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Mike Dekle: A Modern Day Tunesmith
By: George Peden, CSO Staff Journalist

A couple of years ago in my Saturday night radio show (heard in Melbourne, Australia), my studio phone lit up. I took the call. It was from a man, a music lover; one determined to share some thoughts on the content of my show. I braced myself. I’ve had these calls before: irate listeners, who have the odd tipple or two in the garage, become over-emotional when they hear a hurtin’ song and then decide to dial and vent all with the local DJ. 

“You know, George, in the main I like your show,” said my nocturnal suburbanite, “but there is a guy you should be playing.” “Oh, and who might that be?” I asked. “Mike Dekle,” was the confident reply. My fearless caller then shared, over the time it took for a “soon-to-be-a-hit single to play out, the virtues and talent of a then unknown to me from Athens, Georgia. Given the excitement of my caller, and me relieved, I promised I’d look out for Dekle’s music.

Wherever that caller is, and if you’re reading this, I have two words for you. Thank you. Thank you for introducing me to one of country music’s better undiscovered talents. On searching out Dekle’s music, I found, rather than being some wishful wannabe with a battered guitar and a tune, Dekle was a craftsman, a tunesmith; he was one who shaped his music with vibrant lyrics and common-touch imagery. Dekle’s brand of country hooked me. And it hooked me early.

Dekle, I was to find out, was a refined and sought-after songwriter. He also could sing a tune. He wrote the million-selling “Scarlet Fever” for Kenny Rodgers. And he has, in collaboration with noted writer, producer and good friend, Byron Hill, gone on to snag cuts on the last three Joe Nichols albums – “Joe’s Place”, “Things Like That” and “Size Matters”. As well as record royalties from chart-riding Nichols, Dekle has written tunes for Tracy Byrd and Gene Watson, among a host of others.

With his most recent album on the shelves, the fourth from his catalogue, and a new album in development for 2007, CSO thought it was time we found out a little more about this guy. A guy who found music at 12, honed it in ‘60s coffee houses and trudged the demanding road to Nashville in the ‘70s. So, read on. Mike Dekle, like the title to his latest album, Tunesmith, has a story to tell.

CSO: Mike thanks for your time.

MD: Happy to be with you.

CSO: What's the Mike Dekle story?  Where were you born, what was your childhood like and when and what music did you first hear?  What was the music you first heard at home? 

MD: I was born in Panama City, Florida and my family moved to South Georgia when I was three. My childhood was very normal….lots of activities, YMCA, sports, hunting and fishing. My dad had an old RCA Victrola radio and record player. He loved southern gospel music and that was the first music I remember hearing. My mother’s dad was a preacher and he sang in a quartet with three of his brothers. I was introduced to the joys of music at an early age.

CSO: What was your song writing and vocal introduction to the music you make?

MD: I sang one part in a Christmas play at the age of nine as one of the three kings. The positive comments after the play from many in attendance made me feel good. It was then that I knew music and performing would play a big part in my life. It provided a big boost to my self-esteem at an age when most kids, including me, feel awkward and not very good at anything.

CSO: You've collaborated extensively with Byron Hill, can you describe your friendship? What does he bring to the writing partnership?

MD: Byron Hill is a true friend. We’ve written hundreds of songs together and we never seem to tire of writing and of our social relationship among our families. We live over 300 miles from each other but have for 24 years made writing songs together a priority. We have great writing chemistry and we have never been afraid to disagree with each other as it respects the lyrics and melodies of our songs. We both know that the song is the most important result….not our egos. He’s the best songwriter I know and a best friend too.

CSO: You've written four albums, where does the inspiration come from?  Are you disciplined with your writing? Do you have a ritual?  Do you write the same time every day?   

MD: I live a great life….95% positive and I see life through binoculars. I’m a great observer of situations that involve emotion and what makes most of us tick. I have a host of emotions about my personal relationship with my wife Crystie that always seem to want to be part of the songs about love and happiness; and over our children who have grown up and given us grandchildren. I find so much positive inspiration from being around friends too….doing all the things that people enjoy doing. I like to entertain (parties, etc.) so I’m a mixer….an extrovert….someone who uses my song writing as a form of self _expression. I don’t have a formula for writing and no set time each day; however, songwriters are always dogged by someone’s comments, road signs, etc. when you say to yourself…”man, that’d be good in a song.” Writers always seem to be thinking about writing, even when they aren’t engaged in the process.

CSO: Having written hit songs for other performers, what makes a hit song?  

MD: A hit song first must be a great record. I’ve heard great songs that come out of a recording session as just an o.k. record. Great singers who inject the mood of a song like the writer envisioned. It also should pass the “other writers test”. That is “man, I should have written that”….I always believed too, that you should be able to speak or read the lyrics as if the song were a conversation.

CSO: You've had hit cuts on the last three Joe Nichols albums, how did that association come about?

