Dusty Drake returns to the Grand Ole Opry this Saturday (June 14) during a segment featuring Ricky Skaggs, Trace Adkins and Jimmy C. Newman. The performances will be telecast on CMT during Grand Ole Opry Live at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
“I’ve been in Nashville 10 years, and my single’s just [come] out,” muses Warner Bros. recording artist Dusty Drake. “I guess, on one hand, it looks like a long time. But, boy, any time you’ve got interest it’s good.” The single to which the philosophical Drake alludes is “One Last Time,” a bittersweet ballad of love in its final moments. After 12 weeks on the charts, the song now occupies the No. 27 slot on the Billboard country singles chart.
Making Drake even prouder is the fact that his debut album, Dusty Drake, was released last week. It is a magnificent first showing, as intense, mature and varied in its own way as Garth Brooks’ freshman effort. Indeed, Drake’s lustful “Too Wet to Plow,” with its metaphor of storm as sex, will remind some of Brooks’ equally randy “Everytime That It Rains.” Drake co-wrote six of the 11 songs on the album, including “Too Wet.” His producers are Paul Worley, who also produces Martina McBride and Sara Evans; Billy Crain, formerly of the Henry Paul Band; and former sound engineer Clarke Schleicher.
Drake signed with Warner Bros. way back in 1996. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault — the length of time that it took,” he says. “It’s just the way it worked out. Looking for songs. Writing songs. Finding a producer. Then Warner Bros. was going through so many changes with the AOL/Time Warner merger.”
A native of Monaca, Pa., near Pittsburgh, Drake showed an early interest in music. He was singing lead with local bands while still in high school. After graduating, he studied to be an air traffic controller, a job he would hold at a small regional airport for nearly four years. All the while, he was fronting his own country band, Silverado, and still using his birth name, Dean Buffalini. Finally, the lure of Music City became too strong. So he went from guiding airplanes to delivering pizzas.
He took the name “Dusty,” he says, well before he came to Nashville. “I was opening a show for Garth Brooks in Salem, Ohio, at Ponderosa Park,” he explains. “The guy who [did] the introductions there must have had a ’Dusty’ on the bill. He misread it and introduced me as ’Dusty from Monaca, Pa.’ Then he looked up at me and realized he’d screwed it up. But nobody cared. They were there to see Garth. After that, [the name] just sort of stuck as a joke. Everybody started calling me ’Dusty.’ Anyway, when I moved to town years later, you had Dean Dillon and Billy Dean and Stacy Dean Campbell — there were Deans coming out the wazoo. Somebody said, ’Man, you probably ought to use your nickname.'”
Like other country performers who’ve gone on to stardom, Drake put in a lot time as a demo singer. “I got lucky,” he says. “I was just out singing at songwriter nights for free for a year or two. Finally, somebody came up to me. He wasn’t too interested in my songs, but he said, ’Man, you’re a great vocalist. Do you sing demos?’ And I said, ’Yeah.’ … My deal for most of those people when I got started was to sing their first demo for free. If they didn’t like it, they didn’t have to pay. If they did, they paid me on the second one.”
Drake also swapped his demos for studio time. The work enabled him to meet “the best songwriters in town,” he says, as well as the top music publishers. “I couldn’t have thought of a better way to go.” One of the demos he sang was “Bigger Than the Beatles,” which Joe Diffie soon turned into a No. 1 single.
Ultimately, it was a demo that led to his deal with Warner Bros. “A guy I’d sung a bunch of songs for and written with pitched a song to Warner — I think for Travis Tritt. Danny Kee, there in [Warner’s] A&R department, was driving to Atlanta and popping cassettes in and out of the cassette player, and he heard our demo. He said he wasn’t crazy about the song, but that he absolutely had to meet the singer. He actually called me at Pizza Hut, where I was working at the time. None of that [publicity material] is made up. He couldn’t get my home number, and someone told him I worked at Pizza Hut in Smyrna [a Nashville suburb]. So he just called the store, and I happened to be working. Of course, I thought it was a joke.”
Drake’s next big break came last year when his manager negotiated him a performance spot on Brooks & Dunn’s Neon Circus tour. Originally, the tour planners were going to use three “baby acts” to do afternoon shows in the parking lots of the venues where Brooks & Dunn would be playing that evening. Drake’s manager suggested using just one act — Drake — for the slot. That’s how he wound up doing a 75-minute show at each gig.
“Gosh, that was a big win for us,” Drake says. “We got in front of thousands of faces we’d have never got to play without [Brooks & Dunn]. …We worked really hard for them. We played under a lot of adverse conditions — rain, really hot days. We played in the snow out west one day. We played at the Gorge [Amphitheater] in Washington State, which was like a tornado hitting. We worked hard for them, and they saw it. They treated us like we were on the main stage.”
On the strength of Drake’s crowd appeal, Warner Bros. rushed out the single “And Then” last year from his still incomplete album. Unfortunately, the promotion department was undergoing an upheaval at the same time, so the label decided to withdraw the single. But Drake has no complaints. “Thanks to Warner Bros., I got to follow my gut [in making the album] and do what I wanted to do. It’s not all the same. It runs the gamut. … I don’t have to make any excuses. I cut every song because I wanted to.”
The singer is already savoring the first sweet taste of his latecoming success. He made his Grand Ole Opry debut May 16. Eight days later, he was playing the main stage at the Post-Gazette Pavilion in Pittsburgh. The year before, he had been relegated to a side-stage slot. On the Opry, he was introduced by Bill Anderson, for whom he had once sung demos. “He went way over the top in what he needed to say about me,” Drake recalls. “It was really a cool, cool moment.”
Cooler still was his Pittsburgh homecoming: “They estimated there were 10,000 people there when I started my show, and I think I knew all of them but three.”