His cell kept going off. Beedle do dee Beedle do de—
Each time, he pressed the button on the side that made the ringer stop and looked to see who it was.
After the third series of Beedle do dees, the phone made a different sound, which meant a text had arrived. He reached over his guitar and picked the phone off the table in front of him, forced to explain the calls.
“It’s my co-writer. We’re supposed to meet but I told him I was going to come do this, and might be late…” His explanation trailed off as he looked down his face trying to read the message on his phone. Bifocals? Maybe.
“Oh, damn, he’s locked out. I… just a minute.” And a whole seminar room full of Nashville Songwriter Hopefuls listened to Barry Dean give instructions quietly to another songwriter about where the key was hidden, the key to the door of wherever they were supposed to meet.
We were looking for something similar from him.
A key. The key.
Most of us were from out of town, and he, Barry Dean, is often held up as The Best Example Yet of someone who proved the unlikely possible: he managed to sell songs while commuting to Nashville from a-state-that-does-not-border-Tennessee.
Bannister’s four-minute-mile. Amundsen’s South Pole flag. Dean’s “Moving Oleta,” recorded by Reba.
Barry Dean proved humans can achieve more than they thought they could.
Actually, it’s not exactly right for me to analogize him to Roger and Roald. Barry wasn’t technically first: he’s not The Pioneer of Nashville Outsider Success. Heck, Shel Silverstein was an out-of-towner (Shel wrote, among other country songs, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”). But Barry is the most recent, most well liked example.
He’s become a symbol, a plan of action, a name with the potential to become lowercase and possibly even a verb: “I’m hoping I can do a barry dean.” “I’m just barry deaning it right now.” “Hey man, way to barry dean.”
He told us how he’d been working in Kansas at a family business that allowed him the flexibility to travel fairly often to Nashville, to establish relationships and maintain them in the way that “relationships” like to be maintained.
Beedle do dee, beedle do de—
Other calls from co-writers and music industry people came as he tried to tell us anecdotes and give advice. He silenced the phone more times than I can confidently estimate. Not sure why he didn’t put it on vibrate—my inference was that each call might be really important.
“Guys, I’m working so hard now that I’ve moved here,” he said, silencing his phone again. “It’s scary.” He didn’t look like he was enjoying the stress of trying to live up to promises he’d undoubtedly made to his family before uprooting them. “I wish I’d done more in Kansas.”
He glanced around with a meaningful gaze. It was a polite way to warn us all to get busy now. Wherever we were from.
Fill those notebooks.
He said it again, softer, maybe wistfully. “I wish I’d done more in Kansas.”
Earlier, when he’d been introduced to our little group, he shuffled humbly up to the front of the room. He’s not tall, he’s got a beard, he’s kind of… well, actually, something about him reminds me of Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws, turned down about seven notches.
“I don’t know, I’m not much of a guitar player,” he said, getting out his guitar with the air of someone induced against his better judgment to perform. Then, after a few biographical remarks, he played a song, beautifully—maybe not to the level of a Nashville studio picker, but oh, so nicely. Certainly better than most of us.
Applause. Q&A. More silenced calls. He was being generous with his time. One seminar-girl told him that a song he played for us should be a hit if there were any justice in the world. “From your lips to God’s ear,” said Barry, motioning from his lips to the ceiling.
Eventually he played us the first song he wrote that got a big reaction from a publisher. “I’d been playing publishers songs I thought they’d want to hear. Finally, I sang this one, to Scott Gunter, and he said, ‘Now that’s different. That’s what I’m talking about, that’s from your heart. And I’ve never heard anything like it…’” The song is sung from the perspective of a pair of boots experiencing debilitating jealousy toward a really fancy pair of boots worn by a fictional cowboy star named Sunny Red.
For those who think that all Nashville is looking for in a writer is an ability to lightly rework clichés, I invite you to read that last paragraph again.
“To write something moving, it costs something,” Barry said.
We all wrote that down in our notebooks.
He’d gotten the chance recently to co-write with Carrie Underwood, a fabulous-yet-humble-yet-fabulous-type country star with a voice so powerful it can etch song titles into plaster walls in a variety of script fonts. If you don’t know her from the radio, you might remember that she was on American Idol awhile back. I think she was the runner-up.
At first, Carrie wasn’t comfortable letting her guard down. Barry encouraged her to open up. After they had written some songs together, he told us he bought her a rhyming dictionary and inscribed it: “My mentor said, ‘Creativity is an act of courage.’ Thanks for being brave.”
We wrote that down in our notebooks, too.
“My job is to win the confidence of the room,” he said, after singing a couple more songs. It became clear his whole approach went beyond just writing a song—it was advancing The Good Reputation of Barry Dean, the modest Kansan you can put your faith in. It’s not a false front: I think you can put your faith in Barry Dean.
He has my confidence. He won me. I was in the room.
Wait: there it is. The key.
Beedle do dee, Beedl—
“Okay, I have to go,” Barry said, finally.
That night, as part of our seminar, we all showed up at The Bluebird, a bar in Nashville where writers perform more often than performers. It’s a “listening room,” where you can hear the bartender schpritz open an Amstel Light or swipe a credit card in the tiny, respectful silence before the room erupts in enthusiastic clapping after a song ends.
Frequently songwriters sit in a circle and sing A Little Something They Wrote, one at a time, “In the Round.” Usually they’re grouped by some bond or theme—tonight all four writers had been essentially “discovered” by our seminar leader. Barry was there, and so was a guy named Marcel.
If Barry Dean reminds me a little of Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws, then Marcel reminds me a lot of Johnny Depp in… well, any Johnny Depp movie except Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Marcel is rock star material.
Marcel can get by with one name.
Marcel sang a song that was a big hit for another American Idol runner-up, Josh Gracin. It’s a catchy, funny, fast-talking song I think everyone in the world would love if it hadn’t come out on country radio. After Marcel sang this song-that’s-almost-a-stunt, it was Barry’s turn.
Sitting next to Marcel amplified the fact that Barry looks like a guy from your office who knows more about the computer network than you. He looks like the guy driving the car next to you in rush hour on casual Friday, or in line behind you for a sub sandwich. He looks like your brother-in-law.
Quietly, unspectacularly, he started up a song that led to him unleashing his voice from, yes, his gut. He confidently filled the Bluebird with emotion, making a smart but poignant observation about Life with his song’s hook. When he finished, there was that little silent gap, then the applause, and then Marcel leaned into his microphone to say, “Damn, Barry, I never knew you were so SOULful.”
Barry graciously smiled, and might even have shrugged.
But we knew that he knew he’d just performed an act of courage.