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.

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

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

Mac Wiseman – a fond farewell to a Bluegrass and Country Hall of Famer

NASHVILLE — Iconic country and folk entertainer Mac Wiseman, 93, succumbed to pneumonia (complicated by bladder and kidney infections) during final hospitalization here at Summit Medical Center, Feb. 24, 2019. He was first hospitalized Christmas Eve, 2018.

A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, he was the final surviving first generation bluegrass star, whose credits include being the last surviving member of Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs’ original Foggy Mountain Boys, and touring, too, with Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, before striking out as a national solo artist by popular demand. He notched up his first Top 10 Billboard single “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (1955), a dozen years after launching his music career. Other hits include “’Tis Sweet To Be Remembered,” “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy,” “Your Best Friend and Me” and the novelty number “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride,” while earning the nickname “The Voice With a Heart.”

In more recent years, Wiseman was one of the critically-acclaimed Groovegrass Boyz with Bootsy Collins, Del McCoury, Doc Watson, scoring their funky “Country Macarena” success, and he also recorded with Big Band leader Woody Herman, and such singers as Leona Williams, Johnny Cash, David Grisman, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, Jett Williams, John Prine and Alison Krauss. Mac more than made his mark, crossing genres, and as a founding father of the Country Music Association; bringing the WWVA-Wheeling Jamboree back from the b rink of bankruptcy; and was a force in the Nashville Musicians Association, Local 257, as both board member and Secretary-Treasurer.

In 1951, Dot Records’ mogul Randy Wood engaged Mac as an artist and a producer of such yesteryear talents as Cowboy Copas, Leroy Van Dyke, Reno & Smiley, Bonnie Guitar and Jimmy C. Newman. Mac ran the gamut of industry jobs, ranging from radio newscaster to disc jockey, to promoter (working with the likes of Carter family patriarch A. P. Carter, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs), to A&R honcho, and hitting the stage as a regular on such popular radio shows as WCYB-Bristol’s Farm & Fun Time, WSM’s Grand Ole Opry (with Monroe), WSB-Atlanta’s Barn Dance (with Bill Carlisle), WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance (with his Country Boys), WNOX-Knoxville’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, and KWKH-Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride.

In recognition of these endeavors, Wiseman was inducted into the Virginia Music Hall of Fame, The Bluegrass Hall of Honor (1993), earned a U.S. National Heritage Fellowship Medal of the Arts (2008), and finally was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (2014).

Born Malcolm Bell Wiseman, May 23, 1925, in Crimora, Va., to (Myra) Ruth and Howard Bell Wiseman, at six months their first-born suffered infantile paralysis. Fortunately, his mom defied doctor’s orders to encase his leg in a cast that prohibited movement; instead, Ruth regularly massaged his leg with olive oil, and scheduled surgeries to try and correct the malformed limb, though Dad was skeptical, fearful it might leave him paralyzed. While recovering from treatment, Mac learned to play guitar on a $3.99 Sears & Roebuck special model named after Mac’s idol Gene Autry, the cinema’s first singing cowboy. Later, Mac earned high praise for his flat-top pickin’ style and his rhythm guitar playing. Coupled with his natural, rangy tenor vocals, he became an artist many reviewers termed the best tenor in bluegrass.

Following high school graduation, Mac was awarded a scholarship by the President Franklin D. Roosevelt-inspired Infantile Paralysis Foundation, electing to study at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Dayton, Va., while working  at WSVA-Harrisonburg, only a short drive from the campus. A plus for the teen-ager was the station’s luminous entertainer, pioneer Buddy Starcher, who began inviting the youngster to sing on his All-Star Round-Up broadcast. Incidentally, Starcher’s best remembered for his later songs “I’ll Still Write Your Name In the Sand” (#8, 1949) and “History Repeats Itself” (#2, 1966), the latter citing coincidences in the lives of assassinated presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. Another of Mac’s heroes was Bradley Kincaid, whom he came to know well in later years.

Mac made his first recordings, playing bass and supplying background vocals, while sharing the mic with legendary Molly O’Day and her Cumberland Mountain Folk, as produced by noted British producer Uncle Art Satherley in December 1946 at WBBM-Chicago. Among the classics they cut for Columbia Records were “Tramp On the Street,” “The Tear-Stained Letter,” “Six More Miles To the Graveyard” and “The Singing Waterfall.”

