One aspect of living in Nashville that's been highlighted one way more than one occasion is the wellspring of talent that lies within the city. It might seem old hat, but damn does it ring true. From the corporatized sheen of some of the city's most recognizable names to the relative anonymity of those trying to break through the fray of perpetual talent, the city is full (to borrow the title of another local website) from Bellevue to Broadway. In a perfect Nashville, it would be a beautiful thing to see every last individual that sets out to fulfill their dreams actually do so, but such is not the case. There are a lot of stories of struggle paired with whirlwind success, of strife and strength, and of failure and achievement, which makes for some absolutely compelling conversations. That (somehow) leads us to this week's feature interview, Ben Danaher. He's an incredibly talented songwriter who, through songs like his newest single, "Jesus Can See You," has been recognized as one of the most brutally forthright and candid songwriters in Nashville. It's almost certain that the songs to follow on his September LP Still Feel Lucky, will all but cement his status as one of Nashville's last true troubadours. Danaher has a wealth of knowledge regarding Texas country, songwriting, and nature of the music beast, and we're all the better for getting the chance to talk to him.
Now/It's met with Ben Danaher at 3rd & Lindsley, a music venue in the SoBro neighborhood of Nashville.
Ben - Do you want a coffee?
N/I - Sure. That’d be great.
Ben - Sugar? Cream?
N/I - Just black is fine. I’ve been listening to “Jesus Can See You,” quite a bit, lately. It’s awesome.
Ben - Thank you.
[Bartender chimes in]
Bartender - [My son] likes to listen to it on the way to school.
Ben - That’s awesome [laughs]. We can sit at one of these tables near the stage.
N/I - Sounds good. So how do you know Tatiana [Angulo]?
Ben - So I met Tatiana last year when I was looking for managers. We didn’t go into business, necessarily, but Tatiana is awesome.
N/I - Oh yeah! She’s great.
Ben - She’s a beast when it comes to what she does.
N/I - Definitely. She is one of the most driven I’ve had the good fortune to know. I have no doubt that she won’t stop until she achieves whatever goal she sets out to achieve. It’s pretty remarkable. I’ve known her for seven years now?
Ben - Wow.
N/I - We went to school together, at Belmont. Ironically enough, her mother and my aunt are best friends in Houston. I didn’t know that until after the fact.
Ben - No way! Are you from Houston?
N/I - No. I’m from Nashville.
Ben - Okay. I grew up just outside of Houston.
N/I - That’s right! Where abouts, exactly?
Ben - It’s a town called Huffman. It’s about thirty miles east.
N/I - Okay, cool. So how long have you been in Nashville?
Ben - Six years.
N/I - How’s it been?
Ben - It’s good. I’m kind of…. I feel like I’m just now finding my “niche.” I think it took me a while to push on a bunch of closed doors to get to the level of confidence that goes with putting out your own record.
N/I - Well I was going to ask - because I’m not a musician by any stretch of the imagination - it seems like coming to Nashville, there’s this trend of six or seven years before things start to materialize, or make more sense. Is that kind of what you’re seeing after six years?
Ben - Yeah. I think part of it was the misperception of what the town is. You come in and you want so bad for things to work in this really, ultra-pure way, and you get there and you realize it’s like any other business. People who are your best friends can’t really do that much for you unless you’re generating money.
N/I - That’s fair. It is a business when you get down to it.
Ben - And that’s a very cutthroat thing to say, because it hasn’t been that dark for me….
N/I - Well that’s good.
Ben - [Laughs] It is. But I thought publishing was going to be my thing. I thought I was going to come in and get a song recorded by somebody. Or to get a deal, you had to write the best, most heartfelt songs to win publishers over. But it’s a different time.
N/I - It is. That’s an interesting thing - I think people have come to realize that [publishing] is a little more political - in the cutthroat sense of having to know the right people. You need to be pals with the right person. It’s something that makes me think “Man, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it,” in terms of the nuance of hanging out with someone that you’ve met through a publishing event and you go on to become friends, but you also know there might be some benefit from being good friends.
