Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Jerry Chesnut

September 26, 2009
When Jerry Chesnut wrote the classic country song “It’s Four in the Morning,” a #1 hit for Faron Young in 1972, he only had to look to his watch for inspiration. For most of his career, Chesnut rose before dawn to work on songs, believing he did his most inspired work by the time most other songwriters were finishing their first cup of coffee.

“I’ve written great songs after ten a.m., but they weren’t hits,” Chesnut said at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, as the subject of a Poets & Prophets program, a quarterly series that pays tribute to songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. “I’ve never written a hit after ten o’clock in the morning.”

In front of an attentive crowd in the museum’s Ford Theater, Chesnut explained his early bird theory about creativity. “After you’ve worked all day and your back is tired, you’re not up to doing much more work,” he said. “I think your mind is the same way. When you wake up in the morning, your mind is a fertile field. Once a day is half gone … you have filled your mind with all this stuff. It’s like a computer. Once a computer is full, you have to make room or you can’t create anything more. I don’t think the mind can either.”

Elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996, Chesnut is responsible for a long list of classic country cuts by Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, and Faron Young, among many others. He provided undeniably country material for R&B singer Brook Benton (“Weakness in a Man”) and for a couple of legendary rock & roll pioneers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. In all, more than one hundred artists have recorded his songs, including some thirty members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

From Harlan County, Kentucky, Chesnut credited his hardscrabble background as motivation to develop a skill that would lead to a better life. “I was born and raised in coal mining camps and the railroad center where they all came together,” he said. “To say the least, it was a very poor place to be from. When you’re from Harlan County, there’s no way to go but up.”

At four years old, Chesnut’s brother got a four-dollar guitar, ordered from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. When the guitar arrived, the songwriter’s father opened the case and said, “Under no circumstances are you ever to touch that,” he recalled. “I made up my mind right then I was going to be a guitar player.”

Chesnut listened to country music on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry from Nashville and WNOX’s Midday Merry-Go-Round from Knoxville, Tennessee. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1949, shortly before the start of the Korean War, and Chesnut would play guitar and perform country songs on naval ships and military bases during his four years in the service. He also sang during programs hosted by radio station KFRE in Fresno, California, while stationed nearby.

Hank Thompson’s song “The Wild Side of Life” was a popular request for Chesnut, and performing it prompted him to consider writing a song for Thompson himself. “I wondered how much that would cost me to get him to record it,” he said. “I didn’t dream they’d actually pay me for it.”

After leaving the service, Chesnut moved to St. Augustine, Florida, and found a band to join. “I started playing barn dances and drinking a lot of moonshine,” he said. In Florida, he worked for a supervisor with the last name Oney—the inspiration for one of Chesnut’s famous songs, Johnny Cash’s “Oney,” about a man who worked for a tough boss.

From Florida, Chesnut decided to take his chances on Nashville. “I wanted to test the waters to see if I had the talent to go pro and be a star like everyone dreams of doing,” he said. “I found out pretty quick I wasn’t going to be a star.” Webb Pierce, who was a country star at the time, told Chesnut that country music didn’t need more stars, but they did need songwriters who could write hits for the stars that already existed.

Arthur Alexander sang on Chesnut’s first recorded demo, on a song called “Miles and Miles from Nowhere,” one of many audio and video performances from the museum’s archives played during the program. In 1967, Chesnut enjoyed his first hit when Del Reeves recorded “A Dime at a Time,” which climbed to #12 on the country single charts. Reeves then cut Chesnut’s “Looking at the World Through a Windshield,” a #5 hit the following year.

That same year, 1968, Chesnut found out Jerry Lee Lewis hoped to revive his career by recording country songs. Signed to Smash Records, Lewis came to Nashville to work with record executive Eddie Kilroy and producer Jerry Kennedy. “The Jerry Lee Lewis I knew was ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and blond hair and wild,” Chesnut said. Lewis’s recording of Chesnut’s song “Another Place Another Time,” went to #4 on the country chart, Lewis’s first Top Ten hit on any chart in nearly ten years.

