Barry Dean ("Pontoon," "Diamond Rings And Old Barstools")

by Dan MacIntosh

After joining Nashville's inner circle of songwriting, Barry Dean described it as a tribe. "We're all connected," he said. "It's a tiny little group."

And though he's a member of a small, but competitive subset, Barry has already left a big mark – particularly within the country music mainstream. He's co-written some of Little Big Town's biggest hits, including "Day Drinking" and their first #1, "Pontoon." Tim McGraw did his song "Diamond Rings And Old Barstools," and Jason Aldean broke character to record his co-write "1994" - the one with the "Joe, Joe, Joe Diff-ay" hook.

The knock on Nashville songwriting is that it's a business-like song assembly line, but Barry wants you to know that efficiency isn't a disqualifier for heart and soul. It can also be a lot of fun, like when they goaded Natalie Hemby into coming up with that famous opening line in "Pontoon."
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Are you more comfortable writing with other writers, or do you prefer to write by yourself? And what are the advantages, or disadvantages, either way?

Barry Dean: I started as a person who wrote by himself. I was living in Kansas and I was in my 30s when I started, really - I wrote when I was a kid and I stopped when I was about 29 and I didn't write again until I was in my 30s. I wrote secretly in my journal, but I didn't tell anybody, which is really a lot like Lori's [frequent writing partner Lori McKenna] path. Lori was at home at the kitchen table, living a life raising kids. And that's what I was doing, too, and I think it's one of the reasons why we became like brother and sister so quickly.

The reality was that I started writing by myself and making trips to Nashville, and I got signed when I was 35, maybe 36, right in there. She [McKenna] was older than most of the kids that come to Nashville when she got signed. So, I came to Nashville, mostly writing by myself – I wrote a few songs with a band member when I was a kid. But Nashville, there was a lot more co-writing. I kinda had to learn how to collaborate and co-write. I think some people came up in the rock and roll tradition, a folk tradition where they would see co-writing as a weakness. It's two people, so it's not a singular voice. And that can occur. But I had really wonderful teachers and I got to write with wonderful writers here, and after a while, they started to teach me how to collaborate, where the two writers can really make something exceptional and probably better than one writer could. Where it truly was collaborating.

You know, there's so many great interviews on your site. I saw the Will Jennings interview, and I have a hard time believing Will Jennings doesn't make every song he touches better, knowing what he does. He's going to bring out the best of whatever that person does. When I was first starting to co-write, I read an interview – I think it was in Performing Songwriter. For a minute, Steve Winwood lived in Nashville, and so Will Jennings, of course, wrote with Steve Winwood, and he also wrote with Rodney Crowell, two incredibly unique, singular voices. Completely different, really, and this person is what they had in common. When Winwood and Crowell met in Nashville and started talking, they were talking about their friend and their collaborator, Will Jennings. And Rodney Crowell said, "His music is just so beautiful." And Steve Winwood said, "He writes music?" And Rodney said, "Yeah, he always writes the music." And Winwood said, "He just writes the words for me."

I thought, Oh, this isn't about bolting two odd things together or dumbing it down till we all like it. This is about honoring what's special about the other person in the room, and shining lights on what's special. Bringing new paints to the artist and moving lights around so they can see it differently.

That's how I started to see my role. Yes, there are days when I walk in and I go, "I want to write a song about this because I woke up and I can't stop thinking about it." And those do happen. But a lot of days, I'm looking at the person and trying to hear them and listen as closely as I can and understand them more than anybody has. And if that day requires me to write lyrics, then I'll do it. If it requires me to play the guitar, then I'll offend them in that way. [laughs]. But I'll just jump alongside them.

Lori McKenna raised five kids in her Massachusetts hometown while writing songs in her rare free moments. Faith Hill championed her early on: After recording three of Lori's songs (including the title track) for her 2005 album Fireflies, Faith brought her along for performances at the CMAs and The Oprah Winfrey Show. A decade later, Lori wrote "Humble and Kind," a message to her children that resonated with Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw, who have three of their own. McGraw's recording won the hearts of listeners and earned loads of accolades, including a Grammy Award for Best Country Song.