MD: Mike Owens, the R & R director at Universal South Records, Joe’s label, had a copy of my “Fine Tuned” album and really liked mine and Byron’s song “Joe’s Place” that’s on my record. He sent me an email saying “I want to cut your song on Joe Nichols.” I’d never heard of him, but I was still excited because Mike said in the email, “he’s a great young country singer.” Now day’s pop singers and pop records are having great success on country radio. Wish we had more country singers. Since Joe recorded “Joe’s Place” I’ve had a very good relationship with him. He’s very open to listening to my songs now for any of his new album projects…I’m very lucky to have Joe and Mike giving my songs personal consideration.

CSO: "Size Matters" what and where was the inspiration for the song?

MD: “Size matters” came about as a concept that people have carried in their minds that size is important. Texan’s say everything is bigger and better in Texas. Our world thrives on the size of things. Byron and I took the title knowing it has little innuendos that people see in their mind. We wanted the song to make people think of those things while surprising them by focusing on things that really matter – “big ol’ hearts, big ol’ kisses and big ol’ smiles”. We wrote this song very quickly and felt it was a good one immediately.

CSO: What was the inspiration for the Tunesmith title? 

MD: my brother is a blacksmith and I always looked at myself as a “crafter of songs” ---- a “tunesmith”. All of my album titles have that same theme: “Wood and Wire” (guitar), “Fine Tuned”, “Sketches” and “Tunesmith”. All relate to the craft of song writing. I’m almost finished with my fifth album. It will be titled “Tributes”. All the songs will be tributes to something or someone. I’ve even written a delta blues song for this one and a tribute to Bob Dylan call “ode to Bob Dylan”.

CSO: You have a great ability to tap into humor and tragedy in your songs, but how do you keep the both separate, and what do you prefer in song choices --sad or funny?

MD: It’s not difficult to separate humor and tragedy in my songs. As a writer, I have a good idea where I want an idea to go and I map that out in my mind. I use the words to define whatever emotions the title and message of the song should say. I try to be honest with the lyrics or the song won’t be believable and won’t get cut.

CSO: Can you tell me the story behind a couple of songs, like "Since We Ain't Had You" and "Nobody's Child".   What about "Who Cares" and “Bikinis and Beer"?

MD: “Since “We Ain’t Had You” - I was sitting in the park plaza hotel in New York City. It was pouring down rain. I had no preconceived idea about this one. I just started singing – “a hard rain’s been falling on the window shield of this ol’ Ford Econoline of mine”. The song felt like it should be about a guy who had lost his girl and the ol’ van kept her memory alive since he got the van when he still had his girl. I finished the song with a great songwriter, Aaron Barker.

“Nobody’s Child” – Each week an Atlanta, Georgia, TV station has a segment on children in foster homes who want to be adopted. The thought came into my mind that these kids must feel like “nobody’s child”. Byron and I made something very positive out of this worst case scenario for a kid. It’s one of my personal favorites. I like to see the underdog win.

“Who Cares” – It happens all over the world. Young people falling in love and parents and friends are telling them “you’re too young; this ain’t gonna wash, etc”. “Who Cares” is a viewpoint from the two lovebirds that says, “We’ll show them that we can make our relationship work regardless of what others think and say”. I wrote this one with a good friend, Darrell Hayes, whose daughter, Morgane has the current single on Carrie Underwood – “Don’t Forget to Remember Me”.

“Bikinis and Beer” – I love this song because it’s about every guy who goes to the beach and wants to enjoy his family, yet do a little window shopping while he’s taking care of family first. There’s a lot of pride in most guys who go to the beach and want to still get the feeling that another woman might still be attracted to them. It’s a man’s mind playing tricks on him. Everyone can see the honesty in the song.

CSO: How long did Tunesmith take you to write and record? What was the experience like?

MD: All the tracks to Tunesmith were recorded in two days. I sang the lead vocals a month later in two days. The background vocals, overdubs, mixing and mastering were done very quickly too. Byron Hill has produced all my albums. He’s just very organized and things go very smoothly. The songs were selected from writing over a period of years. I’ll choose a song or two written years ago for my new album as well. Writing songs for “Tunesmith” and all the other albums too is a passion for me. I’m a songwriter and I am a prisoner of the craft.

CSO: You're more a writer than a performer -- but which do you prefer?

MD: I prefer writing. There’s no other high like finding what you believe to be your best song ever. Every writer loves the last one he or she finished. It doesn’t mean we don’t still love the others. We just get excited about introducing a new member of our song family to others.

CSO: What's the hardest thing about song writing?

MD: Finding an idea that has not been written to perfection already is hard. Writing must involve a lot of re-writing, so the second guessing becomes a bother at times. However, I enjoy all the steps within the process of creating a song.

CSO: In life what brings you the greatest joy?

MD: My life is a story of good luck. I had great parents. I’ve never been poor. They paid for my education and taught me to expect something from myself. They taught me honesty, humility and how to work hard.

I’ve got the same wife, Crystie, as I’ve had for 37 years. She’s the “steel” in my resolve to be a competitor. The only thing I need in life now is about 37 more years with her.

My children and grandchildren are showing me what it means to come full circle in life. As a bonus….I’ve got a few dollars in my pocket too (chuckle!!).

