8: Believe

8: Believe

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Believe

Story by Craig Wiseman

Song written by Craig Wiseman and Ronnie Dunn

Recorded by Ronnie Dunn (Brooks & Dunn)

After I won a Grammy for “Live Like You Were Dying,” back in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, somebody from the local TV station wanted to come and interview my mom. They asked her questions like “What is it like being the mother to a Grammy-winning songwriter?” She went and got a couple of laundry baskets full of CDs with songs that I had written. She just dumped them on her dining room table in a pile, and the reporter said, “How does he do that? How does he write so many songs?” And my mom said, “Honestly, I don’t know. He’s always been interested in music, but I have no idea where all those songs come from.”

Later that night, after the piece was on the news, my brother called me and said he got a call from an elderly woman. She said, “Is this the family of the lady who was on the television news tonight?” And my brother told her it was his mother who was on TV, and asked if she would like her phone number. The lady said, “If you could just relay a message for me, I would appreciate it.” Then she said, “Tell your mother that all those songs came from God.”

My brother said, “I spent about thirty minutes on the phone with that lady and I was just crying my eyes out. This woman is just amazing. She has the most incredible faith.”

I asked my brother to give me her number and he did. Her name was Elma Dennis. I called her one night and I think she thought she was talking to my brother at first. I said, “Ma’am, this is the songwriter up in Nashville that they were talking about on the news. I’m Craig. My brother enjoyed talking to you so much that I wanted to talk to you.”

She said, “Gracious, child, what are you doing calling me all the way from Nashville? God is working in your life. I could see it in your mother’s eyes on TV. I can hear it in your brother’s voice and I can hear it in your voice. God is with you and God loves you and don’t you ever doubt it for a minute,” and just went on and on. I stood in my kitchen weeping, listening to this lady.

Cut to Ronnie Dunn of the country supergroup, Brooks & Dunn. I had another song that Ronnie’s label wanted him to hear and I said, “I drive right past his house on my way home. I’ll just go drop it off in his mailbox.”

About 5:00 or so, I pulled up to his gate and put it on his mailbox and buzzed on the buzzer and said, “This is Craig Wiseman. I just wanted you to know that I’m dropping off a song for Ronnie Dunn.” And his voice came on the speaker box and said, “Hey, come on back to the barn.” He has this in-town ranch with a big barn he calls the Star Barn. He refurbished it and has his studio there and it’s just gorgeous. Everybody knows that’s kind of his lair back there. I went to the barn and gave him the CD with the song. It was actually “Hillbilly Deluxe” and it wound up being a hit for him. Then we started talking and it turns out he has read every book that I’ve read and more. He collects Russian art. I was ashamed that I had put him in the hillbilly-singer “box.” He’s a very intelligent, well-read person.

He asked what my wife did and I said she was a minister and has her Master’s Degree in Divinity from Vanderbilt. He said, “Really? You know, I almost went to seminary in Oklahoma.”

I said, “Are you kidding me?” We started talking about faith and different questions we had. I told him about Elma. I told him, “Faith is like music. There is so much BS out there, but every now and then you come across the real deal. And that’s Elma. Her faith and conviction were so real and so contagious. She believes so strongly.”

I told Ronnie that during my conversation with her, she said, “You know child, they tell me I’m dying of cancer, but that’s okay. I’m with the Lord and it’s in His hands and if He wants me to stick around, I will.” I told Ronnie that when you run across somebody like that and they’re not preaching to you and they’re not telling you what to do, they’re just telling you where they’re at. There’s something so powerful about that. It reminded me of another friend of mine who’s doing missions work now. He hardly ever even goes to church but his life has changed so drastically. And it’s never like he’s saying, “Look how cool I am now that I’ve changed.” It’s always, “Look how cool that is and that’s where I’m going.” It’s so inspiring.

So Ronnie and I started trying to write a song. We were trying to run some up-tempo thing and it just wasn’t working. After we got to talking about faith that night and I told him about Elma, we started writing what would eventually become “Believe.”

We didn’t write a word in a notebook. We didn’t have a recorder. And I came up with a line or two: “I raise my hand, I bow my head. I’m finding more and more truth in the words written in red.” We worked on this long, weird thing until midnight and we called it a day. Then, we both tried to forget about it.

About six months later, after Brooks & Dunn came home from their summer tour, I went back to write with Ronnie. He said, “Hey, remember that thing we were playing around with last time you were here? Let’s work on that.”

I started strumming and it all came back and the parts we still needed just flowed right out: “Old man Wrigley lived in that white house. . ..” That was a little autobiographical. There was an old guy on our street. But our relationship was more like a “Dennis the Menace-Mr. Wilson” kind of thing. It wasn’t quite as lofty as I cast it in the song. I used to go down to his house and I really liked him because he treated me well. There’s nothing like an old guy treating a kid cool.

So Elma turned into Mr. Wrigley in the song. When Elma was talking about her friends she was going to see soon, I wrote, “He said ‘I’ll see my wife and son in just a little while’ / I asked him what he meant / He looked at me and smiled.” We started talking about all kinds of spiritual things and we ended up finishing it. The next morning, I went back to my office and sat down with my guitar recorder and put a slow rhythm track and just sang it. I put it on a CD and took it over to his house and dropped it off. Then I was like “Man, that song is done. Now can we please write a song about honky-tonks and trucks?”

A few weeks later, Ronnie called me and said he cut it. It was amazing. Ronnie took that little recording I made and turned it into one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me in this business. It made the album, and then went on to be a single and won the CMA Song of the Year and ACM Song of the Year.

My family got to know Elma after that. My mom loved talking to her. You know, a couple of church ladies. A few months later, Elma went back for a checkup and they couldn’t find any cancer. She said, “Well, you know those doctors, they think they know what they’re doing, but they don’t know everything.”

That song is like suicide for a songwriter. The darn thing must be six minutes long and it’s mostly recitation, which country music hasn’t really done for about 30 years. It’s not the typical Brooks & Dunn honky-tonkin’ song, for sure. I mean, it had everything working against it from a technical standpoint. But it worked. And it obviously struck a chord with a lot of people who may not be holy-rollers but they just can’t believe that this life is all there is.

Believe

Old man Wrigley lived in that white house

Down the street where I grew up

Momma used to send me over with things

We struck a friendship up

I spent a few long summers out on his old porch swing

Says he was in the war when in the navy

Lost his wife, lost his baby

Broke down and asked him one time

How ya keep from going crazy?

He said “I’ll see my wife and son in just a little while”

I asked him what he meant

He looked at me and smiled, said

CHORUS:

“I raise my hands, bow my head

I’m finding more and more truth in the words written in red

They tell me that there’s more to life than just what I can see

Oh I believe”

Few years later I was off at college

Talkin’ to mom on the phone one night

Getting all caught up on the gossip

The ins and outs of the small town life

She said “Oh by the way son, old man Wrigley’s died.”

Later on that night, I laid there thinkin’ back

Thought about a couple long-lost summers

I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh

If there was ever anybody deserved a ticket to the other side

It’d be that sweet old man who looked me in the eye, and said

CHORUS

I can’t quote the book

The chapter or the verse

But you can’t tell me it all ends

In a slow ride in a hearse

You know I’m more and more convinced

The longer that I live

Yeah, this can’t be

No, this can’t be, no this can’t be all there is

CHORUS

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