Gary James' Interview With Songwriter
He is one of the most accomplished songwriters in the music world. His songs ave been recorded by Kenny Rogers, Kenny Chesney, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Glen Campbell, Alabama, Julio Iglesias, Dr. Hook, Mac Davis, Roger Miller, Tim McGraw, Joe Cocker, Engelbert Humperdinck and the list goes on and on. His song, "When You're In Love With A Beautiful Woman", recorded by Dr. Hook, went Gold or Platinum in thirteen countries, setting records in Great Britain for staying three weeks at number one. "I Love A Rainy Night", which was recorded by Eddie Rabbitt, went to number one on the Hot 100 Billboard Pop chart for three weeks. And then there's the song he wrote for Kenny Rogers, "Love Will Turn You Around", it received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance, an Academy Of Country Music nomination for Single Record Of The Year, an Academy Of Country nomination for Album Of The Year, an American Music Single, an American Music Award for Favorite Country Vocal. It was number one as well as an Adult Contemporary record, reaching number thirteen on the Hot 100 Pop chart, number one in Canada, and received three million air play status with B.M.I. He's accumulated an unprecedented fifty-three B.M.I. Awards which includes fourteen Pop awards, twenty-six Country awards, one Five Millionaire award, one Three Millionaire award, four Two Millionaire awards, and six One Millionaire awards.
These days he produces and hosts a radio show called The Originals: Inside The World Of Songwriting. Each one hour episode features nine or ten original versions by the songwriter or songwriters who wrote them and some history about their creation. Occasionally he will do short interviews with the writers about their particular song that's featured as well. He's also written his autobiography titled Someday I'm Gonna Rent This Town (Heritage Builders). And if all that isn't enough, he just happens to be my 2000th interview.
Q - I was watching Anthony Bourdain on CNN recently. He said that Nashville is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. One hundred people a day are moving there. I'm assuming that a vast majority of those people are moving to Nashville in search of fame and fortune. Is there that much opportunity for singer / songwriters and musicians in Nashville right now?
A - I'd say there's probably less with the amount of people that are coming, with the songwriters that are coming. There's probably less opportunity not only because of the amount of songwriters that are coming, but the charts are dominated pretty much by major corporations that have limited play lists. So, it's a good news, bad news situation. If you're a songwriter waiting to get songs by an artist, there's less artists that are looking for one thing because they don't have as many spots on the charts for them. But if you do get a cut by anyone and it's on the charts, it lasts longer and it's more lucrative, but your chances of getting on there are just less.
Q - You have a chapter on Ralph Emery in your book where you write, "Those were the days in Nashville, loose and free. People were actually happy for your success and eager to help you in any way they could." I take it that's not the case these days?
A - Well, I don't know if it's less. There's just more competition I guess. I play a lot of different festivals. I just got back from Captiva, Florida and there's a Keg West festival. I play all over the place, festivals. The people aren't sitting there thinking, "His songs aren't as good as my songs." (laughs) People are enjoying it. When you play in Nashville you kind of get that thing. There's songwriters in the audience and you can tell you're kind of under the gun and they're trying to sum you up and wonder if you're better than they are or they are better than you are. That sort of thing. So, that kind of happens a little bit in Nashville, but it's still a friendly place. There just was more camaraderie. It was almost every night you could be at somebody's house, passing the guitar around, playing songs for each other and getting kind of some feedback without any real jealousy.
Q - And what year would that have been?
A - Well, I got here in the '70s so it was that way then. I was very lucky to come here when I did. As I said, in the book people like Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury and John Hartford were just starting to break through in Country music. Before that it was more Honky Tonkin', real hard Country kind of acts that were recording and it was starting to open up to a little more exploration musically and lyrically. I probably wouldn't have stayed around if that wasn't happening because I felt that I maybe couldn't fit into that kind of category of Country music 'cause I was from California at the time by way of Ohio, but I'd been in California for awhile and I was into everything from Dylan to Cash to Creedence Clearwater Revival. So I had kind an eclectic taste more than just hard Country.
Q - Page 43 in your book, "The truth be known, secretaries basically run the Nashville music business. If you don't hit it off with them you might as well hang it up, getting to see their bosses." That's an interesting point that I've never read before. It makes sense. They control the access to the decision makers. So, how do you hit if off with the secretaries? Do you offer to take them to lunch?
