Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Curly Putman

March 28, 2009
Curly Putman’s career proves that sometimes elusive dreams come true. As writer or co-writer of the country classics “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “My Elusive Dreams,” among many others, Putman worked his way up from a struggling rural Alabama songwriter to become one of country music’s most heralded tunesmiths, moving through various cities and jobs along the way.

Besides tenacity, Putman suggested one trait that helped gain him a reputation as a writer of classic country songs: “If you have a song that you can feel, it inspires you,” he said. “A lot of times you don’t feel it, and you write a commercial type of song. The better ones come when you really feel it.”

Putman discussed his career high points as the subject of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly series Poets and Prophets, which pays tribute to songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. The sold-out program, held in the museum’s intimate Ford Theater, featured a two-hour interview with Putman, augmented by live performances, video and audio clips, and scores of personal and professional photos. Two previous Poet and Prophet honorees, Bobby Braddock and John Loudermilk, attended the program.

“Curly doesn’t often make scheduled public appearances like this, or sit down for interviews,” said Michael Gray, a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum staff member and host of the program. “He really prefers to stay behind the scenes. So we feel very honored that he’s with us today.”

For Putman, a look at his songs reveals a special talent for expressing loss, pain, grief, and struggle in especially heart-tugging terms. He has had success with other types of songs, from the Statler Brothers’ comic “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith Too” (co-written with Bobby Braddock) to T.G. Sheppard’s song of enduring love, “Smooth Sailin’.” But Putman’s reputation is built on songs that explore life’s more difficult emotions. “Let me warn you,” Gray humorously intoned at the start of the program. “Curly likes sad songs. We’re going to hear a lot of sad songs today, so brace yourself.”

The program opened with a video clip of Putman and frequent co-writer Bobby Braddock from a Tammy Wynette television special originally presented by The Nashville Network in the mid-1990s. Wynette encouraged Putman to perform “My Elusive Dreams” and recalled how he first pitched her the song. “When I first came to Nashville in 1966, you guys were one of the first places I came to listen to songs I considered recording, and you played me everything you had,” Wynette said.

Putman remembered playing “My Elusive Dreams” for her, a song he had not yet finished. Wynette had him perform the song on the program, then asked Putman to tell everyone about her first reaction to hearing it back then. “She said it would be good for Peter, Paul & Mary,” Putman said, which drew laughter from the crowd in the museum.

“My Elusive Dreams” went to #1 in a duet version by Wynette and David Houston in 1967. It also was the first single Putman released as an artist after he signed with ABC Records. “It’s such a great song,” Wynette said on the TV program.

The late, legendary Wynette also addressed another of Putman’s songs, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” which he co-wrote with Braddock. “I always said that out of all the songs I did not write but should have, the biggest was ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E,’” she told her TV audience. “I love that song.”

Born Claude Putman Jr. on November 20, 1930, in Princeton, Alabama, the songwriter was raised near Putman Mountain, named after his family. Growing up in what he called a “Waltons setting,” citing the popular 1970s TV series, Putman stayed close to home until attending college for six months, at which time he joined the U.S. Navy. “We were poor, but we were fairly poor,” Putman said, noting that his father worked in the sawmill, like most of his family. “We had squirrel stews, fried squirrel and gravy, stuff like that.”

Putman originally drew the nickname “Junior” in high school, but that changed to “Curly” after he began playing music around Huntsville, Alabama. A steel guitarist as well as a songwriter and singer, Putman said he fell in love with music because his mom would tune into Nashville’s WSM radio every morning, and the family always tried to catch the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday evenings.

The first song he had published was a Christmas song—and much later, Putman would co-write another well-regarded country holiday tune, “There’s a New Kid in Town,” co-written with Don Cook and Keith Whitley, who recorded it. As an artist, Putman’s first recording was “The Prison Song,” which came out in 1960. His first cut as a songwriter came from Alabama singer Marion Worth, who recorded “I Think I Know,” which became a Top Ten hit in 1960. The following year, Putman won the first of many BMI Awards.