In a Songfacts interview back in 2007, Lori stressed the importance of honesty when it comes to songwriting. "In writing a song, because it's three minutes long, and you don't have to make every single line exactly about you, you have the ability to be completely honest, and just sort of say something that maybe you wouldn't say in a conversation, but you would say in this way."

"I've had situations where I've written with people that want to say something, but then when it comes time to, like, really say it, they won't go there," she added. "Like, 'Oh no, I couldn't say it.' It's like, Well, that's what you just said to me. Why are we wasting our time if we're not going to really tell the truth?"
Lori and I, we've written a lot of songs now. We met right after she'd done Unglamorous [2007], so she was right at the end of that Warner Bros. moment. We met and wrote songs and I produced and co-wrote most of the album Lorraine [2011], which I think was a return to her Bittertown [2004] fans - it was a dark record. She was wrestling with real issues that were life and death, and what do you do with them? She let me come alongside and write with her and learn a lot.

So, the question is: Do I write mostly by myself of co-write? Mostly I co-write. And the other part of that is one I prefer. Now, I prefer to collaborate, and normally, that's with a smaller group of people. It's not just an open-door policy.

Lori and I have a song that LeAnn Rimes put out called "How To Kiss A Boy." That's a case where I thought, That would be an interesting thing to write a song called "How To Kiss A Boy," and really go through all the different kinds kisses that go into a relationship. But I knew Lori would know how to keep us honest, and she'll have an insight that's deeper than others. So, I showed this to Lori to see if she'd write it with me, and that night, and I think she knew I would know what she meant. I would know what her heart was feeling.

We wrote a song on Lorraine called, "Still Down Here." It's about someone dying, but it was written dealing with people who were actually suffering and passing away during the time we wrote it, and she also experienced the loss of her mother when she was young. It was a case where she had a chunk of that, but didn't have any music or direction to go after, and I could come alongside and say, "I'll be the music person today," to help shape this and edit. We'll get on the same page and I'll help write that last bit. But it's just different days, different things. I like the variety of things. It can be real country on Monday, it could be with some British artist on Tuesday and then just me working alone on Wednesday and with Lori on Thursday. It makes for an exciting thing. If you're only writing by yourself, that's a pretty lonely way to go.

Songfacts: I wanted to ask you about some specific songs, and I didn't realize that you wrote one of the few Jason Aldean songs that I actually like, which is "1994." And I say that because there's just no humor in his music. So, I wanted to ask you if there's a story behind writing it, and secondly, if you're responsible for the Joe Diffie line.

Barry: I'm guessing I'm not responsible for Joe Diffie. I'll tell you how it was written, though, and then you'll understand why I don't really know.

Luke Laird and I write a lot together, and we were writing a lot with Thomas Rhett, the country artist. He's a wonderful writer and a wonderful young man. We had written all day on a very serious song. I don't know what it was called, but it was one of those country songs that addresses faith, values, life. It was meaty. We weren't quite done, and Luke had to go to a meeting pretty soon and so we were about to call it. And then Thomas said, "Play one of your loops."

Luke always has a bunch of loops. Little drum loops and things like that. So he played something and T.R. started mumbling over it and I thought I heard him say, "1994." Just the sound of it. I listen to vowels a lot. And I said, "Did you say 1994?" And he goes, "No, but my dad had a single on the radio in 1994."

Luke had on a Tracy Lawrence T-shirt, who was a '90s country artist, and Luke goes, "Tracy Lawrence, 1994." And I said, "Nirvana is 1994." And so, we're all throwing stuff out, that kind of deal. Then somebody else said Mark Chesnutt - we were just running through '90s people. And all of a sudden, somebody said Joe Diffie, and Luke went, "Joe Diff-ay?" Like that. And we started going, "Joe, Joe, Joe Diff-ay." And then we started making jokes about it: "Will the real Joe Diffie please stand up, please stand up."

