He's one of Elvis' biggest fans. So big, that in 1977 he wrote a song called "The King Is Gone". He recorded it and it went on to sell six million copies. That led to an appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Over the years he's charted more than thirty Top 40 hits on Billboard's Country Chart. He enjoyed two number one records on the Country charts, "Older Women" and "You're Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation", while eleven more records went Top Ten. All in all he's recorded more than twenty studio albums. Ronnie McDowell spoke with us about his career and all things Elvis.
Q - You were only six years old when Elvis' records started getting airplay. That being said, what accounts for this fascination you have with Elvis?
A - Well, I'll be totally honest with you. My sister, who was older than me. She would go to Randy's Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee, which was kind of like the world's biggest mail order house for records back in those days. Ironically it was only like fifteen miles from my home town of Portland, so every time somebody would put a record out that she loved she would go get those big 78s. She had a little record player. When she got tired of listening to 'em, I'd listen and listen. Then one day she brought home "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog". I never will forget. I listened to it so much my mother got mad and wouldn't let me listen to it for a while. (laughs) When he came on the Dorsey Show my sister sat me down in front of the TV. She said, "Now that guy's gonna be on, that record you like." It was actually "Heartbreak Hotel", the first record that I heard. She sat me down and all the neighborhood girls, and my Uncle Opie had given us a real small Philco, black and white TV. Of course there was no color thing. And so we watched Elvis on the Dorsey Show and I haven't been the same since.
Q - Did you ever get to see Elvis in concert?
A - You know what Gary? I never laid eyes on Elvis and I'll tell you why, 'cause after I got out of the service, Vietnam, I started working in clubs around Nashville and Bowling Green. I was doing six nights a week, five shows a night. I just always thought well, I'll see Elvis sooner or later when I don't have to work, 'cause I had kids. Of course he passed and I never had the opportunity to lay eyes on Elvis. He came to Murfreesboro, Tennessee right outside of Nashville. He came to the Municipal Auditorium. But like I say, I had to work and I just figured I'd see him sooner or later, but that wasn't meant to be.
Q - I know you made a record about Elvis.
A - Yeah, in '77. "The King Is Gone", six million records.
Q - I was told that Elvis once stopped a show when he saw someone holding a banner saying Elvis Is The King. He said, "There's only one King and I'm not it." Did you ever hear about that?
A - I did. I've heard that. Elvis, as we all know, was deeply religious. I did hear that. He believed that Jesus was The King and not him.
Q - He did not like being called The King.
A - It's kind of like Clark Gable. Clark Gable was called The King Of Hollywood and he hated that title. Ed Sullivan had a contest. Clark Gable and Myrna Loy was Queen. All through Gable's life, until he passed away, he was known as The King Of Hollywood. He always said, "You know, this King stuff is a bunch of bull, bologna. There's no light in me that makes me shine any brighter than anybody else." I always respected Clark Gable for that. He could have played along with that, but he, like Elvis didn't like that title.
Q - Isn't it interesting the biggest stars are like that. They're humble.
A - I have found out that the bigger the star, the nicer they are. For example, I just did a painting of Dolly (Parton) and Elvis because Dolly and I did a duet together not long ago. She told me that Colonel Tom Parker wanted the publishing to "I Will Always Love You". Dolly wanted Elvis to sing that song. She said, "I was not about to give the publishing to Colonel Tom Parker as bad as I wanted him to sing it." She said, "What if I had? Whitney Houston recorded my song. It went to number one for thirteen weeks and the irony of that is Elvis held the record for thirty-five years of number one for twelve weeks." Anyway, I painted Elvis and Dolly on a picnic in Sevierville, Tennessee, and gave her the original. I took the cover off. She jumped back. She said, "Dang, I wish I looked that good", with a few other choice words. (laughs) So, I told her, "Dolly, I would love to do prints of this painting. What do I have to do?" She said, "You don't have to do nothing. Yes, make all the money and all the prints you want."
Q - That was nice of her. Not everyone is like that.
A - That's exactly right. George Jones, same thing. I gave him the original of him getting a DUI on his lawn mower that I painted and he actually called me up and asked me to paint that. Of course, George was my hero, so I painted it. You would've thought I gave him Fort Knox. He said, "Now son, what do we have to do here? What do we have to sign?" I said, "George, we don't have to sign anything. This is yours. The only thing I would like to do is make prints and sell the prints on the road." He said, "Son, you make all the money you want."
Q - How do you sell them? Are you doing exhibitions or are you selling during one of your concerts?
A - I do the art when I'm at home. I'm selling a Walt Disney painting now. I have a five year contract with them as well, but I do that at home during the week. On the weekends I go out and do my shows all over the country, come back home and I have the week off so I can do the paintings. Conway Twitty always gave me that advice. He said, "Son, if you want to do this a long time, work on the weekends and stay at home during the week." And I've been doing that for almost forty years.
Q - You worked with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. Did they ever tell you stories about what it was like to work with Elvis?
A - Oh, Lord, Gary. I've been working with those guys longer than Elvis worked with 'em. As a matter of fact, I started right after "The King Is Gone", working with Scotty and D.J. They told me every story that's ever been told, (laughs) and some that nobody's ever heard. I am a history nut and I'm Elvis' biggest fan and I'm Scotty and D.J.'s biggest fan. As a matter of fact, I was at Scotty's house two weeks ago. I was at D.J.'s house the same day. I sat on the drums and played a little on the drums that D.J. still has with the cowhide front that he played on all of those records. What two interesting historical figures those two guys are and they're still doing great! And I worked with The Jordanaires for thirty something years. They were on almost all of my records.
