Gary James Interview With Songwriter
Wayne Carson

He's written hit songs for a lot of people, people like Elvis, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, The Box Tops, B.J. Thomas, Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, Gary Stewart, Johnny Paycheck, and the list goes on and on. Two of his most recognizable songs are "The Letter", which The Box Tops made famous, and "Always On My Mind", which both Elvis and Willie Nelson recorded. "Always On My Mind" won Grammy Awards in 1983 for both Song Of The Year and Best Country Song. In 1982, "Always On My Mind" went to number one on the Billboard Charts. The Country Music Association named it Song Of The Year in 1982 and 1983. In 1982, The Nashville Songwriters Association International named it Song Of The Year and The Academy Of Country Music named it Single Of The Year. "The Letter" was nominated for two Grammys. In 1987, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame. We are talking about Wayne Carson.

Q - You talk at seminars designed to help songwriters. When you come right down to it, isn't the ability to write a song a God-given gift? Can you teach someone how to write a hit song?

A - No.

Q - That's what I thought you'd say.

A - I can teach them how to think about writing a song. Nobody's ever taught anybody how to write a song.

Q - Have you ever had someone go to one of your seminars and come back later and say "Thanks to you, I've written a song that's become a hit."

A - Yeah. Lots of times. Not at seminars, but advice I've given certain people. They've had hit records. Nothing comes to mind right now. A guy by the name of Mark Irwin wrote a tune. I can't remember the name of it now. He had a hit song and he came back to me and said "Thanks for what you told me. I took it to heart and wrote some songs." I've had several people tell me that. I don't think about those things, so they don't come to mind, but that has happened on several occasions.

Q - Do you get up these days with the idea of trying to write a song every day or every week?

A - No. (laughs) I never did that.

Q - Are you still in the business?

A - Yeah, but I'm not as active as I used to be. It's more or less a young man's game. Although they've about run out of forty ways to talk about my truck, my dog and my tattoos.

Q - Where would a guy like yourself draw inspiration from?

A - Same place as always. I don't know. It's just there. I guess I was either born inspired or I've always thought it was part of the universe. You kind of reach out and get it if it's there. If it's in your vicinity you kind of reach out and get a hold of it. Songs are like kids. You name 'em. They grow up. They grow in to whatever they're gonna be. But you just give 'em a name and you tell the story.

Q - I know you've written "Always On My Mind" and "The Letter", which were hits. But have you written other hit songs as well?

A - Oh, yeah. A lot of 'em. "No Love At All" - B.J. Thomas. "I See The Want-To In Your Eyes" - Conway Twitty. "Something's Wrong In California" and "Tulsa" with Waylon Jennings, "Who's Julie" with Mel Tillis. I wrote all Gary Stewart's... "She's Actin' Single, I'm Drinkin' Doubles"...all of his career practically. Yeah, I've written quite a few things.

Q - You parents were both professional musicians. Did they ever talk to you about the pitfalls of the music business?

A - No. There was never anything like that. My mother was on my side. My Dad said Rock 'n' Roll will be dead as hell in six months. That was fifty years ago when Rock 'n' Roll was born. He said nobody will remember who Elvis Presley was.

Q - Was he ever wrong!

A - Yeah, well a lot of people thought that. Hell, they tried to get Elvis Presley banned on TV and did get half of him banned. They wouldn't show him from the waist down.

Q - So you had to pursue your songwriting career just like everybody else had to.

A - Well, yeah. My heroes were Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and my wife.

Q - Your wife?

A - (laughs)

Q - Getting back to your parents.

A - My mother was on my side. She sort of stayed on my side. They were both terrific entertainers in their own right. My Dad was more of a front man than he was anything else. He had a 17 piece Western Swing band. My mother was in that band, but she was more or less the musical director you might say. Well, that's what they'd call her today. She was the brains of the outfit and my Dad was the smile and the salesman.

Q - As a teenager you played in Denver rock 'n' roll bands?

A - Well, I was in Denver part of the time. See, I was raised all over the country. I was that kid raised in a trunk.

Q - A good background for a musician, but you turned to the songwriting.

A - Yeah, but I did a lot of traveling. I used to open shows for people like Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard, Hank Thompson, Roy Clark. Hell, everybody in the business. You name it. And my brother was a concert promoter. Back in the early days he kept me pretty busy.

Q - Would I have heard of him?

A - Wildwood Productions out of Montana. He booked everybody in the business at one time or another.

Q - He just booked Montana?

A - Hell, he booked the great Northwest, Alaska. He was about the first one to really book acts into Alaska. Hell, I've been to Alaska 13 times, working for him. He's passed now, bless his heart.

Q - You moved to Nashville in 1962?

