Gary Walker . . who wrote ‘Trademark’ and then added his own to a chain of stores.

       We’ve lost yet another good friend, songwriter-businessman Gary Walker, who died July 8, 2020, while hospitalized at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He was 87. Our condolences go out to his wife Peggy and daughter Karen and son Greg.
Let us share an interview we did with this Missouri-born talent some years back, during which he discussed why he made the move to Music City. It was there Walker wrote hits for some of country’s biggest stars, notably Carl Smith, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, George Morgan and Leroy Van Dyke.
Many songs have an interesting story to tell, apart from their musical message, so we took the time to check some of them out. A Missouri boy, Gary Ray Walker, grew up listening to country music, and due to that interest, would soon create the hits “Trademark,” “According to My Heart,” “Repenting,” “One Week Later,” “Look What Followed Me Home Tonight” and “Walk On By.”
“I got the bug for singing and writing in high school,” recalled Walker, who listened to the music emanating from one of the state’s larger stations KWTO-Springfield. “I grew up about 25 miles from West Plains, in Southwest Missouri, and that’s where Porter Wagoner’s from, though I didn’t know him then.”
The two would become intrinsically involved in an association that would play an important part in both their careers.
“As a young fellow I delivered newspapers in the morning and afternoon,” explained Walker. “Ralph Foster was on my route, and I lived for the time when I collected the paper money that he would answer the door. Mr. Foster owned the KWTO radio station, but it was usually his wife who came to the door to pay me. Then one day he did come to the door, dressed in his pajamas and robe, and I blurted out, ‘You’re Mr. Ralph Foster! . . . I’d rather work at KWTO than any other place in the world!’ Apparently he liked hearing that because he told me to come over Monday morning and he’d see what he could do about it. He got me a part-time job there and through that I got to know the artists and people connected to the station.”
At the time, Walker harbored a desire to be an artist: “I thought then I’d be the biggest star since Hank Williams came along. After he broke big with ‘Lovesick Blues,’ which he didn’t write, he became equally famous for his songwriting. At that time, most of the big stars didn’t write their own songs as Hank did. As a teen-ager, I began focusing on being a singer-songwriter.”
Gary remembered vividly the time Porter Wagoner, a regional success who captured the ear of RCA, came to him with a proposal.
“Porter said, ‘I understand you write songs. Well, I got this deal with RCA and they’re looking for material for me, let’s see if we can write together.’ One of the first we co-wrote was a song called ‘That’s It.’ While still in Springfield, I’d take trips to Nashville and stop in at all the publishing houses. I met Dolly Dearman (who wed promoter Jim Denny in 1959), and we kinda bonded.”
The Wagoner-Walker team co-wrote such songs as “Cuddle Bug Rag” (with Lon Hogan), “All Roads Lead To Love” and “Look What Followed Me Home, Tonight (Mama Can’t I Keep It),” later recorded by George Morgan on his 1966 “Room Full of Roses” album.
“Then I did ‘Trademark,’ which Porter showed to Si Siman (producer-music publisher), who worked closely with Ralph Foster (John Mahaffey and Lester Cox). They created a record transcription production company called RadiOzark, which attracted a lot of big names then such as Eddy Arnold and Smiley Burnette (Western movie star). They also started the popular television program Ozark Jubilee with Red Foley.
“Si (Wagoner’s manager) made the pitch to me that if I let Porter put his name on ‘Trademark,’ he could record it for RCA. Porter never wrote a word of it, but he cut it. I didn’t have to take that deal, but the point is I did and that led to some unique circumstances for us both. Porter had been in a situation with RCA where they were thinking of dropping him, but then Si came up with my song and (John Mullins’) ‘Company’s Comin’,’ and offered to pay for the session to record the songs. Fortunately, ‘Company’s Comin’” hit (in 1954) for RCA.       Porter didn’t hit with ‘Trademark,’ but Carl Smith liked the song and saw Porter’s name on it . . . and as a result, helped him get on the Opry. It was a big hit for Carl, however, and the reason it peaked at #2 at a time when he was hitting #1’s was that Frankie Laine was coming out with (a pop version of) ‘Hey, Joe,’ so that forced Columbia to put out Carl’s record sooner than planned. By doing that, it shut down the chart action on ‘Trademark,’ which should’ve been another #1 for him.”
Walker’s “According to My Heart,” was sent to Denny’s music company, marked for Webb Pierce: “Dolly called and said she was sending me contracts to sign for my song, but it was being cut by Jim Reeves. I was terribly disappointed; you had to know how big Webb Pierce was at the time. His records always went to #1, and to me Jim was just another recording artist. Then when we heard the Reeves’ single, it was changed from the beat I’d created for Webb. Neither my wife Peggy nor I cared for it.
“I knew Webb liked my song, so he told me what happened.  It seems Webb and Jim were on a plane together, when Jim told Webb he had to go into the studio, and needed a hit song. Now Webb had every intention of recording it at his next session, and if you knew him, you knew he always rehearsed and memorized his songs before going into the studio. Well, he told Jim about ‘According To My Heart,’ and there 10,000 feet up in the air, he literally demoed my song, singing it acapella, for Jim Reeves . . . and you know, since we’ve gotten all those royalty checks from overseas, we’re not so disappointed that Jim cut my song.”
Thanks to Wesley Rose, Acuff-Rose’s publishing honcho, Gary got an opportunity to be an artist. MGM signed him to a development deal, putting him with producer Jim Vienneau in the studio.
“Jim had two sessions lined up that day (May 7, 1958, at Bradley’s Studio): mine and Conway Twitty’s. That’s when Conway cut ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ with him. I told Jim that session resulted in sales of 2 million and 477 records. Of course, the 477 were my total sales.”
Walker’s memory proved right on, as he ticked off four selections he cut on that memorable occasion: “Pretty Patty,” “Only a Matter of Time,” “Everybody’s Gotta Go Sometime” and “Makin’ Up With You.”
“The releases stirred up some action for me as far as air-play was concerned, but when it boiled down to making personal appearances or doing TV guest spots, I wasn’t cut out for that. I learned that basically I’m not an entertainer or a good speaker. I lacked that charisma that’s so important to an artist, so I couldn’t compete with the others when it came to sparkle and shine. Once I realized that it was too much of a struggle for me, I looked at other ways to make a living.”
Those years devoted to songwriting resulted in Walker titles like “I’ll Always Wonder,” “Winner and Loser,” “Hard Right To My Heart,” “Cause I Miss You,” “New York Girl,” “My Heart Broke” and “Playing the Field.” After setting aside artist goals, Gary partnered in running a recording studio: “And I continued to sing my own demos.”
One of his contacts during his early years in Nashville was pioneer producer Paul Cohen, who despite being based in New York, ran Decca Records’ country division here. Cohen also nurtured the career of local musician-bandleader Owen Bradley, who would succeed him as Decca’s A&R chief.
“I got a cut by Brenda Lee through Paul, and I wrote ‘Repenting’ especially for Kitty Wells. Confidentially it was written off her hit ‘Searching.’ Essentially that song, after hearing her sing it, gave me the overall structure and concept. I was then a free-lance writer, and that might’ve had something to do with my getting that song to her through Cohen (also a music publisher). I told Paul, ‘I wrote this for Kitty,’ and next thing I knew he opened his briefcase and pulled out a contract for me to sign. About a week later, I heard the song on the radio. I didn’t even know she had recorded it yet.”
Actually, Kitty cut it on Sept. 13, 1956 at Bradley Studio, one day after recording yet another Gary Walker song “One Week Later,” as a duet with label mate Webb Pierce. Cohen came to town to produce both sessions.
“Repenting” peaked at #6 for Kitty on Billboard’s Jan. 19, 1957 chart, spending 13 weeks on the country list. The Wells-Pierce duet didn’t fare as well, peaking at #12 one week on Jan. 20, 1958, some 16 months after its recording date.
What was interesting to Walker was that he was unaware  Webb had selected it as a duet with Decca’s top diva: “Not only that, he changed the title! Webb first recorded it as a duet with Teddy Wilburn (in their experimental Rob & Bob duo at Decca), cutting it Sept. 10, 1954) as ‘One Day Later.’ That’s how I wrote it. Webb, as you may know, was a wild man and an incredibly dominant personality. Some say he put his name indiscriminately on other people’s songs as co-writer. But he never did that with me, even after changing the title of my song. If he ever did that, maybe by then he stopped doing it.”
When she cut his songs, Kitty didn’t know Gary. Later, he says, he became friends with both her and husband Johnnie (Wright) of Johnnie & Jack fame.
“Kitty and Johnnie were wonderful people, who never seemed to be affected by their success. They were the kind of folks who in meeting me treated me like family. Whenever I saw Johnnie after she recorded ‘Repenting,’ he would greet me by singing the words to my song.”
Walker points out that Wells’ breakthrough song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” is truly a milestone record: “It was not only a monster record in sales, but the consequences of its success for female singers cannot be really measured ever in its totality.”
As a song-plugger, Walker represented Hill & Range for a time, then aligned himself with Bill Lowery’s Atlanta-based music publishing firm, as their Nashville agent. One of his first successes was placing Kendall Hayes’ “Walk On By” with Leroy Van Dyke, which hit #1 for 19 weeks as a Mercury Records single in 1961.
“I’m an uncredited writer on that one. Usually I wouldn’t pitch an uncompleted song, but on a Friday I did play the verse and chorus for producer Jerry Kennedy, who liked it and said he would try to get Leroy to cut it at their session on Monday. So over the weekend, Kendall was to write another verse. Well, he got in touch with me and said he couldn’t come up with it by Monday. I said, ‘If you don’t mind, I could write another verse’ and have it ready for Jerry’s session. I declined to put my name on it, but did agree to accept 25 per cent of the mechanical royalties on that song.”
Walker’s connection to Porter Wagoner also proved helpful as he pitched unknown Jerry Reed’s song “Misery Loves Company,” resulted in another #1 record for RCA in 1962.
“Along about 1965, I basically quit writing when I saw how easy it came for guys like Jerry Reed, Joe South, Freddy Weller and Ray Stevens, all Lowery writers. I decided I was better as a song salesman.”
In years to come, Walker expanded that to include music salesman, when in 1977, he opened a store selling Golden Oldies, that is, used recordings, publications, posters and collectibles, all under the umbrella of The Great Escape. At the time of our chat, his chain consisted of  five stores: “Now this includes an Internet operation, mainly selling on eBay and Amazon.com. We have about 90 employees, but due to the economic downturn, we may have to cut hours and maybe staff, but we’re determined to keep all our stores open.”
Actually Gary finally retired, selling his majority interest in the stores in 2017. According to son Greg, dad continued to run the Great Escape Music Group, until finally he let Greg take the reins.                   – WT

Gone, but Daniels won’t be forgotten

Sad regarding the July 6, 2020 death of Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Daniels, 83, a friend to us veterans, and who so graciously wrote the Foreword for our Nova bio “Mac Wiseman: All My Memories Fit For Print.” Who can forget such self-penned hits as “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” “Uneasy Rider” and “Simple Man.” Unhappy, too, over Netflix downplaying the death of another friend, musician Johnny Allen, in his killer’s fantasized film “Murder To Mercy . . .” Anyway, y’all can read the truth about this murder in Music City in Nova’s new release “Sins Of Cyntoia Brown,” $16 total, autographed (includes S&H, as well), on Nova Books website via PayPal.

