Who were your musical influences?
Probably, my biggest influence was Hank Williams. Because, at the point where I was in my life, I was a teenager and just learning to play guitar, and just getting interested in writing songs, and, of course, he was the hottest thing that was going at that time. And, I sensed an honesty in his music, I felt, "Here's the guy that wrote it, here's the guy that's singing it, and he was the biggest influence. There were others, but he was the biggest.
And, how old were you when you got into radio?
I got into radio when I was 18. That's when I got my first disc jockey job. I had had radio programs, music stuff and all, but that was the first job I had as an announcer.
Is this how you first made contact with publishers?
Yeah. Because I was on the other end, the publishers and record companies were courtin' me back then, (laughs) wanting me to play their music.
So I had, I wouldn't say an open door, but I wound up with a lot of names and addresses, anyway.
So, when the time came, you pulled that little book out, didn't you?
That's exactly what I did. And began sending letters out to all of 'em, and there was a guy down in Texas, named Bob Tanner, who had a publishing company and a record company called TNT. That was TNT Records and TNT Music. He responded to me, and wrote me a letter, and I'll never forget what he said. He said, "Well, you never know where the next hit's coming from, so send me what you got."
And, before it was over, I sent him a little song called "City Lights," and, he was right. You never knew where the next hit was coming from (laughs).
Did you go to Nashville with the intention of being a writer or a singer?
By the time I came to Nashville, that was quite a bit later, but by the time I came to Nashville, I came on the strength of the writing, because of "City Lights." But, I had been working with a band, back in high school, and I had a band in college, and, in the back of my mind, I wanted to be an artist. I didn't know if I could or not. But, the songwriting opened the door, and I was hoping to be an artist.
Some of the writers who were your contemporaries at that time had been sidemen for other people. People like Roger Miller, Mel Tillis and Willie Nelson. Was there a community among the writers, that is to say, that if you could write, you were in?
No, I don't think so ... I think I came here before Willie Nelson did, but no, I don't think it was, in that sense.
Well, I guess what I meant to say was, was there a community in the sense that you would hang around together and support each other?
Yeah! There was a certain amount of that, yeah. In my case, of course, it was Roger, and Mel Tillis, Donnie Young - who later became Johnny Paycheck ...
Right, though I'm sure some people don't know that.
Yeah. And yet, there was a strange thing that doesn't exist now. And that was that if I wrote for one publishing company and Mel Tillis wrote for another publishing company, we couldn't write together. Because the companies didn't split copyrights and things back in those days. So, yes, there was a sense of community and yet there was this wall between us. And I think that's why you see more co-written songs today than you did back then.
So, you and Roger must have been with the same publisher.
Roger and I were, yeah. Roger and Donnie and I were with the same one. Mel was with Cedarwood, with Wayne Walker and John D. Loudermilk and Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill and that bunch, and they all wrote together.
I wrote some with Roger, I wrote some with Jerry Crutchfield, I wrote some with Buddy Killen. I didn't do a lot of co-writing until just, recent years. Most of the stuff I did by myself back then.
You and Roger did write a couple of hits though, didn't you?
The only thing that Roger and I wrote was the thing called, "When Two Worlds Collide."
Oh, yeah; sure.
And he had a hit on that, and Jim Reeves; a lot of people cut it.
And your first session was with Decca (Records)?
First session as an artist?
Yeah, that was with Decca. Actually, my first was while I was still in Georgia, for TNT Records, but, if you mean my first session after I got to Nashville ...
Yeah, that was with Decca.
Did you work with Owen Bradley right off the bat?
Yeah. Owen signed me and told me that I wasn't the greatest singer he ever heard, but he sure did like my songs, and he said, "If you want to try to make some records, I'm willin'." I told him, "I'm ready and you're willin'," so that was a good combination.
Was Owen one of those very cooperative producers, or was he more of the demanding, controlling type?
Oh, no; I never felt like I worked for him, I always felt like I worked with him. He was ... absolutely the greatest. You could write a textbook on how to produce records, how to treat artists, how to treat people, and you could put Owen Bradley's picture on the cover. He was the ultimate.
But, since those were your songs, did he perhaps defer more to you sometimes on how to do certain things?