We were just playing. That song and "Pontoon" and others have come from moments after very serious writing where you let yourself play. It's like you earn your moment. It's not like you get there at 10 a.m. and say, "Today we're writing a fun song."

So, all of a sudden Thomas Rhett just tears off into that first verse - T.R. was just dropping it all. By the time the chorus was there, we were anchoring off of "1994" and "Joe Diffie" and we wrote that. I had a second verse frame ready, and off we went.

Thomas got the little handheld mic and started singing into the computer and they both headed out. I had a few minutes there, so I put some bass on it and just fiddled with it for a minute, which is very unlike me - it's very rare. Luke's just such a brilliant musician, so normally, he's gonna do that. But I was bored and playing with learning things, so I put a little stuff on it and sent it to the boys. Then Thomas sent it to his dad, Rhett Adkins, who is great songwriter now, but was a big deal in the '90s as an artist. And Thomas's dad was like, "Dude, this is a hit."

And I'm being honest with you Dan, that was not how we wrote it: We were not thinking, "Who will cut this? Where will this go?" It was just us at the end of the day doing something fun for ourselves.

T.R. can deliver so many different kinds of songs. I certainly could see where he could cut it because he can do so many different kinds of things, but we just had fun and I'll bet we wrote it in an hour, maybe less. I think that was on a Friday. I can't remember how it all circled through, but Rhett Adkins ended up playing it for Joe Diffie himself on a tour bus somewhere, and of course Diffie liked it. Monday morning, Luke and I had a session all day, 10-2, and he leaned over to me and he said, "I got a lead for lunch. They called and asked if I'd come up to the ASCAP office. They called three writers in to play a couple songs each for Jason Aldean for his new record."

Barry explains a "hold":

A hold is when an artist or a producer or a record label executive asks the songwriters and publishers to not share their song. When it works, it allows the team for that artist to listen and think it through and decide if it's right for them. In reality, as always, some people use it like it's made be used and others abuse it. When that happens, you have songs you've been asked to not share for long periods of time. The artist's team has zero investment, money or skin in the game.

We have to do it because we want to be a part of the record. But, it's literally like asking us to close a section of our store to customers because somebody thinks they'll stop by today - and that turns into a year. It's just part of the gig. I would say most of the artists I work with are incredibly thoughtful and considerate of it - frankly, most of the artists I work with we write the song together so it's theirs.
And the truth is, I've probably had 18 Jason Aldean holds and never had them cut. And I've written four. I've taken the time to try and write four because "Amarillo Sky" is one of my favorites. I love that song, so I thought, I'd love to get one of those that's like Southern-lit meets that voice. That was what I was hoping for.

But I was never able to land it, and Luke had a similar experience. So Luke was, like, "I don't think this is going to work, but I'm gonna go."

So Luke goes up there at lunchtime and we keep working and he comes back from his little meeting and he goes, "You will never believe what just happened. I walked in and they said, 'Do you have a song that's got a groove or has a loop on it? Something different?'"

So he thought, Well, I've never really had any luck with Jason Aldean, so it doesn't really matter what I play, so he played "1994" because it was new and he thought it was fun. Aldean loved it and they said he was going to cut it. We were kind of stunned. And then they said they were gonna single it, and we were super stunned. We were really surprised by that.

Some of the bloggers said it was the worst song in country music history. It's easy for people to take cheap shots at everybody, but that's what's creating things is about: You put it out, you share it, and sometimes you think, I'm surprised you didn't prefer this. You just preferred this other thing.

But that day we were honestly doing what we were feeling, which was having fun and writing about it and just enjoying ourselves. And then the next thing you knew, it was on the radio.

That was a tough time for Aldean. He was going through a lot of things during that time. I'm not friends with him, but I know him and I like him, and he was just going through a tough spot. Even there, I kept thinking, you know, bring Diffie on stage with him at the ACMs, you know, lighten up. He's a super nice guy and this is where they'll finally get to show another side of him.

