It’s 1992, and a relatively unknown Martina McBride has gone from selling T-shirts to opening for the very well known Garth Brooks. For part of her road band, McBride chooses a good-looking Texan who’s been in Nashville for about six months. Before that, he played in those central Texas roadhouses made famous by Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver — and he was also a regular at his grandparents’ Comanche, Texas Pentecostal church.
(Talk about living country music’s Saturday Night/Sunday Morning dichotomy.)
Suddenly, Deryl Dodd, then 27, found himself in the big time, an experience he recalled with awe in a recent interview: “It was overwhelming at first to go out and tour with Garth, and there’s like 25,000 people out there every night. I mean, it was an adrenaline rush when I went out on-stage. Those first two weeks, it was like getting my legs — I’d go out there and literally felt like I was fumbling around because I couldn’t concentrate: I was too busy looking around. . . . I was like, ‘This is unreal!'”
“But after I’d gotten used to it, I came to really enjoy it,” he continues. “I’d step out on the stage and take a lead; then these people would stand up and scream, and it wasn’t just a few hundred people — it was several thousand . . . . Like I say, over time, I kinda got over it, but man, I loved it. What an incredible feeling.”
Although that may sound hard to top, in 1999, Deryl Dodd’s life took a turn that was more dramatic than any stadium tour: Just when his career was taking off, a bout with viral encephalitis left him wondering if he’d ever walk again, much less play music.
But it’s probably better to start at the beginning, back in Comanche at his grandparents’ church.
Deryl Dodd grew up in a very church-centered family where music and spirituality were interwoven.
“My parents were both sons and daughters of preachers, and we were either away with them on weekends to see my grandparents, or we were at church where we lived,” he explains. “That’s where it really got in my blood and got my soul, I guess. The music was real uplifting and upbeat, Southern gospel — you know, get-down kind of stuff.”
Deryl’s family moved to Dallas when his dad started working for a power company, but summers and weekends back on the farm were common.
In the Dodd family, everyone played an instrument, and Deryl was no different: It was guitar at seven; banjo at 13; and pedal steel at 16. As with his parents, the playing was almost instinctive. Dodd says, “That was something where I had an ear, or I’d watched TV, or I’d see someone play, or I’d figure it out just by listening. I never learned how to read music or anything like that.”
Although most of the family played in church, at least one Dodd, Deryl’s great-uncle Harris, took his pedal steel to the honky-tonks with the Light Crust Doughboys back in 1930s Texas. Harris passed away when Deryl was young, but his stories and music survive.
“He went around to the bars and made his living that way, and I think some of the family, because they were very staunch, religious, rural people” — Dodd stops in mid-sentence. “I’m not going to speak for others, but I don’t they wanted him much around their kids.”
He adds, “My dad and my uncles, they were great players as young kids. They had that fire in their eyes, which was kind of squelched a bit, I think, by their father — I wouldn’t say in a mean way. Just the way of their lives at that time. They didn’t want to see them getting involved in that lifestyle.”
(Actually, it’s that Saturday Night/Sunday Morning dichotomy again.)
Deryl began playing for friends and having a good time as a freshman at Texas Tech in 1981. He remembers, “They started this ‘Deryl’s a human jukebox’ kind of thing”.
As a sophomore, he transferred to Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, home to more Preppies than Hillbillies. “I found my crowd after a few weeks,” Dodd says. “To this day, I call it ‘The Copenhagen Crowd’. They wore Wranglers and dipped snuff and liked country music.”
(They also wore those snap shirts that would become his trademark, but more on that later.)
Dodd graduated in 1997 with a business degree and got serious about his music career. “After I got out of school there in Waco, there were lots of little honky-tonks around town that were famous old joints from the Willie Nelson days, and so I started cutting my teeth in those places,” he says.
And after doing that for six years, he headed for Nashville; six months after arriving, he auditioned for Martina McBride.
“I started getting around and networking, and I met some people who’d heard me play somewhere and wanted me to audition for Martina’s band. . . . I think there were 17 other guitar players, including me, that auditioned.” Dodd says his guitar work and his harmony vocals, something McBride valued, help him land the job.