Of his solo albums, Mac  was especially proud of his double CD album “Grassroots To Bluegrass” (CMH, 1990), which earned him a Grammy nomination as best album of the year. Another close to his heart was a 2007 teaming with John Prine on a duet LP, “Standard Songs For Average People.”

Personally speaking, back on May 4, 1944, Mac married first wife Alberta Forbus, two years his junior, and mother to his children: Randolph Carson Wiseman, born Jan. 25, 1946, and Linda Wiseman, born Jan. 16, 1949. Following their divorce, he wed Emma Cassell, and welcomed  their daughter Christine come October 1949. Her sister Sheila, who was born Jan. 31, 1951, died unexpectedly on Jan. 3, 2016. Following Mac’s divorce from Emma, he married Marjory May Brennan, a Canadian miss, who hailed from Brantford, Ontario, on April 29, 1962. As with his two previous wives, Mac became dad to two more children: (Marjorie) Maxine in August 1963, and (Malcolm) Scott, born in July 1965. Mac outlived all his wives, and at the time of his death was survived by his nurse and companion Gloria (Janie) Boyd.

At his funeral, conducted at Spring Hill Funeral Home & Gardens, Nashville, Feb. 27, former chief Opry photographer and friend Les Leverett led the congregation in opening and closing prayers, while artists Del McCoury, Laura Cash White, Ricky Skaggs & The Whites performed, and close friends Ronnie Reno, Peter Cooper and Kevin Rose offered their reflections on the artist. Entombment followed in the Spring Hill Cemetery. Survivors include children Randy Wiseman, Linda Parr, Christine Haynes, Maxine Wiseman, Scott Wiseman, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and nieces and nephews.

Among familiar faces spotted in the crowd were Jan Howard, Eddie Adcock, Jesse McReynolds, Kyle Young, Larry Stephenson, Jeannie Seely, Thomm Jutz, Doyle Lawson, Keith Bilbrey, Dan Hays and Donnie Bryant. Fellow legends who claim Wiseman as mentor and hero are Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Daniels and Ronnie Milsap. According to Kris, “Mac is one of the heroes. Having Mac cut ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ was one of the highlights of my life. When I was young, he had a hit song on ‘Love Letters In the Sand’ and I just loved that. Maybe someone tried to put him in that bluegrass box, but he is so much more than that. Mac’s was a great, great voice.”

Charlie Daniels, who wrote the Foreword for Mac’s award-winning biography “Mac Wiseman: All My Memories Fit For Print” (Nova Books, 2016), stated in part, “I discovered Mac Wiseman in the early 1950s, when as a fledgling bluegrass musician, I would buy his new records as soon as I could get my hands on them. To say I was a huge fan would be an understatement and in those days albums were rare, so there were no album covers to give you a look at the artist . . . If I could have, I would have probably imitated Mac’s voice, but the truth is that nobody can imitate Mac’s voice. He’s one of a kind and he only has to sing three notes before every bluegrass fan in the room knows who it is.”

Ronnie said he first became a fan back in his native North Carolina: “I grew up on his music where I was born (in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains) then heard him on the radio in Raleigh, when I went to the state school for the blind for 13 years . . . I think Mac is an American treasure. What’s so unique about the man is his ability to take any situation and basically realize the ups and downs of it, and make the correct decisions most all the time. Mac is such a talented individual, not only in his music, but in other areas as well. I admire his business sense as much as I do his musical ability. Mac’s the whole four quarters it takes to make a dollar!”                                 – Walt Trott

 

 

Country music pioneer Harold Bradley, an ‘A Team’ guitarist, dead at 93 . . .

     NASHVILLE — The Jan. 31, 2019 death of Country Music Hall of Famer Harold Bradley, 93, stunned many of us here in Music City, as we weren’t aware the legendary guitarist was suffering ill health. But then time flies, and it had been a few seasons since we last met, and the man looked terrific.

     Throughout Harold’s lengthy tenure as American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Nashville Local 257 president (1991-2008), we worked closely on The Nashville Musician newspaper, having been hired as his editor. Attesting to his high energy level, he also served some 10 years as AFM International’s vice president, headquartered in New York City.

