Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Don Schlitz

June 4, 2011
Don Schlitz can sure tell a story. Known for his success as a country songwriter, Schlitz proved just as effective at creating dramatic narratives when discussing his career as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly Poets and Prophets series, which honors songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music.

Whether citing encouragement from a mentor, the importance of his co-writers, or the artistry of a singer who recorded his songs, Schlitz unfolded his remembrances in a manner that heightened the emotion or humor of the story while making sure to credit those involved in his success. He also constantly downplayed his own expertise with quick-witted asides-“I’m not a poet or a prophet, I am just pathetic,” he said to one of many outbursts of laughter.

The ninety-minute program featured family photographs and rare video clips from the Museum’s Frist Library and Archive. Schlitz performed several songs during the program, which was streamed live at www.countrymusichalloffame.org.

As program host Michael Gray pointed out, Schlitz has written more than fifty Top Ten country songs. He started with a bang: His first cut, “The Gambler,” not only went to #1, but won Grammy and CMA awards and, as Gray put it, “is one of the most quoted songs of the twentieth century.” Schlitz is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he has been ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year four times. He also has won multiple Grammy, CMA, and ACM awards. In 2010, he received the ACM Poet’s Award for lifetime achievement in songwriting.

The program began with Schlitz performing “I Watched It All (on My Radio),” a 1990 Top Ten hit for Lionel Cartwright. Gray asked Schlitz to open with it because the song features images from the songwriter’s youth in Durham, North Carolina, where he was born in 1952. After detailing the complex origins of the hit, Schlitz summed it up by saying, “It’s a song Lionel and I wrote based on a conversation with Ronnie Milsap about my daughter, and really it’s all about me.”

He also talked about how he had two loves as a kid: baseball and music. Radio, in particular, proved vital to his childhood. “You could turn on the radio and, on one station, you would hear Frank Sinatra, then you would hear the Four Seasons, and then you’d hear, especially in Durham, a lot of rhythm & blues and Motown. Then the Beatles came along, and the Rolling Stones, the British Invasion, and folk music and Peter, Paul & Mary, and the music out of Nashville, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare, and Patsy Cline. It was all on one station. We didn’t have the separation we have now, and I think that was a great way to listen to music.”

Two other items added to Schlitz’s youth: a guitar given to him at age twelve for Christmas, and a World Book Encyclopedia set that his parents bought for their three children. “It was a sacrifice at the time, to have books like that in your home and to be able to read at night,” Schlitz said. “I won’t say I read them cover to cover, but I sure loved having those books in the house.”

His parents also were avid readers, collecting books and subscribing to newspapers, and Schlitz thinks that devotion to reading later proved influential. “I think that was important to the development of me as a would-be writer, was that I became very comfortable with words,” he said.

Attending church also proved beneficial, although perhaps not in ways his parents or pastor intended. “I spent a lot of time just reading the hymnal,” Schlitz noted, studying the hymns to figure out meter and how to parse words into stanzas in a musically rhythmic manner. “It was a religious education of sorts.”

After toying with poetry, he wrote a four-verse song for a high-school girlfriend because he couldn’t afford a gift. “It worked just as well as candy,” Schlitz quipped. Asked if he remembered the title, Schlitz said, “I do.” Then he sat there stone-faced, refusing to share the title, as the crowd laughed. “Some things are just better left to the past.”

He recalled seeing a relative, Tom House, perform his own songs in public, which greatly inspired Schlitz. House is now a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter residing in Nashville. Since House performed in a corduroy shirt when Schlitz saw him, the songwriter noted that today his wardrobe largely consists of black Ts and corduroy shirts. “It’s an economic and effective way to imitate my hero.”

Schlitz attended Duke University for what he describes as “three great freshman semesters,” once again drawing laughter, adding that all he got from his college education was that joke. But a friend encouraged him to head to Nashville, so with eighty dollars and a guitar he bought from House, Schlitz decided to make the move. When his father dropped him off at the station, he said, “Don’t forget to write,” a comment that suggests Schlitz inherited his knack for witty quips.

Schlitz began performing at Bishop’s Corner, alongside such songwriting giants as Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, who also were starting out at the time. Schlitz also got an appointment to meet with a publishing company, and when he walked in the door, the receptionist called back, “Is anyone listening to songs today?” A slim man with wiry hair and glasses walked out and agreed to listen. “I had a healthy ego, and I was pretty sure I was the next big thing that was going to hit this planet,” Schlitz said. “This really hasn’t faded with time, either.”

Schlitz played song after song in the man’s office, encouraged by how the listener nodded positively during each tune. Afterward, the fellow took Schlitz to another room, offering to play a song he just had recorded. “He pulls out a single, and he puts it on, and it was the B-side of his friend singing on this little label,” Schlitz recounted. “The little label was called JMI Records. The friend was Don Williams. The song that he was playing was ‘Amanda.’ The person was Bob McDill.” McDill also had written the A-side, “Come Early Morning,” a country hit at the time.

“For the first several years I was here, he was the only person who would see me,” Schlitz said of McDill. “It was the only office I could get into. And I didn’t really need to go anywhere else.”