Then, his career started heating up. Deryl’s playing, singing, and good looks brought in more supporting work, a publishing contract, and a deal with Columbia-Nashville.
“I cut what I thought were two great records [One Ride in Vegas in 1996; Deryl Dodd in 1998] that were me,” Dodd says, “and the label had trouble with them, saying, ‘We don’t really know what to do with this music.’ It maybe wasn’t quite as commercial as they would have liked; at the same time, I guess was kind of naïve about who I am, what I do.”
While the label had to get used to Dodd’s sound, which they called “too country” for mainstream radio, he had to adjust to being, well, marketed, something that was at odds with his Pentecostal upbringing.
But then, Dodd’s career started to take off — his cover of Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” was a minor Top 40 hit in 1996, and the single “Bitter End” was doing well in 1998.
That’s when things started to catch up with him.
At first, he thought it was just fatigue, a common part of life on the road. “That ended up wearing me down, just staying up late, drinking more than I should, probably — to me it’s not much — just doing all those things, and developing any kind of cold or stuff that you do on the road constantly. If you don’t take care of it, then it just leads to more serious problems,” Dodd says.
Fatigue became bronchitis; then he suffered a loss of control over his vocals and guitar playing.
After six months of misdiagnoses, Dodd learned that he had viral encephalitis; the recovery, the doctor said, could take six months or years.
“After I had the illness, it was like my life stopped,” Dodd says. “Severe depression and anxiety set in. First of all, am I going to live or not? Then what about all these tours I’ve got this summer [with Tim McGraw, The Dixie Chicks, and Brooks & Dunn]? How am I going to do that? I’ve got to be back. And the pressure I had put on myself to do that, and the people I was working with, they were relying on me.”
But he knew his body wasn’t giving him a choice.
“It was the hardest time in my life,” he says. “I just had to close shop and stop thinking, ‘Okay, I’m coming back’ because I didn’t know if I was ever coming back. That way, I was sort of able to face it, accept it . . . I don’t know exactly what it’s going to do, but it’s my life now.”
Dodd says, “That is when I actually started healing. Because then everything that came to me was just icing on the cake. I started being able to go back to my guitar and make chords and sing and play notes that just didn’t go wherever they wanted to.”
In the summer of 2000, he called his band mates and started playing again before the old Copenhagen Crowd; now, he’s ready to head back onto the national scene.
But Dodd’s clear about how the experience has affected him: “I enjoy everything so much more, and everything’s sweeter. The hard times, I don’t really look at things that way now. I mean, how much harder can it be when you’re on your back and you don’t know if you’ll ever live life again?”
Influences & Songwriting
Part of his recovery involved songwriting. “I definitely wrote some songs that were very close to what I’d gone through,” Dodd says.
Although the songs will eventually come out, listeners will have to wait to hear them. “I didn’t put them on this album actually because I didn’t want that to be my way back. . . . I wanted to get back to the honky-tonks kind of stuff, back to where I was”, he says. “I didn’t want to play the sympathy thing.”
Deryl Dodd readily acknowledges a wide range of influences in addition to his gospel upbringing: “It goes from Lennon and McCartney to Buck Owens, Roger Miller to Tom Petty. I mean, I listened to real earthy, rootsie, message-oriented, or down-home Southern music.” He adds, “My heart and soul was always in that kind of twangy, country, bluegrassy music,” which puts him in an interesting position in a Nashville increasingly controlled by pop sounds.
“‘Why do they keep calling it country?’ is what I kept saying,” Dodd asks. “But I stuck with it because I believe in people, and I knew that I’m only one of a lot of people that still enjoy the traditional sounds. It doesn’t have to be the actual old hits of the ’70s or ’60s, but a music that puts a new twist on the traditional sound, like Dwight Yoakam and Alan Jackson. There’s just something about it that draws you in.”
