Makin' Tracks: 'Better,' You Bet -- Tucker Beathard Drums Up His Second Label Deal

Kevin Grace
Tucker Beathard

Three years after Tucker Beathard made his first foray into radio with “Rock On,” he finally has another single in circulation.

From its burning guitar riff to its punchy drum track, “Better Than Me” is big, bold and anthemic. And, it turns out, “Better Than Me” is central to a dispute with his old label that created the three-year delay.

“It would’ve been my first single if I had it my way,” he says. “I wanted to put it out before even ‘Rock On,’ and I guess for some reason they didn’t hear what I heard. They wanted ‘less drums.’ I was kind of blown away, like, ‘If they don’t like this, I’m not really sure we’re going to be too great of partners if this is too much for you.’ But I think everything happens for a reason.”

Drums, it turns out, are central to Beathard’s self- identity. A multi-instrumentalist, he considers the kit his primary point of reference, and it’s evident in the role percussion plays on “Better Than Me.” Instead of merely providing a backbeat, those flashy cymbals and pounding toms add weight to the production, and he breaks the time-keeping role periodically to punctuate the song’s message — when he sings “better than me, better than me” at the end of every chorus, he bashes the drum heads in time with each syllable, practically forcing the listener to recognize the snarl in the song. And that element wasn’t just icing on the cake, it was baked in from the beginning.

“I always got the drum beat and stuff in my head,” he says, “so whenever I’m writing, when we come up with that melody, in my head, the drums are already doing that.”

Beathard had just signed to Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) when he developed “Better Than Me” in the Big Machine Music office of songwriter Jonathan Singleton (“In Between,” “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools”) on Jan. 21, 2015, three days before Beathard turned 20. Beathard had a simple riff built on four tones -- the third was awash in uncomfortable dissonance -- and he barely shared pleasantries with Singleton and co-writer Dan Isbell before they barreled into the song.

“I don’t even think we had said ‘hi’ and shook hands and all that, and he was already putting certain tones to one of Jon’s Stratocasters and absolutely tap dancing on the pedal board trying to find whatever inspired him at that moment,” recalls Isbell. “It was pretty cool to watch.”

It’s uncertain who provided the title, though the idea was to twist the meanings in the hook -- “I hope you’re doing better than me,” “I hope he treats you better than me” -- as the song documented a broken relationship. It wasn’t necessarily an experience from Beathard’s life, though it was an  honest account of his personality were he to endure that scenario.

“It’s not a character -- it’s real,” says Singleton. “A lot of times we’re writing and we go, ‘Oh, this guy probably does this and this, probably does this.’ It’s not really like that for Tucker. You can kind of just ask him in the room, like, ‘What would you do?’ And that’s what you write down on paper.”

The verses knock out the story with a twisty, relentless melody, switching at the chorus into a higher register with held-out notes that expose the song’s raw emotion.

“If you have a super, jumbled-up, extremely informative verse, you give the listener a little candy in those choruses to kind of latch on to,” explains Isbell. “Nobody wants steak with a side of steak and a steak smoothie. You want a little vegetables, you maybe want a little something sweet.”

The narrative reaches its emotional apex in the second half of the chorus. During the session, Singleton recounted a songwriter panel he had participated in with Bobby Braddock (“He Stopped Loving Her Today,”  “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”) that explored evolutions in country songs.

“Bobby said, ‘The big difference to me in songs now is that everybody’s tough and nobody cries anymore,’ ” recalls Singleton. “I thought that was super, super interesting, and I remember in that co-write telling them that story, and Tucker and Dan saying, ‘Hey, man, let’s do that. Let’s be that old-school guy.’ ”

The result was, says Isbell, a “passive-aggressive” approach. Instead of admitting outright that he’s falling apart, the guy ponders the woman’s emotional state, asking, “If you can sing along/ When they’re playing our song/ With no tears in your eyes/ No breaking down crying on the side of the road.” If she can, she’s doing better than the singer. It’s an indirect, prideful, very-male way to  confess his tears.

“A lot of people can relate to it because of how vulnerable it is, but it doesn’t come across as wimpy,” says Beathard.

The original demo downplayed the drums, as did the master recording for BMLG’s Dot imprint. When that deal came crashing down, around November 2016, Beathard went into a bit of hibernation. It took over a year before he was able to settle the legalities and free himself for another deal. As things began to look up, he started recording again with producer-musicians Ryan Tyndell (Charlie Worsham, Eric Church) and Jordan Rigby (Sunny Sweeney, Canaan Smith) at their facility, Studio 571. They built enough tracks for two albums, free to experiment without a time clock into the wee hours of the morning.

“It was like we were all 15 years old again,” says Tyndell. “Like we were at some kind of special summer music camp."

Instead of referencing the previous versions, they attacked “Better Than Me” from a stripped-down guitar/vocal core, with Rigby playing bass, Beathard on drums and lead guitar, and Tyndell providing extra texture with guitars and keys. They built “Better Than Me” with a fairly small number of instruments, each of them playing a part that left a lot of space in the track. But they doubled many of the guitars -- Beathard would play a part, then play it again with different mic settings and tunings -- to give the track a fatter sound.

“If you listen to some of those old records -- AC/DC or any of those anthemic, guitar-driven records -- there’s just not a lot going on,” says Tyndell. “It’s just a good drummer, a good bass player and a good couple of guitars, and it gives more room for the vocal to shine.”

Beathard captured that vocal after midnight, when his voice had its greatest character, and they cut it in a lower key than the previous versions, heightening the masculinity and reducing the stress. “Before, it was a motherfucker to sing,” says Beathard. “It was like a whole step higher than what it is now.”

Beathard negotiated with several labels as he prepared to release his double album as two separate packages. The first half, Nobody’s Everything, arrived Nov. 30 on his Mother Tucker label. Warner Music Nashville signed him shortly afterward, convincing Beathard as they worked on the contract to hold “Better Than Me” so they could make it the first single from the second half of the project. “Obviously they’re going to look to promote the half they own, so I was cool with that,” says Beathard. WMN released it to country radio through PlayMPE on April 8.

“I’ve been wanting it to be a single for a long, long time,” says Beathard. “It’s hard to stay excited about old songs -- there are new favorites after you keep writing -- but that one, it has always felt fresh and new and cool.”