Review: The Sins Of Cyntoia Brown: A Johnny Allen PostScript

Review by Craig Baguley – In 2004, 43-year-old country singer Johnny Allen was shot and killed by a bullet in the back of his head while asleep. His killer, a 16-year-old streetwalker by the name of Cyntoia Brown, received a life sentence with a minimum term of 51 years. Since her release last year, she has become a cause celebre, an author and a public speaker on prison reform backed by a major agency and publicist. She is also the subject of a new Netflix documentary, Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story.

The author of this work, Walt Trott, is appalled by the turn of events. Allen was a friend of his whom he first met in 1987 when the North Carolina native turned up at Trott’s promotion offices in Nashville seeking a career in country music. Trott took him on as a client and the future looked bright when his first single, In The Arms Of A Stranger, briefly charted in Cash Box on the singer’s own JMA label, prompting veteran country star Del Reeves to take the newbie under his production wing. As with so many Music City hopefuls, it didn’t happen for Allen but, to compensate, he enjoyed a successful career as an estate agent.

On that fatal August night in 2004, Allen took Brown off the street, bought her a meal, and drove her to his house. To his friends, as a church youth minister, Allen had felt compassion for the juvenile and offered her a secure bed for the night. To others, without a scintilla of proof, he was a sexual predator and pedophile – and that is the verdict that currently stands in the court of public opinion.

Brown’s later pleading that she shot Allen in self-defense contrasts starkly with police and coroner reports that the victim’s posture indicated he had been asleep when shot, and that a couch had been made up as if for a guest, supporting the theory that Allen had been acting as a good Samaritan. The fact that Brown then stole Allen’s wallet, his rifles, and his pickup truck did not help her case. As did not later statements attributed to Brown by witnesses, including that she shot Allen “just to see how it felt to kill somebody.”

In 2019, supported by the MoveOn civic action movement, social media outbursts, celebrity intervention, and religious conversion by Brown, the killer was released by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. (A cynical Trott cited other examples of criminals whose incarceration led them to follow the path of faith to freedom.)

Some would argue that a child of 16, no matter how streetwise, should not be tried as an adult (which she was) and sentenced to nearly her entire life behind bars. It could also be argued that her scarred existence, born to a drug-fueled, alcoholic mother, placed under child care services, rehoused with an adoptive mother and pimped by a gangster named Kut-Throat (shot dead in 2005) were mitigating factors.

Trott, while a supporter of rehabilitation, in this case, subscribes to the policy of “do the crime, do the time” due to the traducing of his friend’s reputation based solely on the word of his killer and the status and benefits now accruing to Brown founded on her murder of Johnny Allen.

The author also rails against so-called celebrities who blindly endorse causes based on sentiment rather than reality. Outrageously, an overly influential nonentity by the name of Kim Kardashian, declared on Twitter, “It’s heartbreaking to see a young girl sex trafficked, then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life!” thereby underlining the dangerous nature of social media where a hypothesis is frequently transmuted into fact and then absorbed by the world at large. (As witness press and media reports on the 2020 Netflix documentary that accept, without question, that Allen picked her up for sex.) Wasn’t it Goebbels who said that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth?

In riposte, a police sergeant involved in the case told Trott, “ . . . it was cold-blooded murder with no remorse, regardless of what you may hear in the media today.” Although a short book, Walt Trott manages to embrace other controversies within its mere 100-odd pages, including the slaying of Opry star Stringbean and a scandal involving fraud within the Tennessee governor’s family business. Ultimately, The Sins Of Cyntoia Brown: A Johnny Allen PostScript is a passionate argument against the sometimes twisted nature of social activism by which a possibly innocent human being’s character is impugned. Unlike the victim’s accusers, Walt Trott knew Johnny Allen personally for 17 years and vouches for his good name. Whatever the truth of how events unfolded that night, and Trott acknowledges he doesn’t know, he is to be lauded for standing up for his friend when few others have . . . Craig Baguley

Click for more info on purchasing The Sins of Cyntoia Brown: A Johnny Allen PostScript

Grand Ole Opry star Jan Howard dies on March 28, 2020 . . .


NASHVILLE — Grand Ole Opry star Jan Howard, 91, singer-songwriter-author, died from a bout with pneumonia at her home, March 28, 2020 in nearby Gallatin, reported her last surviving son Carter Howard. She was a near-50-year member of the historic WSM program (seen at right with DJ Eddie Stubbs).

Among her early hits were songs supplied by her husband of 10 years, Harlan Howard: “The One You Slip Around With,” a 1960 Top 20 indie release, and “Evil On Your Mind,” a 1966 Top Five for the vocalist. Fans probably best remember her association with Opry artist Bill Anderson, who penned her Top 10 “Bad Seed” solo, and for their duets together “For Loving You,” a #1 by Steve Karliski (1967), Anderson’s “If It’s All the Same To You” (#2, 1969), “Someday We’ll Be Together” (#4, 1970), and “Dis-Satisfied,” which she and Bill co-wrote with her son Carter.

Born Lula Grace Johnson, March 13, 1929 in West Plains, Mo. (also birthplace to her Opry pal Porter Wagoner), she was the eighth of 11 children born to hard-luck farmers Rolla & Shirley Johnson during the Great Depression. 

It wasn’t until her 1987 tell-all auto-biography “Sunshine & Shadows” that Jan revealed she had been a victim of rape at age 8 (the pedophile being a friend of Rolla’s). This traumatic incident she kept from her family, then barely making ends meet as her father toiled under the WPA (Works Progress Administration).

“My body was violated and my mind was damaged in a way I wasn’t to know the full extent of for years to come,” she penned so poignantly in her book. 

At sweet 16, dropping out of high school, Lula became a bride to Mearle Wood in 1945, and by her early 20s was mom to three sons: Jimmy, Carter and David. She was 24, when she divorced their dad, whom she said beat her and was both immature and self-centered.  A second brief marital ceremony occurred in 1953 with Lowell Smith, another GI, before finding out her groom was still legally attached to his first wife. Still, they had a daughter together, Jan Louise, who died shortly after her birth.

Following a move to Los Angeles, she became friends with singer-musician Wynn Stewart, who soon introduced her to struggling songwriter pal Harlan Howard, who was delighted to find she possessed a fine vocal talent. He gave her the stage name Jan, which sounded more professional than Lula, and the couple were wed in a civil ceremony, May 10, 1957, in Las Vegas.

Before too long, she was helping him record “demo” songs to pitch to potential female artists-of-note, including country queen Kitty Wells, who liked what she heard in “Mommy For a Day,” which Harlan and fellow Bakersfield composer Buck Owens initially penned as a Daddy ballad. Nonetheless, it became a 1959 Top Five for Kitty.

Speaking of Wells, Jan demo’d Harlan’s “Heartbreak USA,” which became a four-week #1 for Kitty in 1961, and was succeeded on the chart by Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” a two-week #1, also co-written by Harlan (with Hank Cochran), and demo’d by Jan. Word had it, Jan was irate upon hearing Cline recorded the song, which she thought Harlan had decided to save for her. In no uncertain terms, she expressed her disdain for his giving that star-making song away, yet in retrospect, recalled in an interview, “Patsy did a great job on it, and I guess it was meant to be.”

Of course, Howard proudly did his bit to promote Jan’s career, initially on the indie Challenge label (owned by movie cowboy Gene Autry) in Nashville. He also helped her land a singing spot on Town Hall Party, a popular syndicated TV series from the coast.

The Howards made their move to Music City in 1960. Incidentally, her first duet charting, “Yankee Go Home” was with Wynn Stewart in 1959; however, that disc didn’t jell with DJs, who preferred the B side, “Wrong Company” with Wynn, as written by Harlan and that became Jan’s first Top 20 record. Meantime, another Harlan solo, “The One You Slip Around With,” earned her the Jukebox Operators of America’s Most Promising Country Female honor in 1960.

Several seasons later, Jan had a brief encounter with the major Capitol label, but scored only one Billboard chart single for them: Harlan’s “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again” (#27, 1963). After that venture fizzled, legendary producer Owen Bradley took a chance on Jan, and again Harlan furnished her first charting for their Decca Records release, “What Makes a Man Wander?” (#25, 1965). 

She also began making appearances with label pal Whisperin’ Bill Anderson on his syndicated TV series, and soon was out on the road touring with him. Although Harlan had adopted her sons (after she suffered miscarriages), she didn’t think he was enough of a family man, so they divorced in 1967. Though ’tis said they remained friends, thanks to the boys.

In 1968, her elder son Jimmy was drafted into the military, and she was inspired enough by their exchange of letters, to write a tribute tune “My Son,” only weeks later learning of his death in a landmine explosion. Jan’s subsequent single of their song charted 14 weeks on Billboard (#15, 1968), and it was Grammy nominated. Because of its memories, she couldn’t bring herself to sing it live.

Kitty Wells later recorded Jan’s composition “It’s All Over But the Crying” (1966); Jean Shepard cut Jan’s “Wherever You Are”; and later friend Connie Smith scored with Jan and Bill’s “I Never Once Stopped Loving You.” In those years she was also friends with Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters, touring with them in the Johnny Cash Show. She and June Carter co-wrote “Christmas As I Knew It,” and it’s Jan’s vocals heard on Johnny Cash’s #1 ’68 hit “Daddy Sang Bass,” warbling the words “. . . and Mama sang tenor.” 