Occasionally; yeah, he would. He would certainly listen to my ideas. He certainly didn't like everything that I took him. I had to beg him to let me record "Mama Sang A Song," which actually became my first Number One record. And yet, when we finally decided to do it, he jumped in there with both feet and came up with so much of that great arrangement.
I mean, I had the idea of doing the (snippets from) hymns and things on it, between the verses, but he breathed life into it. Owen and I worked very well together. If I had an idea or a thought, he would listen; his mind was not closed at all. And yet, I knew and respected the fact that he had the final say.
And, you actually went "Pop" there with "Mama Sang A Song" and "Still."
Well, you were getting into Jim Reeves territory there, and Patsy (Cline) and so forth, crossing over to Pop.
True. And Marty Robbins, and Johnny Cash, and Johnny Horton ...
And some of Patsy's, and Jim Reeves' stuff, and like that. Yeah, I was lucky, because when that happened, it opened up a much broader world for me.
What did you think when you heard the Walter Brennan version of "Mama Sang A Song?" (NOTE: Brennan was a noted character actor who, at the time, was starring in the TV series The Real McCoys. He had a huge pop/country hit with "Old Rivers." -- T.W.)
I thought I'd died and gone to heaven (laughs). Boy, I was, and still am, a gigantic fan of Walter Brennan. The only regret is that I never met the gentleman.
Ah; that's too bad.
He recorded that and he recorded another one of my songs on one of his albums, and I always thought, "Boy, if I could just meet him .." But it ... I never did have that opportunity.
I can listen to "Old Rivers" today and still break down.
Oh, man! It'll do it! He had that ... he was so believable; just so incredibly believable with what he did. And, it was a great honor that he did that (song).
It was somewhere right along in this period when you were invited to join the Opry, right?
Yes; July, 1961. My fortieth anniversary this year ...
Congratulations; that's a great honor. Was that a big thrill, being invited to join?
Oh, absolutely. Of course, they didn't make as big a deal of it back then, you know, as they do today. They said, "Do you want to be a member," and I said, "Yeah," and they said, "Okay, you're the newest member." (Laughs) They didn't blow it out as big as they do today. But, yeah; oh, yeah. A tremendous honor. And still is, to me.
You talked about arrangements a bit. Was the "I Get A Fever" lick your idea? The tempo, I mean.
Yeah. You're talking about the rhythm beat.
Yeah. I went in to do a demo on it, and when we did the demo, we came up with that little beat, which, in its day, was very different. And, when we went in to make the record, I insisted that we use that same beat. In fact, the first time we went in, the musicians didn't quite grasp the feeling that I wanted, and (we) scrapped it. And I went back in at another session and took some of the players who had been on the demo. And I said, "Now, I want it just like that demo."
And that was very different, and a lot of people copied it.
Well, yeah, a lot of people used it. It was what was called "straight eights," which is, musically ... and I'm not that sophisticated on such things, but it's like eight beats to the measure, instead of four, so it's kind of a doubled-up thing. And it was pretty different then. Yeah, a lot of people have used it since, and they use a lot of variations of it today.
Here's an important question. How did you discover Connie Smith?
(Laughter) It wasn't hard; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
(Laughs) That was in Ohio, wasn't it?
I was judging a talent contest at a little outdoor park, near Columbus, Ohio, one Sunday afternoon, and she was in the talent contest. It didn't take a lot of brains to figure out that she was something very unique and very different and very special. I just happened to be the one sittin' there when she got out on stage to sing. I had never heard such a big voice come out of such a little person in my life.
(Laughs) And she may still be the best female country singer, ever.
A lot of people say that. And I'm not going to argue with them.
And, "Once A Day" wound up being kind of a signature song for her.
Yeah, that was something that was pretty unheard of. That day and time, no one had ever cut a Number One record, first time out, and she did. She has since said that that was both a blessing and a curse. But, kinda looking back, (laughs) I don't think she'd have it any other way.
You wrote quite a few things for her, too.
Yeah; a lot of 'em. I think she cut about ... She told me one time that she had cut 39 of my songs. And they just released a boxed set on her, and I'm anxious to see how many of those 39 are in there. I hope they're all in there!