Sometimes you write the song, goes the old saying, and sometimes the song writes you.
Savannah native Tony Arata wrote “The Dance” in the mid 1980s, and after it became Garth Brooks’ second–chart–topper, in 1990, it was named Song of the Year and Video of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. “The Dance” changed the course of Brooks’ career, pointing it skyward, and to this day is considered his signature song.
It changed Tony Arata’s life.
“'The Dance’ had been turned down by everybody in Nashville, until Garth heard it me sing it one night at an open mic at the Bluebird Cafe,” Arata says. “And he said ‘If I ever get a record deal, I’m gonna do this song.’”
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’dve had to miss the dance.
Arata grew up on Tybee Island, and he’s returning Oct. 28 for an intimate concert at the Tybee Post Theater, where he’ll trade sets with Jill Knight, another locally–born singer/songwriter.
Professional songwriting in Nashville is not for the squeamish. Everyone, from the cashier at the A&P to the guy who does your taxes, will be more than happy to play you their latest compositions.
In 1984, Arata, who’d graduated from Georgia Southern University with a journalism degree, was hanging around Savannah and playing in one band or another. Musically treading water.
“I started writing songs in earnest in college, and got married right after I graduated,” he says. “In my bands, we were performing as many original songs as we could get away with.”
It was Jaymi, his wife, who gave him the push he needed.
“We had an apartment in Thunderbolt,” Arata explains. “I came home one day, and my landlord was there. He said ‘Your wife called and gave 30 days’ notice today.’ I said ‘She did?’ Jaymi knew that if I was going to pursue songwriting, then I had to go where it was an established and practiced craft.
“So in 30 days, we had to say goodbye to everyone and we moved to Nashville. The good news was, we didn’t have much to pack up.”
They arrived in Nashville with no jobs, no friends, no contacts and no plans. Other than to get Tony some sort of songwriting gig.
Which, of course, was easier said than done. “You just get in line with everybody else and hope for the best,” Arata laughs.
Jaymi landed a good job, and Tony ... well, he went to work at UPS, loading trucks. “The only thing being a musician really qualifies you for is lifting heavy objects,” he says with a chuckle.
He met Brooks around this time. The enthusiastic Oklahoman and his wife were also new arrivals in Music City; Brooks was working retail.
“He was selling boots at Boot Country, and I was loading trucks at UPS,” Arata says. “I knew we had the record industry right where we wanted it.”
In the years since “The Dance” took the country by storm, Arata has had cuts by Patty Loveless (the No. 1 “Here I Am”), Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris, Lee Roy Parnell, Bonnie Raitt and others.
“Garth and I both came up together, and the same could be said for most of the people I’ve had songs recorded by,” Arata explains. “I met them early in their careers. That’s the way you want to meet them, because it’s so hard to get anything cut, when you’re both trying to get anybody to listen to anything.”
To date, Brooks has recorded seven Tony Arata tunes. “I met him as a songwriter, and that’s what I always think of him as,” says Arata. “He appreciates songs.
“‘The Dance’ is the only big single I ever had with him, but he was always interested in different songs from the ones he was writing. Some of the songs, I can’t imagine anybody else recording them, but he found something that he could identify with.”
Arata is thrilled about playing Tybee again – he still thinks of Chatham County, in a way, as home – and especially proud to be onstage at the Tybee Post Theater, which was old, dusty and long out of use during his years here.
And who knows, maybe he’ll write the next Big One during this visit.
“It’s all about your next song,” he says. “Not necessarily that it be a cash cow or anything like that – I don’t think that’s what you sit down to try to write. You try to write the best thing you can on any given day. Some days you get lucky, and they find a home. But I’ve got far more that haven’t been recorded.
“I just enjoy the process. I would have done this, regardless. I would have written these songs anyway. If that’s part of who you are, that’s what you’re gonna do.”
In the round with Jill Knight
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horn, Tybee Island
When: At 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28
Phone: (912) 525–5050
Artist’s website: tonyarata.com