Finally in 1971, after many guest shots, the Opry invited this titian-haired beauty to join permanently, an honor Jan appreciated to the end. Come 1973, however, yet another tragedy confronted the pioneer performer, when her youngest son David, 21, committed suicide, after having been heavily involved in drugs. 

It proved another deeply challenging time for the artist, who admitted she was herself battling suicidal instincts. Howard bared it all in the afore-mentioned “Sunshine & Shadows,” tome published by Richardson & Steirman in New York.

In  2002, Jan landed a cameo in a Faye Dunaway film “Changing Hearts.”  It was in 2005 that Howard was inducted into her home state’s Missouri Country Music Hall of Fame.

Following her sons’ deaths, she pulled out all the stops, performing in benefits and making appearances to aid various military and community health programs. In 1992, she was the recipient of the Tennessee Adjutant General’s Distinguished Patriot Medal in recognition of her charitable contributions. She also treasured her four BMI writer awards for her compositions.

Jan even tried marriage again, this time with Dr. Maurice M. Acree, Jr., a former Navy pilot in the Korean War. He had been a pathologist at Baptist Hospital and Pathlab, Inc. in Nashville. The couple exchanged their vows at Nashville’s Calvary Methodist Church in August 1990. Acree died in April 2013.

The singer is survived by son Carter Howard, his wife Pamela; grandchildren Mitsi Lindsay and Anita Simpson; and great-grandchildren Cole, Alli and Charlie. According to Dan Rogers, Opry honcho, “Jan Howard was a force of nature in country music, at the Opry, and in life. We were all so lucky so many nights to hear her voice on stage and to catch up with her backstage. We’re all better for having had her in our lives.”             – Walt Trott

ROPE Sweethearts Sing Out . . . A ‘Me-Too’ review of sorts

NASHVILLE — In this era of the #Me-Too movement, it’s fitting that the Reunion Of Professional Entertainers here opted for a trio of talented female performers to headline their 2020 Valentine Social at the American Legion Post #82.
Leona Williams, Dianne Sherrill and Diane Berry scored as this year’s ROPE Sweethearts, thanks, too, to top-notch professional backing by Ron Elliott, steel guitar; Larry Barnes, bass; Dina Johnson, drums; Charlie Vaughn, lead guitar; and ROPE’s Musician of the Year Willie Rainsford on keyboards.
Unfortunately, it started off with poor stage lighting, before finally the powers-that-be came to the rescue. This also marked ROPE’s first event of the new year. Diane Berry, who got her start in 1982 Nashville performing at Opryland, made her Opry debut that same year guesting with Country King Roy Acuff. This auburn-haired Texas beauty became a session singer and guitarist, working with such other notables as Little Jimmy Dickens, Jeannie Seely, Charlie Louvin, Skeeter Davis, prompting her acclaimed solo LP “I Learned From the Best.”
She opened her 20-minute set reprising Loretta Lynn’s self-penned 1966 classic “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” giving it a Berry special styling. The slender singer soon confided, “This is my first ROPE show,” inspiring a warm welcome from the near full-house.
The clear- voiced soloist pleased the crowd via a rendition of Dallas Frazier’s “If My Heart Had Windows,” a hit separately for two other crowd-pleasers, George Jones and Patty Loveless. Another nice touch was warbling Dottie West’s “Here Comes My Baby,” a smart reminder that it won a 1964 Grammy, a first for a country female.
Dynamic blonde Dianne Sherrill is a veteran ROPE performer, who won their latest Entertainer of the Year vote. Instead of taking the stage, Sherrill opted to strut her stuff on the main floor, launching into Kenny O’Dell’s sassy composition “What I’ve Got In Mind,” a Top Five single for Billie Jo Spears (1976). Sherrill pointed out she’s “without a job now,” as John A’s nightspot near Opryland (site of her weekend show) has been shuttered.
Not a serious problem for this shapely senior songstress, always a good draw locally. She showed just how to belt out a mean melody, tackling Ray Price’s #1 “My Shoes Keep Walkin’ Back To You,” and cousin Billy Sherrill’s co-write with Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man.” Dianne also pointed out it was Ernest Tubb’s birthday, as the band struck up a snippet of “Walkin’ the Floor Over You” to hail the late, legendary Texas Troubadour.
Last but never least, Leona Williams took the stage, delivering her unique version of a 1920s’ Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel,” before shifting into high gear for her early success “Yes M’am, He Found Me In a Honky Tonk,” a vintage Fred Rose tune. Incidentally, that helped bring her to the attention of Hickory Records, after serving apprenticeship in Loretta Lynn’s first band The Blue Kentuckians (with then-hubby Ron Williams).
Her seemingly-ageless vocals also caressed a 1974 Connie Smith ballad “Dallas,” penned by Lawton Williams. The brunette songbird, 77, just underwent knee replacement surgery, but still seemed in good spirits. Leona then reminded us her second mate was Merle Haggard: “Yes, I became Hag’s nag!”
Together they’d scored via their co-writes: “The Bull & The Beaver” (Top 10) and “We’re Strangers Again” (Top 40). Then came her solo writer credit on The Hag’s 1984 #1 “Someday When Things Are Good (I’m Gonna Leave You),” in which she put a lot of soul, adding almost tearfully: “You’ll always be the kind to dream of yesterday . . . And someday soon, I’ll be just one more memory.”
Near her finale, came another #1 she furnished Merle, undoubtedly with true feeling: “You Take Me For Granted.” Leona’s last husband, musician-songwriter Dave Kirby (“Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone,” #1, 1970), died of cancer in 2004.
Joining the night’s showstopper on stage were Diane and Dianne for a rousing finale by the adept trio: “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” a near chart-topper for its 1971 creator, Buck Owens.
Cheering them on, too, were some talented offspring of country royalty assembled, notably Donna and Roni Stoneman, 1920s’ hitmaker Pop Stoneman’s daughters; Tess Frizzell, Shelly West’s daughter (and thus Dottie’s granddaughter, and Lefty and David’s niece); Terry Husky, Ferlin’s son; Sweepy Walker, Billy’s grandson; and Karen Wheeler, Ownie’s daughter.
Judging by the smiles on all their faces, it’s fair to say a good time was had by all.                                                          – Walt Trott

 

 

Revival 615 . . . a really cool night out at the Tin Roof, home to hot sounds

 NASHVILLE — Writer nights are nothing new to this old bird, but decided to catch Rob Snyder’s happening Revival 615 at the Tin Roof nitery near Music Row. Had a few good reasons really: Mainly, it was a kiddie benefit – Toys For Tots – a charity we worked with years ago while a Marine Corps recruiter in Omaha, Nebr.; promising talent; and also celebrated a birthday of a favorite nephew (Dec. 17, 2019).

Anyway, it proved to be a solid night of entertainment by top-notch tunesmiths, chief among them host Snyder, noted for “She Got the Best Of Me,” a four-week #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay 2018 chart for co-writer Luke Combs. Sharing the stage that evening, were Dan Smalley (signed to Big Machine Records), Kalsey Kulyk, Chris Canterbury, Blue Foley and the Tuten Brothers, Sam & Walker.

Enjoying the sounds as well was Country Music Hall of Famer Randy Travis, on the scene with wife Mary and a packed house, all hoping those hospitalized children celebrated a present-filled Christmas. 

Kickin’ off the show was Smalley, who played a lick or two of Travis’ breakthrough hit “On the Other Hand,” in tribute to the guest of honor. Writers admire Randy as he also penned some of his best, notably “I Told You So,” “Heroes & Friends,” “Forever Together” and “Better Class of Losers” (the latter two with buddy Alan Jackson).

Snyder and writer Cody Walden launched Revival 615 (Nashville’s phone prefix) in liaison with club manager Morgan Kyle in May 2013, and soon it became one of the more popular “open mic” venues for writers to showcase tunes a la the more historic Bluebird Cafe. Crowds like it as it’s more laid back, akin to “a honky tonk church” and actually its performers pick ’n sing seated on a church pew.

Kickin’ off the song spree were Smalley and his “If I’m Bein’ Honest,” a confessional regarding feelings that nicely complement his romantic baritone. Follow-ups, “Love a Man (Who Breaks Your Heart)” and “A Thousand Angels (Watching Over Me)” no doubt helped convince Mike Borchetta to sign this bright talent to a roster boasting such winners as Rascal Flatts, Reba, Sugarland and Taylor Swift. 

Sitting in the spotlight beside Smalley was burly, bearded Chris Canterbury, whose comedic chit-chat was as entertaining as his compositions. He hails from an oil refinery town – Haynesville, La. – where his blue-collared grand-dad labored in a gas plant. In honor of his Southern Baptist grandparent’s 1967 thrift-shop guitar, multi-instrumentalist Chris wrote “Silvertone,” an audience favorite. His debut EP contains such inspired cuts as “Crash And Burn,” “Where To Find Me” and “Another Sad Day.”

Next up was personable Blue Foley, another who confided his grandfather also made an impression on him: “Man, I didn’t know nothing, and a whole lotta expressions and ideas came from him.” In time, Foley contributed songs to such stalwarts as Ashley McBryde:  “Tired of Being Happy” and “Home Sweet Highway”; Jason C. Miller (Godhead), “As Good Love Goes”; and Jason Cassidy, “Baby Come On.” We particularly admired his interpretation here on “My West.”

Country blues brothers Sam & Walker Tuten look like good prospects for a major label pact, considering their songwriting skills, winning way with harmonies, notably “Hallelujah” and “Time Was a Song,” and youthful good looks. As one scribe succinctly stated, “they’re bringing back classic country twang with a twist,” and poignantly singing, “They say life’s what you make it/I wanna make a little life with you . . .”  Both majored in finance at University of Georgia before heading to Nashville and introducing themselves via a 2016 four-song EP “Southern Sunrise,” boasting their single “Sarah.” Yet another female song is their newest: “Monica.” According to Sam, “During our senior year in college, we took a trip to Costa Rica where I met a girl . . .” Oh yeah, and her name’s “Monica,” whose beauty inspired a first-rate single.

