Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Barry Dean sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including his first No. 1 with Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” his most recent No. 1 in Michael Ray’s “Think a Little Less” and the Grammy-nominated Tim McGraw song “Diamond Rings and Old Bar Stools.”
Barry Dean was in his mid-30s when he started writing professionally. While he dabbled in songwriting throughout his teens and continued to make up songs while mowing the lawn as an adult in Kansas, it was never something he considered chasing after. In a candid hour-and-a-half interview with Sounds Like Nashville in his writing room at his publisher, Creative Nation, Dean reflects on his long journey to Nashville. As he recalls, it all started one afternoon while having lunch with his wife.
“We were looking at what to do for a living, where I should go and she said, ‘Well, what’s your passion?'” Dean remembers with a smile while seated in his office surrounded by guitars, keyboards and inspiring quotes hanging from the ceiling light fixture. “I laughed about it. I said, ‘I don’t think mid-30s is the time to be chasing passions.’ I had kids.”
Dean then told his wife that he wanted to be a songwriter when he was a kid and often dreamed of being around record labels and musicians. When prompted by his wife about why he doesn’t write songs he admitted that he did, often while mowing the grass or in his journal. Surprised at her husband’s secret passion, songwriting was something she kept in mind when asking if he would take her on a cruise for their anniversary the following month. He obliged and as it turns out, Dean’s wife found a songwriting cruise hosted by Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI).
The cruise hosted discussions about songwriting in the morning and the remainder of the day would be a typical vacation setting. It was on this excursion that Dean wound up performing and was invited to Nashville for a song camp. Soon he’d find himself traveling back and forth from Kansas to Nashville throughout the year, booking co-writes and taking songwriting seminars.
While picking up a guitar, he describes his early songs as “weird because I was learning to play the guitar.” He then begins to play one of the first songs that garnered him attention from a publisher, “The Boots of Sunny Red.” A story song told from the perspective of a boot, the music could be featured in a Western movie. He says his future publisher knew the song wasn’t a hit, but he liked the way Dean was thinking.
“I wrote by myself which I thought was a bad thing but it’s not,” he explains. “That’s the one thing I always tell writers. If you can write by yourself, you should be writing by yourself because it gives the publisher the clearest view of you. I think that helped me get my deal because it wasn’t like I played a song that was a hit and I got a deal. There are some people that write by themselves and, like me, feel pressure to co-write. I don’t think you should feel that. You do whatever you do to get great songs and if you can do it all by yourself, it’s not a bad thing.”
One piece of advice that Dean has taken to heart came from Mike Reid, who often tells songwriters to ask, “what’s the next truest thing I can say?” Dean relates this to several of the songs he’s written including Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” Martina McBride’s “God’s Will” and Tim McGraw’s “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” which garnered Dean his first Grammy nomination.
“It’s a pretty big deal to me to be allowed in this community at all. I really admire these writers. Getting nominated for a Grammy is really exciting,” he says, becoming reflective. “For a guy who never thought he’d get to do it at all, that is amazing that it’s possible that it can be done. I’ve been watching that show since I was a little boy and I got to go and we got to get dressed up and be with our friends and somebody liked the song, that’s pretty cool.”
“Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” was a co-write between Dean, Luke Laird and Jonathan Singleton and almost wasn’t recorded. The three friends spent most of the day working on something else but didn’t feel like they were getting anywhere so they switched gears. Dean remembers Laird playing a guitar riff first and the song was written 40 minutes later. He admits they didn’t think many artists would be interested.
“It’s really country. There was a discussion, ‘do we even demo it because it’s so country?'” he says. “We decided we would do it because we wanted to hear Jonathan Singleton sing. They played it for George Strait and thought he would cut it and then he didn’t and we thought, ‘Well, that’s probably about it.’ Then McGraw cut it. That guy, he’s a song connoisseur. McGraw has an understanding of his audience and himself and songs. It’s just amazing, really. To think of his catalog… to be a part of that catalog of songs is a big deal.”
While in his office on a Friday afternoon, Dean’s phone starts buzzing. It’s a text message from Jimmy Robbins. He apologizes, explaining, “I’m trying not to watch a song we have on the charts right now. According to the real time data it’s at No. 1. We’ll see. I am afraid to say.”