Ben - It is tricky. It’s a hard line to walk, too.
N/I - Is that something that comes pretty naturally to you?
Ben - I try not think about it.
N/I - That’s good. Definitely a more healthy way to approach it.
Ben - Totally. It is frustrating when you watch that stuff go down. It’s hard to not watch everyone around you get opportunity. Especially here. I’ll be bartending a showcase going on, and sometimes you can’t help but think that you’ve got as much ability as the people on stage. Or when every publisher, every record marketing person is in the room, ordering Titos from you, and you’re just like “I really want to give you my record….” [laughs].
N/I - And you start wondering how you might be able to sneak it to them, like sliding it underneath a drink to them.
Ben - Well what’s weird is, ninety percent of them have already heard me play, in one way or another. It’s just that sometimes, people’s hands are tied in terms of what they can actually do.
N/I - Well that’s interesting - this is already getting out of my own realm of experience, so any reference I have is anecdotal - but it seems like there’s a lot of hoops to jump through, just to put your neck out there. People like that, but at the same time, people only seem to like certain people sticking their neck out, despite championing the general effort. There’s all sorts of interesting pitfalls I’m sure.
Ben - That angle is funny. I feel like we’re embarking on a time where the money is shrinking so much on the business side that everyone is hanging on for dear life, and whatever position they have in the business, they need to cling to that. So I understand why nobody is taking the risk. For me, I’m at a point where I have to prove myself some way, whether that’s through sales, legitimacy, work ethic. You need to be able to point at something and say that this is proven in these certain areas.
N/I - Right. So how does Nashville differ from Texas? In talking to people, it’s my understanding that Texas is it’s own world. I know there are artists who can tour all over the state and make a full fledged career out of that alone. There are people in Texas who are absolute gods, but outside, they’re lucky to fill out a small club. Granted, that’s not always the case. The state is just so huge, and there are so many subsets of red dirt, zydeco, and everything in between. Were you in a particular arena of that world?
Ben - I definitely got caught in that for a second. That was actually a big, big part of me moving up here. My brother was playing guitar for a guy named Pat Green, down there. Ten or fifteen years ago, Pat was the king of Texas - he sold one hundred thousand records without a record deal. He got backed into a record deal because he couldn’t distribute his record. He didn’t have enough people on staff to get it to the people that wanted it, so he signed a record deal. But those dudes were ping-ponging a tour bus four hours at a time, and they were pulling three thousand people per venue. I went to lunch with my friend Randy Rogers, the other day, and he’s doing the same thing. We went to college together. Anyway, I had made a record with my brother, we put it out - it was a five song EP - and we were going to try and make a push at that, trying to put two singles out on the Texas chart. I mean, Texas has it’s own charting system! It’s like living on Mars in a music sense.
N/I - Truly.
Ben - It was fine, but there was a disconnect in it. I would open up a show for this band that’s pulling three thousand people, and I’d sell five records and realize that nobody gives a fuck about what we’re doing.
N/I - Well that’s a whole different beast, be it Texas, Nashville, or anywhere in between.
Ben - It is it’s own thing. There are gripes on both sides - there are people in Texas who are bitching about what’s on the radio - but then there are people in Nashville that are thinking they can hop in their van or their bus and head down to make a ton of money in Texas.
N/I - True. And then they learn that’s not always the case.
Ben - There are dudes that are life long careers down there. They know that Texas is their market, and they might not even want to go outside of that. They know they can make a couple million dollars a year doing that and so they stay there. But being from there, it’s really hard not to get stamped with that. Like right now, I’m kind of seeing that with this release of the song. I’m getting a lot of love from those people, but I don’t want to be exclusively tagged as a Texas country band.
N/I - Have people been calling it Texas country?
Ben - No, but I’m associated with some of these Texas country guys.
N/I - That makes sense. Proximity convenience for lazy music writers and critics.
