Songwriting Can Be a Beast

Back in 1972, I was extremely fortunate to land my first job at Record World magazine in Nashville, a music business trade publication that competed very successfully nationally with Billboard and Cashbox.  I had worked for free for several months on their annual country music industry advertorial that came out that October.  Today, we would call that an internship, but internships really didn’t exist then.  However, just as I finished my work on the special issue, the Southeastern Editor, Chuck Neese, announced he was leaving to take a job for a music publishing company.  By the way, Chuck later wrote “Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer.”  But thanks to Chuck, suddenly, I was in the music business.   One part of my new job as the new Southeastern Editor was to review the new singles and albums released that week and make my picks and pen a very brief write up on each.  I would rank them from the “Pick of The Week” and “Sleeper” to a list of about 10 singles in descending order.

Part of my week was greeting country radio promotion men (there were no women doing this in 1972), who would stop by to personally give me their new releases and hype me on why it was a hit.  Music publishers, assistants, songwriters, and even the artists themselves would drift into our office every week over the 14 months that I held this job.  The artists ranged from unknowns to Olivia Newton John, Sonny James, Don Williams, Jennie Seely, and even Burt Reynolds.

 Among the songwriters who often stopped by, were two old-timers Eddie Miller, who wrote “Please Release Me” and Vic McAlpin, who had a couple of old country hits including “Plastic Saddle”, “Jackson Ain’t A Very Big Town”, and “Home of the Blues”.  They usually came by first thing in the morning for coffee and told their tales of old Nashville, the days of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Limbaugh’s Restaurant.  They busted on each other as one-hit writers, but they were always working on that next hit.

The legend around Vic McAlpin was that he was a long-time fishing buddy of Hank Williams.  The old saw was that they wrote songs together on those lazy days on the lake.  Supposedly, instead of taking co-writing credits, the songs that they wrote on one day would go to Hank and the songs they wrote the next day would go to Vic.  I wasn’t alone in telling Vic that he obviously picked the wrong days!

 After hearing many of Vic’s stories, I suggested that we start taping them and that maybe there was a book in it.  He loved the idea, and soon we were meeting a couple of days a week taping his stories.

In the meantime, another songwriter who stopped by the office when he was in Nashville, was Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein.  Shel lived in New York, but had grown to love Nashville, and came down periodically to pitch his songs.  Shel was one of the first of the shaved-head species, a man more out of the Yul Brynner era, when that look was extremely unique.  His raspy low voice, his full beard, and his darting eyes were the picture of an iconoclast; a unique, even strange intellectual whose creative expression extended from ‘50’s/’60’s adult illustrations, to children’s stories, to country songwriting.  His first enduring copyright was “The Unicorn”, still an Irish pub song and children’s favorites that mixed an Old Testament tale with evolution.  When I heard that song in my teens, when the Irish Rovers had their hit with it, I assumed that it was a traditional song that was at least a hundred years old.  It’s as timeless as Peter Yarrow’s “Puff the Magic Dragon”, which Peter once told me he wrote in his dorm room.

Shel loved these traditional Music Row songwriters like Vic McAlpin and Eddie Miller.  As much of a character as Shel was, he thought Vic and Eddie were the ultimate songwriting characters.  Vic was always impeccably dressed in gray dress slacks, a blue blazer, a crisp white dress shirt, and yacht captain’s hat.  Always with a good tan, he looked more like the actor, George Hamilton, than a country songwriter.

When Shel heard that I was taping stories with Vic, he flipped!  His raspy voice was breathless with excitement and he offered to write the forward to the book.  This, of course, was a tremendous incentive for me to work hard on this project with Vic.  But lo and behold a few weeks into the tapings, Vic started repeating stories.  And the more we taped, the more I began to realize that as interesting and funny as some of Vic’s stories were… there were a finite number of them.  The book never came about, but I still have those tapes somewhere.  So, if I start repeating myself in this blog, I guess you’ll know I suffer from the same affliction…

However, this little episode with Vic McAlpin lead me to know Shel Silverstein a little bit better.  And there was one story that Shel told me that has stayed with me for years.
I once asked him what it was like to be a New York songwriter coming down to Nashville to pitch songs.  He said he loved the Nashville music scene because everyone was a writer; much like everyone in LA was an actor.  He thought the culture was so rich with talent.  However, he also expressed frustration in pitching his songs.  Beyond “The Unicorn”, Shel wrote another unique song that remains a standard today.  His song, “A Boy Names Sue” was a hit for Johnny Cash in the late ‘60’s.  When I met Shel in ‘72, he was amidst a hot streak as a hit songwriter.  However, he said that when he would pitch a new song to a producer or artist, they would often ask him if he had a song more like “A Boy Named Sue”. 

