Director Mason W. Dixon ("Doin' What She Likes")

by Amanda Flinner

In 2014 Blake Shelton burned down the house - and Mason W. Dixon told him to do it. Growing up in Nashville, the "Doin' What She Likes" director naturally drifted toward the music scene as a performer, but his love of movies compelled him to put down his guitar and pick up a camera.

Mason, whose short film Early Departure was screened at the Louisville International Film Festival in 2017, brings a cinematic sensibility to his music videos. "I try to approach a music video like a short film," he says. "I want it to be structured like a film with acts and turns and arcs, so the narrative arc at the end gives you something that you weren't expecting."

With Nashville acts like Jake Owen, Jason Aldean, Reba McEntire, Love and Theft, Rascal Flatts and Framing Hanley as his stars, Mason tells stories of outlaws, fortune tellers, factory workers, time travelers, sinners and saints. And of course, accidental arsonists like Shelton.

Mason took us behind the scenes of several of his hit videos, and spoke about his longtime collaboration with Jake Owen, including the "Days of Gold" trilogy. The director, who loves a twist ending, also revealed one of his biggest mysteries: What happened to Shelton's dog?
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): How did you make the transition from musician to director?

Mason W. Dixon: Well, growing up in Nashville, music was my first love. Music and film always battled throughout my childhood. I loved music, but I was always watching movies and I always wanted to make them, but figured that I had to live in Hollywood to do something like that. It seemed more like a pipe dream than anything.

Music seemed like the way to go and then throughout my early 20s I was in some bands and toured around and had a couple of small deals. I got a little disillusioned by the business - this was when Napster was starting to emerge and we all started to see the writing on the wall. Music videos wasn't necessarily my first choice.

When I first started actively shooting stuff it was narrative, short film based kinds of things, but you can't make any money doing that. I figured music videos was at least an easy way to make some money while I was also cutting my teeth, and I had enough relationships. A couple of bands early on let me do some of their music videos, like this band named Framing Hanley that's from Nashville. I was friends with those guys and the first music video I ever did was this cover of Lil Wayne's "Lollipop" that now has nearly 20 million hits on YouTube, it's pretty crazy.

That got some notoriety, and I'd done a couple of other small things for some other bands and was able to build a reel up. Shaun Silva, who runs Tacklebox Films and worked a lot with Kenny Chesney and some other pretty big country artists, was shooting a Sugarland concert and needed some camera operators. I met him and showed him my reel, and on my way home, he called me and was like, "Hey man, I just watched your reel, this thing is fantastic. Are you looking for representation?"

At that point, music videos, especially country music videos, were not even in my mind, but it sounded like a good prospect. I wasn't doing anything else, so I said, "Yes, sure, let's do it," and it went from there.

Songfacts: Do you think your background in music gives you an edge doing the videos?

Mason: I think it helps at least to the extent of understanding what the artist wants. I'm always on their side, more so than the labels. Coming from a musical background I definitely form allegiances with the artists over the labels most of the time. But, yeah, I think it helps, at least in the sense of understanding that nobody wants to look cheesy and that their image and their branding is just as important as anything else.

On the editing side, having a musical background, I have a sense of song structure, so that helps in structuring the narrative around parts of the song.

Songfacts: For a while you were known as Jake Owen's primary visual collaborator. What made that relationship click between you guys?

Mason: It was around 2010 when we did the "Tell Me" video. Really, I think I just impressed them with the treatment more than anything, because it was something a little different than what he'd done. He hadn't really played a character before and I think he was intrigued by not just being the performer in the video, or at least playing a version of himself in the video. It was this complete fictional storyline that attracted him at first.

When we met, we just clicked. We're around the same age and had similar interests and really had a good time on that first shoot. It went above and beyond what he was expecting it to be, especially since we only had a 12-hour day, and to accomplish that video in 12 hours was pretty miraculous even for me. I was blown away that we were able to pull it off, and it turned out to be such a cool thing.

When "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" was going to come out, I think he was like, "You know, Mason did such a great job, I'm just going to reach out to him directly." I went over to his house and he talked about what he wanted that to be. Going back to the allegiance, I always had his back and he appreciated that. His choices were going to trump everything else. He appreciated having somebody in his corner that was putting his vision first and everything else after that.

Songfacts: What inspired that Bonnie and Clyde-type storyline for "Tell Me"?