The song in question is Michael Ray’s “Think A Little Less,” which Dean co-wrote with Robbins, Jon Nite and Thomas Rhett. The following Monday (March 20), it is confirmed that “Think A Little Less” indeed reached the top position and became Ray’s second No. 1 hit and Dean’s third. As it turns out, the song was written four years ago that week, on March 14, while out on the road with Rhett.
“Jimmy had the title and Jimmy and Jon Nite had started [it]. There’s a guitar riff that’s not on the record… sometimes what sparks the song is not what gets translated to everybody,” he shares while singing the original riff. “He had those bits and we wrote it really quick.”
Rhett was working on his first album at the time and when the song didn’t make the cut, Dean thought it was long forgotten. Ray eventually heard it and decided to record it and then make it a single after seeing Spotify’s streaming numbers of the song, realizing it had a major impact on listeners.
“It’s a mark of a great artist to even notice that and then go, ‘They love this. Let’s go!’ They put it out and Warner worked it. It’s taken a long time,” Dean says of the single, which was released to radio on April 6, 2016. “It doesn’t matter how they get there, it just matters that they do for an artist.”
Over the years, Dean says he has learned that he doesn’t control anything outside the writing room. Four years ago his wife showed him statistics on the top 10 songs that earned him money and he realized the only thing they all had in common was that he didn’t think they’d get recorded.
“I loved them but I was worried, ‘Oh this one is too sad, this one is too silly, this one’s too fun. This one’s too different.’ It was liberating once I realized that. Then I decided, I’m going to empirically admit that I don’t control anything outside this room,” he explains. “I don’t know what the artist will cut or why. I have opinions just like everybody but it turns out that my opinions aren’t always right. It changed everything about how I wrote. My job is to be here in the room with these incredible people and do whatever we’re gonna do and do it as well as we can. If it’s funny, we should be rolling and if it’s sad it should really, truly make us cry. I don’t do well if we’re just phoning it in.”
Dean says his job is to create something he cares about and to make sure he’s chasing the magic that flies through the room each day, adding that digging deep for what moves him is always a good idea.
“If people are going to try to write a song, a tender kind of song, a sad song or a story song, I want it to be so real that I never doubt why they did it or if they know it. That goes for fun songs too. ‘Pontoon’ doesn’t get written if you sit down and try to write ‘Pontoon.’ ‘Pontoon’ gets written because something is said in a room and we laugh and you go, ‘Why did we laugh?’ If they had told us, ‘Hey, write a song about watercraft that’ll be good for the summer’ we probably would have messed it up.”
“Pontoon” came to fruition after co-writer Natalie Hemby told Laird and Dean that someone had misnamed a previous title of one of her songs. Instead of “Fine Tune,” a song Hemby and Laird wrote that Miranda Lambert cut, the person called the track “Pontoon.” As Dean recalls, Hemby was hesitant to write the song but Laird kept egging her on. “Come on girl, what would you say?” Dean remembers Laird asking Hemby to which she replied, “Back this bitch up into the water” and all three writers began laughing.
“We never even thought about the motor boating part. We just thought nobody would say bitch. I don’t think we thought it would go where it went,” he confesses. “Everybody involved in that process brought some heat to it, took it to the next level. I love Little Big Town and it was a great honor.”
The song would mark both Little Big Town and Dean’s first No. 1 in 2012. He says it holds even more meaning to him today as his daughter recently sang it at Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine celebration.
“My daughter has special needs and she went to that Tim Tebow Night to Shine so I went to watch her there and one of the things they do there is karaoke. She surprised me and dedicated her performance to me and sang ‘Pontoon,'” he says with a smile. “Her speech is . . . you can understand her, but it’s difficult. Speaking is hard for her. That makes that song mean a lot of things that it never did before.”
Now with three chart toppers in his name, Dean reflects on the importance of knowing the basic rules to songwriting but also realizing when it’s okay to break them.
“For me, there’s a paradox. I’m trying to create something wonderful so if the rules help me do that I use it and if they don’t I break them. I do know them but I’m just trying to do something that we feel. I think that’s what it’s really about,” he concedes. “My job is to create something we care about. It’s easy to be critical, don’t be that. Don’t be cynical, it’s poison. You have to be open and be positive and do things to keep yourself positive. I’m not a professional enthusiast but I do feel like to stay in this you have to really love greatness and magic and be pretty positive about it.”