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, Bob DiPiero sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Tim McGraw’s “Southern Voice,” Vince Gill’s “Worlds Apart” and the Oak Ridge Boys’ “American Made.”
A self-professed rock ‘n’ roll snob, Bob DiPiero grew up idolizing the Beatles after seeing them perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was only 12 at the time, but he immediately knew he wanted to do exactly what they were doing. They were in a band, so he had to find a band. After buying several of their albums and realizing they wrote their own songs, he also began penning his own material.
“I never made the decision consciously, ‘I am going to be a songwriter,'” he tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “It was like, ‘this is part of your job description,’ in my brain. That’s where songwriting grew out of. “
While he refers to his early songs as doodling, the first real song he recalls writing was inspired by a trip to Miami around the age of 17. By the time he graduated from Youngstown State University in Ohio, it was only a matter of time before he made the move to Nashville.
As DiPiero explains, he knew he couldn’t stay in Ohio if he wanted to pursue a career in music. While Los Angeles and New York were other options, he didn’t think his car would make it to L.A. and the idea of living in the “City That Never Sleeps” wasn’t appealing to him.
“I knew I couldn’t stay [in Ohio]. I didn’t want to be the big fish in a small pond. I’d rather be a big fish in a big pond or the ocean,” he admits. “At that point, I had never consciously listened to country music. I was a rock ‘n’ roll snob but I had some friends who did like country music and had started making trips to Nashville, Tennessee, and I went down to visit them. I discovered this whole Music Row country thing.”
For the next year, he’d make trips to Music City whenever he saved up enough money to travel there. During his visits, he’d walk up and down 16th and 17th Avenue knocking on doors and going inside to anyone who invited him in to play his music. Most of the people he met were encouraging, often telling him to stop by the next time he was in town. Around this time he read an article in Billboard magazine about a publishing company called Combine Music where Kris Kristofferson wrote. A fan of Kristofferson’s, DiPiero visited Combine Music during his next trip and brought along his most recent demo tapes which he played for the general manager. Liking what he heard, he introduced DiPiero to publisher Bob Beckham. Beckham told him he’d take one of his songs and see if he could get it cut and his continued relationship with the company landed him his first publishing deal shortly after.
“I would just hang out there. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a songwriter or a performer, a guitar player or a session player, but as time moved on I saw that what was getting the most attention was my songs so I just kept focusing on that,” he explains.
DiPiero moved to Nashville in 1978 and his country education continued. He signed his publishing deal in 1980 and thanks to several mentors at Combine Music and his fellow co-writers, he began learning the language of country music. He studied the music, the chords and the stories he heard within each song.
“Country lyrics were much more specific regarding, what are we talking about, who are we talking to, who is saying this and would they actually say this?” he recalls. “The way we spoke in Ohio was not the same way people spoke in the South. I was trying to really speak in the language that the people who listen to these songs would speak in. That’s what I still do.”
Once he had his publishing deal, things didn’t come to DiPiero overnight. In fact, he vividly recalls one meeting where he brought in 15 songs he had been working on and his publisher turned them all down, telling him they weren’t good enough to be recorded. He says that was the turning point for him as a writer. He realized he could either go back to Ohio and work for his brother or continue to write songs and try to up his game. He chose the latter and the next meeting he had turned out very differently as three of his songs were selected to be recorded.
One of his first successes was with a love song called “I Can See Forever In Your Eyes,” which Reba McEntire recorded in 1980. It became a Top 20 hit. His first No. 1 song came three years later with the Oak Ridge Boys’ “American Made.” DiPiero admits that during this time period he was still trying to wrap his head around what country music was.
“‘American Made’ was me working to be a songwriter, to earn the $75 a week they were paying me to write songs. I learned from that song, which was how do you make someone listen to your song? ‘American Made’ had very basic melodies and chord changes, but the lyric, once I stepped back from it, I could see what was attractive about it,” he explains. “It wasn’t a patriotic song, this was about my life. I bought all of these things — a Sony TV, Nikon camera — I got all this stuff that’s not from here but my baby is American made. It’s a song that connected with the right artist at the right time and that’s what happened.”
As he continued to make his way in the country songwriting scene, DiPiero often recalled the advice of a former professor in Ohio. “Don’t judge your art, let others judge it for you. Just do the work.” It was these words of wisdom that he’d remember time and time again when it came to critiquing his own songs.
“I have written songs that I thought were brilliant beyond compare and they could change the world, and when I play them for people, they just yawn,” he admits. “And then some songs I write I’m like, ‘I don’t know, this is kind of weird. I don’t think I’ll play this for anybody’ and I play it for them and it becomes a major hit. So, it really informed me in that I’m not going to judge these things because I’ll pick things apart.”
In fact, one of the songs that most surprised DiPiero was the success of Neal McCoy’s “Wink.” A track he co-wrote with Tom Shapiro, the No. 1 hit is a lighthearted tune that has a man realizing that all he needs to make his day better is a wink from his lady. DiPiero admits that he didn’t know how he felt about the upbeat song at first, but it was a saying from Chet Atkins that struck a chord with him: “You really don’t like a song until it gets into the Top 10 and then you learn to love it.”