Prior to our departure, tall blonde Kalsey Kulyk, a newlywed cheered on by groom Eric Ethridge, has quite a tale to tell. Sharing the stage was co-host Snyder, an impressive 6’6” song-plugger, who wished a “Happy Birthday” to our birthday boy Steve. Rob (seen above) also sang us a new song, “If I Could Do It All Over Again,” then confided he’s been co-writing again with Luke. Hopefully their results may adorn another Combs’ CD.

Rob’s learned not to rush things. Admittedly disappointed Luke delayed “She’s Got The Best Of Me” until his fourth album, now Rob believes it was for the best. Following up Combs’ hits “Hurricane,” “When It Rains, It Pours,” “One Number Away,” gave it just the right traction needed for their co-write to score really big.

As a youngster, Snyder was first inspired by Guns ‘n Roses’ rock licks, but later seeing the Giulio Base 1999 film “La Bomba,” checked out the sounds of Buddy Holley, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper, all perishing in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. Rob’s played guitar from age 14, and later after losing friends to drugs and auto accidents, heard Randy Travis’ #1 “Three Wooden Crosses,” CMA Song of the Year (2002): “It’s just one of those songs that made all the hairs on your body stand up . . . (and) it made me fall back in love with the guitar and pick it up again,” feeling he, too, could compose such three-chord song salvos.

While earning a degree at Villanova University, Rob had a band, Paint On Face, which he described as Red Hot Chili Peppers meet Suicidal Tendencies (a thrash band). Come 2012, Snyder made the move to Music City USA, where his husky build landed him a job as a bouncer at a bar called The Losers. Later, he got a better-paying gig at The Winners club (sure sounds like a step-up). More importantly, the West Chester, Pa. native started writing songs, and then came an opportunity to launch The Revival mic night at Tin Roof, giving him a chance to meet fellow writers, who seek to bare their country soul, and has been at it ever since.

Kalsey leaned into the mic singing, “I can’t try to make you love me anymore . . . but I’m still here, I’m still me,” shushing the crowd. She’s been doing just that since age 3, when she first won a talent contest. Music’s played a big part in her life ever since. 

At Easter time Mom gave her 13-year-old a guitar. But, sad to say, it wasn’t long before the high schooler was diagnosed with cancer (Hodgkins Disease): “I  lost all my hair, but got a lot of song inspirations during my chemotherapy treatments, and began performing them shortly after. When people would come up to me to discuss my songs, it became clear to me that my music could make a difference, because lots of people had been through what I was currently going through. That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue this as a career.”

Now long since in remission, she wed fellow singer-songwriter Eric Ethridge, a fellow Canadian, in a romantic setting at the Haven Riviera in Cancun, Mexico, Dec. 6, 2019. She says, “It was more beautiful than I could have imagined.” He says, “She’s the most beautiful bride – and woman – I’ve ever seen. It was a moment of shock, thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is the woman I get to marry!’ It was magical.” They’re now plugging their new duet single “Let It Snow.”

Reckon grand-dads should dig this review, as Kalsey explains one of her more memorable ballads, “More Time,” she wrote “for my grandpa, who was diagnosed with cancer. He called to tell me that he wished he had more time to spend with me after that really bad news from the doctor . . . It’s pretty much a reminder to live your life to the fullest and never let a moment pass you by.” 

We didn’t let the moment pass to pay our respects to Randy Travis. He said he remembered the night we met backstage at the Opry in the fall of 1985, when he was still an unknown short-order cook at the nearby Nashville Palace. I reminded him how he trembled so when we shook hands, and in asking him why, he’d explained he was about to make his Grand Ole Opry debut! Actually, Warners had just released his first record for them: “On the Other Hand” (which, of course, went to #1 the next year, on July 26, 1986). 

The wheel-chair bound Travis (due to a recent stroke) insisted he remembered both me and my publicist pal Charlie Lamb that historic night. In suggesting good-naturedly to Mary, he was likely putting me on, she replied: “Don’t kid yourself. His memory’s still very good.”            – Walt Trott

3rd annual Dottie West bash, also honors pal Bill Anderson

Review: Nashville Musicians Relief Fund benefit

NASHVILLE — Let’s tune into the 3rd annual Dottie West Birthday Bash, as partygoers pack the 3rd & Lindsley’s nightclub, Oct. 9, 2020. This year’s event not only celebrated the fiery hitmaker of yesteryear, but also honors friend and Opry co-star, Bill Anderson.

Customarily, Dottie’s Bash helps those in need, this year the reported $28,300-raised, benefits the Nashville Musicians Emergency Relief Fund, initiated by this reviewer’s mentor, the late Vic Willis (of Willis Brothers fame), then acting as the union’s secretary-treasurer. Co-sponsoring the show was Springer Mountain Farms.

Tennessee native Dottie, born Oct. 11, 1932, met her untimely fate in a car crash here 27 years ago. Belatedly, Dottie was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2018, the year Anderson, whose songs charted in seven decades, was finally inducted into the National Songwriters Hall of Fame. (The photo of Dottie was taken at Fan Fair.)

So Bill, also a guitarist, was inducted Oct. 9 into the Nashville Academy of Musicians’ Hall of Fame, adding to such honors as induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Country Music Hall of Fame. Among Bill’s biggest hits: “City Lights,” “Still,” “Tips Of My Fingers,” “Once a Day,” “Cold Hard Facts of Life” and “Whiskey Lullaby.”

A number of Bill’s cohorts headlined the evening gala. Among these were Jamey Johnson, Erin Enderlin, Steve Dorff and Jon Randall, along with the show’s Grammy-winning host Jeannie Seely a.k.a. Miss Country Soul.

Bright stars John Schneider, John Berry, and T. G. Sheppard, alongside Buddy & Melonie Cannon, Dallas Wayne and Tim Atwood, also lit up the night’s festivities. Paying homage to West were daughter-in-law Kenna Turner-West, granddaughter Tess Frizzell and Dottie’s youngest son Dale. Seely joined them in singing an abbreviated “Happy Birthday,” and Dottie’s 1973 self-penned classic “Country Sunshine.” Yes, that’s the same lilting tune Coca Cola adopted for its TV ad campaign back then.

Dottie’s “A Lesson In Leavin’,” a 1980 #1, was Tess’s selection to perform, with all the gusto inherent of country royalty, which, of course, also includes her mom Shelly (“Jose Cuervo”), uncles David (“Lost My Baby Blues”) and Lefty (“Saginaw, Michigan,” co-written by Anderson). Lending further authenticity at the mic were her grandmother’s original backup vocalists, Vickie Carrico and Nanette Bohannon.

Well-received, too, was Kenna Turner-West, regarded by many as a queen of Southern gospel. She’s wed to Dottie’s son Kerry, a recording engineer, and her writing credits boast 34 #1 gospel numbers. This night she chose to cover her latest “Even Me,” a smash for The Triumphant Quartet. Kenna’s strong vocals caressed the spirited message therein, identifying the following from John 3:16, “For God so loved the world/He gave his only son away/A way to save a wretch like me . . .”

A definite program highlight were the vocals of Jamey Johnson, Melonie Cannon and her triple-threat dad, player-producer-writer Buddy Cannon. Jamey never disappoints, reprising friend Anderson’s waltz-time stroll “When a Man Can’t Get a Woman Off His Mind.” Notable was the wild reaction from fans to his terse, guttural growling, “I just crushed a Dixie cup/For runnin’ outta wine . . . Oh, it’s crazy, when a man can’t get a woman off his mind.”

Modestly, Jamey conveyed his respect for his and Cannon’s co-writer on George Strait’s 2006  #1 “Give It Away,” a multiple award winner: “I consider myself fortunate to have spent so much time writing songs with Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. I feel I have received a valuable education from a true master of our craft.” 

Jamey’s protege of sorts, Erin Enderlin, dished up another highlight, her heartfelt emoting on “I Was Leavin’ Anyway,” enhanced by first-rate support from guitarist Alex Kline. And yes, the singer co-wrote that gem with Anderson and Bobby Tomberlin. Alan Jackson gave Erin her first bona fide hit, “Monday Morning Church,” thanks to his 2004 Top Five recording, and she’s since scored success via such artists as Terri Clark, Luke Bryan and Lee Ann Womack. Johnson co-produced her acclaimed “Whiskeytown Crier” album. 

Enderlin couldn’t contain her enthusiasm, sharing the stage with such notables, “I “I love these folks and loved getting to be part of the Dottie West Birthday Bash! Jeannie Seely was a fabulous host . . . and it was so special to get to be a part of honoring Bill Anderson, and raising money to help our fellow musicians . . . Got to hear some great music and hang with great folks, what more can a girl ask for?”

  Having penned hits for such showstoppers as Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Garth Brooks, Anne Murray and George Strait, cross-genre composer Steve Dorff needn’t take a backseat to anyone. He joined Anderson in June 2018, being inducted into the National Songwriters Hall of Fame, and this night opted to talk about and sing “I Cross My Heart.”

“I wrote that with Boyz-II-Men (an R&B band) in mind, but they didn’t like it.” Some years passed before Strait took a liking to it, he added, smilingly noting, “CMT voted it one of the best all-time love songs.” Chuckling, Steve warbled, “In all the world, you’ll never find a love as true as mine . . . You will always be the miracle that makes my love complete.”  

In an impromptu performance, T. G. Sheppard stepped to the mic, kicking off his 1981 #1 “Party Time,” a welcome reprise, after an auctioneering stint for a star-studded, autographed guitar (valued at $1,600), garnered a winning charity bid of $3,100. Later, the auctioneer’s chanting sold two other donated guitars for $4,200 each, not too shabby a sum. 

Although Connie Smith was a no-show, bandleader Jimmy Capps’ wife, Michelle, nailed Connie’s only #1 “Once A Day,” Anderson’s creation that catapulted her to 1964 stardom.  Sirius XM singer-host Dallas Wayne showed, coming all the way from Austin, Texas, to salute his hero. He sang a commendable cover on Bill’s classic “Tips Of My Fingers,” a success first for Anderson (#7, 1960), then Roy Clark (#10, 1963), Eddy Arnold (#3, 1966), and finally Steve Wariner (#3, 1992).

John Berry, recently recovered from cancer, acknowledged “It’s good to be here tonight, It’s good to be anywhere.” And reminded fans “Don’t Think I Ain’t Country.” 

