Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Dallas Frazier

December 11, 2010
Dallas Frazier, one of the most successful songwriters in country music history, left music in 1976, shortly before his induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He had quit songwriting amid a spiritual and personal crisis, Frazier said, but returned in 2006.

"I didn't know if I could reconcile country music with my Christian faith," Frazier said. "Some of the folks get by without going through, but I didn't. I struggled with that for almost thirty years. But four years ago I felt like I got a green light from God to be who I am. I can be a believer in Christ, but also believe in the gifts that God gave me to use, without being restricted."

Frazier addressed his thirty-year sabbatical during a celebration of his songwriting career as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's quarterly Poets and Prophets series. The ninety-minute program, filled with Frazier's big-hearted personality and colorful stories, featured family photos as well as rare audio and video clips from the Museum's Frist Library and Archive. The program was streamed live at www.countrymusichalloffame.org.

Interviewed by museum editor Michael Gray, Frazier opened by talking about the autobiographical "California Cottonfields," which Merle Haggard recorded and released on his 1971 album Someday We'll Look Back. Born in 1939 in Spiro, Oklahoma, Frazier said his family "were part of the John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath people. We were Okies, and we were a despised bunch of people in California . . . It wasn't good memories."

His parents, with Frazier and his younger sister in tow, moved from an itinerant farm in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years to become migrant workers in California's cotton fields. Living in makeshift homes in boxcars and tents, they moved from job to job amid harsh conditions and disdainful attitudes from native westerners. That adversity fueled Frazier's creativity and hard work.

"I have milked that cow dry," Frazier said, sparking loud laughter from the crowd. "It was ammunition."

Frazier's parents also divorced when he was a young boy, and he grew up listening to country music with his father, who would play Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell on the jukebox at the local diner. "With Hank, the songs were so mournful," Frazier said. "Hank had a way of trimming the meat. If you listen to his old songs, you don't hear any fluff.  It's trimmed to the bone. And of course Lefty was a real novelty when he first came out, with a real different voice. Everybody loved him. They were the two hot singers when I was about eleven, twelve, thirteen."

Gray, host of the Poets and Prophets series, played Frazier's demo version of his song "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul," which Stoney Edwards turned into a hit in 1973.

Frazier started writing songs at age eleven, quoting for the crowd a segment of his first, "Tongue-tied, Tenderfoot Dave." By age twelve, Frazier was performing on a TV program in Bakersfield, California. At the same age, he won a talent contest and gained an invitation from Ferlin Husky to tour with him, even moving in with Husky for a spell. At age fourteen, he signed with Capitol Records, thanks to Husky.

Frazier's first national success as a songwriter came with the pop hit "Alley Oop," recorded by the Hollywood Argyles. Frazier moved to Portland, Oregon, in early 1962 with his wife Sharon. In September 1963, the couple moved to Nashville. Once there, he worked with the music publishing company of Mary Reeves, wife of singer Jim Reeves, before signing with the publishing company of producer and songwriter Ray Baker. (Baker later sold his company to Acuff-Rose Publications, which eventually became part of Sony/ATV Music Publishing.) <p> "With Ray, that's when it started happening for me," Frazier said.

Indeed, shortly after signing with Baker, the producer convinced singer Charlie Rich that Frazier had written a song perfect for him. "Which one did you have in mind?" Frazier asked him at the time. Baker replied mischievously, "I don't know, I figured you could just come up with one." Frazier wrote "Mohair Sam" by the next morning and Rich recorded the classic rock hit that afternoon. 

Another famous Frazier song, "Elvira," was written in the mid-1960s, after the songwriter noticed a sign for a Nashville side street with that name. "What a funky name that is," Frazier recalled. "Some names are earthy and make great fodder for songwriters." <p>Frazier recorded "Elvira" and had a regional hit with it in the Southwest. Others, including Rodney Crowell, also released it as a single. The Oak Ridge Boys released the most famous version in 1981, a #1 hit country hit and #5 pop hit that won the CMA Single of the Year award. Gray read a letter from the Oak Ridge Boys sent to Frazier for the program.

