A Thousand Horses Hope They Have The Public's Number With 'Drunk Dial'
Rock-tinged country band follows No. 1 debut with the song that got it signed.
The late-night phone call has become a standard theme in modern country music.
Lady Antebellum rolled to multi-platinum success with the booty-call ballad “Need You Now,” Luke Bryan practically begged for a midnight visit in “Crash My Party,” and the Eli Young Band grappled with a day-after apology in “Drunk Last Night.” Lee Ann Womack tackled the after-hours connection twice, setting aside her better judgment in “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” and willfully refusing to pick up the phone in “Last Call.”
A Thousand Horses’ sophomore single, “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial,” puts a new spin on the topic. The character in the song has pretty much disappeared since a fight with his better half. He has indeed been drinking, and it’s led to a sobering thought: He misses his woman.
“We created this story and spread it into this confession, more than a drunk phone call thing,” says Horses lead vocalist Michael Hobby. “We wanted to make it kind of romantic, more than just a pathetic, I-got-hammered-and-I-called-you type song.”
The “we” is not the Horses, but another four-man ensemble that included Hobby. A few years ago, he and three songwriting friends -- Cadillac Three drummer Neil Mason (“Days of Gold,” “Payback”), Corey Crowder (“I’m Comin’ Over”) and singer-songwriter Cale Dodds -- set a regular Monday-night songwriting appointment with a lax, informal code.
“The four of us would get together around 5 o’clock and bring some beers and kind of do the anti-Music Row write, where you just kind of all hang out with your buddies,” Mason says. “You’re not really on a timetable, and we might write something, and we might not.”
It was Mason who brought the title to the room, though its origins are a mystery even to him.
“I can’t tell you exactly where that idea came from,” he says. “It was probably sitting at a bar thinking about not calling a girl that I, you know, might have wanted to.”
He might have wanted to share the title, too, though he wasn’t in a hurry. They tried several other song ideas on this particular writing session, and none of them seemed to go anywhere. Since they were at a creative standstill, he decided it was time to unveil “Drunk Dial.”
“When there’s four guys in a room, and you all have to agree on what you’re writing, it can be a little harder,” he says. “So I kind of had that one sitting in my back pocket, kind of holding on to it to see when the time was right, because I felt like that was an idea that was going to kind of write itself once I threw it out there.”
Mason was on the money.
“It didn’t take us very long,” Hobby says. “It felt really good, and everybody was kind of firing on all pistons that day, which happens sometimes -- sometimes you don’t fire on any pistons and you just leave.”
They kicked it off with the guy’s half of the conversation: He calls, asks her not to hang up, concedes he’s been drinking, then tells her that a song -- their song -- came on the radio, reminding him how much he’s been missing her. Searching for a way to describe the song, they mumbled through a passage that became a simple “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh” melody, creating a lead-in to the “Drunk Dial” chorus.
The chords are firm and manly, while the lyrical tone is conciliatory, particularly in the second verse when he offers to “take the blame if you want me to have it.” It’s an important step if the couple is to survive.
“You can go round and round in circles, drunk or not drunk, with somebody about the past,” Mason says. “But at some point, you got to go, ‘Alright, we’ve got to play all our cards [to] get past all the stuff that’s already happened.’ ”
In the closing vamp, that “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh” section overlaps with the “Drunk Dial” hook, wrapping it all with a tidy bow.
“That whole song is basically the same chord progression,” Mason notes, “so all of those melodies work all at the same time.”
Crowder was overseeing the demo that they built during the session, so he sang lead. Hobby took a swing at it, too, leaving them with two different versions.
“Drunk Dial” got pitched around Music Row, though they didn’t find any takers. Meanwhile, Hobby brought the song to A Thousand Horses, and the band thought it fit their swaggering Southern-rock sound well.
“We worked it up at rehearsal, and then we started playing it at shows, and that’s the true test,” says guitarist Zach Brown. “When we played it at shows, people were digging it, so we kept on.”
The group, including bassist Graham DeLoach and guitarist Bill Satcher, wedged that song in with a couple of others for a formal demo session, cutting the first public version of “Drunk Dial” with Jason Aldean’s drummer, Rich Redmond, sitting in. McGhee Management got that version of the song to SiriusXM, which started spinning it on the Highway channel, leading to a decent stream of iTunes sales.
With that success behind them, they decided to make an album’s worth of material at the home studio of producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson). They recut “Drunk Dial” during those sessions, and though that iteration never got released, it was part of a CD that Republic Nashville president Jimmy Harnen heard.
“We cut some good magic on that,” says Brown. “I mean, it got us a record deal.”
Republic budgeted for more sessions, and the band set up shop at the Southern Ground recording studio, where the staff had difficulty believing Zac Brown’s building was hosting another Zach Brown.
Zach “could use that name as a get-out-of-jail ticket,” Cobb jokes.
The Horses revised the basic “Drunk Dial” tracks from the sessions at Cobb’s house, re-recording the drum track and redoing the guitars to get a more aggressive sound, aided in part by an open-E tuning that allows the strings to ring longer. They also did a more complete backing vocal track with two of their three female background singers -- Kristen Rogers and Whitney Coleman -- joining Brown to give it a “Sweet Home Alabama” flavor.
“It added more weight,” Cobb says of the final vocal mesh. “Those guys have the three full-time background singers, not to mention the other guys in the band can sing, too. So it’s great, it’s very classic.”
Thanks in part to its satellite-radio exposure, “Drunk Dial” was originally intended as the lead single when Republic rode the Horses to terrestrial radio, but “Smoke” supplanted it when it was written just two days before the final sessions began. “Smoke” eventually rose to No. 1 on Country Airplay, and “Drunk Dial” was subsequently released to radio through Play MPE on June 15, the day after the CMA Music Festival closed.
“‘Drunk Dial’ is kind of the sister song of ‘Smoke,’ ” says Brown. “If you like ‘Smoke,’ I think you would like ‘Drunk Dial.’ That’s kind of who we are as a band.”
It’s lodged at No. 43 in its third charted week on Country Airplay, helping establish the core sound for the band. Seems like they made a good call.
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.