Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Bob McDill

March 1, 2008
Bob McDill doesn’t hesitate to use the word “art” when referring to country music songwriting.

One of Music Row’s most thoughtful and literary songwriters, McDill spoke eloquently and humorously on his career during a March 1 program in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater. Appearing as part of the Museum’s ongoing Poets and Prophets series, McDill drew a capacity crowd that listened raptly as he told tales about his best-loved songs and commented about his approach to songwriting.

The Texas native repeatedly acknowledged the importance of writing songs that drew favor from country radio. But he also stressed that he often strived to craft lyrics and melodies that pushed the more artful and culturally meaningful aspects of the country songwriting tradition.

"We all wanted to make money," McDill said. "But now and then, when a genuinely deserving idea comes along that you can make art of, you can do that too. There’s no law that says you have to be a money-making hack or a poor artist. You can do both."

McDill also noted that, of all the hits he’s written, it’s often the best and most artful of those that continue to get radio airplay and fan attention. "All the junk I wrote has completely disappeared," he said. "But the songs of conviction still get airplay today and still appear on records and on hits packages. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.”"

Museum editor Michael Gray, the program’s host, opened by playing a 1984 video clip from Bobby Bare & Friends, a Nashville Network program on which McDill appeared as a guest. The clip showed the songwriter performing the touching "Somebody’s Always Saying Goodbye," a #7 country hit for Anne Murray the previous year.

Before bringing McDill on stage, Gray noted that he’d written thirty-one #1 hits and scores of others that have become a significant part of country music history. Equally impressive, Gray said, was the fact that McDill contributed quality hits to country artists through all the genre’s musical trends from the early 1970s until his recent retirement.

McDill has been named Songwriter of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association International three times—in 1976, 1985, and 1989. He was honored as the BMI Country Songwriter of the Year in 1977, 1980, and 1985, and ASCAP’s top country songwriter in 1994. He was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985.

Gray quoted a story on McDill by music journalist Edward Morris, who wrote, "If country songwriters had to pick one of their own to represent the bridge between traditional and modern styles and sensibilities, they probably would turn to Bob McDill. Beyond commercial success, McDill has brought sensitivity and intelligence to country songwriting that remain models to younger and more urban types who are now building their reputations here."

Raised in Walden, Texas—a small town since incorporated into the larger city of Beaumont—McDill took up viola while in elementary school and enjoyed singing at church. He started writing at age fifteen or sixteen, and while attending Lamar University he joined a skiffle band and sang folk songs, as did many young performers in the early ’60s.

While in the skiffle band, he met Jack Clement, Bill Hall, Dickey Lee, and Allen Reynolds—all of whom became friends and played a role in McDill maturing into a Nashville songwriter. McDill joined the U.S. Navy and, while in the service, had his first cuts, including "Happy Man" for pop singer Perry Como.

After leaving the Navy, McDill spent a year and a half in Memphis. In 1970, Reynolds and Lee accepted an offer from Clement to work in Nashville, so McDill followed his friends to Music City USA. "At the time, we all thought Nashville was just about to become a big pop and rock & roll center," he said. "The pop and rock thing never happened, so I had to go to plan b and learn to write country music."

In Nashville, McDill initially struggled financially. The late Johnny Russell cut "Catfish John," a song McDill and Reynolds wrote, but McDill says he thought of it as a folk song, not a country one.

McDill didn’t get country music until he heard George Jones’s recording of "A Good Year for the Roses" while riding in the backseat of a Cadillac. "I just had an epiphany," he said. "For the first time, I got it. I got country music."

After that, McDill began studying country music "like a seminary student studies the gospels," he said. "You’re kidding yourself if you think you can write country music without understanding it or loving it."

McDill cut an album, Short Stories, released on Clement’s JMI Records in 1972, which Gray sampled by playing a portion of "Catfish John." Other labels talked to McDill about a recording career as well. "I didn’t want to do it," he said. "I never wanted to be an act very much. I like writing songs."

The songwriter also talked about his long-running relationships with certain artists, including Don Williams, who recorded more than thirty McDill songs over time, including "Good Ole Boys Like Me," "Amanda," "It Must Be Love" and others. Other artists who’ve had success with McDill songs include Crystal Gayle, Alan Jackson, Waylon Jennings, Kathy Mattea, Mel McDaniel, Dan Seals, Pam Tillis, and Keith Whitley.

"Those artists made great records," McDill said. "When people like Don Williams, Dan Seals, Kathy Mattea, and Pam Tillis weren’t in the charts anymore, it wasn’t as much fun for me. If Alan Jackson wasn’t such a good songwriter, I might still be in the music business today. Alan Jackson is a courageous artist, like those others I mentioned."

Gray played several songs for the audience, breaking them down to those recorded before McDill’s induction to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985, and those recorded afterward. From before 1985, Gray played Johnny Russell’s "Red Necks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer," Mel McDaniel’s "Louisiana Saturday Night" and "Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On," and Ed Bruce’s "Turn Me On Like a Radio." After 1985, the hits included Keith Whitley’s "Don’t Close Your Eyes," Earl Thomas Conley and Emmylou Harris’s "We Believe in Happy Endings," Sammy Kershaw’s "She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful," Doug Stone’s "Why Didn’t I Think of That," and Pam Tillis’s "All the Good Ones Are Gone."

For most of his career, McDill set a goal of writing a song a week, working eight hours a day, five days a week. He emphasized that sitting down to work on his craft regularly was essential to his success. He credited publisher Bill Hall for encouraging his dedicated work schedule and for coming up with innovative ways to pitch songs to producers and artists.

Gray singled out McDill’s three favorite songs—"Good Ole Boys Like Me" by Don Williams, "Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)" by Dan Seals, and "Song of the South" by Alabama—for in-depth discussion. McDill broke each down, discussing specific lines or talking about how they evoked aspects of life in the South that he deemed important.

McDill retired in 2000 after nearly thirty years of hits. Asked if he ever felt inspired to write songs again, he said, "No, it’s over," and laughed. He occasionally writes articles and fiction for outdoor magazines, "but I don’t work very hard at it."

He ended with a vocal performance of "Gone Country," a song McDill wrote that became a #1 hit for Alan Jackson, and received a standing ovation from the audience.

The next Poets and Prophets program will feature songwriter Whitey Shafer on June 21.

—Michael McCall