2011 should have been a breakthrough year for Dan Couch ’89. In March…
…his song “Mary Was the Marrying Kind,” co-written with Scott Stepakoff and Kip Moore and performed by Moore, hit #45 on Billboard’s Hot Country charts and was expected to keep climbing. Fellow writers lauded the song, and the top exec at Moore’s record label called it a sure hit.
Then it stalled.
Couch began to wake up in the middle of the night, sick to his stomach.
“I was 44 years old, looking at my sleeping wife and wondering, What have I done? This is not what she signed up for.”
Only months earlier he and Tina Marie had sat in their worn-out Honda Civic listening to demos of the songs Couch had written with Moore.
“Baby, I think this is going to be our big break,” Couch had told her.
“I think so, too,” she had said. “But, if not, we’re okay.”
Now Couch wasn’t so sure.
He wondered aloud whether it was time to find a more lucrative career than this dream they had pursued for a decade and a half with little financial return. His wife’s answer still moves him.
“She said, ‘But babe, we’re so close.’”
Two years later, Couch is driving down Nashville’s Music Row in a black Ford F-150 purchased with earnings from “Somethin’ ’bout a Truck,” the first of two #1 hits he co-wrote with Moore, the song that earned Moore the American Country Award for “most played radio track by a new artist” in 2012.
He and his family are living the dream—an overnight sensation half a lifetime in the making.
“Most of our music business takes place on these two streets, 16th and 17th Avenues,” Couch says, pointing out rows of houses broken up by a few newer office buildings. “There’s Sony Records, where Martina McBride had all those hits. There’s the office of Doc McGhee, who manages Darius Rucker. That’s Reba’s place, Starstruck Entertainment—we’ve recorded demos there.”
Couch’s fifth single with Moore, “Dirt Road,” is being released in a few days.
“It’s on iTunes already and sold 19,600 downloads the first week.”
He points to a modest house that would fit in on Main Street in Crawfordsville. “Carrie Underwood’s management company is in the basement of that one back there.” It’s hard to tell where the homes end and the businesses begin.
“It’s all business,” Couch says. “I was overwhelmed by this place when I first got here. I didn’t know anything about how this town operated.”
Yet even when he left Seattle and medical sales in 1994 for Nashville (with an 18-month stint in his hometown of Logansport, IN, in between), he knew he was going to the right place.
“I had been wearing a suit,” says Couch, whose work clothes today are jeans and gray T-shirt. “I had a company car, I was making good money, they were grooming me for management, and I was miserable. One of my buddies told me, ‘Go buy the most expensive house, car, and boat you can—you’ll keep working just to pay for the stuff.’ But after 3 1/2 years in the business, I just wasn’t passionate about it anymore.”
Couch took a leap of faith.
“I’ve always thought there was something big out there for me to be part of. I’m not sure where that comes from—dreaming as a kid, I guess, and having parents who didn’t crush those dreams, and good people and friends around me.
“I loved the way songs spoke to me even when I was a kid. My dad played guitar, and my mom loves music. She would stop me if she heard something lyrically cool. She’d say, ‘You’ve gotta hear this!’”
At first he wanted to be a performer.
“I came down here to be the next Garth Brooks, and I’m so thankful I was delusional enough to think I could do that. It got me down here and writing songs.”
Tina Marie enrolled in nursing school at Middle Tennessee State. After a few years playing in clubs, Couch realized that he enjoyed writing songs much more than performing. By day he worked construction and catering. And there was the potato chip route. He’d start at 5 a.m., finish up at noon, clean the chips out of the truck, and head for songwriting circles with a fellow writer he’d met on the route.
“There were a fair number of people who thought I’d lost my mind, but I’d wake up every morning excited just to be alive. I was on fire inside again.”
He was learning a lot, but earning little. In 1999 he got his first publishing contract with BMG.
“They had a bunch of great writers on staff, and I was thrilled that someone was actually paying me to write songs. I also realized I hadn’t made it yet. But it was a huge lesson, and we were on staff with the best of the best.”
Couch’s option at BMG wasn’t picked up after three years, so Couch signed with Malaco Music Nashville. They closed in 2007.