But I think it was just such a tough time to do that. When I saw his tour that year, I understood more why the song mattered to him, which is it broke up the show in a nice way.

I never thought of that. I'm a songwriter guy. You know, Lori McKenna's not going, "Here's what I need for my show." But when you're playing to the size of crowds that he is, whether McGraw or Luke Bryan or those guys, or Little Big Town, there are things they have to do to make the show wonderful for the crowd, and I think "1994" served a purpose for them.

But I was thrilled to get a Jason Aldean cut, and I couldn't believe it when they singled it. That's song's like Occam's Razor. People either go, "Gosh, I hate that song," or, "I love that song. It's so much fun."

"Buy Me A Boat" made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it. I love that song, and I was just so grateful for that song. But I know people who didn't. It's like, Come on, relax! That's part of country music: having some fun, sending it up, having a laugh about stuff.

Look at Dolly Parton. She's gonna deliver "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You," but she's going to do "9 to 5" and whatever she wants. She's gonna tell little jokes and say little self-deprecating things and we're just going to love her more every day because she does all of it.

That's something that's nice about this country music thing: It's "Will the Circle be Unbroken" half the time, and "Honky Tonk Women" the other half, or some version of that. "I Saw The Light" and "Blue Yodel." Always flipping back and forth between the sacred and the profane, in a way. You can have a cheatin' song, and a Jesus song, and a song about drinkin', and I guess this is what I always liked. And Bruce Springsteen's not far from it, by the way. People say that about country, but if you look at the Bruce albums over the years, he's going to touch a lot of topics before he's done.

"Critical/cynical people are always finding fault with songs and glorifying the past," Barry says of the heat he took for "1994." He cites The Bellamy Brothers, who did a song called "Country Rap" in 1987, as an example of a group that took some risks.

"I love music from the past," says Barry. "I'm not here to defend everything on the radio as 'rocket surgery,' but look, the Bellamy Brothers put out amazing songs and they also did 'Country Rap.' Some people now say they were the pioneers of country rap, others just gloss it over and forget about it. We are in a living musical expression, so some things will end up enduring and be celebrated, some will be forgotten. I just think these guys that sit in their basements or on the sidelines and take pot shots at artists, they don't know their own country music history."
Songfacts: You mentioned the songs for Little Big Town, "Pontoon" and "Day Drinking," and they're similar songs in that they're drinking songs – for lack of a better term – and I wanted you to talk about those two songs and if there are stories behind the writing of them. I asked Little Big Town at the ACM Awards, "Were you concerned that the rest of America might not know what a Pontoon is?" Was that maybe a concern when you were writing it. "Is everybody gonna get this?"

Barry: "Pontoon," specifically, we didn't have a plan for that one. It was a misunderstanding, was how it started. Natalie [Hemby] came in, is was

Luke and Natalie [Hemby] and I were writing, and Luke and Natalie had already written a song that Miranda Lambert had cut a week before called "Fine Tune." It's kind of like a sex comparative, going to the garage to get your car worked on. But Natalie came in, and someone said, "I heard you guys got a cut. Was it called 'Pontoon'?" And she said, "No. It was 'Fine Tune'!"

She was really frustrated with this person for not understanding. Their job was to really know our stuff, and they didn't. But Luke heard that, and at that point, we really wanted to write it. I started Googling: Is there a "Pontoon" already? Because you'd think, with the '90s in country music it had already been done. But it wasn't. There weren't any pontoon songs. I was, like, "Are you kidding me?" And I looked at Luke and said, "We're clear."

He started playing that groove, and Natalie was going, "Ah, it's goofy. It's stupid."

Luke has a way getting people to do things, and he was like, "Come on, what would you say?" And the first thing out of her mouth was, "Back this bitch up into the water," and we just fell out laughing.