A - No. I came to Nashville in 1962. My first time with Si Simon.

Q - What was Nashville like in 1962?

A - Well, you could still smell the coal smoke in the air. It was a whole lot different in those days. It was a whole lot smaller of course. Town was downtown. If you got out as far as Green Hills, it turned into country real quick. There wasn't anything called Green Hills back in those days. That was just farm land. Nashville wasn't very big back then.

Q - How long did it take you to write "The Letter"?

A - About 5 minutes.

Q - 5 minutes? Words and music?

A - Yup.

Q - It just came that easy?

A - Well, yeah. Like I said, a song ain't nothing but a story waiting for somebody to tell it. It's like putting one foot in front of the another. If you know the story, it's like anything else. You put the pieces together and sing it.

Q - Did you like The Box Tops version of the song?

A - Oh, sure. Listen, I like anybody, anytime that ever records anything of mine or even sings it. I don't dis-like anybody ever singing one of my songs and I don't care for what reason it is.

Q - How long did it take you to write "Always On My Mind"?

A - About 10 minutes. I wrote those verses in Springfield, Missouri at my kitchen table and I carried that around for about a year. I sang it one time for Chips Moman, my producer at that time and my old friend. I had just cut a version of "No Love At All" that B.J. Thomas later had the number one record on. I was sitting there and said "What else do you want to cut?" He said "Let's do that mind song." And we did a version of "Always On My Mind" and it didn't have a bridge. Chips said "I think it needs a bridge. Why don't you go write a bridge for it and we'll cut it again." In the meantime that's how I accrued the two co-writers, Johnny Christopher and Mark James. Both came in while I was sitting there at that old piano upstairs in Chip's office. I asked them "Why don't you help me with this song? I gotta do a bridge for this song so I can cut it tonight." Musicians are all downstairs you know. So Johnny sat down and said "We didn't come up with anything." And Mark sat down and said "I think you got it finished." I said "Well I do too, but Chips wants a bridge," and so we wrote those two little lines. It would never have been the same song I'm sure without those two lines, but that's how that all came about. But it didn't take me long. It never takes me long to write a song. Like I said, it's just out there. All you gotta do is reach out and gather it up and put it together. (laughs)

Q - When Elvis released that record, I think the public thought he was singing about Priscilla.

A - Well, he was.

Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?

A - Oh, yeah.

Q - What did he tell you he liked about that song?

A - Well, I didn't ever see him after he cut "Always On My Mind". I never saw him again. I saw him in Memphis when we did the "Elvis In Memphis" album, "Suspicious Minds", "In The Ghetto" and all that stuff. I played and sang on some of that record and got to spend a day with him. I really liked him. He was a great guy.

Q - Was that the first time you met Elvis?

A - Yeah. Red West is the guy who was responsible for getting "Always On My Mind" to Elvis. Red West worked for him. Red was a bodyguard for Elvis. Red was also an actor. In fact, he used to star as the mechanic in The Blacksheep Squadron.

Q - Do you feel the best songs are yet to come?

A - Well, I don't know that the best ones are, but I think there's some awful good ones that I have to offer. My problem is not having the songs, it's getting them heard.

Q - Wait a minute. You're a hit songwriter. How can that be a problem?

A - (laughs) Well, believe me, it is. It's a pretty fast-paced world. A lot of people have a tendency to forget who you are and what you've done. If you start to get a few years on you, they think you're out of touch. So you've got to be represented to the hilt with attorneys and agents. It's an appointment world. An appointment to see a producer. It isn't like it used to be, where you could take a god-damned hit song in and say "Listen, give me three minutes and listen to this." Those days are gone. It's all downloads. It's not record sales anymore. If you're not part of the organization that owns Beyonce, then you're not in the loop, therefore I don't give a shit how good your song is, you can't get arrested in those circles of friends. Those are usually owned by the writers and the producers, the record company, the little record company they started and the deal they made with whatever major label they've got. It's like the old days in Scotland. Everybody had their own castle. Everybody had their own little army. (laughs) That's the way the record business is. If you're not part of somebody's little castle, well, you're kind of out in the proverbial cold. That's why it's important to have a backlog of songs that pre-dates all that stuff and fortunately I do.

Q - So, for a young songwriter coming up, they're going to have a tougher time.

A - Well, I don't know that it's much tougher. It's much different. I'm not willing to kiss as many rumps as it takes to get a song even heard anymore, let alone... and by the time you get done making deals... you come in with a song you wrote and you own totally, you walk out with 15% of it.

Q - That bad?