Bradley boasts an impressive resume, for in that period during which he carried the banner on behalf of some 3,500 fellow players, Harold was also hailed as the most recorded guitarist globally. As Dean of Guitarists, Bradley was a Nashville trailblazer in every sense of the word, one whose impact spanned generations. He joined the musicians union at age 16.

Since his first session in Chicago for Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys (“Tennessee Central #9”) on Dec. 17, 1946, Harold played on a variety of artists’ classic hits, notably Red Foley’s “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” Ray Anthony’s “Do the Hokey Pokey,” Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely,” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John,” Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA,” Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” The Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” John Anderson’s “Swingin’,” and Alan Jackson’s “Here In the Real World.”

Those twin guitars ringing out on Bobby Helm’s 1957 classic “Jingle Bell Rock” are played by Harold and Hank Garland. That’s Harold playing banjo in the kick-off of Johnny Horton’s #1 song of 1959 “Battle of New Orleans,” utilizing an “8th of January” folk run; as well as that pounding bass-guitar on Orbison’s pop #1 “Oh Pretty Woman” (1964).

Harold was a charter member of the versatile A Team of Nashville session superpickers – immortalized so-to-speak in the 1966 (Lovin’ Spoonful’s) John Sebastian song “Nashville Cats” – including Garland, Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer, Bob Moore, Ernie Newton, Buddy Harman, Ray Edenton, Pig Robbins, Boots Randolph, Charlie McCoy and Tommy Jackson. Of course, Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley were the Godfathers who kept them all busy.

“When I was 10 years old, the Bradleys welcomed me into their family,” recalls Brenda Lee, produced by Owen. “When I married my husband Ronnie (Shacklett), they welcomed him like a son. ‘Lost’ would be a good word to describe how I’m feeling right now, but I’m not lost because I’ll always have my memories. Harold Bradley is a big part of all of my memories. Harold is a big part of who I am today. He molded me from a little girl into one of his girls, along with Kitty, Tammy, Patsy and Loretta. I’ll miss him dearly.”

Harold Ray Bradley was born Jan. 2, 1926 in Nashville, son of Letha Maie (Owen) and Vernie Fustus Bradley, a tobacco salesman. “If Dad smoked or drank, I never saw him do it,” Harold said, adding, “My dad played a little guitar and wrote story-songs, but not professionally. He was  also a song leader at church.” Harold attended local schools, graduating from Isaac Litton High School, where he also played baseball and reportedly was good enough to attract attention of a Chicago Cubs talent scout. But an arm injury soon ended that prospect.

His idol was brother Owen, 10 years his senior, who began forging his own legacy on the Nashville scene by initially playing piano for WLAC-Nashville radio in 1937, moving to WSM in 1940, eventually rising to the position of music director. When Harold became enthused about playing banjo, Owen warned it was passé, concentrate instead on guitar, so the youngster set his sights on Charlie Christian’s jazz style, but was primarily self-taught.

The Owen Bradley Orchestra, specializing in society events, appeared on the network show Sunday Down South, while Owen was on call for occasional studio sessions for such as Ernest Tubb, who nicknamed him “Half-Moon” Bradley. Decca chief Paul Cohen engaged Owen as an assistant and his first production job was filling in on a session for unknown Kitty Wells in May 1952, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Subsequently that #1 song launched country’s first female superstar, later crowned Queen of Country Music.

Prior to all that, young graduate Harold Bradley heeded the siren call of World War II, and was inducted into the U.S. Navy, age 18. There he was assigned to a Top Secret task of cracking Japanese combat codes, but in off-duty hours started a band to entertain fellow sailors.

Discharged in ’46, he enrolled in George Peabody College on the Vanderbilt University campus, majoring in music under the GI Bill. Thanks to Opry stage manager Vito Pelletteiri, a family friend, Harold landed work at WSM pickin’ for programs spotlighting such stars as Bradley Kincaid and Eddy Arnold.