A - No. (laughs) You just are real with them and cordial with them. There's no real secret to it. You just aren't an idiot, being an ass, an egomaniac or something. They just kind of make the decisions who gets to see their bosses, so you want to be their friends. A lot of those secretaries I've known go up through the ranks and become A&R people at labels and heads of publishing companies and working for B.M.I. So, you don't really burn any bridges in Nashville. It's not a good thing to do.
Q - Probably the same can be said of New York and Los Angeles as well.
A - Well, I think it's a good lesson to kind of keep in your mind.
Q - You didn't like life on the road. You wanted to live the life of a songwriter, no boss, no timetables. But if you're a staff writer for a song publishing company, and I don't know if you were, you almost have to produce something on a regular basis, don't you? You're on a deadline.
A - Well, you're not on a deadline, but you pretty much have to I'd say at the end of a year or so have some recordings of your songs. They're usually fronting you money and giving you an advance on future royalties that they're going to make. If you don't start getting recordings that generate some money then they move on to somebody else, try somebody else. I never had that problem of not producing 'cause I write a lot of songs. I've got probably 1,600 songs on tape that I've written, demos, 'cause I didn't feel they were good enough. So, I've never had the problem of not generating enough songs and I've been lucky to get recordings. I've never had a publishing deal that didn't work out for somebody, but that's kind of the way it goes. If you don't produce something that gets recorded fairly soon, I'd say within a year, sometimes two, you probably get moved on and somebody else will be taking your place at that publishing company.
Q - Where do you think this songwriting talent of yours comes from?
A - I don't know. I was telling someone the other day; I came across some cassettes of songs that I came to Nashville with that I was pitching around and expecting George Jones and different people to record it, when I listen to it I say, "Man, it was so off." I didn't even know what I was singing about. It was so esoteric, the lyric. It wasn't what was being recorded in Nashville. I thought they were crazy for not recording them at the time. When I look back I was lucky I found a mentor, Jim Malloy, who saw some talent in me. When I talked to him recently I said, "What'd you see?" He said, "I just thought you'd make it. I thought you had the drive and the smarts enough to learn and to get into the craft of songwriting." In Nashville it is a craft as well as a talent. I always use the analogy that people listen to music, and quite often the first thing they hear, the first time they hear it, is on the car radio. And they're in their own world. They're not asking themselves I wonder what this guy's got to offer. They're in their own world thinking about their children, their work, what they're going to do this weekend. If you don't suck them into your song the first minute, you don't have a hit song. So that's how the craft of hits songs works. Either the beat, the sound, the first lyric. Something has to draw them out of their world into your world. That to me is the key of a hit in Country, Pop or any kind of a hit.
Q - I know Nashville has Belmont College and they must have classes in songwriting. But they can't teach you how to write a song, can they?
A - I don't know. My wife actually has a music degree from Belmont. She learned a lot about music, I know that. Yesterday, Hugh Prestwood, who wrote the song "Remember When" and "Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart" for Randy Travis and so many other great songs, he was actually at my house yesterday. We're friends. I was interviewing him for my radio show. He taught for twenty-two years at the New College. I don't know where that is. I think it's in New York or Boston. I can't remember where he said. He taught songwriting and he said out of all those years and all the hundreds of people that went though the course he taught in songwriting, he thought only ten of 'em really had it. That really surprised me. He said there were lots of people that wrote songs and they were good songs, but only ten of 'em had something special and magic.
Q - Did any of those ten people go on to become famous songwriters that you and I would have heard of?
A - I don't know. He just said there was a chance these people had it.
Q - Some of the greatest songwriters, Lennon and McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel for example, can crank out one hit song after another. Can you do that? I know you're written a lot of hit songs, but does that talent come naturally for some people?
A - Well, nobody's an overnight success. Take Vince Gill for example. I knew Vince when he couldn't get arrested. Song after song he put out and they didn't make it. He was very frustrated. Then when he hit, he put those exact same records out and they were hits. So there's no guarantee you're going to have a hit even if you have a hit song. It's just kind of up in the air. There's a magic that happens if your song comes out at the right time for what the world needs or wants I guess. There's really no secret to it that I know of. I just write 'em and I don't try to fit in with what's happening on the radio because by the time you get 'em recorded, written, demoed and placed, so much time passes that trends can likely be over, so I just wait for something to come that will impress myself and be magic to me. Then hopefully it will be magic to somebody I play it for and they want to record it.
Q - When Kenny Rogers would have one of his records played on the radio, I knew his voice. When Eddie Rabbitt came on with "I Love A Rainy Night", I knew that was Eddie Rabbitt. Today, I can't tell you the difference between Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean. Can you do that?
A - I really can't.
Q - I knew you'd say that.