We wrote a little bit of the song. Not very much of it. Maybe the first verse chunk and the hook, "Pontoon." No motorboating yet. And then Natalie had to go, so we stopped. It sat for seven months, and then she was getting ready to have her baby, Sammy Jo. It was right around Luke's birthday in May, so we came over and had lunch, gave Luke a birthday present and finished the song. And the minute she got there, she goes, "Let's not do this. Do you want to start something new?" Luke was like, "No! We've been working on the track a little bit."

I can't look at you and say we knew this was going to be a hit. It was not that way at all. We knew it was odd and fun, and she's amazing, the way she sings and thinks. So we finished that song. For the demo, Natalie was pregnant and laying over on a couch with a handheld mic. It had a weird electric guitar and a drum-machine beat, and it had a vocal. That went to Dierks, and he hated it. Then it went to Kix Brooks, who sent us an email that said, "This is hilarious, but there's no way I would cut it." And at that time, Kix was about to do a solo album, but he was taking a break. If he wanted it, we would still be waiting. Isn't that crazy? So it really finds the right people.

So Little Big Town heard it with their manager and they picked it up. They had a vision for it. Jay Joyce, the producer, he and [engineer] Jedd Hughes put on that "uh-a-u-a-ow" - that signature riff was not on the demo.

It was a mandolin Jedd Hughes was playing, and producer Jay Joyce is playing a Mellotron mandolin keyboard thing with it. That's why it sounds so odd. So they put that on there and then did their Little Big Town thing. So the next thing you knew, it went from being kinda goofy, to being cool and sexy because of the way they are and the way Jay produced it.

I'm really grateful, I'll tell you that. But for them, they had not had a #1 song, and they'd been doing it for 12 years. They'd been through three labels and maybe that many managers. It had been a ride. So there was a lot of pressure on that first single coming out, and they chose to bet on that. That was my first time feeling that: You're excited you got it cut and you're excited you got a single, but you care very deeply and you want to make sure that it helps them. That was the first time I kind of gulped and realized these artists are taking a risk. They're betting on me and our song. That was a real wake up call for me.

Songfacts: Another song I really like is one you wrote with Lori that Ronnie Dunn recorded, "I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes." It kind of has a shocking title, to begin with, because it's a socially incorrect thing to say. Of course, it's not what the song's really about - it's a lot deeper than that. Can you talk me through how that song came about?

Barry: Luke Laird, Lori and I were all at Universal Music Publishing for a minute. So, they asked us to try to write a song for a movie. They had everybody try to do it.

It was kind of a chase, mixer game, or whatever, and I think it had to be "I Heart You Crazy Dad." Something like that. It had to be sung by a boy band. They wanted everybody to show up and break into groups and write a song like that, so we did. But somewhere during that, Luke was saying how he had quit smoking and drinking and all these things, but said, "Sometimes I wish I still smoked cigarettes." The situations like this, where you're kind of stressed, kind of tired and you're not sure what to do, that's when you wish you still smoked cigarettes.

Pro writers learn to really value when the redneck angels show up and something magical flies through the room. He said that, and both Lori and I looked up and went, "Wow, there's something to that. I don't know what it is, but there's something to that." But it was late and we had to finish our little boy band song, so we did. Three months after that, Luke and I were supposed to write with someone else, but they cancelled. Lori was in Boston, we were here in Nashville, so, I said, let's write on that cigarettes thing. So, off we went. We texted Lori and said, "Hey, we're working on this. Can you join us through FaceTime?"

We had a lot of sections of that written, but we didn't have the payoff. I had the thought, "Wherever you are tonight, you're better than I deserve," and, "Wish I still drove a muscle car." Luke had his pictures of youth and the fun of youth, so we had a lot of lines going, and we had a shape of the music. I sent an email to Lori with all the words we were playing with, and she worked on it. We had to do something for an hour, and when we came back she said, "Well, I played around with it and wrote, 'I wish I still smoked cigarettes so I'd have something to let go.'" And we both went, "Oh, that's it!" We needed to flesh out why it mattered to us, and she understood. In the end, the reason a person would say that is to have something they could let go of. Something they could give up and make it go away.

