By Kurt Wolff
One of 2014’s biggest country hits was almost a song about a hurricane. Instead, thanks to the power of collaboration that happens so often among Nashville’s songwriting community, the idea Dierks Bentley first brought to the room transformed into “Drunk on a Plane.”
The second single from Bentley’s 2014 album Riser, “Drunk on a Plane” hit No. 1 and quickly became a favorite among Bentley’s fans, a song that mixes emotions (the sadness of lost love with the pure joy of a spontaneous party) and becomes an infectious song to which you can’t help but sing along. Now it’s also been nominated for Single of the Year and Video of the Year and the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards.
“Drunk on a Plane” begins with a guy who’s been left at the alter, and because his honeymoon plane tickets and resort fee weren’t refundable, he decides to go to Cancun by himself anyway. On the plane he starts drinking, and before he knows it, a party has erupted. “Buyin’ drinks for everybody but the pilot, it’s a party,” Bentley sings.
It’s Mardi Gras up in the clouds
I’m up so high, I may never come down
I’ll try anything to drown out the pain
They all know why I’m getting drunk on a plane
So, where did the idea for the song come from? When Radio.com asks Bentley to tell us the origin story of “Drunk on a Plane,” he rolls his eyes a little and smiles hard. “Some songs you don’t want to know how they got made,” he says.
By way of example, he brings up “I Hold On,” his previous single (which also earned a 2015 ACM Award nomination). “I was at home, my dad had passed away, I was watching the sunset, I was thinking about our road trip from Phoenix to Nashville in this truck, about why I hold onto it. So it came from a real organic place.”
“Drunk on a Plane,” on the other hand, doesn’t have the same sort of deep, personal meaning. Instead, says Bentley, the song “was just the result of grinding away and writing songs every day for a year.”
That’s again where the power of collaboration comes in. Because as Bentley says, his origin idea for the song was not so hot.
“I walked into a writing room one day with Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins, two great writers, and I had this idea called ‘Hurricane You.’ It’s like the worst….” He stops and smiles. “As a songwriter, you have to be really good at throwing out terrible ideas and having no pride,” he continues. “So like, ‘I got this idea, alright. It’s about this girl….’ I think there had been a big hurricane somewhere, so I was like, ‘How about a song called Hurricane You?'”
As Bentley describes it, Kear and Tompkins were less than enthusiastic. “They were like, ‘OK, wow,'” he says, laughing. “In Nashville, if you don’t like an idea you say, ‘interesting.’ So that’s when you know it’s a bad idea.”
But all was not lost, because Bentley’s idea sparked another. “Josh Kear was like, ‘I’ve always had this idea of just ‘drunk on a plane.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I love planes, I love flying, and of course I love having a few drinks, so it was just a really cool idea.”
So was it always a party song? Dierks thinks for a few seconds, trying to get his mind back into that moment. For him, he finally explains, it wound up being a great mixture of emotions, layers of joy and emotional release on top of a well of sadness. “It’s kinda like a clown who’s smiling on the outside by crying on the inside,” he says. “I like that. Even though it’s a song called ‘Drunk on a Plane,’ there’s some depth to the story and to the music. It’s a good story. Relatable.”
Bentley also explains that “Drunk on a Plane” was one of the later additions to Riser, and being built around a rowdy sing-along chorus, it brought a balance to some of the album’s heavier songs.
On the album it appears after the song “Here On Earth.” The song that followed, says Bentley, needed “to be a release, not only to me, but the person listening. It’s like a gift. ‘Thanks for putting up with that last song. Thanks for crying. Here’s your reward.’”
And, of course, it works well live.
“You can’t forget what you’re there to do on a Friday, Saturday night,” Bentley says of the concert experience. “People have worked hard all week, they’re spending money for your show. You’re there to have a good time and not get too inside yourself.” So songs like “Drunk on a Plane” play a vital role. They “might not be as serious, but they are just as important as something you might write that’s heavier.”
The 50th annual ACM Awards air Sunday, April 19 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.