In 1947, following his Pee Wee King Chicago session, Harold was engaged to play on King Records’ Ivory Joe Hunter’s session at Castle, Nashville’s first non-broadcast studio. As he confided in our interview: “I was the only white musician. Fact is, I’ve got that recording at home. Of course, they misidentified me on the record, saying it was Owen Bradley on guitar. I took it to Owen and said, ‘This is why you’re rich and famous and I’m not. They keep getting us mixed up, you know.’ And later, they did that on my first solo album (‘Misty Guitar’), i.d.’ing Owen as my guitar player.”

Harold’s first #1 disc was Red Foley’s “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” playing rhythm guitar on one of the hottest 1950 releases, topping both country and pop charts. He remembered walking with his mother when a radio blared out the song featuring his pickin’: “I told her, ‘Mother, that’s me,’ and matter of factly she said, ‘That’s nice.’ If you started to get carried away with your success, my mother had a way of bringing you back down to Earth, fast.”

Unlike many musicians, Harold didn’t frequent honky tonks, explaining, “Drinking never interested me. A lot of guys drank to socialize. Socializing to me was playing softball or tennis. Even in the Navy, I didn’t drink. I was sort of shy really . . . I still don’t drink. When you work so much playing sessions, that’s enough time to be with your friends. So whatever time I had away from the studio, I wanted to spend with my family.”

In those younger days, Harold also played in Owen’s band, then using the alias Brad Brady’s Orchestra and appears on Owen Bradley Quintet’s 1949 Top 10 country hit “Blues Stay Away From Me” (also #11 pop) and Top 20 pop recording “The Third Man Theme” (1950). With Owen, he co-produced 39 Country Style USA 30-minute TV variety shows for syndication in the ’50s..

In 1950, Harold married blonde beauty Eleanor Allen, and they would have two daughters Beverly and Bari, daddy’s pride and joy. Meantime, jointly the brothers Bradley built the second non-broadcast recording studio downtown, and later relocated to the Hillsboro area with a combination film and recording studio. In 1954, they constructed the first such studio on what is now Music Row, with a refurbished Quonset Hut (bought up by Columbia Records in 1962) that averaged some 700 sessions annually.

In 1958, Owen became Decca-Nashville’s chief honcho, producing such superstars as Foley, Tubb, Wells, Webb Pierce, Brenda Lee, Bill Anderson, Patsy Cline, Jack Greene, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Even after leaving Decca, Owen continued to produce independent artists of note like Marcia Thornton, k.d. lang and Mandy Barnett (but died four songs into her 1998 session, that was completed by Harold). By the mid-1960s the Bradleys had established their Mt. Juliet suburban studio, Bradley’s Barn.

Owen was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1974, and is seen at the piano in a commemorative statue in Owen Bradley Park at the foot of Music Row.  Of course, Owen passed away Jan. 7, 1998 at age 82.

Harold worked overtime building up his credits, including backing a diverse roster of musical stars, among them Hank Williams, Burl Ives, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Sonny James, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Joan Baez, Perry Como, George Morgan, Connie Francis, Leon Russell, Charley Pride, Marty Robbins, Freddie Hart, Statler Brothers, Martha Carson, Roy Clark and Gene Watson.

“Surely am sad to hear of the passing today of Harold Bradley,” says Watson. “One of the best session players . . . I was fortunate to have Harold as session leader for the ‘Reflections’ LP back in 1978. That’s the album for the first recording we did of ‘Farewell Party’ and ‘Pick the Wildwood Flower.’”

Along with producers Owen, Chet, Ken Nelson, Don Law and Harold and the A Team, they not only built Music Row, but pioneered in developing the Nashville Sound, a sophisticated blending of instruments and arrangements that improved country’s flagging fortunes immensely.

“Who knew we were making history? I kept thinking we’d wake up one morning and all that would be gone. That’s the way I looked at it,” said Harold. It was also in the 1960s that Harold recorded a trio of solo albums, including “Bossa Nova Goes To Nashville” and “Guitars For Lovers.”

Among movie soundtracks boasting Harold’s fleet-fingered touch are Presley’s “Kissin’ Cousins,” “Clambake,” “Stay Away Joe,” Orbison’s “Fastest Gun Alive,” Goldie Hawn’s “Sugarland Express,” Burt Reynolds’ “Smokey & The Bandit II” and Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” in which he also appears in a cameo.