A - By the time the producer wants a cut of his, and the production company wants a deal for part of theirs, and the artist and the management and the record label. Everybody gets a part of that song. I'm not saying it happens all the time, I'm gonna tell you 90% of the time. You gotta be willing to make a deal. That's why it's important to own your own songs, 'cause you might walk out with 25% if you're lucky. I see it happening right here in Country music. Hell, by the time these vultures get through picking everything they can pick off it, and then they don't want to pay the writers. I can name you, but I won't, some awfully big artists and awfully big agents that owed a lot of money to some pretty small writers. They end up saying I'm going to audit your company and then they get mad. Then they counter sue. Outside of politics, I think the music business is about as nasty a business as I've ever encountered. You got to have somebody that represents you. I do anyway, because if I didn't, I'd end up shooting somebody. I'm serious. If I had to do business starting over today, about the first one of them that stepped on my toes hard enough, I'd just put a bullet in 'em. You're not gonna do that to me. They're not just doing that to you, but your song and your song is forever. Some of those writers got a pretty sweet deal, but then again you got to keep in mind they're giving up 50% of their song walking in there. They think somebody's doing them a favor by taking a great song that they might've written and recording it. Then they convince these guys and girls they're doing 'em a favor by recording a great song. That's why I've just kind of backed away from the whole situation and said "Good luck! You all can be fighting about this." I'd rather be fishing anyway.

Q - I knew it was bad, but...

A - This sounds like a bunch of complaints, but it's not. There's a difference between complaints and facts. It's not because I'm out of the loop or getting older. Hell, I wouldn't be in that loop to start with. I've had every opportunity to get in the loop. I didn't like it when there was a loop going before.

Q - Who is the loop today?

A - The loop is the small circle of friends that surround any given artist. That's the producer, the label, the publishing companies that want to split your product with you. They usually own the artist and produce the artist. They have made the deal with whatever three labels I guess, the major labels that are left. They have made those deals. They've got obligations to fulfill on the inside, so while they're doing that they're taking a piece of what belongs to you. That's the loop. I don't want no part of it. It's like saying I'll let you run your horse in this race, but I want 25% for the right to let you do that. Well, the hell with that. I'll take m horse down the road. (laughs) And like I said, go fishing.

Q - That's very discouraging. When you have a system like that in place, you can't hope to develop talent.

A - Well see, people can't get their hands on your copyright. That's one thing they can't do. They can't get a handle on what you own, but they can get a handle on the money that's made before it comes to that copyright. In other words, royalties. Ad if you sign an agreement saying I'll give you 25% of my royalties if you'll cut my song, then they got it. I hear about these awful deals people are signing. People love Country music. They come to Nashville, Tennessee and they've got these songs and they want to get 'em cut and they're anxious to get 'em cut and somebody offers 'em a deal and they sign on the dotted line and didn't realize they've signed away half of what they're gonna make on the song. They've signed it to a cheesy little contract that gives 'em maybe $200, $300, $400 a week and they gotta pay that money back first. So, if they've been here for a year before signing anything gets cut, then all of a sudden they get it cut, all the money they've drawn in the front has to be paid back. The demo costs have to be paid back. The production costs have to be paid back. All this stuff falls down to the writers side. Those are the deals they're offering and people are signing 'em, so consequently they don't walk off with nearly the money they earned.

Q - What's the alternative?

A - There is no alternative. The alternative should be that the publisher works for the writer, not the writer working for the publisher. See, this all get screwed around when record labels got interested in publishing. They realized therefore the real longevity of the music business. So, a record company said, well let us just have a big publishing company and when somebody walks through the door with a hit song, we'll see if we can't get the publishing first. That way we'll always have the publishing. We can put it out and we'll get the royalties and we can control the money. So that's the way it all started. As late as 1972, there was only one recording label in this town that had a publishing company.

Q - Let me guess. Mercury Records?

A - No. United Artists. They bought a little company called April Blackwood, which was actually a big company. United Artists bought that company just in case somebody walked through that door and didn't have a publisher. We'll publish your song for you. They saw how easy it was and the other people caught on. What we have in Nashville is very simple: we have artists, production companies and labels that are owned and operated really and run by the publishing company.

Q - Isn't that something?

A - Well yeah, it's something. I don't know what you'd call it. I'd call it a lock. Back to your original question, it makes it pretty tough for an independent writer and publisher like myself to get a song cut on a major act. All those deals are cut and dried deals. When you got that many people willing to give up so much of the songs they write... there's only so many songs you can write about the same old thing with the same old melody. It bores me to tears to honest with you. I hear great songs so seldom anymore. The rest of 'em just kind of run together. They all sound the same. They all sing the same lyrics. Just different keys, different tempos. I'm afraid to sing a song that's original out in public because there'd be five or six people re-writing the son-of-a-bitch in twenty-four hours. It's just that way.

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