Putman moved to Nashville in 1964 and, shortly afterward, signed with Tree Publishing Company after fellow songwriter Roger Miller introduced him to Buddy Killen, who ran Tree with partner Jack Stapp. “Being in the room with Roger Miller was being in a room with a genius, as far as I’m concerned,” Putman said. “He was one of the best songwriters in the business.”

Killen also hired Putman as a song plugger, which meant he visited with producers, artists, and record executives to introduce them to new songs written by Tree’s staff of writers. A year after signing with Tree, Putman finished “Green, Green Grass of Home,” which was inspired by the 1950 film The Asphalt Jungle. The lead actor, Sterling Hayden, played a country boy who moved to New York and eventually turned to crime to get enough money to get home. The song has been recorded more than seven hundred times.

Putman wrote the song “on a lonely Sunday afternoon just after we moved to Nashville,” he told the museum crowd. “I was just so glad to get to write some music. I went up to Tree to the studio that day, and I sat there and got it started, and it was kind of a touching thing to me. I really felt it.”

Initially recorded by Johnny Darrell, the song first became a hit for Porter Wagoner, in 1965, then Tom Jones made it a #1 pop hit in 1967 after hearing the song on a Jerry Lee Lewis album. Gray played a medley of samples of the recording, going from Putman’s demo to Darrell to Wagoner to Lewis to Jones. “Tom Jones later on said ‘Green Grass’ was the people’s song, because people all over the world know it,” Putman said. “We knew early on we had something for the people.”

Putman also talked about co-writing with Braddock and two of the country classics they created, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” “He let me in on a couple of good songs,” Putman said, laughing softly. Putman described working with producer Billy Sherrill on both recordings and the musical ideas that Sherrill added that strengthened the recordings. Sherrill also had Braddock and Putman rewrite the recitation segment of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to fit Jones and his own musical ideas.

After playing Jones’s performance of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” from a 1981 TV special, Gray read a quote Jones sent to the program, with an apology from the legendary singer, who said he would be in Fairfax, Virginia, for a concert the day of Putman’s tribute program. “As one of the dynamic duo that wrote the biggest song of my career, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ Curly Putman is not only one of the greatest songwriters to ever hit this town, he’s also a good friend of mine,” Jones wrote. “He really believed in the song ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ and hounded me to record it, for which I will be eternally thankful. I only wish I had got my hands on ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ to record it before anybody else did!”

Among the accolades received by “He Stopped Loving Her Today” are two consecutive CMA Awards for Song of the Year, in 1980 and 1981. Later, the music industry trade magazine Radio and Records polled music industry leaders, who voted the song the best country song of the twentieth century. Country America magazine readers and BBC radio listeners voted “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as best all-time country song.

Putman’s other well-known songs include ““Dumb Blonde,” Dolly Parton’s first chart single in 1967; “Just for You,” a hit for Ferlin Husky in 1968; “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” a #1 hit for Tanya Tucker in 1973; “The Older the Violin, the Sweeter the Music,” a hit for Hank Thompson in 1974; “It Don’t Feel Like Sinnin’ to Me,” a #2 hit for the Kendalls in 1978; “It’s a Cheating Situation,” a #2 hit for Moe Bandy in 1979; and several T.G. Sheppard #1’s, including “I’ll Be Coming Back for More,” “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven,” “Smooth Sailin’,” and “War Is Hell (on the Homefront Too.)”

Putman also spoke of the six-week period when, in 1974, Paul McCartney and his band, Wings (which included his wife, Linda McCartney), stayed at Putman’s family farm in Wilson County. The stay inspired the song “Junior’s Farm,” a rock hit for Wings.

Near the end of the program, Putman recognized that many of his co-writers were in the crowd, including Braddock, Cook, and Rafe Van Hoy, who came up to play guitar and sing with Putman. “They taught me a lot,” said Putman, who was elected to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1993 and to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996. “I hope I taught them a little something through the years about writing, too.”

—Michael McCall