To lighten the mood during the guitar auction shuffle, Rudy Gatlin sang a chorus of brother Larry’s #1 “All The Gold In California,” much to the crowd’s delight. Musician Danny Davis II was also a surprise, vocally, with a rousing rendition of Anderson’s 1973 novelty #1, most famously cut by Cal Smith, “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking.”

In that same spirit, former Duke of Hazzard John Schneider passed on his impressive array of Top 10s, to honor the night’s hero, with a bombastic, tongue-in-cheek uptake on Bill’s caustic “Wherever She Is, I Hope She Stays There.” Seemingly it satisfied Schneider fans, who loved him first as Bo in Dukes of Hazzard, then for his song hits, and finally as Superman’s pa in the Smallville series.

Creatively speaking, it seems Anderson’s song was a satirical revamp of his 1963 #1 “Still,” about a lost love, “I don’t know who you’re with/I don’t even know where you’ve gone/My only hope is that someday, you may hear this song  . . . And (know) I love you, wherever you are.” In his non-Valentine sendup, he muses musically, “Wherever she is/I hope she stays there/Whoever she’s with, they’re welcome to my nightmare.”

Tim Atwood, who played keyboards 38 years for WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, chose  Bill’s “Which Bridge To Cross (Which Bridge To Burn),” a slightly retro fusion of Southern sounds to soulful country sensibilities, co-written with the song’s hitmaker Vince Gill (#4, 1995). It proved another crowd-pleaser this night.

Kudos to the club’s publicist Breanna Fylstra for adding us to the press list, and sour grapes to the Bash’s p.r. puffs, Bev and Otto, neither of whom were aware of Country Music People, country’s longest surviving magazine. Though when we asked journalist-musician Peter Cooper to tell ’em who we were, he replied nonchalantly, “I don’t even know who I am!”

Rest assured Peter, we do know who you are. Thanks to his tie-in with talented German entrepreneur Thomm Jutz, he and Bill co-produced “Anderson,” a brand new project. They did much the same for the late Mac Wiseman, via an acclaimed Bluegrass CD, “I Sang the Song” (2017). Nor did we forget that Jutz donated his guitar stylings to our 90th birthday bash for Wiseman at the Texas Troubadour Theatre in 2015. 

Peter’s contribution at the Dottie West Bash was Bill’s 1964 Top 10, “Three A.M.,” a sleepy, lost-love tale of woe. Check the near X-rated lyrics for that era: “Look at me, walking the streets at 3 a.m./And you’re saying, what a crazy fool I am . . . But the one I love, is out tonight with him/Somewhere, making love at 3 a.m.”

Assisting Cooper was singer-guitarist Jon Randall, yet another Anderson co-writer. Jon credits the Opry legend with helping him create the iconic “Whiskey Lullaby,” a song sparking the Brad Paisley-Alison Krauss duet teaming, earning CMA’s 2004 music event award. Randall stepped into the solo spotlight to revive that very personal ballad, also cited as CMA Song of the Year for him and Bill. 

Some say it was Jon’s breakup with wife Lorrie Morgan that inspired “ . . . Lullaby,” a four-minute soliloquy of sorts:  “He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger/And finally drank away her memory . . . We found him with his face down in the pillow/With a note that said, ‘I’ll love her till I die’/And when we buried him beneath the willow/The angels sang a whiskey lullaby . . .” Although an emotional Randall invited Anderson to join in, Bill noted he was doing just fine solo, and we couldn’t agree more. 

Sad that such a captivating crooner’s career failed to ignite. Still one of our favorite ballads, is Jon’s power-country rhapsody “Cold Coffee Morning,” which Bill also co-authored.  Here’s the intro:“The saddest face I’ve ever shaved, is staring back at me/My eyes look like a roadmap, Lord I ain’t slept a wink/So I turned on the radio, heard the forecast on the news/They’re calling for a cold coffee morning, and a warm beer afternoon . . .” So we’ll just pop-a-top again, Jon!

As the night drew to a close, Whisperin’ Bill, whose nickname alludes to his soft, breathy, intimate vocal style, reappeared, borrowing Dallas Wayne’s guitar to serenade the assemblage. So that the circle remained unbroken, all those backstage gathered up front to wish adieu to the audience, especially honoree Anderson and company. 

Seems like that last number was upbeat enough, “It’s a Good Day To Have a Good Day.” He’d already acknowledged to the audience: “What a special night this is . . . And I appreciate your coming tonight.” – Walt Trott

Grammy winner Harold Reid, head Statler, dies . . . recalled ‘Some I Wrote’

STAUNTON, Va. — Statler Brothers’ sparkplug, Harold Reid, a sparkling combination singer-songwriter-musician-humorist, died April 24, succumbing to a longtime kidney ailment at his home here. His Grammy Award-winning act became one of the most popular groups on the country music scene, though they started out gospel.

Harold Wilson Reid was born Aug. 21, 1939, in Augusta County, Va. His name appears as writer or co-writer on the following Statler successes: “Bed Of Rose’s,” “Do You Remember These?,” “Class of ’57” (a Grammy winner) and their first #1, “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine.” Other successful Reid co-writes include the hits “Some I Wrote,” “The Official Historian on Shirley Jean Berrell,” “How To Be a Country Star,” “Better Than I Did Then,” “Don’t Wait On Me,” “Whatever,” “Guilty,” “Sweeter and Sweeter” and “Let’s Get Started If You’re Gonna Break My Heart.”

Harold was among the original founding members, along with Lew Dewitt, Phil Balsley and Joe McDorman, as he recalled: “We played ball together and we even double dated.” Initially they were a gospel-oriented group, but by the early 1960s, McDorman decided to pull out, and Harold’s kid brother Don signed on. 

Johnny Cash gave them a welcome helping hand, hiring  them to open his road shows, and judging by their audience acceptance, included them on his national ABC-TV show (1969-1971). He also recommended his label Columbia consider the act. In turn, DeWitt’s upbeat 1965 composition “Flowers On the Wall,” initially a B side, became a near chart-topper, propelling them into the big time. It earned a Grammy nod and sold a million records.

But in 1974, Harold decided to do an off-the-wall comedy album, adopting the name Lester (Roadhog) Moran & His Cadillac Cowboys, offering fans the crazed “Alive At Johnny Mack Brown High School,” a hilarious sendup of amateur talents. Obviously a big fan of Western heroes like Brown, Harold also co-wrote (with Don) “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott,” a 1974 Top 20 single.

Sadly, Dewitt had to depart the band upon suffering Chron’s disease in 1981, and was subsequently succeeded by young tenor Jimmy Fortune from nearby Nelson County, 40 miles from Staunton. Fortune lived up to his surname presenting three #1 songs for their successive sessions: “Elizabeth,” “My Only Love” and “Too Much On My Heart.”

During the 1990s for several years, The Statlers hosted their own TV variety series on The Nashville Network (TNN). It was well-received and always a cable awards winner. Sadly, former Statler Lew Dewitt died in 1990, at age 52.

In an interview, Harold mused, “It’s said that The Statler Brothers cut the cheapest sessions in town, and that’s because we’re real prepared. We hash everything out ahead of time, so that when we get in the studio, ordinarily everything goes pretty fast. In fact, (producer) Jerry Kennedy’s been quoted as saying that if you listen close at the end of a record, you can hear our bus starting up.” 

Reid singled out a 1983 exception to this: “We recorded a song – ‘Guilty’ – and went back home to Virginia and listened to the rough cut. We weren’t satisfied, so we booked another session, went back to Nashville and cut it another way. We listened again and had different musicians come in and add things, but we still weren’t completely happy with it. 

“On the third session, we decided to tear it apart and start over. We knew it was a good song and we felt strong about it, but we were baffled for an ending. Down the hall, Conway Twitty was recording and on a break, we saw him in the hallway (and he had just chalked up his 36th #1 single ‘The Rose’), and he invited us to listen to some of the stuff he was cutting.

“Then we asked him to come to our studio to do the same. He watched us, still working on the ending for ‘Guilty’ and all of a sudden he says, ‘Hey, would y’all mind my making a suggestion?’ We said, ‘No, go right ahead,’ so he picked up a guitar and finished the song for us. It was perfect, so on the single ‘Guilty,’ the arrangement is ours, but credit for the ending goes to Conway!”

The Statlers, who borrowed their name from a hotel tissue box, recorded more than 50 albums in nearly 40 years, with “Pardners in Rhyme” their sole #1, while 13 sold gold and eight platinum. They also charted 33 Top 10 singles, four at #1; won three Grammy Awards; was voted CMA best group nine times between 1972 and 1984; and won 48 Music City News awards. Among the rare numbers by outside writers that they scored Top 10 or better with are: “Ruthless,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “You’ll Be Back Every Night In My Dreams,” “Oh, Baby Mine” and “Hello, Mary Lou.”

In 1985, The Statlers won Music City News’ Best Comedian trophy, for which Harold Reid could take the biggest bow. Suddenly in 2002, The Statlers opted for retirement in Staunton. 

Jimmy Fortune, who Harold nicknamed “The Elf,” has only fond memories of being a Statler, and thankfully was included when the band was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. He still does some shows, like touring for a time with the Oak Ridge Boys, and did some appearances with bluegrass duo (Darrin) Vincent & (Jamie) Dailey.

Meanwhile, Harold sighed, recalling past success as a Statler: “Some days I sit on my beautiful front porch, here in Staunton, and literally have to pinch myself. Did that really happen to me, or did I just dream that?” 

Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, acknowledged “Harold Reid was a driving force in one of country music’s greatest quartets. He was also a tremendous entertainer and one of the world’s funniest people. For decades, he made us laugh and made us cry. As his alter ego, Lester (Roadhog) Moran would say, his contributions were ‘mighty fine.’ We mourn his loss while we celebrate a life well-lived.”                  Walt Trott

Artist John Prine’s passing also due to the Corona crisis . . .

NASHVILLE — John Prine was an acquired taste in music for the undersigned, but thanks to a mutual friend – Mac Wiseman – we finally got to know the man who created such classics as “Angel From Montgomery,” “Paradise” and “I Just Want To Dance With You.”