Schlitz also worked in the computer department at Vanderbilt University, manning the overnight shift to make sure the university’s computers remained operational. “It was not a difficult job,” Schlitz said. Since he wrote and pitched songs during the day, he kept a sleeping bag with him and often slept during his shift. Eventually, Vanderbilt caught on, sending him a note in April 1978 warning that sleeping on the job, if continued, could be cause for dismissal.

As it turned out, Schlitz wouldn’t need the job much longer. A song he’d written in 1976 was about to change everything. Schlitz initially started composing the narrative song in his head while walking from McDill’s office to his apartment near Music Row. When he got home, he typed what he could remember on an old L.C. Smith typewriter.

A few weeks later, while playing songs for established songwriter Jim Rushing, Schlitz played the unfinished narrative at the very end, apologizing for it before starting. But when Rushing heard it, he said that is the one you should finish. Before long, the song was recorded by Bobby Bare, Hugh Moffatt, and Conway Twitty’s son, Charlie Tango. Schlitz also recorded a version released as a single on Crazy Mamas Records; he later signed to Capitol Records and released “The Gambler” as a single there, too.

In successive days, a producer working with Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers let Schlitz know both artists were cutting the song. But Rogers made it the title of a 1978 album, complete with a period-costume cover that Schlitz referred to as one of the great country music covers. Gray then played a video clip of a bearded, bushy haired Schlitz accepting his CMA award for Song of the Year. “This is the first song of mine anyone recorded,” Schlitz said. “I find all this very encouraging.”

At the time, Schlitz wrote ten songs a year, waiting for inspiration for each one. McDill encouraged him to write forty a year for country radio. Schlitz got help from Dave Loggins, another singer-songwriter with a big early hit (“Please Come to Boston”). Loggins helped Schlitz get into the mindset to write professionally. Schlitz also signed with MCA Music, writing daily in a cubicle in the company’s office.

By the early 1980s, after leaving Capitol and focusing on songwriting, the hits started piling up. With Dave Loggins, he wrote “I Love Only You” for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Forty Hour Week (For a Livin’)” for Alabama, and “One Promise Too Late” for Reba McEntire. With Paul Overstreet he wrote “On the Other Hand,” “Deeper Than the Holler,” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” for Randy Travis; “When You Say Nothing at All,” which has been a hit for Keith Whitley and Alison Krauss; “You Again” for the Forester Sisters; “My Arms Stay Open All Night” for Tanya Tucker; “Houston Solution” for Ronnie Milsap; and several hits for Overstreet as an artist, including “Richest Man on Earth,” “Daddy’s Come Around,” and “Ball and Chain.”

With Overstreet, Schlitz helped start a Nashville tradition. Talking to Amy Kurland, the founder of the Bluebird Café, Schlitz suggested she feature songwriters on her stage instead of focusing on bands. “I was just trying to get myself a gig,” Schlitz said. Along with Fred Knobloch, another frequent co-writer, they came up with the idea of featuring four songwriters, sitting in chairs looking at each other in the middle of the room, with the crowd surrounding them. With Overstreet and Thom Schuyler taking the other seats, the songwriters in-the-round format was created. The quartet of Schuyler, Knobloch, Overstreet, and Schlitz became a leading Nashville attraction, and the in-the-round format, adopted by others, became a Music City institution.

Other significant collaborators for Schlitz include Brent Maher, with whom he wrote “Rockin’ with the Rhythm of the Rain,” “I Know Where I’m Going,” and “Turn It Loose” for the Judds, and “Crying Shame” for Michael Johnson. Schlitz also co-wrote several hits with Mary Chapin Carpenter, including her Top Five singles “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” and “I Take My Chances.”

Throughout the program, Schlitz occasionally got up to perform a song being discussed. He ended the interview with a verse and chorus of “Allergic to Crazy,” the title song to one of two new albums he’s recently released. The other, Greatest Hits, finds Schlitz performing several of his best-known works.

Several previous Poets and Prophets honorees attended Schlitz’s program, including Bobby Braddock, Dallas Frazier, Red Lane, John D. Loudermilk, McDill, and Norro Wilson. As Schlitz explained, Loudermilk also is a native of Durham. “I was always told growing up that I couldn’t go to Nashville and make it, because John D. Loudermilk did. That’s what we call Durham logic.” As the laughter quieted, Schlitz looked to Loudermilk to express his pride in seeing the veteran songwriter in his audience.

Schlitz’s mother, Betty Lou Goodfellow, also was in attendance, as was the songwriter’s wife, Stacey. His mother worked as a medical technician at the Duke University Medical Center, and his father was a U.S. Marine and Durham policeman. “You never realize how much people love you when you’re growing up,” Schlitz said. “I grew up in a house full of love.”

He also mentioned his three grown children: Casey is an attorney, Cory is a nurse, and Pete is a philosophy major who pursues songwriting. That being the case, Schlitz couldn’t help but find a joke in the situation. “At some point in the future I will hear, vaguely, this sentence: We have the right to pull the plug, I know how to pull the plug, and here’s a little song about how hard it was to pull the plug.”

-Michael McCall