CSO: Who are your favorite performing and writing inspirations, why?

MD: Bob Dylan was the 1st to stoke my fire about writing. I loved his edgy voice and his lyrics that made all of us think. He was different. 

My influences were also John Denver, John Prine and great writers like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. All of these writer’s songs always seem to be about living life or what was going on in the world and they weren’t just cheating and drinking songs.

CSO: “Can You Love Me That Way" what's the story there?

MD: “Can You Love Me That Way” – I love the innocence of this song….how young girls had strict guidelines on dating in high school back 25 years ago. There was more discipline at home and kids were expected to behave. Marianne was a beautiful girl in my high school. She never dated me, but I thought of her often then and still do. Byron and I just tried to tell a beautiful story about the relationship between two young people who found love years after graduation.

CSO:  What are your unfulfilled musical aspirations?

MD: It’s simple: I want to continue to write quality songs other people want to sing.

CSO: What country music, in recent times, has excited you and why?

MD: Alan Jackson. He comes from humble beginnings and is proud of it. He brags about his daddy being a mechanic and his mama being a central figure in sculpting his life. He’s a great husband and father to his kids. He’s true to country music and he’s one of the best writers ever.

CSO: If you could pick anyone to record any of your songs, who would it be and why?

MD: Other than Joe Nichols and Kenny Rogers? Well, Alan Jackson or George Strait, as they sing country songs and that’s what I write.

CSO: What is your favorite song on Tunesmith and why?

MD: “Size Matters” is my favorite simply because it’s fun to sing…. it makes people smile when they hear it and it looks like it’s going to be a hit for Joe Nichols.

CSO: What makes you mad?

MD: People who don’t return phone calls, tardiness, rap songs on country stations.

CSO: How do you relax, Mike?

MD: I play golf and enjoy my family and friends.

CSO: What do you see is the future for country music?  

MD: Country music continues to evolve into whatever the media perceives country music to be and whatever promotion can make it be. It’s reaching a far younger audience because of trendier pop influences in country songs. Young people buy most of the albums and their likes must be addressed by labels and artists. There will always be those traditionalist singers who keep pure country in the hearts and minds for all of us who love country music….thanks to all of those artists.

CSO: How important is radio to you? Do you write with radio in mind? Does it bother you to learn that in the race for ears, some of your music falls into the cracks?

MD: The radio remains the most important revenue source for songwriters. It is crucial to the survival of the craft.

It still is the way most of us hear music. I can’t imagine life without a radio. I owe my entire writing career to the artists who’ve recorded my songs and the DJ’s who gave them a chance to be heard.

I don’t purposefully write with the radio in mind, but let’s face reality….if your song ain’t radio enough….it’s very difficult to get them cut. To make a living, writers must at some point acknowledge that I have to try and be a conformist to some degree or I have no future as a writer. I truly believe a lot of great songs and writers are too heavily influenced by this type of pressure and a lot of good songs are overlooked because it ain’t radio enough.

CSO: If you didn't write, sing or perform, what else would you want to do and why?

MD: I can’t imagine my life without music. I wrote a song several years ago called “Lost Without Music”…

Chorus:  I’d be lost without music

lost in the dark

        take away my songs

                  you might as well take my heart

                  if I couldn’t find the rhythms

                  if I couldn’t find the rhymes

                  I’d be lost without music

                  lost without music in my life

Music has always been in my life. If it wasn’t I’d still would have worked hard to be successful at whatever I chose to do.

CSO: Who are your music heroes and why?

MD: Bob Dylan – he didn’t compromise. He made everyone acknowledge that being a songwriter means being true to yourself.

My mom and dad listened when I asked them to allow me to learn an instrument. My dad listened and bought me my first guitar and then the second guitar too. They taught me the discipline that is so required to be a writer. They educated me…I owe them everything for reinforcing the thought that I could be whatever I worked hard enough to be. I ain’t a quitter. If there’s one trait that has allowed my measured success in music it is….the game’s never over….keep playing….take your dreams into overtime if you want to win.

Another musical hero is Kenny Rogers. He has recorded six of my songs and he was the first major artist to give me credibility as a songwriter….the belief that, yeah, maybe I can be a songwriter after all. He’s the best friend a songwriter ever had. His recording of my song “Scarlet Fever” changed my life. I owe him so much.

Another hero is the late Roger Bowling, who wrote “Lucille”, “Coward of the County” and many other hits. He was the first successful writer to step on my songs real hard and force me to pay attention to the craft.

Of course Byron Hill must be included as a hero of mine because we shared so many delightful hours of writing time together. We have a great friendship and compliment each others writing styles.

Wayland Holyfield – a hall of fame writer is also a writer I hold in high esteem….so many hits – 15 number ones and he still can’t even spell “ego”. That’s the kind of writer and man all of us want to be around.

Other heroes are Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, the late Johnny Cash and John Denver. They are all great writers and performers. I still want to be like them.

CSO: Mike, thank you for your time, and every success with your music.

MD: Thanks to everyone at CSO.

Mike Dekle’s Tunesmith is out on Parlay Records

Related Links:
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