Admittedly, we initially heard these by other artists, though the singer-songwriter himself had been earning hosannahs from such knowledgable music men as Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Goodman during the previous 35 years of our chat.

Although John wasn’t one to grant interviews, we felt rather pleased to take up some of his time a week after the release of his collaborative album release, “Standard Songs For Average People” with Wiseman (2007), on Prine’s independent label Oh Boy Records. Our initial thought of their teaming recalled an old adage, opposites do attract.

“Oh sure,” chuckled Prine. “I really admired Mac’s singing, you know. He sings better than ever at 80. He really does. When I close my eyes and hear his voice, it sounds like somebody ice skating smoothly across the pond. So when he expressed interest in doing this record, I didn’t shy away from it. Hey, it was all I could do to keep up with him. Just sitting across the table from Mac every morning to sing with him, well, I wanted to keep on doing it five days a week, every day. That would be a perfect job to me.”

Actually Mac had just turned 82, and Prine 60 last Oct. 10, as they joined forces. Having whipped cancer, John was just happy to be on the scene, and thankful his captivating whiskey baritone still survived. Even in younger days, neither he nor Mac were considered matinee idol types, but their unique talents gained them major feminine followings.

What convinced Oh Boy’s honcho to tackle this task with the Bluegrass Hall of Famer? “There was a seed planted long ago by Jack Clement who mentioned he thought me and Mac might try to do something together sometime. We kind of rolled it around there and I though, ‘Man, I’d love to,’ but didn’t know  if Mac knew me from Adam. It turned out that Mac liked some of my stuff, and I sure liked his music.” 

Cowboy Jack, who produced Johnny Cash and Charley Pride, guided Mac through his 1969 RCA session, resulting in Mac’s novelty success “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” (written by Cy Coben).

“Do you know David Ferguson?,” asked Prine. “Well, Fergie (who co-produced this album) kind of tricked us. He found the (Kris) Kristofferson song ‘Just The Other Side of Nowhere’ on a record, cut his voice out and invited me and Mac down to the studio, and cut it in a key where it wouldn’t be too rough for either one of us to sing, just to check our voices. Some people’s voices are good and you might think they are like-minded singers who could sing together, but sometimes your voice just doesn’t go with another’s. Somehow ours seems to complement each other.”

Since the co-producer brought that song to the table, who decided on the other 13?

“Originally, Mac and I came up with most of the songs. We just each made a list, regardless of how old or how new the song was, or how well-known or not well-known it was. Then about a month later, we sat at Mac’s house and I think we both had a list of about 15 songs and it turned out seven of the songs were the same on both lists.”

That in itself was amazing. The unlikely duo caress such evergreens as “I Forgot To Remember To Forget,” “Saginaw, Michigan” and “Blue Side of Lonesome.” Were any of the final selections especially meaningful to John?

“Yes, the gospel stuff – ‘In the Garden,’ ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ – were the songs that I had heard from my mom and my grandmother, and those I could do with a guitar and vocals. I half way knew them, at least a verse and chorus already. That’s why I suggested them. They were very popular songs, so we both were familiar with them.”

Both knew “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” written by Al Dexter, which was simultaneously a 1943 pop hit, which Al took to #1 and Crosby (with the Andrews Sisters) peaked at #2, until the very first Billboard country chart – Jan. 8, 1944 – had Bing’s version in top spot, and remained #1 through Jan. 29. Come Feb. 5, Dexter’s version became #1 country, too, but then tied two successive weeks at #1 (Feb. 12 and 19) with Crosby’s cut. Next, Louis Jordan’s “Ration Blues” was #1 country Feb. 25 and March 4, but astonishingly Crosby’s version of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” returned to top spot (March 11), tying this time with Al Dexter’s “Rosalita” (years later the Grammy Hall of Fame claimed Dexter’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama” version in its annals).

Some reviewers cited the Prine-Wiseman version of Dexter’s tune as a favorite among their collaborations, causing John to recall: “We were both in a playful mood that day (it was recorded), and we’d certainly done a lot of ballads, because we both love ballads, so we were kind of anxious to chop her into bits and do something a little upbeat. Tim O’Brien (guitar), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Mike Bub (bass) were playing on it, and everything just kinda fell in line. I thought it came out pretty good, too. Les Armistead did the harmony on it, sort of kickin’ it up another notch for me. (Incidentally, old pal Cowboy Jack played dobro on the uptempo tune.)”

Another song John listened to as a youngster was included: Bing’s 1932 hit and radio show theme “Where the Blue Of the Night (Meets the Gold Of the Day).” Crosby is credited with co-writing that number, adapted from “The Tit-Willow,” heard in the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “The Mikado.”

Prine pointed out why he insisted on their reviving Tom T. Hall’s “Watermelon Wine,” though Wiseman wasn’t too keen on doing that classic: “I just had to hear Mac sing that line ‘I was sitting in Miami, pouring blended whiskey down’ . . .” Pressed why he wasn’t sold on the song initially, Mac confided, “I wasn’t jittery about doing it, but had misgivings about whether I ould do it justice. Tom T. didn’t leave a damn thing out when he did it. But I think it came off OK.”

Mac also had a liking for the Leon Payne composition “Blue Side of Lonesome,” which became a #1 posthumous hit for Jim Reeves in 1966, explaining, “I knew Leon. He was blind. I met him here . . .” then pointed out that bluesy ballad borrows its melody from the 1890s’ temperance tune “Little Blossom,” which Mac sang a bit of to show us the likeness: “It’s exactly the same.”

Nonetheless Prine proclaimed, “That’s a favorite of mine. I was always partial to Jim Reeves’ version. I spend my summers over in Galway. My wife’s Irish (Fiona Whelan) and we got a little house over there in Ireland. I don’t know how many times me and my friends have closed this pub down singing ‘Blue Side of Lonesome.’ So that was kind of a good record for me.”

That venture with Mac proved a welcome breather for John, not having to write an album’s worth of original songs for a project: “You’re right. It’s always a mixed emotion thing for me, recording new stuff of mine. I’m usually half in love with it and half not, and always wondering about it, whether it’s going to work for somebody else, and is it working for me? But these were all songs I knew and loved. I was just trying my best to tell the story as opposed to like introducing (new songs) . . . so I was just concentrating on telling the story, and trying to sing them from my heart.”

Therefore, owning the label, makes it less stressful recording what he likes rather than that requiring approval from the likes of Atlantic, Asylum and Elektra, his previous labels?

“Well, doing projects like this for one, I don’t have to explain to anybody why or what reason’s behind it. It’s just something I want to do. Period.” Yet, Oh Boy’s also produced other like-minded artists, including Kris Kristofferson, Shawn Camp, Donnie Fritts, Janis Ian and Todd Snider. John said the first single issued by Oh Boy was a Christmas song he recorded, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause.” Thereafter, the Germantown-based company always featured a Christmas tree year around, which Mac also did at his house.

Pop and country artists alike have recorded Prine songs, among them Bette Midler, John Denver, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Lynn Anderson, Gail Davies, Jim & Jesse, Tanya Tucker and Tammy Wynette. He also guested on The Chieftains’ album “Further Down the Old Plank Road.”

Why the move from the Windy City to Music City USA?

“I imagine like most people, I started out being a huge fan. But when I first moved to Nashville, I wasn’t planning on easing into country music or anything like that. Actually, I was dating a girl who was my bass player at the time and she lived here. I got down here and being a big country music fan, I was just astounded by the stories about who was here and what life here was like in the old days. A lot of that drew me into the history of country music.”

In 1999, his Grammy-nominated album “In Spite of Ourselves” found him sharing the mic with country divas Melba Montgomery, Connie Smith, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris and Trisha Yearwood. Mainly they dusted off proven ballads like “When Two Worlds Collide,” “Back Street Affair” and “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds,” though Prine did pen the LP’s naughty title track.

John landed 15 albums on the Billboard charts, “For Better Or Worse,” a Top 40, and “The Tree of Forgiveness” #5, and just recently hit #1 on their Rock Songwriters Chart. Among his best known songs are “Sam Stone,” “Illegal Smile,” “Angel From Montgomery” and “Paradise.” He co-wrote “Love Is On a Roll,” a 1993 #1 for Don Williams, and “I Just Want To Dance With You,” a 1998 #1 George Strait success, both with British artist-composer Roger Cook.

One of our personal favorites is “Saigon,” produced by Sam Phillips, concerning a traumatized Vietnam vet. Although Steve Goodman claims Prine co-wrote his hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” recorded by David Allan Coe, John refused to accept credit.

Prine was born Oct. 10, 1946 in Maywood, Ill. His parents hailed from Muhlenburg County, Kentucky, where most of the family resided in a small town called Paradise. At age 14, John taught himself to play guitar, and later attended Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. After serving an Army hitch in Germany, he came back to work as a postal employee, later garnering the nickname “The Singin’ Mailman.”

Before marrying his manager Whelan, a Donegal lass, he was wed to high school sweetheart Ann Carole, and bassist Rachel Peer, both ending in divorce. He and Fiona have two sons Jack and Tommy, and he adopted Jody, her boy from a prior marriage. 

In 1991, John made his movie debut in the Mariel Hemingway-John Mellencamp co-star flick “Falling From Grace,” which Mellencamp directed. Come 2001, 10 years later, he played Andy Griffith’s son in Billy Bob Thornton’s all-star “Daddy And Them,” also featuring Laura Dern, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Affleck and Diane Ladd.

We asked would that mean he might reappear on the screen in another 10 years?

Smiling, he replied, “I just wait until they ask me. I usually play the same character. I was the brother-in-law with low self-esteem. So I’m just patiently waiting for another screenplay to come along with that role in it.”

Health-wise, in 1998 Prine was treated for squamous cell cancer, which necessitated removal of a portion of his neck. In 2013, he fought another cancer in his left lung. Recently, Fiona had the Cov-2 virus, but was treated and recovered; however, her husband suffered from Covid-19, and died April 7 from the disease. 

Prine, in the midst of a career revival when he fell ill, won the Grammy’s 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award, as announced in December 2019.           

  – Walt Trott

Our ‘Pickup Man’ Joe Diffie dies from the corona-virus . . .

NASHVILLE — Joe Diffie earned accolades as a writer, musician and harmony singer before breaking into the big time as a country music hitmaker, due to such #1 singles as “If the Devil Danced In Empty Pockets,” “Third Rock From the Sun” and “Pickup Man.”

