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Deryl Dodd goes with his heart

By Joel Bernstein, January 1997

Deryl Dodd got his record contract the old-fashioned way, the way most guys did it in the fifties, sixties, even into the seventies. He spent several years playing in the bands of more established artists, paying his dues and learning the ropes, before he set out on his own.

Not that Dodd doesn't look good in a video, but at least he wasn't just plucked off a stool in the drugstore like some of his contemporaries seem to have been.By the time Dodd released his first Columbia album, "One Ride In Vegas" this past fall, he'd been around long enough to know what kind of music he wanted to make.

Dodd's first single was "Friends Don't Drive Friends..." The next two words were "to drinking." It was the best single slice of honky tonkitis to come out on a major label in 1996, and that it nudged onto the charts at all was quite a feat considering that half the country stations in America have banned the word "drinking" from their airwaves.

"No one said to me 'you can't record that'," he says. "The people who did get it, they went 'man we really miss that.' A lot of people in radio don't remember nor come from that background."

"I went out and performed for radio all summer. I gathered that they loved it but they have 'standards' as far as what they're playing. I don't promote drinking. We're pretty conservative people. (Drinking songs) don't make me want to down a bottle of whiskey. We write songs about bars because that's what we're around.

He adds, "Songs were a lot more truthful back then," in reference to the days of classic country.

Dodd's second single, a remake ofTom T. Hall's classic "That's How I Got To Memphis" (which Bobby Bare took tonumber three in 1970), is faring better, though it appears to be falling somewhat short of star-making status.

"My manager was playing it one day. I remembered it, and it hit me. I thought it would be good to record. My co-producer (Chip Young) played on Hall's original version (and Bare's as well). It's a real classic-sounding song."

"Memphis" aside though, one thing that distinguishes Dodd from a lot of the other new acts is that he's a songwriter. He wrote or co-wrote 8 of the 10 cuts on his album. (The other cover was written by a couple of Nashville friends.)

And chances are that one of those songs - maybe the title track, a rodeo song with a memorable hook - will put Dodd into the upper chartlevels. "I'm a big rodeo fan. I just like the Old West. I grew up that way. I was always around horses. I love that life."

Folks in the North may sometimes tire of those Texas-oriented lyrics (that state does account for nearly half of country sales), but for Dodd, at least, it's not pandering. It's what he knows.

Dodd's background is pure country. He grew up in the Dallas area, in a musical family, but wasn't really thinking about a career in music.

A star high school running back, he contemplated a football career until an injury made him rethink his future. His Baylor University buddies pushed him into singing in public, and before long he was fronting a popular Waco club band. His shyness overcome, Dodd realized that he loved playing hisown music in public.

After graduating Baylor in 1987, Dodd fronted bands full-time.

Dodd moved to Nashville in 1991 after being the opener at a concert headlined by singer-songwriter Dean Dillon and being encouraged by one of his band members to make the move. Dodd soon formed a band with Waco buddy Brett Beavers.

But after playing to large crowds in Texas, Dodd found he missed that thrill. Even today, he is reluctant to do much touring until he has a big enough of a hit.

"I've been with other artists before they had hits," he says "and it's pretty depressing when no one shows up. I want to wait until they have a reason to come see me."

His shows currently are carefully selected. He recently was amonga bevy of country stars to play the National Rodeo finals (in, naturally, Las Vegas).

That "other artist" wasMartina McBride, with whom he (and Beavers, who has continued to work with him regularly) hooked up as she was going out on tour with Garth Brooks in support of her first album in 1992. When she wasn't opening for Brooks, things weren't quite so lively, as crowds were often sparse. Dodd also knows this feeling from the other side.

"I've walked in on artists before they hit and requested George Jones not realizing it's a Nashville artist with a record out. I don't want that to happen to me." He left McBride just before her second (breakthrough) album was released, although not before getting to sing background vocals on a couple of its tracks, his first appearance on record.

By now Dodd was set on a solo career, although he also spent some time working in Tracy Lawrence's band. He was involved in regular songwriter "guitar pulls" hosted by Radney Foster (and got to sing some harmony vocals on Foster's second album and George Ducas' first).

Others in attendance at these pulls included John Hiatt and Kevin Welch, two great and successful songwriters who don't sell many records of their own, and for whom Dodd has great admiration.

"I'm not even in their league," says Dodd. "They just do what they do, they're sort of rebels. They have a cult following, and they're happy that way."

But Dodd wants more than a cult following. "I want to be commercial, but I'd like to be in the category of having great songs like Alan Jackson and Vince Gill. Clint Black is a good example. He's not quite so simple. You have to think and figure out (his lyrics) on your own. James Taylor was great. Merle Haggard, his songs are rich. The world's missing out on that today. Music is art, and art is your own expression. Sometimes we change that to sell records."

A disastrous demo deal in 1994, in which he recorded songs described as "country-pop" convinced him that he had to stick to his own style of Texas country.A friend of his hooked Dodd up with Blake Chancey, David Ball's producer. Paul Worley, who had been McBride's producer, was now an executive at Sony, enabling Dodd to land there in September 1995. Chancey co-produced Dodd's debut.

Dodd knows that in some ways he doesn't fit in with today's country scene, but he believes his music is strong enough to cut through.

"My gimmick is not having one. My songs speak for themselves. They're just honest, hit you between the eyes music. I'm a little bit older, not quite as flashy. No bells and whistles. I'm in love with the old traditional classic sound. I like Texas swing, fiddles and steel guitar, playing like they're supposed to. It all comes real naturally to me."

If history is an indicator, Dodd's big hit will come with a ballad (he has several) and then heH'll be pressured to keep doing lots of ballads. "I'm trying to avoid that. It makes for a pretty sleepy concert. I want to do variety. I like to hear it all under one roof."

"I have to go with my heart. I am more commercial (than some songwriters), but if the music doesn't make me happy, it's just a job. I think both can be done. Everyone loves Merle Haggard because they know he's really telling about his life. We live through it vicariously. I want to be able to write about my life."