Mason: There's a line in the song about love being like a loaded gun, and that one line alone starts some sort of Bonnie and Clyde element. I had [the 1971 film] Vanishing Point in my mind and it just felt like a classic Dukes of Hazzard kind of thing. Even the track had that twangy vibe to it.

Between the music and the lyrics I couldn't get those themes out of my head, so I just went with it. Everybody dug the idea of him being both the good guy and the bad guy, and the big twist at the end that they were in cahoots together.

Songfacts: That's a hallmark of a lot of your videos, that twist or reveal at the end. Is that element always on your mind when you're putting a story together?

Mason: Absolutely. Because for me it goes back to being a narrative filmmaker. That's always what I'm aspiring to do.

I try to approach a music video like a short film. I want it to be structured like a film with acts and turns and arcs, so the narrative arc at the end gives you something that you weren't expecting. To me, you have to do that to keep the viewer interested.

So many videos today are disposable, and if you're familiar with the song you kind of stop watching the video after a minute or so, especially if you can already see where it's going. I've never been one to write big set piece performance videos or visual gimmicky type stuff, but I'm jealous of some guys who can do that because I've seen some really amazing visual hooks that I'm like, "How in the world did they come up with that?" But my brain just doesn't go there. I go to the characters and the story and I treat the song more like a soundtrack for where my creative process goes.

Songfacts: Did you plan "Days Of Gold," "Beachin'," and "Ghost Town" as a trilogy from the beginning?

Mason: Yeah, we did. Jake knew he wanted to do this three-part thing and there was some back and forth about what three songs. He knew that "Days of Gold" was going to be the first single and they were pretty sure "Beachin'" was going to be the second one, but there were a couple of other tracks that were floating around for the third. So, it was definitely a combination of which third song worked best for a trilogy and did one of these songs have some closure to it that would cap it off?

"Ghost Town" wasn't released as a single, but it was definitely a good ending to the story. Once Jake and I talked a little further about what it was going to be, it only made sense after that. So, we went in and we shot "Ghost Town" first, "Days of Gold" second and "Beachin'" third, so it was completely out of order from what the story was going to be, but logistically that's just the way it worked out.

Songfacts: Did you have to audition a lot of people before finding that couple?

Mason: We did, really because in between "Days of Gold" and "Beachin'" there's a really fast little dialogue moment where he's sitting by the lake and she's in the truck and has him hop in. Originally, that was a much longer scene. There was maybe a minute or so of dialogue there that established them and set up the rest of the trilogy. So, when we were auditioning, when everybody came in, that's the scene I had everybody read. Anybody who's a good talent can carry a video acting-wise but when the music stops and they have to start talking, it's a different story.

So, that was the main thing going in: What couple really clicks and can also act well against each other? Danielle Maltby, who went on to be on The Bachelor (Season 21's "Danielle M."), and the lead actor had the right vibe and they worked well playing off each other.

Songfacts: Once you see how the trilogy plays out, it adds a different dimension to the other songs.

Mason: We liked the idea of ending on an unexpected yet maybe realistic note, after expecting throughout the trilogy that they're going to stay together. Even in "Ghost Town" we faked the reunion. We made you think that they were in the end going to be back together and then it was all this premonition/memory kind of thing. We liked that because it was a little different and unique and not something you were expecting. But, of course, if you see that very last shot, he's going back to Florida so you assume that it ends happily, we just don't see it.

Songfacts: Then for "What We Ain't Got," Jake was talking about how that emotional anthem pushed him outside of his comfort zone. How did that concept come together? That was really an emotional video.

Mason: Yeah, it was, and I have to give him credit. Most of it was his idea. He knew right away that he wanted real people being portrayed as-is in these videos, and to have as many people as we could have their own unique angle to that song and what that song could mean for them.

Travis Meadows, the guy who wrote the song, is in the video. I know he was going through some addiction recovery. His story needed to be a part of it. Then it became, how could I branch out into other people and bring as many real people as we could together to where we didn't leave anybody out, in a sense. That song can mean something to so many people and it was about trying to capture this all-encompassing thing. Jake had that idea from the beginning. I just helped him visualize it.

Songfacts: Do you ever get any feedback from fans?

