So it is for newcomer Nate Barnes, a Michigan native working his first single, which — enhancing that longshot status — also happens to be the inaugural single for the independent Quartz Hill label. Thanks to his previous work history, Barnes knows a thing or two about being the outsider.
"I worked around construction guys my whole life that were three times bigger than me, and it was kind of a badge of honor if they were big," he says. "And so [as] a small guy, I was really self-conscious growing up and always just felt weird and awkward and, you know, not good."
That makes Barnes a particularly apt voice for his debut single, "You Ain't Pretty," a song that does what every successful underdog accomplishes: turning a negative situation into a positive. It's a tale about battling the inner tyrant — everybody's got one — who says a person isn't smart enough, tough enough, thin enough or attractive enough.
The idea belonged to songwriter Jimmy Yeary ("I Called Mama," "I Drive Your Truck"), who thought of the unflattering title, "You Ain't Pretty," during a four-mile morning run on Jan. 6, 2020. He pulled out his phone and huffed and puffed the first four lines into the recorder, depicting a woman in front of a mirror whose inner voice is telling her a common lie: "You ain't pretty." Yeary wasn't sure how to get to the payoff, but he thought he had a winner if a male singer were able to reassure her by twisting the negative title into a positive truth: "I ain't ever seen you, girl, when you ain't pretty."
"I just think about my wife," says Yeary, alluding to Sonya Isaacs of the bluegrass gospel act The Isaacs. "I see her in the mirror sometimes doing her little quirky things with her hair, her shirt or whatever. And then sometimes it goes to ‘Does this look all right? I just feel like it looks stupid.' And the whole time, before she says that, I'm just thinking to myself, ‘Good God, she's pretty.' "
After his run, Yeary showered and worked out a guitar lick to accompany his opening verse. Then he headed to Sony/ATV on Music Row for a writing appointment with Barnes, whom he had never met or heard, and Jason Sellers ("Don't You Wanna Stay," "Sunny and 75"), who was in the process of signing Barnes to a management contract with Brown Sellers Brown, a company he co-owns with former BBR Music Group executives Benny Brown and Paul Brown. Barnes and Sellers were both instant believers in "You Ain't Pretty."
"This song was obviously written to a female from the position of the singer," says Sellers. "But I think the reason it hit us all is just because men and women all feel insecure about themselves for one reason or another."
Yeary's lightly syncopated verse melody proved ideal for Barnes' easy-going baritone, and the three were able to build a lift into the piece when they reached the chorus, slightly raising the melodic range and shifting the phrasing to emphasize the downbeat. The first line of that chorus, "I ain't ever seen you lookin' any less than a 10," enhanced the song's theme by turning a negative (most women understandably hate being graded on a scale of one to 10) into a positive.
"What a girl hates," counters Yeary, "is if you called her a nine. If you've never seen her look less than a 10, I think that's about the only way you get away with it."
A second verse underscored the man's devotion, leading naturally to the second chorus. They discussed writing a bridge, but ultimately scratched that idea, instead slipping a new line, "I know you completely," into the final chorus. It brought the song's sentiment to a greater level — if the guy knows her inside and out, and still loves her, she's in a really good position.
After the management paperwork was done, the Brown Sellers Brown principals established the Quartz Hill label, and Barnes was the first signee. Producers Mickey Jack Cones (Dustin Lynch, Jameson Rodgers) and Derek George (Randy Houser, Joe Nichols) were enlisted, and "You Ain't Pretty" stood out when they listened to the first batch of songs in Benny's home theater.
"I turned around at that first chorus," recalls Cones. "I didn't even know who wrote it. I just went, ‘That is a smash.' Like, I literally got chills when I heard it."
Barnes signed the Quartz Hill deal shortly before his first session, held Aug. 7 at Nashville's Blackbird Studios. The musicians were masked up and COVID-19-tested: drummer Jerry Roe, bassist Mark Hill, keyboardist Charlie Judge, steel guitarist Mike Johnson and guitarists Troy Lancaster and Derek Wells.
They bought a cake to celebrate Wells' birthday (no candles — blowing them out was a coronavirus no-no), and with Barnes experiencing a master session for the first time, the recording had a clear positivity to it.
"It's special because it was special for Nate — you know, that's a first time that you never get to relive," explains Cones. "And the fact that we've got his first single on that session, and it was Derek Wells' birthday and Nate had just signed his deal literally within 24 hours of us going in and tracking, that vibe, for me, matched the tone for the song."
The players gave the production a little more drama than the demo, and Wells contributed a birthday guitar solo. Barnes delivered his final vocal at a later date. It was fairly easy — since he had co-written it, he knew it completely — and Cones and George helped him adjust the phrasing for the chorus. It was a minor issue, but Barnes was more than happy to go over it repeatedly, trusting his producers to help him find the pocket.
"I want to get better, I want to grind with them, I want to dig deeper," says Barnes. "They helped me go deeper and get there."
Released to terrestrial radio via PlayMPE on New Year's Eve, the "You Ain't Pretty" title looks negative on the page, though when people hear it — usually without actually reading the moniker — it's hugely positive. The writers have seen adults cry over it. A ballad might be an underdog choice for an inaugural single, but Sellers sees it as a winner.
"I love the fact that that's the kind of song that we're launching not just Nate with, but our whole record company with," he says.
Barnes sees it as a means to guide others to the kind of reversal that he has experienced firsthand.
"There was a time in my life that I was pretty lost," he says. "I just want to give hope to people. So being able to have a song like this, and knowing that people are feeling that [positivity], that means the most.
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