Q - Did I hear somewhere that Scotty lost his hearing?
A - No. He's got arthritis in his thumbs, so he can't play anymore. Scotty's very much alive. (laughs)
Q - Like Elvis.
A - Oh, yeah. Elvis is always gonna be around. Last night I was with June Juanico in Biloxi and had dinner with her. June was Elvis Presley's girlfriend for two solid years and he asked June to marry him and of course that didn't work out, but she's a very interesting lady, 78. Just a beautiful lady still. She's got stories and pictures that nobody else has.
Q - You joined the Navy in 1968. Did you join to avoid the draft? Music was your first love.
A - I did. I was very shy and in the Navy is where I formed a band and started performing and singing. So, I give a lot of the credit to the Navy to get me out of my shyness. Of course now I'm very un-shy. When I was a kid I just never sang for anybody. I knew I could sing, but just very shy. Painfully shy. But I got out of that.
Q - You had to get out of your hometown before you would sing.
A - That's exactly right. In the first place I ever sang we took a break from fighting in Vietnam and we had a variety show and me and the other two friends entered it. The funny thing about it is, the first song I sang was an Elvis song.
Q - There's that Elvis connection again.
A - Oh, yeah. I've got a lot connections with Elvis. Of course you know I was blessed and honored to be Elvis' voice in that Kurt Russell movie and Elvis And Me with Priscilla. I did thirty-eight songs in each one of those movies, especially with Kurt Russell, it was Movie Of The Year. He was nominated for an Emmy for his role as Elvis Presley. Kurt Russell did such a phenomenal job. He told me Elvis made him a star because after that movie he did Escape From New York with John Carpenter. He was paid twenty million for that role. So yeah, Elvis made him a star.
Q - What was your rank in the Navy?
A - Well, when I first got in of course I was like everybody else. I studied and I worked really hard and by the time I got out four years later I was an E5.
Q - I like the title of your song, "You're Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation". You see, that's the difference between Country and Rock music. You don't get these funny song titles in Rock music.
A - I totally agree and I love that song.
Q - You were exposed to Rock 'n' Roll at a very young age, but you became a Country singer. Why is that?
A - Well, I'll be totally honest with you. The first refrains I ever heard coming over the radio was Hank Williams in '53 and Lefty Frizzell. So, I have a very diverse background that I love. I love all kinds of music. My favorite song out there right now is "Uptown Funk" by Bruno Mars. (laughs) I just love all kinds of music. That's why in a lot of my music I drew from all these people. We all do that. We draw from everywhere. Elvis did the same thing.
Q - It's refreshing to hear that you're not stuck in one time period of music.
A - You know, I did that when I was a kid. I love Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Like I say, Bruno Mars is my favorite artist out there. The irony of that is I have a picture with him when he was four years old at Graceland. I was doing a show. He had a little white jump suit on, but how would we know that kid would grow up to be the Bruno Mars we know.
Q - Bruno Mars was an Elvis fan. That's something I did not know.
A - He was called the Little Elvis. That's what his nickname is still today. He was an Elvis impersonator at four years old with a white jumpsuit. (laughs)
Q - I guess he was destined to be a singer.
A - Oh yeah, but he's such a talented kid.
Q - What does the near future hold for Ronnie McDowell?
A - Well, I'm a songwriter first and foremost. That's how I actually got into this business in the early '70s, out of Vietnam. I wrote songs for everybody. I still do. George Strait makes me a lot of money, but I've just written songs for a lot, a lot of people. I'm still doing that. I write most of my songs driving down the road. I'm writing a song for a new reality show called Making Tracks, which is about the music business. Kids trying to get into the music business and recording tracks. They asked me to write the theme song and that's what I'm doing.
Q - You must have a high powered agent to get you that kind of work.
A - Actually, I do and I don't. People just know that I've written a lot of songs for a lot of people. I've also written theme songs for shows. So they kind of know and they ask me to do it. I love writing songs and I love the process of coming up with the melodies and the lyric. This was a little tough because when you say making tracks you're thinking, hey, I'm out of here. I'm making tracks. But this is about making musical tracks.
Q - Where does this ability come from to write original music? You can't learn that in school.
A - That's exactly the truth. You're either able to do this or not, to write songs. I started when I was very young out of Vietnam, actually in Vietnam. Of course you know the first songs I wrote were very archaic, like dinosaurs now that I listen. It's a learned process and I think over the years what you do, we just get better at it the more we do it.
Q - That's true, but there's a big difference between asking questions and writing a song.
A - Yes. To me, it just goes along with the arts and the entertainment, that right side of the creative brain. You can either do that, you're born with it or you're not.
Q - And that you're still inspired to write songs!
A - When I hear people like Bruno Mars, just again and have that fresh, new material that kid's writing, it actually inspires me. I love what he's coming up with. I just have a very eclectic group of singers and musicians that I love.
Q - Do you have a record deal?
A - I do. I've been with Curb Records since 1984.
Q - Thirty-one years. They must really like you!
A - Well, Mike Curb and I are just really good friends. He's always believed in me and stuck by me.
Q - That's terrific. I hear so many horror stories.
A - I don't like to sour grape and talk bitter about the industry or music. People are always dogging this new Country music, but to me it's just the music for today's generation. And I think it's great. It's what the youth likes and I do too, to be honest with you.