|HOME||RELEASES||ABOUT THE BAND||WILLIE TRIBUTE||PHOTOS||VIDEOS|
My Life As A Songwriter
I've been lucky enough, and I mean extremely and blindly lucky, to have had some songs recorded that achieved moderate success, with two songs that made it onto multi-million selling albums back in the day when platinum was a big deal but the mechanical rate for songwriters was like three cents per sale. In about 1974 I was lucky enough to find my way into Mel Tillis's publishing company and have him record one of the first songs I ever wrote and the first song I ever pitched to anybody. I was proud of it at the time. Not so much now. Corny and dated. Very amatuerish, which is what I was. And it really wasn't a Mel Tillis song. But it opened the door. It was included on an album the same year Mel won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award. He happened to be the only MCA artist nominated against four other RCA artists and the MCA CMA voting block outnumbered the splintered RCA votes.
Coincidentally, the publishing company was undergoing a management change at the time and Mel hired two writers who also had their first major artist recordings on the same album. One was Jimmy Darrell, the leader and lead singer in the old Possum Holler band, a band that won a Grammy one year for being the Best Non-touring Band of the Year. Jimmy was a great singer. And he taught me practically all I know about writing songs. I'm forever in his debt. The other one was Buddy Cannon, who played bass in Bob Luman's band, among others. Buddy has gone on to be one of the most successful record producers in the music business. He's produced multiple million-selling albums on acts like Sammy Kershaw, Reba, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnson, and a guy named Kenny Chesney. He has produced and co-written a number of Willie's latest albums and had huge hits as a songwriter with "Set 'Em Up Joe" by Vern and "Give It Away" by George Strait. Buddy helped me record "Change Your Thinking" and "You Can't Make Old Friends."
Well, they hired me as a staff writer and a songplugger. I was privately totally floored and flabbergasted. I could not believe what had just happened to me. At 21, I abandoned all plans to go to law school and join my father-in-law's firm and continue my political career. I quit my $40,000 per year job (good money in 1976) at the Tennessee state legislature to work at songwriting/music publishing during the day and do single-happy-hour gigs at Nashville motel bars and lounges at night at about $350 per week. Got a divorce and had a baby daughter in the same year. A pretty tumultuous time in my life.
More blind luck.
Jimmy and Buddy both taught me a lot about writing songs and we all three wrote a few together and I wrote a lot with Buddy. The biggest success we've had is a song called "Dream Of Me." We were fortunate to have two artists somewhat fighting over the song in a good way and it wound up getting cut by both artists. This is how songwriting blind luck works sometimes.
Vern Gosdin, maybe one of the best country singers ever, was a neighbor of Buddy's and almost immediately put the song "on hold" the minute Buddy played it for him. That means don't pitch it to anybody else. Vern was on Ovation Records at the time, an independent label that had some radio hits on The Kendalls and Terri Gibbs, but no one was getting paid mechanical royalties on record sales from Ovation. But Vern was getting played on the radio. We had already sent it to the Oak Ridge Boys and we got a call from them on the very same day. So, it was on hold for two artists. When we asked Mel what we ought to do, he said, "Shut up. Maybe both of 'em 'll cut it." They did.
Ovation released it as radio single and it became a Billboard Top 10. But it was also on the Oak Ridge Boys "Fancy Free" album which contained "Elvira" and became one of the first country million-selling albums. It's multi-platinum now. And it was also the only cut on the album William Lee Golden, who had become very popular among Oaks fans and had had hit radio singles on the last few Oaks albums, was the lead vocalist. So it was destined to be a single until Vern's record came out. I'm very proud of Vern's record but it probably cost us a good amount of airplay money.
It is what it is. Was what it was.