A - My wife and I were sitting at the airport and they had a Country station on. I would say eight songs were played, and six of 'em I
couldn't tell who it was. I couldn't tell the difference between some of the singers. There's a sound that's dominating vocally and a certain accent. I don't know how to explain it. I've been lucky to be involved with very distinctive voices like Lacy J. Dalton, Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt. They're very recognizable. Really the big hits, it's usually somebody that as soon as they come on, you know the voice. Hugh said something very interesting yesterday. We were talking about Jimmy Webb who wrote all the Glen Campbell hits. He said, "Every songwriter needs a Glen Campbell." (laughs) I thought that was pretty important.
Q - Just try to find a guy like that!
A - The songs fit him so well.
Q - I believe it was Lori McKenna who wrote this beautiful song, "Girl Crush" for Little Big Town. Isn't that what Country music needs more of? That's a unique song!
A - It's a Song Of The Year. It's so unique. They had another unique song, "Pontoon". Miranda Lambert had "The House That Built Me". Those songs are very unique. I think that's the key to a huge hit instead of just an average hit. I saw a quote by somebody the other day that said, "Hit songs have had their run. Great music lasts lasts forever." I think that's kind of right.
Q - For you, The Beatles were your inspiration?
A - They were. As I said in the book, I had this neighbor who lived down the street from me. I lived in a town of 260 people in Ohio. He was five years older than me. A really great guy. He's still one of my best friends. One day he said, "What are you listening to?" I said, "Oh, Chubby Checker, Leslie Gore, everything on the radio." He goes, "Hey, c'mon down to my house. Let me play you some stuff." He played me Buddy Holly, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison and Elvis. Now, Elvis didn't really shake my timbres much, but all those other ones, all of a sudden I went, "Oh, that's the kind of music I love right there." The Beatles, the same thing happened later when they came out. It happened to a lot of people, not just me. But they were so unique and so friendly or something. I immediately started growing my hair. They changed society. They changed everything. I ended up in California in Haight - Ashbury when that music was dominating it as well. They were still the dominating source of music.
Q - By the time you got to California, the British Invasion had given way to the Americans. They were leading the way. It was back in their court.
A - It was, but The Beatles' songs were still dominant. "Sgt. Pepper" came out right at that time. It was the dominant album of all time really. They still were the voice of that movement. The other people came with that movement. That's why they got popular too I think. Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, The Doors. All those people were still on the heals of The Beatles.
Q - You saw a lot of those groups. You used to go to The Fillmore and The Avalon Ballroom, The Family Dog, Winterland. Did you in fact see The Doors?
A - I never saw The Doors. I don't know why. They weren't one of my favorite groups anyhow. I remember "Light My Fire" was really huge. It went on for seven minutes, but I was into other things. They didn't really interest me that much for some reason. I guess I just passed them by. There was so much to see from the list I have in my book. That's just what I could remember I'd seen. But it was almost every night in San Francisco you could go somewhere and see something great.
Q - With so much gong on then, is it possible you did see The Doors but you just don't remember it?
A - It's possible, but I don't think I did. I don't think I ever did see them. But they didn't have a very long run. They weren't dominant very long. A couple of years. I was out there three or four (years).
Q - What was the atmosphere like at some of these venues you frequented? Was it a concert setting?
A - Well, everyone was very high. They were either high on pot or LSD or mescaline. It was pretty much the regular thing. What was great about it was it didn't have seating where you had to sit in a seat and listen to 'em. Everybody was roaming around. If you wanted to, you could make your way to the front and lean on the stage. I saw Jimi Hendrix burn his guitar about three feet from my face. A lot of people wanted to get as close as they could to the speaker system. There were fantastic light shows going on the whole time. Not only on the stage, but on the sides. It was just an experience. It really was, but I've got to say everybody was on drugs pretty much I would think.
Q - After the show, could you have gone to the back door and met Hendrix if you wanted to or was there security that would have stopped that?
A - There wasn't security like there is now, but they didn't let you go backstage. That would've been crazy. I actually worked with a band as a roadie one time, a group called Catfish. I know they wouldn't let people back there because Rod Stewart was on the show at the Fillmore when we were there. They would've been swamped with people. So that wasn't common.
Q - Had you gone to the backstage door and wanted a Hendrix autograph could you have gotten him to sign something for you?
A - Maybe, but I didn't care about that part of it.
Q - You were also in New York City going to clubs like The Peppermint Lounge and The Cafe Wha? Those were hot spots for celebrities. Did you ever see any famous people there?