Mason: Every now and then I'll get an email just saying, "Hey, we loved that." As a matter of fact, not too long ago, somebody was taking a summer trip down to Daytona and wanted to take a picture by the Daytona Beach sign that's in the "Days of Gold" trilogy, and I had to tell him that unfortunately that sign doesn't exist. That shot was actually shot here in Nashville on the lake the day we were shooting the "Days of Gold" video, so that was probably disappointing for them.

Songfacts: When you mentioned the Daytona sign that reminded me of another interview I did with a director. He was talking about music video trickery that you have to pull off sometimes when you either don't have enough money or enough time to do what you really want to do. Were there any other times you had to pull something off like that?

Mason: I would say almost every time. There's always some sort of caveat that makes us have to think outside the box. For the Blake Shelton video ("Doin' What She Likes"), for instance, I'd say 70 percent of that video is fake fire. It was all done in post, especially all the outside stuff. We built a bathroom in the field next to the house we were shooting in for the interior stuff where we actually set it on fire, but when Blake's outside the house, all that's fake, just because we couldn't afford to burn down somebody's house. It's crazy how many people have asked though, "So, how did they let you guys set the house on fire?" And I'm like, "They absolutely did not let us do that."

Songfacts: Was that your idea to have him burn the house down?

Mason: It was. I think what motivated me the most was that The Voice had been on for two or three seasons and everybody had got to really understand Blake's personality, which I felt was kind of missing from some of his other videos. They were light and fun, but he was still just being the narrator/performer guy and not really digging into who he can be as a person and his comedic timing and just how much fun the guy is.

He's such a great guy, so much fun to be around, and I wanted the video to showcase that. I wanted it to be something that was real world that says, "Hey, this could have easily happened in real life," based on his dynamic and personality. That part of his personality hadn't really been showcased.

Songfacts: Right, and that one ended up winning the CMT Male Video of the Year.

Mason: Yeah, it did. We were proud of that. That might actually be one that, going back to logistical issues and not quite turning out the way you anticipated, that performance was supposed to be much more mysterious, like within the smoke and not revealing what's going on. But it was such a windy day that we could not get the fog machine to do what we wanted it to do.

It is what it is, but at the end of the day we were expecting something much different for his performance in terms of alluding to that he's next to something burning, and then when we reveal the house it comes together. But we had so much trouble with clouds and the wind, and the sun wasn't out the way we wanted it to be. It's always tough when you're outside and you've got to battle the elements, and that was one that was constantly pushing against us.

Songfacts: Everyone watching that one was very concerned about what happened to the dog at the end.

Mason: Yeah, the homeowners had three or four dogs and they were always running around the set while we were shooting. The one that's in the video really took to Blake and was always nearby, so we threw him in the scene and then at the end of the day when we were shooting outside – because the homeowners lived on a huge farm – we couldn't find a dog. We wanted the dog in that end scene to let everybody know, "Hey, the dog made it out, too." He was supposed to be next to Blake but he was way off in the acreage somewhere. We spent I'd say a good 20 minutes trying to find him before we ran out of time and we were like, "We've got to shoot this, I don't know where he is."

We had an idea of putting a barking dog in the audio mix, just so you could hear it, but that never happened. And that's probably what leads to all the YouTube comments. And there you go, there's another one of my signature 'what if?' endings to keep the mystery going.

Songfacts: For "Tonight Looks Good On You," that one's interesting because Jason Aldean isn't the romantic lead, he's the guy on the sidelines. Was that the idea from the get-go?

Mason: Yeah, it was. Everybody wants the young demographic, representing the 18 to 25 year olds, but hearing the song, it felt very throwback to me and I was thinking, there's tons of fans that are older. There's older single moms that are fans of Jason, there's old blue-collar guys that are fans of Jason. Where's their video? Where's the storyline that talks about them? That was my approach: let's include this demographic that's not really represented in music videos as much and do something for them and make it a little different.

He was also about to be married at that point, and it's always touch and go with the artist being romantic lead depending on what their dynamic is in their personal life. I proactively most of the time avoid any sort of conflict that might arise from that. So, I thought, Let's just have Jason come out and sing this thing. That, and his schedule was a little limited at the time and it probably wasn't going to be possible to have him for the whole day. That dictates it too - the artist's availability and not being able to shoot the whole day with them. So, it was a combination of that and wanting to have this different demographic being the star of the video.

Songfacts: When Jason was talking about the video, he said it made him remember his blue-collar days working for Pepsi. Did you know about that going into it?