Ben - Some of the shows that I played were supporting those guys, so there are a lot of crossover fan situations. I’m going on a UK tour with one of my friends , Wade Bowen. He’s developed a great fanbase in Texas.
N/I - Oh cool. He just put out a record, right?
Ben - He did. He’s awesome. But he’s been at it for so long down there, though I would love to see more recognition in other genres like Americana. So we’ll see.
N/I - Well how would you define “Jesus Can See You,” then?
Ben - I would put it in Americana. It’s tricky - when we were doing the genre thing on iTunes - apparently there’s only one way to get it to Americana, and it’s through country as the main label.
N/I - And the secondary one is Americana.
Ben - It kind of scares the fuck out of me that I’m thrown into this world - not that it’s such a big world in terms of charting numbers - but the fact that people would look at it and potentially associate me with what’s going on with country radio is a little scary. Because I don’t feel like we’re in the same ballpark.
N/I - No. Not at all.
Ben - But it would be Americana. When I was making the record, I was thinking a lot about Buddy Miller and those guys. Rodney Crowell.
N/I - Right. I can see the Rodney Crowell influence.
Ben - Just that troubadour, singer-songwriter thing.
N/I - That’s interesting. Vocally, it almost sounds like James Morrison.
Ben - Oh yeah, I’ve heard that. Thank you.
N/I - But sounding reminiscent of someone like that might help. I don’t think anyone lumps James Morrison into country music.
Ben - No! Definitely not.
N/I - I think you’re at least on a start of all that morass that is people applying their connotation of country to anyone associated with the genre of “country.” So with the record itself, when is that coming out?
Ben - September 7th.
N/I - So what’s between “Jesus Can See You” and then?
Ben - There are more singles. We’ve got a tentative schedule of things. We’ve got some tour dates that are coming. I’ve got a single coming April 6th. It’s called “Hell or High Water.” I wrote that with Maren Morris. And then probably another one in July, that we’re going to release on Father’s Day. I wrote that one about my dad. It’s called “Father’s Blood.” From there, I might release one more single, and then the record.
N/I - So with those two songs - where do they stand within the overall tone - I know that word can be a little vague, but let’s stick with it - of the album itself? Do they serve as good representation as a whole? Are they polar opposites?
Ben - They’re pretty much cohesive. “Hell or High Water” is a little more uptempo than some of the other ones. It’s a guitar-driven song. I had Buddy Miller in mind when I wrote with Maren. She had the title, and I had listened to to Buddy’s Universal United House of Prayer gospel record. It’s a lot of just gritty blues stuff in there. So I played a riff, and then we wrote an angsty murder ballad.
N/I - There aren’t a whole lot of murder ballads these days, so you could be on the forefront of that wave. Who knows?
Ben - [Laughs] Who knows? Though, I think Chris Knight might have that market cornered.
N/I - That’s pretty fair.
Ben - It’s pretty much his entire catalog.
N/I - True. Murder ballads are a field of specialty - you have to go all in or have the most perfect, refined murder ballad of all time. You almost always toe a line of being too indulgent.
Ben - It’s interesting that you say that. When I first got here - especially in terms of style - it was almost always someone telling me that things are too fast or too slow. It became a challenge for me, then. I decided that I was going to write the best sad and slow song I can. We were going to get it down to a science.
N/I - There’s something to that. Do you know Bobby Braddock?
Ben - Yeah. Of course.
N/I - He started out writing satirical songs, more or less, and he would try to get them on the radio, and people would tell him that the songs were just too silly. And back in the 70s, country music was all about the ballads.
Ben - God! Bring back to that day [laughs]!
N/I - I know, right? Could imagine today, what would happen if someone told you that? There would be all sorts of people on country radio today that would be out of a job. But so Braddock took the same approach that you have, where if his songs were too silly, he decided he was going to write the greatest sad songs ever. Lo and behold….
Ben - “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
N/I - Wrote the saddest country song ever.
Ben - Have you heard that Malcolm Gladwell podcast?