He called his accountant, Dan Dickerson ’89, and broke the news.
“Me and Dan Dickerson go way back,” Couch says. “I walked four miles to his parent’s house in a blizzard one winter; I think he knew then that I was a little crazy. We played high school football together. And whether he wanted to be my math tutor or not, I would show up at Dan’s house the night before a test and he would help me cram hard so that I could pass and stay eligible.
“So after Malaco closed I told him, ‘I’m going to cash out my 401k, sell what Merck stock I have left, take the penalty and pay off everything except the house so that we can still make it on Tina Marie’s salary and stay in the music business. What do you think?’”
Dickerson didn’t hesitate.
“He said, ‘Cash out. If anybody can make this happen you can!’” Couch recalls. “His faith in me meant the world to me.”
Then Couch met Kip Moore, who had arrived in Nashville in 2004 with a dream not unlike Dan’s. They hit it off as friends and co-writers, and the rest is country music history.
“Dan has been like a brother,” Moore told Billboard Magazine in a 2013 interview after the duo scored two #1 hits. “When you have someone who believes in you when you’re at the bottom, it’s a great feeling. We trust each other 100 percent when we’re writing, and trust is the main thing in a writing room. We’re not scared to go for things, and we don’t think about if radio will play a song or will they not—we just write the best thing we can.”
Did Wabash play a role in this journey of a truck driver’s son to psychology major to songwriter?
“I came to Wabash with Dan Dickerson to play baseball,” Couch says. “But Wabash ended up being a great experience. I pledged Sigma Chi and made a lot of close friends. I still talk on the phone with my fraternity brother Bill McManus every morning on my way
into work. He knows as much or more now about the top 40 song charts as I do. John Panozzo ’89 and I stay in touch as well.”
Professor of Classics John Fischer H’70 was Couch’s advisor.
“I’ll never forget him saying, ‘Man, don’t be a lawyer because you think you’re going to make a bunch of money. Don’t say you’re going to be a doctor because you told your mom since you were 10 years old that you’re going to be a doctor.’ He was really good at helping people understand that just because that’s what you thought you wanted to do, doesn’t mean it necessarily is. You need to give yourself time to experience different things and to make sure. He was very passionate about the classics, and I think that’s what he wanted for his students—to find something that you can be passionate about.”
Then there was Head Baseball Coach Scott Boone ’80.
“We were coming back from a Florida spring training trip and I’d been absolutely on fire at the plate; I was hitting over 500. And Boone said, ‘You know, you’re only as good as your last at bat.’
“I’m thinking, Man, can you not just tell me how I’ve improved? But now I get what he was saying. In the music business, what you did yesterday is going to become old news fast. You have to focus on what you’re doing now to stay on top of your game.
Couch pulls into the parking lot at BMI, where the music industry honored him and Moore in 2012 when “Somethin’ ’bout a Truck” hit #1, and again in 2013 when “Hey Pretty Girl” accomplished the same feat.
“My friend Rivers Rutherford told me, ‘Statistically, you were more likely to play pro football than you were to have written two number one songs.’ Those are staggering odds, but I’ve always had a phobia of math.
“I think it’s harder than ever for a songwriter to a get a song recorded in Nashville, but if you want it bad enough, I think you can get it. And if you’re passionate about something in music and go chasing that, it may lead you to something else: Instead of being the singer, you may end up being the writer, or the manager of an artist, as a studio musician.
“If you’re just doing something for the money, I think you’re going to end up really empty.”
That celebration for “Somethin’ ’bout a Truck” in 2012 made the County Music Television news, thanks to the emotional speeches given by Couch and Moore.
“It was a monumental day for me,” Couch recalls. “Friends were there, my family was there. My wife, who stuck by me for so many years. All those emotions came right to the surface, and I could barely talk. There was probably a solid five-minute pause.”
But the lyrics Couch penned for “Hey Pretty Girl,” say it pretty well:
Life’s a lonely, winding ride
Better have the right one by your side.
Happiness don’t drag its feet
And time moves faster than you think.