Mason: No, I didn't. He talked about that when we were actually shooting. I think it was the scene where we see him about to clock out, he was talking about it. He was like, "Oh, man, I remember punching this card." It was definitely cool to get that because then I felt like we were hitting something right.

Songfacts: I'll fast forward to one of your more recent ones, Reba McEntire's "Back To God." How much input did Reba have with the story?

Mason: Initially, not much. The treatment I had turned in for her won her over and awarded me the job, and then we tweaked the ending just a little bit.

It's one of my habits: I always go for the magnum opus, and I had all these characters deliberately coming together in the end. We had the police officer and we had the woman who had the abusive husband. At the end, I had them approach each other, like maybe the officer noticed what was going on. She wanted to keep it more about the message of the song and staying in the church and staying with everybody and ending on that moment, as opposed to the story continuing after the congregation. But aside from that, pretty much what I wrote is what the video is.

Songfacts: I watched that video right after the "Hear Me Now" video (about a pastor living a sinful double life) from Framing Hanley. That was an interesting juxtaposition.

Mason: As a director, I try to visualize the story, whatever that is. I try to leave any personal beliefs I have out of it. The Framing Hanley video, that was the message of the song so that's what the video's going to be. The same with the "Back To God" video. That was the message of that song so that's what the video's going to be. I think I'm able to remove myself personally from what the story is and stay true to the message in the video. I'm not going to tell you which one I lean towards more.

Songfacts: For that one, we see the preacher having a meltdown in front of his congregation, but we can't hear what he's saying. Did you originally have any audible dialogue or were we never meant to hear what he was saying?

Mason: We broke it up into two parts. Jeremy Childs is an amazing actor. He's been on Nashville. He was in The Last Castle, and he's been in a lot of big films that have been shot in Nashville, and I knew he would be the one to pull that off. So, when we shot that scene, I broke it down into two parts. I said, "The first part, I want you to recite the lyrics to the song," just to get in that headspace. I liked the idea of having some of those moments synched up to the lyrics, so you see him speaking a couple of the lines that are in there. Then I said, "I'm just going to keep rolling and on your own time I want you to drift into that confessional and do whatever feels natural to you. We're just going to keep shooting until you collapse down on the podium."

And he went there. The stuff he's saying is directly related to what his confession would have been. So, he's, in essence, as an actor, confessing all those things and it was real easy for the woman playing his wife to bounce off that. She was there in the scene watching him do that part and it started to get to her so we turned the camera right around on her. Once we were done with his stuff, she was primed for her emotional reactions, so we just turned the camera around and kept going. But, yeah, he's saying all the things you're thinking he's saying when we're shooting that.

Songfacts: You already had a history with the band, so did they give you free rein a bit?

Mason: Yeah. Kenneth Nixon and I have been really good friends for almost 10 years now. Their label kind of stayed out of it and didn't have much input. We had one 100 percent creative control with all their videos.

Nixon and I were the ones going back and forth about "what is that going to be?" I don't think there was ever any backtracking or changing something. We talked about what we were going to do and then we just went and did it.

Songfacts: The end of "Criminal" reveals the narrator wasn't a criminal at all, but was falsely accused of beating up his girlfriend. Was that inspired by a true story?

Mason: No, I wish I could recall what sparked it, but I didn't want it to be obvious about it being him. I thought, what's a way that he could be a criminal without being a criminal? How could we twist that to where you're expecting one thing and then it's something else – going back to the twist. That's what clicked for me.

Honestly, I wasn't sure if it was going to fly until we talked to the two officers at the end of the video, who are actual police officers. There's an officer here named Loyd Poteete who runs a security firm. They have off-duty cops doing security jobs, and they have non-descript uniforms, so they're always available when we need someone to really be the role and to know how to handle those kinds of things.

He sent a couple of gentlemen over to play those parts and when we were shooting that scene, I asked them, "Do you see things like this at all?" And they said, "Oh yeah, this happens more often than you would think." I don't know how long ago it was but a woman had put an orange in a sock and had pelted herself with it. So, once they started telling me stories, I was like, "Okay, we're good. We'll just keep going."

Songfacts: Did you get any kind of backlash from it when it came out?