N/I - Revisionist History? I have.
Ben - He did an episode called “The King of Thieves.”
N/I - Is it about that? I haven’t listened to it.
Ben - He talks about Bobby Braddock and how the specificity of country music makes it so much sadder than other genres.
N/I - Absolutely.
Ben - It’s really cool.
N/I - You could maybe argue that R&B music or very vague singer-songwriter, no genre music can be sad, but country music, there’s something about it that’s so earnest, I guess. I’d be curious to see what [Gladwell]’s explanation is. I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell.
Ben - He’s brilliant.
N/I - I listened to one podcast episode where he talks about the fact that no one shoots granny-style free throws.
Ben - Oh really?
N/I - He used Rick Barry as the example. One of the greatest free throw shooters of all time, and he shot them granny style. He was teammates with Wilt Chamberlain, a terrible free throw shooter, until Barry got him to adopt the granny shot. Chamberlain’s percentages increased tenfold once he started shooting underhand. Gladwell basically explains that at some point, someone decided that wasn’t a cool way to shoot, and when the podcast came out, there were only two players in all of high level basketball that shot underhand - Chinanu Onuaku and then Canyon Barry, who was the son of Rick Barry. So Gladwell said that since the sample size was so small, to statistically consider shooting granny style free throws you have to either be the son of Rick Barry or the son of someone from Senegal, where Onuaku's parents were from.
Ben - Oh wow.
N/I - So all that to be said, it’s an incredibly interesting podcast, and I saw the Bobby Braddock episode, and I’m already kicking myself for not listening to it.
Ben - You should. It’s a good one.
N/I - So with “Hell or High Water,” how did you and Maren [Morris] get connected. Did you guys already know each other?
Ben - We knew a lot of the same people in Texas. I met her when Hayes Carll was in town, and we went out to 3 Crow. We were drinking, and I wound up sending her a direct message on Twitter, later. She was really new to town at the time, so we got together and wrote seven or eight songs, and that was probably my favorite. There’s another one we wrote called “Fever Dream” that we wrote with Ian Fitchuk that I really like. But I really wanted to record that one the day we wrote it. But yeah, she’s had a great go at it.
N/I - Definitely a solid past couple of years. That’ll be awesome, I’m sure. So is co-writing something you would consider to be more your speed?
Ben - You know, I come and go in waves with that. I had this big moment a couple years ago. When I moved to town - co-writing is king here - that’s everybody’s business card. That’s how they handle everything. It’s a lot of fun to do that, and you meet a lot of people when you take a publishing meeting - that’s what they want you to do, is write with all of their writers and test you in a way - but it got to where every write, it was like we were fabricating some sort of story. Things that nobody would ever live or say. We were looking so bad for content. I was frustrated with some of the feedback that I had gotten from some of the meetings - and my 93 year old grandmother was living by herself in Vermont - so I packed it all up and went up there for three months, took a side job mowing real estate properties.
N/I - Stripping it back to the bare bones.
Ben - Just to the basic tools. All the tools that I had, I had learned through co-writing, because you do learn. It’s a process. You pick up on how people bring ideas in, or how they approach melodies, or whatever the reasoning is why what line works or doesn’t work - you subconsciously pick those things up. So I was going to take those habits and tools and channel it to a message of what I wanted to say as an artist and what this record was going to be. And it’s weird, the thing about writing with yourself, there’s no feedback. My 93 year old grandmother would listen to whatever I had in her kitchen and loved it.
N/I - And that’s kind of a home crowd.
Ben - Right. But I didn’t play any shows, so there’s not an automatic response from people. So I ended up writing twelve songs, and kept on out of the whole bunch. A lot of the songs on this record, I already had and just hadn’t had the chance to record yet. But yeah, it goes in waves. I do love writing by myself, just because I do feel like every writer should. It’s good to have a constant practice of that. You can get to where you forget how to do that. There are a lot of writers with publishing deals and have co-written so much over the years that they don’t necessarily have the confidence to go in and write a song by themselves. That’s a scary feeling.