A - Not that I know of. Not really. This was before I went to California and I was in the Coast Guard at the time. I was stationed in Staten Island and the kind of duty I had was we would go out to sea for thirty days on this ship and we came back in for two or three weeks and I was off a lot. I would go and live an alternative life kind of and go into the city and go into those places. I was from Ohio. I didn't know anything at that time. I was eighteen years old and kind of an idiot. (laughs) I used to go to Times Square and Peppermint Lounge and at 2 A.M. walk home through Central Park by myself thinking it was okay. It's a wonder I'm alive. So, I was just there to drink and have fun, but the music was great. I saw G.E. Smith of Saturday Night Live play the Metropole quite often when I'd go there and he was great. I went to see him a lot. I didn't know who he was, but the band was great. I recognized him when he got on Saturday Night Live. He can sure play the guitar. He's great.
Q - You met Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones.
A - I did.
Q - You said that was "a hoot." Why did you say that?
A - (laughs) It was over in France, at Cannes. I was over there for a music business meeting they have every year. I have a friend who works at ASCAP right now and he was showing me around. He knew everybody. He said, "Hey, you want to meet somebody?" He knew Bill Wyman. I think at the time he was still in The Rolling Stones. Very nice fella. I spent a little time around him. He just seemed very nice.
Q - What year was that, do you remember?
A - Well, I was there when "Rainy Night" was number one. I was with my attorney in Monte Carlo in a casino actually at St. Tropez and he got a call and said, "You just went number one on the Pop charts for "I Love A Rainy Night". I guess it was about '83.
Q - You were friends with Paul Davis.
A - I was. I was very good friends with him. He was a wonderful guy.
Q - I picked up the paper one day and he was gone. What happened to him?
A - That was a super person right there. Never a mean streak in that guy ever. He was wonderful. I'm not sure how he died. I think it may have been heart trouble. I'm not sure. He got shot on Music Row one time and almost died. He got shot in the lung. Some guy was trying to rob him and his girlfriend or a girlfriend he was dating came out. I think he was trying to take his girlfriend off and he stood up to him and the guy shot him and he was in bad shape for awhile. But he made it through it. She didn't get taken either.
Q - That was probably long after he had those hit records.
A - Yes, I think so. He was having some Country hits. They had a triple kind of thing with Paul Overstreet and Tanya Tucker and him during that time. He had a hit by Dan Seals. He was having some hits in the Country field. But he had that "I Go Crazy" and "'65 Love Affair". This was before I met him. When I met him I just thought he was super. He could not write a song for months and then he'd sit down at the piano and magic would just come out of his fingers. He was so good. If ever there was a singer who didn't go with his look it was him. He looked like Jesus and sounded like Michael Buble. He has a very interesting voice. He was so fun to write with. Such a good guy.
Q - It's funny you should say that. When I interviewed him I told him he sounded like Bobby Darin.
A - And he's from Georgia I think. He talked with a real heavy accent. He was as Country as you could be.
Q - Can inspiration strike at any time, or is songwriting something you can turn on and turn off?
A - Well, I could. I could write about anything at anytime.
Q - Do you though?
A - I don't do that though. A lot of people do it nine to five or whatever. There are many people that write that way and have great success with it. I just could never do that. I wait for it to come. Sometimes it'll come when I'm watching TV and sometimes when I'm in the car. Quite often when I'm in the car. It'll come just by something I think of or someone says or sets me off to thinking that's a great idea about life or something. I just wait for something to hit me. After writing so many songs it's really a matter of wanting to write something I've never written before and never touched on before. I don't want to write songs just for the sake of writing them. I want to try and write something fantastic.
Q - You pretty much have to keep your eyes and ears open all the time, don't you?
A - I drive my wife crazy 'cause I like to have the TV on all the time. I really do like ideas from television. I really do. I'll be really interested in watching TV and if something hits me, I can write a song while it's on and I'll never hear a word that's been said for hours. I'll just leave it on. I don't hear it at all. My ears turn off to that and I listen to my own brain. I don't know how to explain it. It's what you wait for. I think I said in the book if I don't write a song for two or three months, it doesn't bother me. I've got other interests. I like to paint. I like to fish. I like to spend time with my family and friends. I don't get desperate. I don't think I'm dried p. Sometimes I'll go months without going down to my studio and then all of a sudden I'll spend months in there. That's the way I do my best stuff. I don't try to force it. I just wait for it.
Q - Everything starts with a song, doesn't it?
A - I'll say. I think it begins with a songwriter actually. (laughs)