Before talking about such Frazier songs as "There Goes My Everything" and "Beneath Still Waters," Gray asked him about the difference between somber, serious songs and more lighthearted, upbeat fare. "There are songwriters who would say that 'Elvira' was a fluke," Frazier said. "They don't see that simplicity sometimes can be the brilliance of a song. Simplicity connects with people. I say, 'God, let me have some more simple ones.'"

As an example of a more poetic song, Frazier told the story behind "Beneath Still Waters," an often-recorded song that became a #1 hit for Emmylou Harris in 1980. "I remember talking to a friend of mine about how deceptive water can be, especially in rivers," he said. "It can look so smooth on top, and it came to me as I stood there looking out our picture window at the Cumberland River. It just came to me that that is the story of love. That's the kind of idea a songwriter likes to get a-hold of."

Another of his famous songs, "There Goes My Everything," became a #1 country hit for Jack Greene and a pop hit for Englebert Humperdinck, as well as another CMA Single of the Year.

"The inspiration for that one came from the divorce of a good friend of mine," Frazier said. "It didn't take long to write the song, either-probably an hour or two. It turned out to be my biggest copyright."

Frazier theorized that songwriters need not feel or experience everything they write. "Songwriters have to make things bigger than life," he said. "We dramatize. We take a little seed, and it will turn into a giant redwood tree before we're done with it. Sometimes there is a thread of truth running through a song, something from your own life. But songwriters can really stretch things."

Both Connie Smith-who attended the program-and George Jones recorded entire albums of Dallas Frazier songs. When Gray cited that Smith had recorded sixty-eight Frazier songs, she corrected him from the audience, saying it was sixty-nine. Smith also said Jones had recorded eighty of Frazier's songs. The list includes "I'm a People," "I Can't Get There from Here," "If Not for You," "Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong," and "If My Heart Had Windows."

Before performing the latter, Frazier said, "That was for my sweetheart," noting he's been married to his wife Sharon for fifty-two years.

For Smith, the list includes "Ain't Had No Lovin'," "Run Away Little Tears," "I Love Charlie Brown," "Where Is My Castle," If It Ain't Love (Let's Leave It Alone)," "Ain't Love a Good Thing," "I'm Sorry If My Love Got in Your Way," and "Dream Painter." Gray also showed a videoclip of Smith singing "Ain't Had No Lovin'," taken from the 1967 film Hell on Wheels, starring Marty Robbins.

"We're good friends," Frazier said of Smith, noting that the two met in 1965. "Also, we have in common a very similar range. I could nail her down as far as her range goes. Another thing, I would really aim songs at Connie. I'd write things especially for her, things that, after we got to know each other, I knew she had a feel for."

Gray cited other successful Frazier songs, including four #1 hits for Charley Pride co-written with A.L. "Doodle" Owens: "All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)," "(I'm So) Afraid of Losing You Again," "I Can't Believe That You've Stopped Loving Me," and "Then Who Am I."  

Of his regular co-writers, Frazier said, "You get to a place where you know when someone comes up with a good lyric or line. You don't haggle with it. You know that that's it. There wasn't a competitive spirit, and we got a lot of mileage because of it."

Frazier and his friends often wrote driving down the road, taking trips and winding up in a cabin or a room at a country inn. "Sitting still, coming up with a song there in a chair at the house, that's hard for me," Frazier said. "I got to be out and get some things going."

The songwriter also discussed story songs, such as his "Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp," a hit for Johnny Darrell and, later, Johnny Russell, and "What's Your Mama's Name," the first #1 hit for Tanya Tucker. "I love story songs," Frazier said. "I'm still writing them. They're some of my favorites."

Frazier ended the program by performing a couple of story songs: The new "Carousel Girl," which will be released on a new album in January 2012, as well as an old favorite, "Big Mable Murphy." Frazier received a standing ovation as the song ended.

-Michael McCall