From 1974-1979, he was a recipient of the NARAS Superpicker Award. Another task he’d taken on was producing sessions, including such stellar talents as Slim Whitman, Eddy Arnold and Irish singer Sandy Kelly.

By his own count, Harold has recorded or worked with 83 Country Hall of Famers and 30 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. He was the first Nashville president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) in 1965, serving many years on its board; is recipient of the prestigious Grammy Trustee Award; AFM’s Lifetime Achievement Award; and is a proud member of the Musicians Hall of Fame.

In 2006, Harold was accorded country music’s highest honor, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which makes him and Owen the only two brothers inducted individually (apart from brother acts).

Harold’s widow Eleanor expressed her gratitude for all who came to bid her husband a fond farewell, “Harold would’ve appreciated the thoughtfulness.” Daughter Bari Brooks said her father didn’t suffer too much, “he died peacefully in his sleep.” Daughter Beverly Hill reminded folks that Harold was first and foremost a dedicated family man. Reportedly, however, he had been under dialysis and special treatment prior to his passing.

Preceding him in death were siblings Leon, Owen, Charles, Bobby Bradley, and Ruby Bradley Strange. Both Charles and nephew Bobby Bradley, Jr. were noted sound engineers on the Row,  niece Patsy Bradley was an executive with BMI; nephew Jerry Bradley was RCA’s head man; and his wife Connie an ASCAP executive; while Clay Bradley (Jerry’s son) has been at both BMI and the CMA.

Harold’s legacy will continue to create beautiful music out of Nashville, hopefully via a newly-established Harold Bradley Endowed Scholarship in Belmont University’s Music Business department, to be awarded to outstanding students in the program, with an emphasis on guitar.

Besides his wife and daughters, Harold is survived by grandson Jason Reid Brooks; granddaughter Bethany Ellen Hill; and numerous nieces and nephews. Pallbearers were: Bobby Bradley, Jr., Clay Bradley, John Bradley, Kyle Bradley, Reid Brooks and Hilliard “Trey” Hester. Honorary pallbearers: Mark Stephen Strange, Carl Bradley, Michael Bradley, Jerry Bradley, Steve Davis, Costo Davis, Jimmie Capps, Michelle Capps, Andy Reiss, Pete Wade, Billy Linneman, Tom Lee, Hargus (Pig) Robbins, Charley McCoy, Bob Moore, Lloyd Green, Sam Folio, Ray Edenton, Joe Settlemires and Barry Brooks.

Among others spotted at the Madison Church of Christ, Feb. 4, were Patsy Bradley, Bob Moore, John Minick, Bobby Wright, and Billy Linneman, Harold’s former AFM Secretary-Treasurer, who proclaimed “the program, the music, the videos were really good.” WSM drive-time DJ Bill Cody addressed the crowd, as did former AFM International President Tom Lee, who memorably told us, “You couldn’t have a better ambassador for the city of Nashville than Harold Bradley,” and longtime friend Mandy Barnett sang, as we wistfully recalled his band backing her on the national Tonight Show years ago.

“I was saddened to wake up to the news of the great guitarist Harold Bradley having passed away,” lamented Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. “Harold was Owen’s brother and the two of them left quite a mark on my early career. Owen produced my records and Harold played on most of them. He was a talented, kind, gentle soul, and we were blessed to have had him with us for 93 years. Rest in peace my friend, secure in knowing that you made the world a better place.”

Ruth White, Author-pianist-historian, advocate of Nova Books Nashville . . .

GALLATIN, TN — Author-musician-historian extraordinaire Ruth (Bland) White died Dec. 30, 2016, following a brief illness. Among her books are: “Every Highway Out Of Nashville (Volumes 1 & 2)” “Mecklinburg: The Life & Times Of a Proud People,” “The Original Goober,” “You Can Make It If You Try” (R&B legend Ted Jarrett’s tale), “Nashville Steeler” (bio of picker Don Davis) and “Knoxville’s ‘Merry-Go-Round,’ Ciderville & The East Tennessee Country Music Scene” (Nova Books).