Chesnut helped another legend, Dolly Parton, further her country music career. Parton and her duet partner, Porter Wagoner, recorded “Holding on to Nothin’,” and in 1968 it became her second Top Ten hit. “Chet Atkins didn’t think Dolly could sell records,” Chesnut said, going back to the start of Parton’s career. “It’s in her book. When this came out, it started selling so many records that he said, ‘Whoa, this ain’t just Porter Wagoner. Some of these sales are Dolly’s.’ After that, he decided to put out some solo songs on Dolly.”

Not long afterward, Chesnut wrote “A Good Year for the Roses,” a #2 hit for George Jones that was released at the end of 1970. He recalled a conversation with an expert from a garden center who explained that wet springs often hamper the blooming of rose bushes, and because the area had a lot of rain that year, “It’s just not a good year for the roses.”

Later, while working on his property, he began thinking about that phrase, only he wondered, “What if it were a good year for the roses, but a bad year for everything else in your life?”

At the same time he wrote the Jones hit, Chesnut said he kept “getting these lines from God or somewhere” about another song he called “weird and not commercial.” With lyrics about the death of an infant and the perseverance of mankind, Chesnut finished “The Wonders You Perform” alongside “A Good Year for the Roses.” He played both songs the same day for Jones, and the singer’s wife, Tammy Wynette, overheard the second song and told Chesnut that she’d “record it as soon as I’m in front of a microphone.”

The two songs were written in the same week, recorded in the same week, and released as singles in the same week. Both songs were simultaneous Top Ten hits.

Chesnut also started a fruitful relationship with Elvis Presley late in the career of the King of Rock & Roll. In 1974, Presley cut the country Top Ten hit “It’s Midnight,” the first of many Chesnut songs he recorded. Another, the 1975 hit “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” later got significant airplay in a version by Travis Tritt.

 “There’s no way to describe meeting Elvis Presley,” Chesnut said. “I expected this superman or something completely unusual, because this was the greatest thing that ever lived in music, I think. But what struck me is that this was just like some bashful high school kid. This guy was not a God or something. It’s amazing how simple and easy it is to talk to somebody really great. The people in the music business who won’t sign an autograph, or are hard to talk to, they’re trying to prove something that ain’t there. The great people are also wonderful people, and they’re simple people.”

At interviewer Michael Gray’s prompting, Chesnut picked up the gold necklace around his neck and looked at it.  “This was his idea, TCB—taking care of business in a flash—with a flash next to it,” he said, reading the shining initials dangling from the gold chain. “He gave his friends these. About a month before he died, he had this made for me. It’s the last one he gave away, and it’s my most prized possession.”

During the program, Chesnut dispersed several jewels of songwriting wisdom as well. “Never put a woman’s name in a song,” he said, something he learned after a song he liked, Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Maggie, I Wish We’d Never Met,” failed to become a hit. “It’s ‘you’ and ‘me’ and ‘us’ and ‘we.’ That way, anybody that hears it can associate with it. If it’s about Josie, well, they don’t know Josie.”

He had a similar epiphany while writing “It’s Four in the Morning.” “I needed another verse, and nothing was coming to me,” he said. “I got on a tractor and starting discing. I had a boy helping me, picking up rocks. With the rhythm of the tractor going, I wrote the third verse. It’s the best verse in the whole song.”

Chesnut jumped off his tractor so fast that his helper yelled out to ask where he was going. The songwriter ran inside and wrote down the lyrics while fresh in his mind. “There’s a good lesson in that to songwriters,” he commented. “If you’re not feeling it, put it down and go fishing. Don’t just write something in order to finish a song.”

Gray also pointed out that Chesnut has written nearly all of his famous songs by himself, rather than following the usual Music Row practice of co-writing with others. As Gray surmised, that may have to do with Chesnut’s sunrise writing schedule. “It’s probably hard to find co-writers who will show up at four in the morning.”

—Michael McCall