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Dave Berg

Riding The Ripple with Dave Berg

“I was music crazy from as far back as I can remember,” says Dave Berg. “I had a paper route and saved enough money to get a Montgomery Ward catalog guitar. I remember going down to the warehouse and getting my first guitar and amp at age 12.

“I was making stuff up from day one. It was weird. I played in cover bands but I always wanted to make stuff up. I remember putting together neighborhood bands and everybody’d quit when they’d start getting calluses on their hands.” Thanks to supportive parents and the music lessons they provided, he got to be pretty good on that guitar—and at making stuff up.

“I played in a bunch of bands and I won some songwriting contests: the Portland Songwriting Contest and then I won a national songwriting contest. That started getting me amped up.”

So far it’s a story that seems quite familiar to these pages, but the next development offers a curious twist: “A friend of mine had a Nashville deal and I would give him song ideas. He would take them to Pat Bunch, who had quite a track record. They would write my ideas and give me a portion.”

So that was his first foray into co-writing? “Yeah. I had this job where I was driving around a lot, when I was working for the title company. At that time country was kinda into that clever hook thing, so I would just come up with those all day and send them to this guy and they’d turn around and write ’em. So I finally visited here and met with Pat Bunch and asked if I could send her stuff from Portland, and she begrudgingly said yes. I think I sent her like 50 songs when I went back home and she ended up taking one of them, ‘I Want My Goodbye Back,’ and asking, ‘Could I rewrite this with Doug Johnson?’ And I said, ‘Of course!’”

“Next thing I knew they said it was gonna be a single, so I packed up my Nissan and my U-Haul trailer and moved.”

How long did it take to land a writing deal? “I was so lucky ’cause I came into town when Ty Herndon was exploding with ‘What Mattered Most,’ and we knew we had the second single. So when you start calling publishers going, ‘Hey, I own the publishing on the next Ty Herndon single,’ it seems like all your phone calls get returned. I got a deal probably within three months.”

That deal was a co-venture with Ken Levitan and Almo Irving that lasted only a year. Next came a stint with Starstruck. When that company was bought by Warner Chappell, he signed with them for a couple of years. Finally he landed at Cal IV.

Before he moved had he ever done any co-writing in the, uh, more orthodox method? “No, never. In fact when I got here co-writing just terrified me. Right after I signed with Starstruck they set me up with Mark Sanders, and at that time he was the guy—getting about 10 cuts a week—and I was just terrified. And I think he had some fun with me. I took in about 50 ideas and ran down every of one of them and he just kept shaking his head. Then he said, ‘Aw, I’m just kidding! I like that one.’ While I was about to have a heart attack!”

Dave’s next landmark hit came when Reba McEntire recorded “Somebody.” “Interesting thing about the Reba song,” he remembers. “I had written it while I was writing for Reba and at that time they passed on the song. Then after they sold the catalog to Warner Chappell, she was pitched it again and recorded it.

“She’s such a good person. When our song went No. 1 she actually called us each individually. Took the time to hang out with my folks when they came to the No. 1 party. She’s very generous and down to earth.”

He may be co-writing country hits for others, but Dave Berg the Portland rocker lives on. He’s recorded two acclaimed independent albums, Three Perfect Days and Surface, whose solo-written songs display a decidedly rockier edge. “Yeah, those are my roots. If I do another record it may be more of a Steve Earle acoustic thing. It’s been really awesome to come here because I believe the best writers in the world are here. Especially lyrically. Just absorbing that and then applying it to my own side projects has improved them immensely.”

The last couple of years have been kind to Dave. “I have some upcoming cuts that I’m real excited about. I have the new Sarah Buxton single called ‘Innocence.’ I got a Keith Urban cut on ‘Stupid Boy.’ And a Blake Shelton cut as well that we’re waiting on.

“I call it riding the ripple, hoping it’ll turn into a wave.”

Hits/Cuts/Chart Action: “If You’re Going Through Hell,” Rodney Atkins; “Somebody,” Reba McEntire; “I Want My Goodbye Back,” Ty Herndon; “Guilty,” Warren Brothers; “Waitin’ On The Wonderful,” Aaron Lines
Portland, OR         
Years In Nashville: 10
Publisher: Cal IV Entertainment
Favorite Song You Wrote: “Three Perfect Days,” from one of my independent records. My favorite song that recently got cut is “Stupid Boy,” written with Deanna Bryant and Sarah Buxton.
Favorite Song You Didn’t Write: “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Mike Reid
On What Instrument Do You Write: Guitar
Influences: Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Elton John, Billy Joel, Lyle Lovett, Patty Griffin, Mindy Smith
Advice To Writers: You have to be who you are and find your own voice, write what you know. But that happens after you’ve got the craft down. You have to understand the craft of commercial songwriting first. And ideas, I think, rule in this town.
Little Known Biographical Fact: I worked in title insurance for four years before I moved here. I had quite a shirt-and-tie collection. I didn’t bring any of them with me!
Issues Facing Songwriters Today: All the fights that NSAI is fighting. Making people understand that a songwriter’s world is a unique one. We have a big year and make a lot of money, then don’t make anything the next five years! And I think as songwriters we have to keep raising the bar constantly to keep our format alive.

This interview originally appeared in Music Row magazine as part of the "Writers Notes" series 2006, all rights reserved