Born in Nashville, daughter of Mary (Jackson) & Thomas Allen Bland, Ruth Carolyn began her association with the music scene at East High School, graduating in 1947. A teen-aged Ruth played piano in a seven-piece band under the baton of Bill Wiseman, touring middle Tennessee. A brief marriage to hi s drummer, Murrey (Buddy) Harman (later a noted member of Nashville’s A Team) was annulled by their parents. 

Ruth sought her music major at the Ward-Belmont College, and worked at the historic Strobel’s Music Store, playing sheet music songs for prospective customers. While married to Bob Kirkham (brother-in-law to noted session singer Millie Kirkham), she moved to Chicago, where she also worked in a major retail store managing their music department. The couple had two children Robert, Jr. and Kathleen, the latter later adopted by Ruth’s third husband, steel-guitarist Howard White, who was playing in Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch Boys band, when they met.

Another assignment she reveled in was station librarian at WSM-650 Radio, where she managed the music files, assisting Grand Ole Opry manager Vito Pellettieri, and pianist Marvin Hughes with his popular WSM-TV Waking Crew programming. Following her 1965 marriage to White, she worked in liaison with him and partner-composer Henry Strzelecki (“Long Tall Texan”) in their Locomotive Music Publishing house and indie label October Records, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. Ruth was also employed at one time or another with Country International Records, Reed Music, and Porter Wagoner Enterprises, managing the Opry star’s production, publishing and booking.

In 2010, Ruth was honored with the industry’s esteemed Source Award, citing her pioneering accomplishments on Music Row. A true daughter of the South, Ruth adhered to the following stanza: “The place where tea is sweet/And accents are sweeter/ Front porches are wide/And words are long/Y’all is a proper noun . . . And someone’s heart is always being blessed.”

According to Kathleen, “Per her wishes, no services will be held, but any remembrance to your local animal shelter would be a comfort to Mom.”

Dennis Duff’s concept CD targets ‘Lyon County’

Dennis K. Duff & Guests
“Songs From Lyon County”
****
Wilson Holler/Hey Mr. TVA/Road To Dover/Night Riders/TC & Pearl/Castle On the Cumberland/Iron Hill/’37 Flood/When I Leave Kentucky
Producers: Dennis Duff & Cody Kilby
Gracey Holler Music – 26:13

