It’s in that context that White released “Livin’ the Dream,” a song Douglas penned with songwriters Jaren Johnston (“Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” “Sunshine & Whiskey”) and Luke Laird (“Gonna,” “Talladega”) that acknowledges the angst in the culture. Set against an addictive, chromatic chord progression, “Livin’ the Dream” finds a lower-middle-class couple battling a “world of broken promises and empty gas tanks,” but doing its best to focus on the emotional salve of the healthy, adoring relationship they have at home.
“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows,” says White. “This song does have a realistic point to it that there are bad things going on out there, but at the end of the day, it’s that tough stuff that makes the good stuff good.”
That’s bolstered by the signature chord progression, a mix of major chords and seventh chords that creates a descending melodic pattern pocked with dissonance and release. The nylon strings of an acoustic guitar buzz as the tone drops from the tonic G to F sharp, out of the key signature on F and back into key on E. Simple as it is, that repetitive fragment was the starting point when the writers got together on Oct. 15, 2013, in Nashville.
Laird provided a sample rhythm track that day, and Johnston supplied the chords on a 1967 Gibson LG, plus the “Livin’ the Dream” title, derived from a sarcastic phrase that occurs often in 2016 culture: “How you doin’?” “Man, I’m livin’ the dream.”
“That title at the time wasn’t that interesting to me,” says Johnston. “I remember saying that if we were going to use this title, we needed to build a really cool thing around it.”
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The cool things came out in a series of specific images about the couple — the white picket fence in the yard, the dog in the back of their Ford pickup and their attitude about it all: “Ain’t doin’ half bad for a half-full glass.”
“Jaren just kind of sits down and starts singing stuff out, and you don’t really know exactly what it means,” says Douglas. “But it sounds so good, you just kind of start weaving it together and try to bring the pictures in to reinforce the content.”
The pictures were familiar to all of them. The truck is a reference to ?Johnston’s vehicle and his dog, Lilly. Douglas envisioned people he has seen in the rural counties of Tennessee. And Laird thought of the atmosphere where he grew up in northwest Pennsylvania.
“I remember being on the school bus, and it was like an hour-and-a-half bus ride, [with all] the stops and stuff,” says Laird. “We picked up [at] like five different trailer parks, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, I have got it made,’ because we lived in a house. It wasn’t a big house — 1,800 square feet or something — but the reality is we did have it made.”
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They referenced Keith Whitley in the second verse, drawing on one of Johnston’s favorite artists and singling out “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” a song that Laird — who was 10 years old when it was released — heard his babysitter’s husband perform.
Rather than create a bridge, which might have disrupted the moody chromatic flow, they provided a little variation by assigning a new set of lyrics to the chorus around the two-minute mark, inserting a line about “a spot on the wall to hang last year’s deer,” a phrase every writer cites as one of his favorites. They also added a short red, white and blue section with a backyard tire swing and fireworks, rhyming “hangin’,” “swangin’ ” and “bangin’ ” along the way.
“If it had been a video, it would be this cool collection of black-and-white, sepia-colored photos that kind of keep flashing across the screen — a montage of these great American images,” says Douglas. “It’s a very, very American song.”
Laird sent Johnston the beats from his laptop, and Johnston worked up a demo at home, playing the guitar parts, tiptoeing through the lead vocal and throwing in a “whoa-oh” counter-melody on the last half.
The song made the rounds in Nashville and was considered by several artists, Dierks Bentley among them, though no one cut it. Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta thought it might be a good match for White’s vocals, and he persuaded White to give it a listen. White writes the bulk of his material, so it would have to be a perfect fit for him to consent. But he ultimately agreed that it was tailor-made for his voice, and he practically inhabited the song when he cut it.
“I was going to attack it,” says White. “I’ve got a golden retriever at home that rides in my Ford truck. I know that’s cliche, but it’s a literal thing [in my life]. I saw myself going down that road and just, in the studio, let it be.”
The evening tracking session was a borderline catastrophe. When co-producers Ross Copperman (Bentley, Brett Eldredge) and Jeremy Stover (Justin Moore, Jack Ingram) arrived, gear was still scattered around from an afternoon booking, there weren’t enough mics in the room, and the wiring was screwy. The players had trouble hearing themselves, and it took two of the scheduled three hours just to get set up.
“The musicians started getting frustrated, it was kind of all a mess, and somehow we cut this song in like 40 minutes,” recalls Copperman. “We were all so tired at that point, we were like, ‘I think it’s good. Is it good? I don’t know, let’s just leave and we’ll figure it out tomorrow.’ ”
Appropriately for the song, they had, in fact, turned a difficult situation into a winner, and “Livin’ the Dream” beat out several other songs as Dot plotted White’s second single for the label. It went to radio via Play MPE on Nov. 20, 2015, and launched its chart run on the Country Airplay list dated Dec. 26.
“The star in this show is the lyric and the song,” observes White. “In a world full of party songs and party anthems — which I have nothing against — this song is something with a little bit of substance. That’s why I cut it. I want to be an artist of substance.”