“That was me,” DiPiero explains of the quirky song. “I love country music. There was a lot of feeling and a lot of soulfulness but there was always humor. I could always find humor in country music, which I loved.”
Shortly after the success of “Wink,” Vince Gill released “Worlds Apart,” a striking ballad he penned with DiPiero. The song won a Grammy Award in 1997 for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. It’s a song that DiPiero says means a lot to him and was written during a difficult time following his divorce.
“I really wanted to write a song like that because I just had this Song of the Year [with] ‘Wink’ and I wanted to let the community at large know that I was not a one-trick pony, that I did not only write in one color. I could write different colors or different feelings, the whole deal. I wanted to let them know I was more than one song.”
He further explains that both he and Gill were going through divorces when they wrote the song and as a result, the lyrics spoke to loneliness, anger and hate.
“That song was probably, to this day, one of the most intimate songs of my life at that point that I had written. It became a No. 1 song but it surprised me that it did,” he admits. “Of course, Vince could sing the phone book and have a hit with it. That song was very meaningful to me.”
In 2017, DiPiero was honored with the BMI Icon Award. He says the recognition was overwhelming at first, as he joins esteemed songwriters like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Dolly Parton, all legends he admires. Having a career that spans 40 years and a No. 1 song in each of the last four decades, DiPiero is very deserving of the award. His reason for his longevity, he explains, is that he has always approached music from a student’s point of view.
“If I’m a student, I’m always learning and I’m willing to learn and I want to learn. The biggest thing of all is, that in my world, I’m always becoming. It’s not about what I did in 1983, 1993, 2003, or 2017. It’s about what I’m about to do, what I’m going to do,” he stresses. “Once you think you know it, you’re over because everything moves. Everything has a moving target. Music is a moving target, technology is a moving target. The language changes. How people speak to one another in 2017, isn’t the same way people spoke to each other in 2007.”
DiPiero adds that he always had the desire to go along with the changes in music and technology while remaining true to himself, often asking the question, “Where is Bob in this song?” So, where exactly is the Ohio native in Tim McGraw’s 2009 chart topper, “Southern Voice” As it turns out, everywhere.
The idea for “Southern Voice” came from Tom Douglas and as DiPiero recalls, he immediately started asking what does that mean? Sure, at first “Southern Voice” sounds like someone who has a twang, but he wanted to write the song a different way. He decided it’d be unique to write about people from the South and to give a shout-out to those who had a Southern voice as well as make the song active from the very first line: “Hank Williams sang it, number 3 drove it.”
“If you don’t know who Dale Earnhardt is, you don’t know who number 3 is,” DiPiero explains as he recites lines from the song. “‘Chuck Berry twanged it. Will Faulkner wrote it.’ That’s what I brought into that song — all the name-checks and what they did — and Tom just grabbed onto it and we went after it like that.”
“In the chorus, there’s a part that says, ‘smooth as a hickory wind.’ Hickory Wind was the name that Graham Parsons was given by Emmylou Harris. Graham Parsons is a guy who brought country music to rock ‘n’ roll. He wrote some songs with the Rolling Stones. He’s a guy who brought Nudie Suits and the sparkling things and he was from country but he went to rock ‘n’ roll, which is the reverse of me. I thought that’s a cool little hidden thing in there,” he notes. “Also, the word Apalachicola. ‘The wind blows down from Memphis to Apalachicola.’ Apalachicola is a beautiful little fishing village on the panhandle of Florida. I just love that word, Apalachicola. I call it a juicy word and I never heard it in a song before so that’s Bob DiPiero in that song.”
This year marks 40 years since DiPiero left Ohio for Tennessee and he is grateful for his leap of faith all those years ago. While he describes his early days in Music City fondly as a time where he spent meeting people and being a detective trying to figure out where to go next, he also learned a big lesson, which he discusses at the close of our chat.
“Stay healthy. Stay away from drugs and alcohol, at least that was my story. Being from the rock ‘n’ roll era, I thought that was part of the deal,” he admits. “Keith Richards got really high and so I guess that’s what I should do and finally coming to the realization, ‘Well, this is not good. Eventually it will kill me.’ But, in my head I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe that kind of thing is what made me so creative. If I stop doing that, I stop being creative,’ and having that real fear after stopping all that drugs and alcohol I was doing, and wondering will I ever be able to do that again?”
For DiPiero, this was far from the case. Six months after he made the decision to quit drugs and alcohol he’d garner multiple No. 1 songs. This is when he learned a major lesson about himself and who he really is.
“What I came to find out was, what I was creating, I was creating not because of the substances I was putting in my body but in spite of the substances I was putting in my body,” he shares. “Once again, it’s that freeing moment in time where as long as I can get up in the morning and drink some coffee I’m dangerous and I can write something great. I don’t need anything other than my head and my heart.”