After rising to No. 3 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart with his debut single, “Don’t Come Lookin’,” Jackson Dean can expect to get plenty of attention with his follow-up.
“Fearless,” which Big Machine released to country radio on Dec. 12 via PlayMPE, takes advantage of that focus by showing off the 22-year-old’s vocal range. The verses harness a Waylon Jennings-like gruffness in his lower range while the chorus showcases a Chris Cornell-ish ferocity in Dean’s upper reaches. There’s a distinct separation between those two sections of “Fearless,” which makes the chorus stand out when it arrives. But it also helps to tell the story behind the protagonist’s confession: an honest, desperate, manly expression of the life-changing power of his mate.
“It is a big jump from the verse to the chorus because not only does it mark, ‘Oh, here it is,’ but just screaming at the top of your lungs, you feel this [sentiment],” Dean says. “I feel like a lot of people would get that.”
New as Dean might be to most of America’s country audience, “Fearless” — originally titled “I’m Fearless” — has a little age on it. He co-wrote it on Nov. 6, 2019, with Jonathan Sherwood and songwriter-producer Luke Dick (“Gold,” “Settling Down”) in a home studio Dick owned in East Nashville.
“He’s always got like some sort of order on the way,” says Sherwood. “An hour into the session, he’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, I ordered burgers. So we’ve got three burgers coming in here in about 45 minutes.’ It kind of gives us incentive to work harder at that moment, and I’ve just always admired that.”
Dick also brought the foundational idea to the appointment. He had a rough percussion track with spacious guitar arpeggios and a target for the song’s narrative: “I’m fearless except when it comes to you.”
“There’s no play on words,” Dean says. “The whole thing is just pounding your chest, and then a moment of vulnerability.”
They dug in first on that chorus, the singer boasting of the fears he does not possess: no fear of heights, no fear of the dark, no fear of fighting. But the song conveys those ideas obliquely: “I’ll jump off the ledges, burn all the bridges, walk on the edges.” The results were a little different than the original version, mostly because they made good use of the letter “s.”
“Those were all one-syllable rhymes when we first started writing, like ‘I’ll jump off the ledge, burn every bridge, walk on the edge,’ and it just wasn’t sticking,” remembers Sherwood. “Luke was like, ‘Let’s just make it plural.’ And it worked.”
As did another phrase in that chorus, “ride in the echoes,” that Dean originated, but can’t fully explain.
“Truthfully,” he says, “I just thought it sounded dope.”
“I would argue that it means the echoes of self-doubt, the echoes of gossip that could be spoken about you,” Sherwood counters. “I’m just going to ride it rather than letting it be something that brings me down.”
When they had enough of that chorus worked out, they turned to the song’s opening, and Dick asked Dean a simple question: “What’s the most scared you’ve ever been in your life?” Dean recalled visiting his grandfather’s grave around age 11. One of the man’s catchphrases had been to charge people for good advice: “That’ll be 25 cents.” So Dean stuck a quarter between the headstone and the grass, and the coin instantly disappeared. Even after digging, he couldn’t find it, and that spooky cemetery encounter informed the ghostly opening lines of “Fearless.”
As the lyric progresses, the dark tone shifts from the mystery of spirits to the mystery of love: The protagonist recognizes he’s most fearful of losing his woman and simultaneously admits that her strength keeps him from fearing all those other demons. As they developed the verse melody that accompanied that tale, they also had a better idea of where the chorus could go, and they raised its peak moments, in great part because Dean could handle it.
“Jack has that kind of range, even though on the top end of it, I feel like it’s asking a lot of a singer,” says Dick. “Sometimes I think, ‘Why in the hell would you try to make another singer do that?’ I mean, even though it’s fun in the room, it’s not a practical thing to do.”
Shortly after the song’s creation, Dick produced the master version of “Fearless” at Sound Emporium with an A-list band building on Dick’s original guitar arpeggios. Between Justin Schipper’s pedal steel and Kenny Greenberg’s lap steel, the musicians framed Dean’s vocal with an appropriately haunting texture, and Dick worked out a simple but twisty guitar solo on his own time that provided short relief from the song’s intensity.
“When I get off in my own world, it may take me two hours to come up with a solo,” Dick says. “I don’t know the instrument well enough to sit there and rip, you know, 100 solos, one after another.”
That version was released online in 2021 and included on Dean’s album Greenbroke, released March 11, 2022. The power of its message and the showcase it provided for Dean’s vocals made “Fearless” an ideal single choice — though after singing it live for several years, he had a beefier take on it. So Dick booked Blackbird Studio before the end of 2022, and Dean recut his performance with subtle changes. He swallows the hook (“except when it comes you”) more dramatically, injects more growl into other segments of the chorus and holds out a long, desolate note in the final stanza.
“He’s just grown a lot as a singer,” notes Dick. “He was not on the road [in 2019], and when you start making something your own, it just makes sense to want to try it again when you have the opportunity. And I was happy to hear him sing it again.”
They did some other touch-ups, too, heightening the lap steel’s presence, threading a little more acoustic guitar into the chorus and inserting an extra beat after the bridge, filling it with a scraping sort of sound. The song — which is tagged with a Jan. 23 add date — provides a greater portrait of Dean’s capabilities.
“My biggest influences are like Cornell, [Robert] Plant, [Chris] Stapleton, that kind of stuff,” Dean says. “I don’t have the same high register as them. But I can get up there on occasion. A display of that here and there is what I want to do.”