Let me introduce you to Dennis Duff, who shoulders some risk in picking up the tab for his concept CD, “Songs From Lyon County (Ky.),” but it was purely personal. Since the singer-songwriter’s somewhat obscure himself, and despite their obvious skills, his guest artists are not exactly household names, meaning this doesn’t bode well sales-wise.
Yet from the opening track – “Wilson Holler” – of this nine-song selection, one senses the sheer passion driving Duff and company on their unique musical journey.
Duff, whom we first heard of, winning the 17th annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest’s country division with his ballad “Man of Few Words,” conducted during MerleFest 2009. Then Dennis went on to pen compositions recorded by more recognizable Bluegrass names like Donna Ulisse and Mo Pitney. Duff’s emotional creation “God’s Front Porch” was a 2011 finalist for IBMA Gospel Song of the Year.
A Kentucky native, Duff’s crafted some truly touching tunes herein reflecting his homeland history, and even offers a fitting tribute to his parents “T.C. & Pearl” on the new album, released Sept. 7, 2018. Guest artists include Bradley Walker, Holly Pitney, Paul Brewster, Josh Shilling and Brooke & Darin Aldridge (Sweethearts of Bluegrass). It’s on the Gracey Holler Music indie label, and Duff co-produced the disc with multi-instrumentalist Cody Kilby, who also engineered. Assisting Kilby instrumentally are Alan Bartram, bass (and backing vocals); Jason Carter and Andy Leftwich, fiddles.
“Lyon County, Ky., has a rich history and some of that history is mine,” recalls Duff, emphasizing, “My roots go back to the mid-1800s, when my ancestors moved from Tennessee to an area located between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers called ‘Tween the Rivers.’ The Civil War, tobacco wars, floods, moonshine, TVA, the iron industry and a steady faith in God have all had a huge impact on Lyon County, its landscape and its people.”
Storyteller Duff points out his songs were inspired by reactions of the folk who populated that region to those events that occurred there: “Some may make you smile, some may make you cry, but I hope they all connect you to the past and take you on a musical journey that you enjoy.”
“Wilson Holler,” a medium tempo tune, concerns moonshiners supplying “Scarface” Al Capone’s Chicago crowd during the turbulent heyday of Prohibition (1920-’33). Paul Brewster not only sings lead on this track, but backs himself harmoniously as well, deftly aided by Cody’s dexterous deliveries on guitar, banjo, dobro and mandolin. Bartram’s acoustic bass pickin’ and Carter’s keening fiddle enhance the cut. Duff’s concise lyrics vividly set the scene: “Up in Wilson Holler/There’s a sweet stream of water flowing/From a rock in the side of a hill . . . Add sugar and the corn/Cook it up a storm/And the moon starts shining/Right outta the Still.”
“Hey, Mr. TVA” has Mr. Duff singing lead, revealing a pleasant enough voice that manages to convey the hurt and humiliation his lyrics express. The song dwells on government’s coarse damming up of the rivers, creating lakes to supply hydroelectric power throughout the Tennessee Valley. Duff laments the battle of wills between the newly-designated agency and generations-old landowners, most too poor to deter the bullying tactics, taking their land: “Sweat and blood of generations, fell to eminent domain/Now the rows of silent tombstones, are all that remain . . . Some say that it was worth it, more was gained than was lost/But only those whose lives were shattered, know how much it really cost.”
Duff also sings the slow-winding “Road To Dover,” and about cell warriors’ “Castle On the Cumberland,” the latter enhanced by Leftwich’s fiddle. (The “Castle,” in case you’re confused, is the Kentucky State Pen in Eddyville.) That’s Brewster rhapsodizing on the upbeat “Iron Hill,” also to fine effect. (He’s fresh from Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder.)
Now “Night Riders,” about a secret organization initially turned this reviewer off, assuming it was glorifying the KKK; however, Duff set us straight, noting it wasn’t the Klan, but impoverished tobacco farmers banding together to revolt against the mighty Duke Trust tobacco empire, trying to starve them out of business. (This was documented by Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, in his non-fiction book “On Bended Knees,” about the Black Patch Wars.) Singer Josh Shilling takes lead here, beautifully backed by the string squad, Kilby, Bartram and Leftwich, that is, as he warns: “When you hear them hoof beat pounding/You know it’s time to change your ways . . . Brother better head for cover, from the Silent Brigade.”
“TC & Pearl,” Dennis’ parental paean proves a tender intro to a hard scrabble couple, who despite the odds stacked against them, stood their ground, “And the winds of fate began to twist and twirl, for TC and Pearl . . .” Brooke Aldridge’s sweet soprano gives credence to this song of praise, and attests to her 2017 IBMA best female vocalist win. No doubt her comfort zone improved immensely by background harmony hubby Darin Aldridge delivered.
The mid-tempo “’37 Flood,” focusing on the flood devastation of January 1937, finds Duff back on mic, adroitly detailing its impact on the Ohio River-area population. Besides bass, Bartram also renders harmony backing. Dennis does have a way with words, “From the Appalachian hills, through the streets of Louisville/To Paducah, they all paid the price . . . The muddy waters flowed from the Ohio, and swallowed everything in sight . . .”
The last track – “When I Leave Kentucky” – is the first single off “ . . . Lyon County,” kicked off by fiddle and mandolin. Duff’s simply portraying musically a love of one’s home turf, vowing never to depart, until it’s time to fly away: “When I leave Kentucky/They’ll lay me in the ground/When I leave Kentucky/You’ll know I’m Heaven bound . . .” Newcomer Holly Pitney’s soft and vibrant vocals match the warm baritone of former IBMA vocalist of the year Bradley Walker, which could make this a potential Bluegrass chart contender. Alabama native Walker, who suffers Muscular Dystrophy, and Moe Pitney’s sister Holly each provide close harmonies, as well, to this ballad, released June 20.
Some may say this sort of historically-oriented concept is eminently predictable and geared more to domestic fans; however, these events are rarely even covered in today’s classrooms. Moreover, these seasoned ears recognize something more challenging than mere history, marking it as aesthetically and culturally significant. Anyway, it’s obviously an album made not necessarily for sales, but simply for pure pleasure. So seek it and enjoy.