Sad to say Joe is the first country star to suffer from the corona-virus that claimed his life on March 29, 2020, at age 61. The Tulsa, Okla. native born Dec. 28, 1958, grew up to labor in the oil fields, before turning full-time to working the music scene.

Actually, Diffie insisted he learned to sing harmony shortly after learning to talk, and given his first guitar at age 8, explaining dad was an educator, who encouraged L’il Joe to read 200 books in the fourth grade.

“My dad was always one of those off-the-wall teachers. He would do strange things, and he had his own little system of rewards. He would buy candy bars and if you got first place (reading books and turning in book reports), you got to pick out five candy bars. The next kid who had second place, picked four and so on down the line. I always won . . . those candy bars were a great motivation for me!”

Teacher-father also played guitar: “My family has always been real musical. My mother sang. I can remember being a child riding in the family pick-up and we’d sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ ‘Peace In the Valley’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ together.”

Diffie said he was just 16 when he began playing club dates: “Then the church that I was going to had a group of guys, so we had a gospel quartet that we put together (Higher Purpose).” Then he spent four years pickin’ in a bluegrass band, Special Edition.

“I think that some of the very best singers have that bluegrass background,” mused Diffie, citing such as Vince Gill, Kenny Chesney, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Roe of Diamond Rio fame.

“I worked in the oil field for awhile, on a pulling unit, they call it. That involves setting up a portable rig over a well that’s already been drilled and pulling the rods and tubing out of the well that has a leak, or the rod had broken or something. That was nasty work. You had oil all over you all the time.”

Some in the music business nicknamed him “Regular Joe,” as he seemed to have a knack of getting inside the listener and pushing all the right emotional buttons with his vocals, due in no small part to this fact: “I’ve been a regular guy myself, bustin’ my butt 40 hours a week in a foundry . . . and I think if I sing about the things I feel (to the people), they’ve felt all those things, too.”

Following a job loss, bankruptcy and a divorce from his wife of nine years, Joe had little left to lose, so he bummed gas money to move to Nashville. “It was the dead of winter. Real cold and ugly looking, no leaves on the trees. I didn’t know if I wanted to stay or not.” 

If nothing else, he was truly a survivor. Landing a day job at Gibson Guitar’s factory, he started to demo the songs he had written, nights and weekends. He also made friends with next-door neighbor Johnny Neale, himself a musician and successful songwriter. “I kept after him to write with me, just begging him to, and he finally did.”

Soon Neale got him signed as staff writer with Music Row publisher Forest Hills Music. That proved beneficial, and before long he landed cuts with popular acts the Forester Sisters and Doug Stone. Upon hearing the strength, range and expression in his demo vocals, producers increased demand for him on actual recording sessions.

Among future hits he demoed were Ricky Van Shelton’s “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You,” Billy Dean’s “You Don’t Count the Cost,” George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart” and Alabama’s “Born Country.” By 1989, Diffie abandoned his Gibson job, and concentrated on recording sessions and songwriting; one of his first co-writes (with Lonnie Wilson and Wayne Perry) being Holly Dunn’s Top Five single “There Goes My Heart Again.” 

Producer Bob Montgomery liked Diffie’s demos and signed him to a major label pact with Epic Records, with his debut single “Home,” hitting #1 on Nov. 10, 1990, marking the first to go #1 on all three major music charts: Billboard, Radio & Records and Gavin, without benefit of a music video.

He co-authored his second hit “If You Want Me To” (with Wilson), which did get a video, and peaked at #2 in 1991. Later that year he chalked up another #1, “If the Devil Danced In Empty Pockets,” which many regard as his signature song. Hot on the heels of that hit, thanks again to his own creativity, came “New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame),” peaking at #2. 

Coincidentally, with the exception of one single, 15 of his first 16 releases all charted at 20 weeks each. (That one was his 13th release “Startin’ Over Blues,”a Top 40 tune that charted only 13 weeks.) Three further chart-toppers were “Third Rock From The Sun,” “Pickup Man” and “Bigger Than The Beatles.”

He smiled recalling that “Pickup Man” garnered him a lucrative Ford Motors TV jingle contract, though his take on “John Deere Green” failed to elicit the same response from the farm equipment firm: “I never even got a tractor from John Deere, I had to go out and buy one.”

A song that Diffie’s proud of is “I’m the Only Thing (I’ll Hold Against You),” his hero Conway Twitty’s final chart single (which Joe co-wrote with Wilson and Kim Williams) in 1993. That was the same year, he was invited to become a member of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, the radio program that helped inspire him as a youngster.

All totaled, the star notched 17 Top 10 tunes during his run as an artist, his last being “In Another World,” 2001, and two Diffie albums – “Honky Tonk Attitude” and “Third Rock From The Sun” – are certified Platinum sellers. One of his final chart songs was “Tougher Than Nails,” #19 in 2004, and certainly an interesting topic for this honky-tonk favorite, as it dealt with a father consoling his son upon receiving a bloody nose from a school bully.

Discouraging a desire for revenge, Dad tells the boy about the toughest man he knows: “You hit him, and he just turns the other cheek/Don’t think for a minute he was weak/’Cause in the end, he showed ’em/ He was anything but frail/They hammered him to a cross/But he was tougher than nails . . .” 

It was one of Diffie’s finest performances, and no doubt he “nailed” it indeed.

As a father, one of Diffie’s tougher tasks was coping with Down’s syndrome son Tyler’s birth, having that congenital disorder: “It was pretty earth-shattering when the doctor said my child’s going to be mentally retarded. But since then, Tyler has brought me more happiness and joy than my other children, not to slight them. But he is so special. Everything he does is such a huge deal.” 

Through the ensuing years, Diffie devoted himself to providing special care for the youngster, as well as conducting concerts and golf tournaments to benefit First Steps, a United Way program to aid disabled children, and also the Duncanwood School specializing in child care.

Married four times, Diffie married fellow college student Janise Parker, mother to his children Parker and Kara, but were divorced in 1986. In ’88, he wed nurse Debbie Jones, with whom he had two boys Drew and Tyler. Next Joe and Theresa Crump were married at the Opryland Hotel in 2000, producing daughter Kylie in 2004; however, he and Theresa divorced in 2017. The following year, Tara Terpening became the brand new Mrs. Diffie.

Just days before his passing, Joe posted the following on FaceBook March 27: “I am under the care of medical professionals and currently receiving treatment after testing positive for coronavirus (COVID-19). My family and I are asking for privacy at this time. We want to remind the public and all my fans to be vigilant, cautious and careful during this pandemic.” – Walt Trott

 

Joe, Theresa, their baby Kylie, and Kris Kristofferson. (Patricia Presley photo.)

 

Kenny Rogers, singer-actor-songwriter, ‘Sweet Music Man’ succumbs . . .

NASHVILLE — When we wrote most of the following piece, Kenny Rogers was 67, and at the Country Radio Seminar, participating in a personality gig titled “The Life Of a Legend: A Conversation with Kenny Rogers,” conducted by Nashville DJ Gerry House. 

Kenny’s March 2020 death at 81, occurred in a Hospice care facility at Sandy Springs, Ga. Actually Rogers, one of the more successful country-pop stars, was born Aug. 21, 1938 in Houston, Texas. That’s where in 1956 he netted $13 as a Jefferson Davis High School student fronting his very first band: The Scholars. 

Only two years later, he garnered his first gold single – “That Crazy Feeling” – performing as Kenneth Rogers, and earning a guest spot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. In 1966, Rogers was recruited for the already famed New Christy Minstrels.  A short year later, as the Minstrels called it a day, Kenny and three other ex-members kicked off their new First Edition, and soon landed a pact with Reprise Records. Successes included “Just Dropped In,” “But You Know I Love You” and “Reuben James.” Newly billed in ’69 as Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, they sco red Top 40 with “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town),” penned by Mel Tillis.

By 1975, Rogers received solo billing by United Artists, and a Top 20 hit “Love Lifted Me.” A string of #1 successes followed, including “Lucille,” a million-seller, earning Rogers two Grammy Awards (best single, best vocalist) in 1977. Among the chart-toppers were duets with Dottie West, “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” “All I Ever Need Is You” and “What Are We Doin’ In Love.”

Rogers co-wrote “Sweet Music Man” and “Love Or Something Like It,” and solidified his superstar status via “The Gambler,” another dual Grammy winner, “Coward Of the County” both of which prompted films featuring Kenny, and “Islands In the Stream” with Dolly Parton, a Platinum-selling single penned by the Gibbs’ brothers. Incidentally, Barry Gibb co-produced Kenny’s RCA debut release “Eyes That See In the Dark.”

In 1999, Rogers started up his own indie label DreamCatcher, garnering a #1 comeback hit “Buy Me a Rose” (featuring Alison Krauss & Billy Dean), his longest-charting single at the time: 37 weeks. So why did he sell off DreamCatcher five years later?

“I have this theory: I will never spend my personal money on my career,” he said.

Nor did he shy away from discussing touchy queries like liposuction and cosmetic surgery, noting, “You tell people, and nobody cares. You try to hide it and they make a big thing out of it.”

Grinning, he glibly acknowledged failing with Kenny Rogers’ Roasters fast-food chicken venture, thusly: “I learn more from failures than success.” After suffering from a back injury, he also sold off his Atlanta, Ga. golf course, but acknowledged, “I lost a lot of friends when I sold it.”

In addition to the Gambler series and the Coward click, Rogers starred in the theatrical movies “Six Pack,” “Wild Horses” and “Rio Diablo.” Asked if he regarded himself as an actor, he replied (tongue-in-cheek style), “My acting reminds me of what happened to Randolph Scott (1950s Western screen hero) when he wanted to join the Los Angeles Country Club and was told, ‘We don’t allow actors to join,’ prompting the reply, ‘I’m no actor and I’ve got 41 movies to prove it!’ . . .”

Regarding being labeled pop by country die-hards or country by rock fans, Rogers reminded folks, “When ‘Lady’ came out (1980) that was not a country record (but indeed it charted #1 pop and #1 country) . . . country music was more about the message than the messenger. Today’s country music (15 years ago) is more about the messenger than the message.” 

