Dierks Bentley: Can You Feel Me?
On the flip side of that, what are the benefits of going out to writers’ nights and seeing other songwriters in the clubs?
I used to go out to Bluebird Café, Douglas Corner or The Broken Spoke, and you’d learn that you’re not as good as you thought you were the week before. You go out there and think, “Wow, I’ve still got a ways to go.” I had a goal to play the Bluebird Café by the time I turned 23 and I spent a lot of time before that, not in the smaller places, but in the places that didn’t intimidate me as much, just listening. You get to the point where you think, “I’ve got a couple that can compete with what they’re doing there.” There are always some people there who are terrible and they’re trying to get stuff figured out. That’s the thing-we’re all trying to get better. There are some folks where you know you’re definitely better than them, and then sometimes, you’re like, “There’s Tony Lane. What is he doing down here? He’s always down here.” You learn from those guys and build your confidence up.
I guess the most important thing about those places is learning that it’s not so sacred. You write your first songs, type them up and put them in a clear protective sleeve, and it’s like a finished work and you don’t touch it. But once you talk to more songwriters, you learn that it’s just a song and you should write one a day. You should play it for anyone and you should take any critiques. You’re not Picasso. You’re just one of many who have come to this town as a songwriter.
Before you got a publishing deal, how often did you write by yourself?
A lot. I’d go through phases where I’d write by myself for six months, and then I’d hang out with some friends of mine who had writing deals. We’d go to ASCAP and sit there and write at night. Then I’d go back and write by myself for a while. Once I got the publishing deal, it exposed me to a whole new world of great writers-everyone in town.
Now I write stuff on my own but I never try to finish it, for two reasons: A) It is better to have 50 percent of a song than 100 percent of nothing, and B) I think it’s fun. The whole process should be enjoyable. I get a chance to hang out with Rivers Rutherford, who has a couple of kids and more years at life. Not only do I get a chance to write a song, but I get to hear his life stories and life lessons. He’s like the big brother/mentor. I hang out with Rodney Crowell. Why would I write a song by myself when I have a chance to write with Rodney Crowell? It’s awesome.
When you were offered your first publishing deal, which barely pay enough money to live on, how long did it take you to accept?
It was $15,000 a year and [snaps] it was accepted like that. No bonus or anything. I took it in a heartbeat. I was working at TNN and was pretty much close to being fired from there. The gig was kind of up and they knew I wasn’t really doing anything at all. I had run out of space to hide from not having to work. I was living single at the time and I took it in a heartbeat.
All I ever wanted was a publishing deal…before a record deal, before anything else. I thought I wanted a record deal, but when I moved to town, I realized what you really want is a publishing deal, because a publishing deal allows you to quit all your day jobs and just hang in the music community. A record deal? You don’t want that. Jeez, that’s awful. That’s a lot of work. The publishing deal, though, yeah, I’m writing songs. What does that mean exactly? Well, that means I’m working on my career, in my mind. Yeah, I’m writing songs for other people, but not really. I’m writing my own stuff. I’m meeting producers, hanging out with other songwriters. A publishing deal is everything. It was never about the money. It was about getting with the right people, and getting a chance to quit everything else and to really concentrate on writing my record.
How did you go about asking people to write with you?
At that point, they just start setting it up for you. That’s the good thing about writing for the bigger publishing companies. They say, “I think you’d write well with this person, and I’ll put the call in for you.” Great! You just go over there, drink coffee for an hour or two, hang out and talk, and then start getting to work. I wasn’t lazy. I loved writing and had no time frame to get done with it. I was one of the guys who’d say, “Hey, do you want to get some beers and see if that helps out? Let’s do it.” We’d drink in the middle of the day to see if that would get the ideas going. [laughs] But I was writing at night too, with people who didn’t have publishing deals.