He continues, “To me, country music is taking that real basic way of life and applying it to wherever you are right now. It’s not what you wear or how you look or what cowboy hat you’ve got on or whatever; it’s a way of life, and it’s something that you are, that you carry with you — the way you walk and talk and live life and values.”
When it comes to his own songwriting, Dodd is clear: “My soul has been my guide. Whenever it doesn’t feel right, I go away from it. Some [songs] come easy; some take months; some take a couple of years, but you figure there must be a reason why it keeps hanging around.”
Dodd quickly adds, “All this that I have is a gift, and songwriting is a gift from God . . . . Sometimes it’s overwhelming.”
Which brings us to Pearl Snaps, Deryl Dodd’s most recent album and his first on Columbia’s more independently minded Lucky Dog Records.
He wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 13 songs, and three have been released previously (“That’s How I Got to Memphis”, “One Ride in Vegas”, “A Bitter End”); their inclusion provides historic perspective on the career of an artist who’s been gone for two years. Besides, they’re great songs.
From the album’s opening, with its ready-for-the-honky-tonks title track, to its acoustic closing “Where the River Flows”, Pearl Snaps is fabulous Texas honky-tonk music that’s definitely “a new twist on the traditional sound”. The almost constant fiddle and pedal steel as well as the album’s middle-class themes keep it country.
Included are the clever “Cows”, which finds a farmer singing the blues as he and the cows wait for his lover to come home, while “One Earth as It Is in Texas” asks for some heaven on earth. Then there are ballads like “One Ride in Vegas”, “Good Things Happen”, and “What Some Call a Weakness” where Dodd’s Texas tenor shines.
He’s has also thrown in a couple of fine covers: “That’s How I got to Memphis”, a song he knew from childhood, and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown”. “It just always kind of haunted me, I guess,” he says.
So what’s the deal with “pearl snaps”?
First, they’re his trademark.
“I’ve worn them a lot in my life,” Dodd explains. “They were always those [shirts] with the yoke and the stripes and the weird kind of designs — snap shirts. And it was just a look that [my friends and I] got from our fathers and grandfathers. You know, they’re a way of life, kind of like the fabric of what made up where I’m from and who I am”. Jokingly he adds, “They’re the uniform of my people!”
Dodd continues, “But in a lot of ways, it represents a way of life, the kind of people that understand, that wear the shirts, a kind of trademark of people that are proud and hardworking.”
The album’s closing track, a benediction of sorts, “Where the River Flows”, began as a song Dodd wrote and recorded as a demo while with Chip Young’s publishing company.
“It’s actually me playing guitar and singing, and I went back in and overdubbed another guitar and then sang harmony with myself. So it had that kinda family-harmony thing going,” Dodd laughs. “This sort of caps it off here from beginning to end, what we had to hold on to — the river of life or the universe or God or spirituality or whatever you want to call it.”
He adds, “I like albums that artists in the past had done where you get through the whole album and you get to something that sounds like they just sat on the front porch and played it. It may not be technically correct and all in tune and the meter may not be straight, going right, but to me, music isn’t about all that.”
So what’s ahead?
Deryl’s getting out in support of Pearl Snaps and hoping for the best. “I always thought you just do something good, stick with it, and it’ll all come”, he says. “And the main thing is that I want it to be heard. . . . Radio, hopefully, will open up and see a place for this kind of music.”
Although he’s not playing stadiums right now, The Copenhagen Crowd is glad to have him back.
“Several months back,” Dodd says, “we were playing [“Pearl Snaps”] at this big club in Dallas, and these two guys were standing up on this table. Everyone had turned to look behind them, so I turned around to see what they were looking at, and these two guys were standing on this table. When they saw that I saw them, they ripped their shirts open, and in polish or something, they’d written ‘Deryl Dodd & Pearl Snaps!’ or something like that.”
And how does that compare to a stadium with thousands of fans?
He laughs, “Well, I tell you, those days were great, too. There ain’t nothing like it — that’s Garth’s crowd, and they were very gracious. But this is my music, my crowd, and I’d have to say this is the best.”