Mason: No, I don't think so. I don't read the YouTube comments so I don't know how many people are like, "Oh, whatever, it's sexist." I know a lot of those girls love Nixon and love that band and they do take personal offense a little bit towards the female in the video, especially the "You Stupid Girl" video where she poisons him. Yeah, I have seen some of the comments and nobody likes her.

Songfacts: You also did a few videos for Love And Theft. Did you get to go on tour with them when you did "If You Ever Get Lonely"?

Mason: I did. That was maybe a week I went out with them. It was a Florida leg, so all the venues were in Florida. Then they had a three-day break, so we all came back to Nashville and shot the rest of the stuff that's not on the road.

But that was always how I wanted to put those two together. There's always the cool road video that everybody does and then there's the narrative thing. I wanted to cram them into the same video and make a narrative story work with them being on tour and put those two worlds together. And they're just so much fun. It was real easy for them to get into that role.

Songfacts: Yeah, a lot of fans connected with that one and were sharing similar experiences.

Mason: Yeah, it's a real thing. It blurs the line of, were they an item or did he pass through town one time and they hooked up and now it's this kind of side thing? I like the idea of that secretive relationship that's common with artists on the road sometimes. I don't think they had a problem painting that picture.

The main thing was to show the bond between Eric and Stephen and that, no matter what's going on, they've got each other's back at the end of the day. That was my favorite part of the video, this bromance that sort of happens at the end.

Songfacts: You also get to see their little pre-show rituals and stuff throughout.

Mason: Yeah, absolutely, which is pretty much all real. I don't know how much I made them do versus how much I just shot them doing their thing.

Songfacts: You've done lots of other videos that have cool little visual elements that help tell the story, like the JT Hodges one, "Already High," that was all one shot, and Rascal Flatts' "Rewind" has that keyhole shot. What video do you think best represents your vision as a director?

Mason: Rascal Flatts is a good one. Going back to characters and big narrative stuff, I think that one landed on all levels as far as having a cool visual gimmick, especially during the performance with everybody else being in reverse while they're performing in forward.

And I like the Framing Hanley stuff just because I come from an edgier, more heady perspective and I'm always wanting to, at the very least, surprise you and give you something unexpected. But I definitely lean towards the bigger, more narrative-driven videos as opposed to a couple of the ones that are more artist based and more about their brand, like the "Barefoot" video for Jake. Going in we were like, "Look this video is going to be nothing but about you, your personality and the things you enjoy doing," and that's what that video was.

But I get the most jived when it's a cool story because I want to make films and the videos are just a way for me to make my own films.

Songfacts: With "Rewind" a lot of Rascal Flatts fans have been around long enough to know what a cassette tape is, but these younger kids, I'm thinking, "Are they going to know what a cassette tape is anymore?"

Mason: Yeah, that was in the treatment. I talked a little bit about the love for analog technology and let's showcase some of that. Even when we were shooting, when he has to use the pencil to respool the tape, we were all like, "Oh, I remember having to do that." That's really what sold them on it, this really cool marriage of how analog works and how that can tie into a visual story and make those two things synch up. It was fun and nostalgic in that sense but, yeah, I would assume a lot of kids might not have figured out what was going on there.

We're always trying to work in some product placement or technical thing, and I remember there was a conversation where the powers that be were saying, "Could it be on an iPod or something like that?" and we were just like, "You can't rewind an iPod, it's got to be the tape."

Songfacts: Were there any other favorite videos we didn't cover?

Mason: One of my favorites is "The One That Got Away," the Jake Owen video where we went down to Florida and shot a bunch of stuff on old film and then matched it up with digital cameras. I liked the idea of shooting all this stuff when he was a kid on film and then we shot all this stuff of him as an adult digitally. So you're really seeing the difference in aesthetic. That's just another one of those great, nostalgic, timeless videos. I like the ones that don't ever age and I think that's one of those that you could always watch and will always feel relevant.

Songfacts: And we don't realize until the end that Jake is really the kid all grown up.

Mason: Yeah, that was the plan. When he drives up to the house we see him with the friendship bracelet that he's held onto this whole time, and he chucks it into the ocean. That's when it comes together and you realize that he was thinking about his youth growing up in Florida.

That was one where we really wanted to tie it together with a narrative, but it's about him. It wasn't quite his hometown just because his hometown didn't have a jetty and there were a couple of things that we wanted narratively for the video that Vero Beach didn't have, so it's maybe 50 miles north of Vero where we shot that.

September 4, 2017.
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