Asked which of his numerous hits he regards as a signature song, he hesitated, finally saying, “I think maybe ‘The Gambler’ because it’s so worldwide,” but added that he has warm feelings about “Lucille,” his premiere #1. “That’s my momma’s name. She thought that was the coolest song. She asked, ‘Whey did you write that?’ Of course, I didn’t write it (Roger Bowling & Hal Bynum co-wrote it) . . . and she (Mom) had eight kids, instead of four.”

Kenny confided, “I got my sense of values from my mother,” and pushed further, added, “and a sense of humor from my father.” Yet another lady Rogers admired was the late Dottie West: “I miss her more than you’ll ever know. She was what country music was all about. She was just a sweetheart.” 

Regarding “Islands In the Stream” (1983) with Dolly, which was both #1 country and #1 pop, Kenny admitted he had to be talked into cutting the song, by Barry Gibb, who co-wrote it with twin brothers Maurice and Robin Gibb (of The BeeGees).

“No matter who the singer is, when you record with Barry Gibb, you sound like the fourth BeeGee . . . I was ready to write it off (until Barry suggested it as a duet with Dolly) . . . so I give Dolly full credit for that song.”

Rogers insisted he was a realist when it came to enduring fame: “Quite honestly, you can’t stay on top . . . and I defy anyone to say that ‘The happiest time of my life was when I was on top!’ (adding with a grin) Because that time is just a blur to me – and I didn’t do drugs.” 

In 2013, the multiple Grammy Award-winning Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. According to his long-time publicist Keith Hagan, the artist accumulated 24 #1 hits, and sold more than 50 million albums in the U.S. alone.

Rogers’ family planned a small, private service, considering the current pandemic, but Hagan added, “they look forward to celebrating the life of Kenny Rogers publicly with friend and fans at a later date.” 

On FaceBook, friend Lionel Richie (who wrote and produced Roger’s “Lady”) tweeted his feelings upon news of Rogers’ death, “Today, I lost one of my closest friends. So much laughter, so many adventures to remember. My heart is broken . . . my prayers go out to Kenny’s family.”– Walt Trott

Earl Thomas Conley, known as an artist of depth and versatility . . .

NASHVILLE — “Come as you are E.T., but leave all the magical music you made for others to enjoy and remember you by,” might’ve been the call Earl Thomas Conley heard after seasons of suffering forgetfulness, prior to his April 10, 2019 passing in Hospice care here. According to devoted brother Fred Conley, E.T. died at age 77, shortly after midnight from a condition not unlike dementia (cerebral atrophy).

Five Top 10 RCA albums, including the 1985 #1 “Earl Thomas Conley’s Greatest Hits,” which charted nearly 90 weeks contain some of those magical #1 songs such as “Fire and Smoke,” “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong,” “Your Love’s On the Line” and “Holding Her and Loving You,” truly unforgettable.

As I recall our previous interviews, one charting fact stands out that’s really quite impressive. Once his career kicked-off in 1980, with a self-penned Sunbird Top 10 release “Silent Treatment,” the artist scored a string of 18 #1 singles every year in that decade, starting with “Fire and Smoke” (1981) and including such titles as “Nobody Falls Like a Fool,” “I Can’t Win For Losing You,” “What She Is (Is a Woman in Love)”  onward to “Love Out Loud” (1989). There was even a haunting 1988 #1 duet with Emmylou Harris, “We Believe In Happy Endings.”

Actually, this artist’s emotional vocals have attracted duets with other terrific talents, notably Gus Hardin (“All Tangled Up in Love,” #8), Anita Pointer of the soulful Pointer Sisters (“Too Many Times,” #2), and Keith Whitley (“Brotherly Love,” #2). Yet success didn’t come easy for this Portsmouth, Ohio native, born Oct. 17, 1941 to railroad worker Arthur and Ruth Conley, the third of their eight children. In his poverty-stricken teens, he moved to Dayton to reside with his sister, who worked in a bank. But he proved to be a rebellious brother, who passed up on an art scholarship, ran away and then decided to join the Army (“I was hoping to find a new responsible me. I guess that meant I wanted to be a man.”). Soon he found himself serving two years in Germany (1960-’62). During his military days, E.T. entertained himself and buddies pickin’ and singin’ with a second-hand guitar.

Being from the Ohio-Kentucky region, Conley said he was first inspired by bluegrass and listening to WSM’s Opry on an old upright Philco radio: “You see I was born in 1941 and raised up on that early stuff of Bill Monroe’s. Coming out of those mountains, there’s a different soul and a different feel and a whole different deal than what it would be like to come from the city.” Another early influence he said was Hank Williams, Sr.

Following discharge, Earl worked in an Alabama steel mill to support himself and wife Sandra, his high school sweetheart, whom he wed on a 30-day leave. “Actually I worked in bars around Huntsville from 1970 to 1973 and liked to starved to death.” Mainly, he was singing other people’s songs: “I didn’t have much confidence in doing my own stuff.”

It was in Alabama that he connected with producer Nelson Larkin, then assisting brother Billy Larkin, hoping to establish a country music career. Nelson and E.T. soon collaborated musically on Billy’s behalf, after Conley decided to concentrate primarily on writing for others. He supplied Billy’s 1975 breakthrough Top 20s, “Leave It Up To Me” and “The Devil in Mrs. Jones.” Conley also furnished songs to Bobby G. Rice (“Make It Feel Like Love Again”), Mel Street (“Smoky Mountain Memories,” “This Ain’t Just Another Lust Affair”), and Conway Twitty (“This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me”).

The latter, a 1975 co-write with Larkin, hit the magical #1 mark for MCA, Twitty’s label, and helped open the door for singer-songwriter Conley. Incidentally, Freddie Hart recorded Conley and Larkin’s co-write “Sure Thing” (#15, 1980), and later Conley co-wrote “All Over Me” with then-newcomer Blake Shelton, as a Top 20 follow-up to “Austin,” Blake’s #1 breakthrough tune.

E.T.’s philosophy as a writer was being introverted, “to get totally inside myself,” adding “part of the fun of being a writer is having an impact. That meant you have to keep some mystery, keep it to yourself until it’s done.”

One of his favorite co-writers was Randy Scruggs and with good reason, their partnership produced such #1’s as “Angel in Disguise,” “Chance Of Lovin’ You” and “Love Don’t Care (Whose Heart It Breaks).” These songs showed the depth of Conley’s artistry and his versatility as a vocalist.

“When we did the ‘Don’t Make It Easy For Me’ album (1983) and the one after that, Randy and I sat down and wrote every other night. We wrote seven or eight songs, really good songs and all of them went to number one . . . We wrote because we were writers. You can’t take that hat off and put it back on too fast. It takes time.”

Conley scored his first ever Billboard charting as an artist in 1975, via the self-penned “I Have Loved You Girl (But Not Like This Before),” initially ear-marked for Twitty, but that and its follow-up “It’s the Bible Against the Bottle” on the indie GRT label, each stalled at a dismal #87. A developmental deal with Warner’s resulted in a trio of charters, the best of which was the prophetic “Stranded On a Dead-End Street” (#26, 1979).

From there, E.T. signed with Sunbird Records, another indie, reuniting him with Nelson Larkin, resulting in an impressive Top 20 E.T. album: “Blue Pearl.” In retrospect, Conley grinned: “Nelson and I were green as gourds. Everything I’ve learned since, comes from having done things wrong the first time. From then on it’s been a learning process. The road I’d been walking on had been a real gradual incline. Nothing had satisfied the creative urge inside me like music had.”

Fortunately, both “Silent Treatment” and “Fire & Smoke,” came off “Blue Pearl” and prompted major label RCA to sign Conley, and his career was finally off and running in a big way.

In our first interview for The Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisc., in 1981, Conley confided this truth about his then-family, Sandra, his wife of 19 years, and their youngsters, Tyrone, 17 and Amy, 12: “They’re such beautiful people. I can’t tell you what they’ve been through, but they’ve always stood by me.”

The couple guarded their own privacy through the years, until finally divorcing. Later, E.T. partnered with Carole Scates for some 20 years. My last project with E.T. concerned a 2002 benefit of sorts at a Printer’s Alley country cafe for which Larkin helped convince Conley and Johnny Rodriguez to be our drawing cards. We had some quite reliable AFM union Local 257 tunesters backing them up for the show.

Johnny was being a gadabout during soundcheck and following his set, hung around to see what Earl planned, and it became apparent he’d been a long-time fan of Conley’s catalog. After hearing E. T. enlighten the bandsmen as to what his line-up would be that night, Rodriguez butted in to offer suggestions, feeling his co-star was missing a bet by not including some of his other #1 songs.

Conley cooly glanced over at Rodriguez with a somewhat withering stare, sternly implying back off, and surely Johnny got the message, thus scooting off towards the exit. Incidentally, both proved excellent entertainers and were pleased to see Larkin there that evening in the company of Lynn Anderson, another artist also working with the producer again.

On social media, superstar Shelton wrote, “My heart is absolutely destroyed today. I’m sad to report that Earl Thomas Conley passed away very early this morning. Earl was my all-time favorite singer, hero and my friend. Prayers to his family.We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest.”

Conley’s longtime booking agent Rob Battle said E.T.’s declining health stopped the singer from touring about two years back. Former RCA honcho Joe Galante remembers working with the artist, too: “There was such soul in everything he did and he stood out from a lot of other singer that were around at that time. You always talk about finding something unique, and his voice certainly did that.” Galante called his style a mix of being very country, very sensitive, rendering an intimate approach to his music: “You could hear the ache in everything that he did. Then at the same time, he’d come rocking out on something else and there was this guy who just loved to have a good time. You could just hear it in the music.”

“Earl and I grew up about 30 miles down the road from each other. We’ve been good friends for many years,” stated Bobby Bare, “and I’ve always loved his records and I’m gonna miss him.”

Mickey Gilley mused, “Earl Thomas Conley, great country music star; I never had the pleasure of working with Earl, but I have always admired his talent and his love for country music.”

Carole Scates stated E. T. did not desire a funeral. His body was donated to Vanderbilt University Medical Center at his request to help others. Still survivors include son Ty Conley, daughters Amy Edmisten, Kat Scates, Erinn Scates, brothers Fred and Steve Conley, sisters Ronda Hodges, Becky Miller, and his five grandchildren.   – Walt Trott