Billy Dean doesn't live on the Ponderosa.
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His home is in a part of Nashville where tourist buses never run. His neighbors work nine to five, punch time clocks or manage blue-collar businesses. Like Billy, they take out their own trash, cook for their kids, and wash their own dishes. They all know each other by their first names.
It's not where you'd expect to find a Grammy winner, a rangy, handsome singer who charted so quickly and often that he could release a Greatest Hits collection as his fourth album. Yet there he is, a single dad, his bedroom literally two steps away from those of his two kids, his studio set up in a corner of his basement.
And there's no place he'd rather be.
"I've had the Ponderosa," he grins, leaning against his kitchen counter, a cup of coffee steaming in his hand. "In fact, I've still got it. Damn woodpeckers and worms are having a field day with it, but as far as I'm concerned, they can eat it. I'm here because this is where I want to be."
Billy Dean's journey runs against the currents that flow through his business -- yet it's brought him closer than most artists ever get to the heart of country music. Throughout his Curb debut, Let Them Be Little, he displays a humanity, tender and tough, that comes not from the spotlight's glare but from the trials of parenthood, the struggle to find a foothold in fast-changing times, and the light of love in his son's and daughter's eyes.
The story unfolds in the music: The dark side stands exposed in "I'll Race You to the Bottom," which slashes the veil and exposes the hidden, cynical face of fame. In this context, his exuberant cover of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" takes on new meaning as a celebration of an innocence that had been nearly lost. On each track Billy sings with an appreciation for all that life has to offer, from the magic of childhood on "Let Them Be Little" to the awestruck eloquence of "I'm in Love With You," his passionate affirmation of what it means to touch and be touched, spiritually and physically.
Bottom line, Let Them Be Little is about a star that chose to come down from the sky and take every day at a time. It is, in other words, about redemption -- and a return to the soul of country music.
An overnight sensation after his victory on Star Search, Dean shot like a comet from a childhood marked by poverty and struggle in Florida to the height of celebrity. But as spotlights trained on his 6'4" frame, the young star saw only a kind of fog as he looked back from the stage. "I was having a great career," he remembers. "For four or five years everything I did went into the Top Five -- but it went against everything I was about. I was a simple country person and a new dad. I had no idea how to put it into perspective."
All this took its toll. The more sold-out shows Billy played, the more invitations he got to appear on TV shows like One Life to Live or Wings, the greater the gap grew between who he really was and what others wanted him to be. "I'd play these gigs where everything would feed back, and my voice was tired, and I'd smile through it all and go 'Screw it, I'm getting a $25,000 check for this,'" he remembers. "I felt like a hypocrite. Playing music was no longer fun. I almost had throat surgery. But I wanted the career, man. As a result, I got divorced and I nearly had a nervous breakdown until I realized that I had to define what was making me so unhappy."
Help came from the special people in his life, especially from his children. "That was the key thing," Billy says. "They ended up parenting me. Like, if I was fighting with my ex-wife, my little girl would go, 'Well, why don't you just not fight?' And I'm like, 'Uh � yeah! Why do I get suckered into fighting like this?' These kinds of things made me listen to my kids in a new way. That's where that line comes from in 'Let Them Be Little': 'And now you're teaching me how only a child can see.'"
Trading showbiz illusions for his true role as a father, Billy recorded one last album seven years ago and then rebuilt his world, top to bottom. "I began by facing my darkest, worst fears," he says, "which came from growing up poor. So I took that off the table. For three years I spent down to the last dollar, selling property and dipping into credit cards -- but I was bankrolling my freedom. I was doing what I had to do to make sure I could have a career on my own terms, without saying 'yes' to everybody who wanted me to do this or that. And I began to feel better. I realized that if I ended up dirt poor, back in the poverty house, at least I'd know that I'd worked my butt off and given my best. If that's how my career had to end, I could accept those terms."
Instead, Billy discovered a different creative space, in which he felt stronger as an artist. He began writing songs more often -- songs that tapped into his experiences rather than someone else's idea of what might sell. Paradoxically, the more candidly he wrote, the more expressive and accessible his work became. "It picked up a kind of energy that wasn't there before," he explains. "I'd been known as a balladeer, and I had struggled hard to stay in a commercial vein. But letting go of that, I've found a more natural way of making music. It's really opened me up."
Producing himself and paying his own way, Billy recorded "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" last year, as a rock 'n' bluegrass romp that trumpeted his invigorated creativity. Though released independently, with Billy, Herb Graham and Doc Gonzales handling the entire business side, the public took notice and helped launch the single at No. 49 on the Billboard country charts. Rising into the top twenty, it hastened Curb Records' offer -- and Billy's acceptance -- of a record deal. As usual, he doesn't resort to corporate-speak in explaining why he signed with Curb:
"We kicked their ass," he laughs. "We were jumping major artists in the charts, from labels that had staffs or eight or ten people. That made us a good investment."
Actually, it goes deeper than that, to Billy Dean's epiphany that "music" comes before "business" in the country music business. "I live a real person's life," he insists. "My career is not my life, and that scares a lot of people who think that means that you're not going to give it your best. Well, my message is, 'Man, let me have a life, and I'll give you the best stuff you could ever possibly listen to.'"
The proof is in Let Them Be Little: Billy Dean is back -- and he's got it right.
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