song about someone who was dying of cancer. The song is talking to the person who has gone away and about how that person is now happy. There is a line in the song that says, “I’ll tell you one thing, believe’em when they say, just don’t look down,” because there are people still grieving. There’s something about that line, whenever I hear it, it still hurts.

Are there any words you love or hate?

I don’t know if I have any words on a hit list, but I have run across words during a writing session that can feel limiting or misapplied. I love whenever I can tell that a writer is telling the truth, their truth. That’s something cool about songwriting, there can be a word that can be a complete misfit for one song and then be the perfect word when applied in another song.

What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?

I mentioned this song earlier that I wrote with Lori McKenna, “Still Down Here.” It was never a single or anything, but we got an overwhelming response with that one; people will show us tattoos they’ve gotten of the lyrics from the song. People we’ve never met before. It’s amazing to know you have a song that struck a chord with someone and it’s become a part of their life.

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?

That’s another long list…there’s Sean McConnell, Lori McKenna, Eric Church, Troy Verges. Luke Laird is another one that comes to mind. There is a tendency in the “writer world” to be all about heavy, ballads and big lyrics – I love those kind of songs too – and Luke can write those. But one of the hardest things is to craft up-tempo songs that are fresh and unique and Luke Laird consistently does it. From “Last Name” to “Take A Back Road” to “American Kids” – he really is something.

What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?

The perfect song stops you from the first line. They make you feel something more than you can control. You cry or you laugh, you drive faster and every time you hear it after that, it takes you back to that place. Some people say there’s no such thing as a perfect song. I don’t think I listen like that; I think I love songs for what they are – the melody, the lyrics, the nostalgia it pulls out. So, I’m much more interested in wonderful songs than perfect songs; songs that move people and impact people.

I have a friend who is a painter and I’m not. When we go to a museum, I stand back and either feel it or don’t, I like it or I don’t. He looks at each painting up close. He falls in love with just one color where he sees an amazing brush stroke, he sees moments of perfection in all the paintings. Like I said, I’m not a painter, but I guess I would like to think that I’m a little more like that when it comes to songs.

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