That song got cut by Tim McGraw, but he didn't put it out. Then it got cut by Ronnie Dunn, and he put it out as a sort of indie project thing. Then Jack Ingram cut it, and it didn't come out. So, it's had this strange little life. It was just a wonderful experience to write, and when I hear it, I hear all of us in it doing our best.

Songfacts: The song "Diamond Rings and Old Barstools" sounded to me like an instant classic country song. When you wrote that, were you trying to make a real country lovers' country song?

Barry: We were. That was one of those strange days when I was writing with Luke Laird and Jonathan Singleton.

Jonathan Singleton is a really good writer and he has just an amazingly cool voice. We were writing, and we spent all day writing on another thing. It was up-tempo, and I think we were going to take a run at Rascal Flatts. Right before 3 o'clock we realized this thing we've worked on all day is horrible - none of us liked it. So, we stopped, and we started joking around.

Sometimes we write little funny songs when we're writing other songs to amuse each other. I hear co-writing in Nashville described as some kind of stale, punch-the-clock, go-into-the-cubicle-and-churn-out-a-widget kind of thing, and I wonder, Have these people even been to Nashville? It's more like joining a tribe. We're all connected. It's a tiny little group. There's probably five times as many people playing professional football, then there are writing songs professionally for a living in Nashville, Tennessee. I had lunch with Mike Reid the other day, and he's one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He wrote "I Can't Make You Love Me If You Don't" for Bonnie Raitt, as well as a million other Ronnie Milsap songs. I'm having lunch with him, and he's not a widget churner - he's accessing the state of my soul and encouraging me to read and ponder. That's what we do here. It's really a masterclass in collaborations.

The best we can tell, Mike Reid is the only Grammy winner who was also an All-Pro in the NFL. After starring at Penn State, where he was a dominant defensive tackle, Reid was drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati Bengals; he went to the Pro Bowl in 1972 and 1973. He quit in 1975 to pursue music, a very sensible career move that kept his brain intact. Relocating to Nashville, he became a top songwriter, crafting the 1983 Ronnie Milsap song "Stranger in My House," which won the Grammy for Best New Country Song. He also had a #1 country hit as an artist in 1990 with "Walk on Faith."
My point is, we're sitting there and we know it's a bad song, so we kill it. We started joking around and we're playing. I think we were talking about nouns in songs, and somewhere along the way we get to diamond rings and barstools. He played a little riff and sang, "There ain't no barstools." Well then, you're off.

We all three knew it was country. Old school country. I call those type of lyrics "over-simple lyrics." We decided we were gonna write a country song, with country rules. That's why you have that very straightforward:

Diamond rings and old barstools
One's for queens and one's for fools
One's for future and one's for past

That was on purpose, too. We were talking about Motown songs - Holland-Dozier-Holland songs.

I've got sunshine on a cloudy day
When it's cold outside
I've got the month of May

Basically, every line punching the thought. We wrote that song in, maybe, 40 minutes, but we were all so focused, on the same page and trying to distill the thought. That's what's really going on with the great country songs we think of: They were just drilling down to the thought. You have to focus in on the energy and the emotion and what it is you want to say. Before you start rhyming, what do you want to say?

So, we get done with the song, and we love our song. When Jon Singleton sings it, it's so amazing. I think it's a month later, we have an opening in a session, so we decide that we will demo it. The problem is, there's not a lot of people cutting country songs - like old-school, stone-cold country. Especially if you go back two plus years ago when this was done. But we went in and demoed it because we wanted to hear Jon Singleton sing it. He did and we sent it off to George Strait. It was on hold for George. They say he cut a demo in the studio, but he didn't cut it, so we thought, "Well, that's the end of that." And then one of our pluggers thought, "You know, maybe we ought to fly this by McGraw." And so, McGraw cut it and he put it out and it was so great.

It's amazing to me how many people know that song. We'll go somewhere and we'll play something for a corporate event or Nashville Visitors Bureau, and people know that song. It's amazing that that country song resonated with so many people.

April 19, 2017
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