David Nail may be celebrating his first No. 1 single, “Let It Rain,” which tops this week’s Billboard country songs chart, but he was touring in Columbia, S.C., recently when he called CMT.com to discuss his new album, The Sound of a Million Dreams.
Reviews of the album have ranged from favorable to euphoric.
People magazine accorded it three stars (out of a possible four) and praised in particular “the rock-tinged ‘Desiree’ and the heartfelt ballad ‘That’s How I’ll Remember You.'”
Entertainment Weekly asserted Nail’s voice was “even easier listening than Keith Urban‘s,” and USA Today proclaimed, “Country music needs more guys like David Nail, the ones who just love songs.”
Waiting for the reviews to come in is, Nail admits, “the most nerve-wracking part” of the business.
“You don’t want to open up a copy of USA Today or whatever it is and see somebody tell you you’re a moron and question why in the world you even entertained the thought of moving to Nashville to make records.”
Oddly enough, that’s a question the Missouri native once had to ponder himself. More on that later.
So far, the album’s chart performance seems to confirm the reviews. It debuted in Billboard at No. 8, and “Let It Rain,” the lead single featuring vocalist Sarah Buxton, has done even better. The song Nail co-wrote with Jonathan Singleton hit No. 1 on the country songs chart on Monday (Jan. 9) some 49 weeks after its release. It’s the second-longest climb to the top in the chart’s 68-year history. (Chris Young‘s “Voices” was on the country songs chart for 51 weeks before it reached No. 1 in February 2011.)
Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf co-produced the album. Scooter Carusoe and Phil Vassar wrote the nostalgia-drenched title cut.
In addition to “Let It Rain,” Nail co-penned the regretful “I Thought You Knew” and was the sole composer of “Catherine,” a wistful tribute to his wife.
As a songwriter, he says he’s inclined to find his inspiration in whatever part of the world he’s currently moving through.
“Usually the songs I gravitate toward the most [are the ones where] you’re in a situation, you’re in a place where you’re walking the streets and something just kind of catches your eye. It puts a picture in your mind.
“It’s one of those subconscious things, and you’re led to a guitar or you’re led to a computer, and you start writing. A lot of time you don’t know until after the fact that, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was weighing on my mind!’ It just kind of comes out.”
The grit and the glory of being a songwriter are conjured up in both the title track of the new album and in the cut “Songs for Sale,” the latter of which features harmony vocals by songstress Lee Ann Womack (who’s also Liddell’s wife).
Because he was on the road, he wasn’t able to see Campbell when the superstar played Nashville in November.
“I had a show in Raleigh, N.C., when he did the show,” Nail grumbles.
Fortunately, he was in the audience earlier this month when Campbell returned to the Ryman Auditorium for what will likely be his final concert in Nashville. It was a highlight for Nail, who had shared Campbell’s latest album, Ghost on the Canvas, with members of his touring band.
“My band has fallen in love with his new record, and I would venture to say they had probably never heard of him,” Nail said. “It’s been a small victory for me that I could kind of turn some people on to him.”
The Sound of a Million Dreams displays the sort of vocal virtuosity and emotional empathy Campbell brought to his biggest hits.
“Let It Rain” aches with the wound of separation that we hear to a softer degree in Campbell’s rendering of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” while “Half Mile Hill” and “That’s How I’ll Remember You” resurrect the tone of loneliness that permeates, for example, “Wichita Lineman.”
“The majority of times, I like songs that just kind of put you there and don’t really leave a whole lot of room to question [the meaning],” Nail explains.
“I like people to know what I’m talking about. I’m not one of these guys who try to be cute and leave you with all these different scenarios. I want you to know where it’s taking place [and] who I’m talking about. … I just think all that makes it a lot more interesting.”
Nail confesses it took him years to find his own voice.
Now 32, he was in his early 20s when he signed to Mercury Records. In 2002, he recorded an album for that label and released his first single, “Memphis,” which he had written. The single peaked at No. 52, and Mercury decided not to release the album.
“I didn’t know what kind of artist I was,” he says. “If anything, I was just a singer, you know? I’d written songs, but I don’t know if I really grasped the significance of what I was doing. More than anything, I just don’t think I was mentally prepared, mentally ready.
“There I was, moving from a small town in southeast Missouri — and now I’m traveling all over the country and I’ve got a song on the radio. I wasn’t mature enough to handle all the things that come with that. I didn’t have a whole lot of life experience to draw from. I was much more prepared the second time around, and I think the label realized that.”
From 2002 until 2007, when he signed with MCA Records, Nail says he was virtually wandering in an emotional wilderness.
“I was lost,” he admits. “I had moved to town and gotten a record deal so quickly and lost it. It took probably a good two or three years to figure out what the hell had just happened. I went through the usual, ‘Is it something I want to do? Do I have the courage and the strength to go through this situation again?’
“It wasn’t until I started having conversations with Brian Wright [at Universal Music Group, the parent company of Mercury and MCA] that I realized that the Good Lord had blessed me with a gift, and if I didn’t choose to continue with doing that, I’d be doing a disservice to Him and myself.”
During that period between labels, he supported himself by writing songs for his music publisher.
“I spent a lot of time on my front porch with a six-pack of beer and staring at the road,” he recalls.
It was Wright who linked Nail to producer and music publisher Frank Liddell.
“One day, I was in [Brian’s] office, just kind of with my hands out [asking], ‘What do I do?’ He said, ‘You know what? I think you just need to sit down and talk to this guy, Frank Liddell.’ Lo and behold, a few days later, I was in one of the local bars down around Music Row, and I ran into [Frank].
“I just went up to him and said, ‘Evidently, I’m supposed to meet you. Someone thinks we should work together.’ He just kind of looked me up and down and said, ‘Let’s go to lunch some time.’ … For the first two months, all we did was talk about college football and sports. Finally, one day I had to stop him and say, ‘Are we going to make a record or what?'”
In 2009, Liddell and Mike Wrucke co-produced Nail’s first album for MCA, the prophetically titled I’m About to Come Alive.
That project yielded Nail his first Top 10 hit, “Red Light,” as well as the Top 20 “Turning Home.” It’s been an upward spiral ever since.
So, considering his later achievements, does he think Mercury will ever release his first album?
“I sure hope not,” he says. “It’s not that I didn’t like it. I liked it for a record for a 20-year-old kid. But it’s definitely a far cry from what I do now.”