He said he had heard this over and over again in those years shortly after the huge success of “Sue” in having his newer songs rejected.  He said he finally came to realize that most of these people couldn’t hear a new hit if it hit them in the face, and that they didn’t want a song like “A Boy Named Sue”, they simply wanted the success that the song had enjoyed.  I got the sense that this experience galvanized his resolve when he pitched his songs.  And as so many of us know in this business, rejection is a daily experience that you never get used to, but you have to push past it.  And maybe that ”no” you are getting is simply someone else’s problem and you must have an enduring belief in yourself and your own creative work.  

As I look back on Shel’s career, I wonder if any of those songs that were rejected happened to be “Ones on the Way”, “Marie Laveau” or “Sylvia’s Mother” or “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”.    These were all uniquely Shel Silverstein songs that became big hits for artists such as Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in the years after “A Boy Named Sue”.  Shel knew his songs were good, but maybe sometimes the people who were supposed to be listening were too busy thinking about succeeding and not enough on focusing on what it takes to get there.

Shel Silverstein was a gifted writer and storyteller.  His ideas were unlike any others and his subjects and sources for songs extended from the Bible to a phone booth.  He lived a colorful life and found colorful words to illustrate his lyrical stories.  From his artwork to his songs, the man worked hard to build a body of work rather than settle for one enduring song or even two… or even just one art-form for his creative expression.  He wasn’t awed by his own success or preoccupied by it, as maybe those who were enamored with the unusual success of “A Boy Named Sue.”

The lesson is in the body of his work.  Shel Silverstein was the highly successful adult illustrator, successful children’s book writer, the multiple hit song writer.  He was always working on something new.  He never rested on his laurels, even when others suggested he couldn’t surpass his past achievements.  He worked on and believed, even under the specter of a song that couldn’t be topped.     

Maybe those artists and producers were really looking for that mythical “Unicorn” and just didn’t see all the other animals that were already on the ark…         

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MAIL BAG

I didn’t know about your new biz Dan until Viv forwarded a copy of your Song Writing Can Be a Beast, blog. I had so much fun reading that one that I read The Lost Liner Notes.

Now I’m hooked and my head is swimming thru Music Row memories – some of which I’m convinced actually happened the way I remember them.

For example, your off hand reference to the success of I Can Help reminds me of my listening sessions with Bob Becham at his Combine Publishing house. After I left the programming gig at WKDA-FM (1970-1973,) I spent six months dealing with the fact that I just didn’t want to leave Nashville. After all, Shelby Singelton’s promo master – Mike Suttle – had warned me of my impending fate. He said, “now that you are here, you won’t be going anywhere – you’ll see – Nashville will get you.” 40 years later, consider me got!

I passed on radio gigs in Miami and Houston and went into business for myself promoting to Pop and Rock radio, music I heard being produced in Nashville that was “not just for Country radio” (in my not so humble opinion.) That music is the part of Nashville that “got me”.

Back to Becham. Bob kept me on retainer to listen and run to radio with anything he had publishing on. One such day (while Dennis Linde was in the basement studio – I’m convinced he lived down there,) I sat in Bob’s office while he smoked non-stop and played 45’s and album cuts with equal vigor. Suddenly, after about 20 seconds, I heard my self yell, “what is this?”

He said “it’s Kristofferson’s band leader Billy Swan, it’s called I Can Help. I said, "so can I – give me dat record!” In fact he gave me a couple boxes. I mailed the record to most of my stations but I delivered the record in person to Tex Meyer at WGOW in Chattanooga and Johnny Randolf at WAKY in Louisville. Much to Frank Dileo’s amazement at Monument, the stations added that day – just as I suspected they would. Ah, the good old days when programmers were free to get excited about the music…and actually do something about it. Oops maybe I can’t say that. Let me check with my consultant.

Now back to the task at hand. I’ve got to read all your yarns in the musicbizzfizz.

Write on Brotherman, write on…

RH  (Ron Huntsman)

Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com.  I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)

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