Buddy recently did a country album on Alison Krauss and she wanted to record country songs that she had always wanted to record if she ever got the chance to do a country album. She brought up a song to him she had heard Jim & Jesse perform at a Bluegrass festival when she was, like, thirteen years-old. It was "Dream Of Me," not knowing Buddy was a writer on it. Well, it turned out to be one of best female pure country albums in history, in my opinion. Not because our song's on it, but because of the other songs and the Hall-of Fame songwriters on the album. I cried when I read my name in a list that included Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, John Hartford, Eddie Arnold, and Cindy Walker. Anyway, since Alison had consistently won Grammys in the Bluegrass category, and this album was on Capitol Records, and it was so good and Buddy had so much country radio success, I thought for sure it would win a Grammy and be a million-seller. Turns out it was a Capitol Los Angeles signing and they don't do country marketing or promote to country radio. Why no coordination with Capitol-Nashville, I don't know. Too bad. It really is a great country album. But it didn't sell much except through Cracker Barrel and didn't stream because nobody knew about it. The Tennessean, however, did include it as one of their best country albums that year.
One other person I was lucky enough to meet is a guy named Billy Williams. Billy came to Nashville from Phoenix where he was the leader and lead guitar player of the house band at a famous country dance club called, "Mr. Lucky's." Every star in country music performed at Lucky's at one point or another. And so did every good musician in the area. Billy discovered some of them, too. One in particular, Matt Rollings, currently one of the premiere studio piano players in the country, maybe the world, would be allowed to sneak in before he was old enough to legally be in the bar. He's playing piano on Alison's cut of "Dream Of Me." Along with bass player Matt McKenzie and singer/guitar player Ray Herndon, they were to become the core of Lyle Lovett's Large Band. That's another story altogether I'll get to later.
But I met Billy in my very first studio songwriter demo session. Jimmy and Buddy didn't really know what a novice I was. They didn't know I'd never been in a studio in my life, much less play guitar and sing my own song in front of a group of experienced Nashville musicians. Talk about baptism by fire. Well, Billy had fallen in with the Possum Holler band when he came to town and he was playing guitar and had become the bandleader of Jimmy Darrell's band. So, Jimmy hired him as "leader" on this session, and every subsequent one we did as a company. He was playing acoustic guitar and, nervously, so was I and we were set up right next to each other. Well, I knew what headphones were, the big padded earpieces that cover your whole ear and fit over your head. But they hand me a headphone set that looked like the ones I had only seen used by telephone operators on TV that were earbuds basically that dangled under your chin. So, that's how I put 'em on. After a few minutes, I felt Billy reach over and pull them up on top of my head. And when I looked at him, he was looking around the room making sure nobody was looking when he did it. That's when I knew what kind of guy he is and what kind of friend he would turn out to be to me for forty plus years. He's taught me so much about music and writing songs but it's what he's taught me spiritually about life that endears him to me forever.
He's my fourth brother.
Billy eventually went back to Phoenix because the production
opportunities he came here hoping to find hadn't materialized.
And he went back to Lucky's. The band subsequently got hired to do a
monthlong tour of Europe backing a corporate-sponsored aspiring
female singer. Another act had also been hired to do
the tour, a singer/songwriter accompanied by a cello player.
When the tour was over, Lyle approached Billy about he and the band helping him record some songs he wanted to pitch in Nashville. So, Billy put it together and they recorded what turned out to be the core of Lyle's first album. When Lyle came to town he discovered that his songs weren't what country radio artists were looking for. Billy had sent Lyle to me and another friend of ours, Ernie Rowell, a singer/songwriter/musician//publisher, former frontman and leader of the Jones Boys. I think we were the first people he met with, and after listening, it was obvious that Lyle and his songs were a package deal, that he was the only artist who could deliver these songs and he really should be shopping for a record deal, not a publishing deal. Everywhere Lyle went, he got the same advice and eventually got interest from Tony Brown at MCA and from Curb Records. The rest is history and Billy wound up co-producing all of Lyle's albums. And the band became Lyle's Large Band. Billy's albums have won Grammys for Lyle and for a Native American flutist named Carlos Nakai. "The Vampire's Lament" and "Too Many Dollars" were all done in Billy's studio in Phoenix, with Billy playing and programming all the instruments.
So, I owe a lot to these three guys. And to Mel Tillis for giving me the chance to make a living doing something I dearly love doing.
So, here are some of the songs I've been fortunate enough to