N/I - I can kind of understand that, just in the sense of becoming comfortable. I would imagine it could become a crutch through coming in with only a generalized idea, or content, like you said, and you expect someone else to add this part and you can see the next part, and eventually it just comes together.
Ben - It’s like a confidence driver, in a way. I think that’s huge for creativity. For me, right now, with the press of this song coming out, I feel like I’m having the best ideas that I’ve had, and it makes sense, because it’s driving this ego that you have. But with co-writing, you’re getting an automatic yes or no right there from whoever you’re in the room with.
N/I - Sure. There’s some form of instant gratification or validation.
Ben - Right. You’re getting validated really quickly, so you think you don’t have to worry about a part being good or not. You’re so much more productive. That can be good or bad [laughs].
N/I - Exactly. You can get proverbially addicted to that, and then you have to fight mightily to break out of it.
Ben - Totally.
N/I - So how did “Jesus Can See You” come up?
Ben - So the two people I wrote that with - Drew Kennedy and Josh Grider - they’re both Texans, as well. I’ve known them for a long time. They were in town - they come up about once a month to write - they both have publishing deals up here, anyway, I was in a relationship with a girl, and that poor girl, this song is all over the Internet right now, and we only actually dated for a couple of months.
N/I - Oh no. So it’s getting blown up?
Ben - It wasn’t like a super long term relationship.
N/I - So do you have people assuming that it’s the unrequited love of a jilted long time lover?
Ben - Some of the feedback is hilarious. It’s kind of harsh. I don’t even think she knows I wrote it about her.
N/I - Well that can be a silver lining, in a way.
Ben - It is a silver lining [laughs]. She’s a sweet girl, and I don’t think she’d mind if I mentioned this….
N/I - Sure. I’m not trying to open this up into a “Let’s deride the person the songs about” or anything of that nature.
Ben - Not at all! But the situation was…. There was a difference in a level, I think, of Christianity. It was almost pretentious in a way. I don’t want to get too far into the religious debate, but I don’t feel like you should make other people feel lesser than you in that world, if you are a self-proclaimed righteous person.
N/I - I kind of gathered as much after listening to it. Again, it’s not a middle finger or anything, but it is calling someone out to step back and examine where they stand as a “righteous” person. Because like you’re saying, there are all sorts of instances that many people could highlight in terms of knowing someone who is quick to let others know just how much more devout they are.
Ben - Sure. Sure.
N/I - And it’s a little perverse in a certain sense.
Ben - The guy who wrote my bio had a really great way of explaining it - ‘Danaher playfully’ - that’s a loose term, in that song - ‘playfully calls out a particularly uncharitable Christian.’
N/I - That’s right! I remember reading that.
Ben - So with that tune, we broke up, and she wouldn’t leave it alone. There was this instance where I was invited to a songwriting event put on by one of my heroes. I got to my van, and my van wouldn’t start and I went to vent to her about it via text, and she replied with “God is sovereign.” I was like “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”
N/I - That can be a little tough to ascertain the meaning behind that in a situation like that.
Ben - And I thought Drew [Kennedy]’s head was going to explode when he heard that. So we were fired up when we wrote that. Drew ended up cutting it on his record. It’s a really cool version of it. I had always played it, so it just needed to get out.
N/I - That’s awesome. It is funny. In going back to the co-writing thing, where you said it felt like you were creating these falsehood stories, the total truism of something just seems to shine through that much easier.
Ben - It is interesting. I’ve always loved that about the subtleness of writing. You say things, sometimes, when you’ve lived it, but you don’t have to think about it. For whatever reason, those things rattle and connect with people easily. It could be details on whatever the scene is, but that’s why they say people like Willie Nelson wrote “Crazy” in thirty minutes. You dig and you dig and you dig for at all these songs you’re trying to write until this moment happens and you can just open up and say whatever it is you want to say. Which is why I think those are the best ones.