Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Kye Fleming

July 28, 2012
Kye Fleming first came to Nashville in 1977 on her way back to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to visit her parents. At the time, Fleming was a singer-songwriter who had been performing as a solo act in coffeehouses across the country. After living and pursuing a music career briefly in Los Angeles, Boston, and finally New York City, the twenty-six-year-old needed a rest.

Feeling the fatigue of trying to make something happen, Fleming decided to go home to Arkansas and assess her next step. Her stop in Nashville helped make the decision for her: A meeting with Tom Collins, at Pi-Gem Music, changed her life. She signed a publishing deal with him and within two weeks time she had moved to Tennessee where, in remarkable time, she became one of country music’s most successful songwriters.

Fleming discussed her creative development, and her unusual path to country music songwriting success, as an honoree of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Poets and Prophets series, which pays tribute to songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. Fleming’s accolades include being named BMI Songwriter of the Year from 1981-83 and getting inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009.

Fleming is a private person who has rarely agreed to interviews over the years, making her appearance an unusual opportunity to hear her discuss her work. After host Michael Gray pointed out that she prefers staying behind the scenes, Fleming wisecracked, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

Born in Pensacola, Florida, Fleming spent only two weeks there. Her father’s military work forced the family to move often, spending time in California, Hawaii, Texas, and Arkansas. Her parents consider Fort Smith, Arkansas, their home; Fleming spent more time there than in other cities while growing up.

Born Rhonda Kye Fleming, she dropped her first name at age twenty-two, as she was becoming better known as a performer, because of the well-known Hollywood actress named Rhonda Fleming.

Fleming grew up around music, with uncles who played electric guitar and fiddle in country bands. She took piano lessons as a young girl, but became more serious when taking up the guitar in the ninth grade. She immediately began writing songs, she said, “Because it’s easier to write new ones than to learn somebody else’s.”

She realized early on she wanted to play music for her career. When her mother once chastised her to put down the guitar and finish her school homework, Fleming responded, “OK, I will. But this is how I’m going to make a living.”

Shortly afterward, she received a generous and important gift from her uncle Calvin Cody Carter. An auto mechanic, her uncle had a customer trade a 1927 Martin guitar for $20 of repair work. The uncle agreed and presented the treasured guitar to his niece. “I’ve still got that,” she said.

Although her family played and listened to country, Fleming at first was more influenced by singer-songwriters, such as Joni Mitchell. “There’s not a better lyricist,” Fleming said of Mitchell. “She influenced me to write.” Fleming twice snuck into music halls to see Mitchell rehearse, and once got to sit and have a conversation with her, which she still speaks about in star-struck terms.

In 1968, in Fort Smith, Fleming started performing at hotel happy hours and coffeehouses. At the University of Arkansas, where she studied for two years, she performed in bars and at coffeehouses, often opening for touring musicians. In the Arkansas mountain town of Eureka Springs, a folk-art center that draws tourists, Fleming worked a side job at a fast-food burger joint to raise money to buy a Martin D-18S that she had come across in a store there.

Fleming had a life-changing moment when members of Elvis Presley’s band dropped into a hotel lounge in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Fleming was performing. The musicians called Fleming to their table during a break, and famed bassist Jerry Scheff, intrigued by her songs, suggested she come to California, where he could introduce her to music publishers.

Fleming drove her Ford Econoline van to Southern California, and she signed a contract with the first music publisher she met. It led to her first cut, by the teen-idol duo Andy and David Williams. The two released the song, “Falling, Falling Gone,” as a single and performed it on network TV on the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.

After nine months in California, Fleming returned to Arkansas, once again playing lounges and clubs. An audition at New York City’s Bitter End nightclub led to her signing with an agency that booked her to play coffeehouses in college towns all over the country. She soon moved to Boston, a center for singer-songwriters at the time, performing around town before making a move to New York City.

“All this time, I was beating on doors and trying to get meetings [at music publishers and at record companies],” Fleming said. “If it was to be an artist or a writer, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get a foot in the door.”

Steve Popovich, a famed A&R talent scout and record label executive, recognized Fleming’s talent and arranged to have her record a demo for Epic Records. By time she had cut a few demo tracks, Popovich had left Epic Records, and nothing else for her at the label materialized.

“We know how that goes, and really, it was a good thing,” Fleming said. “But at the time, I was pretty bummed and tired. I’d been trying really hard. I remember calling my mom and dad and asking, ‘Can I just come home for a couple of weeks.’”

An hour after arranging plans with her parents, her friend Jerry Scheff called. “He said, ‘You know, I’m going to Nashville, and I’ve got a meeting with a couple of producers and publishers,’” Fleming recalled. “‘If you want to come with me, you could,’” Fleming recalled. “I told him, ‘That sounds great.’”

Fleming’s first meeting was with Rob Galbraith, who worked closely with Ronnie Milsap, and who expressed an interest in producing Fleming as a recording artist. The following day, she met with music publisher Tom Collins and played some of her songs.

“He heard something in it,” Fleming said. “I said, ‘Tom, tell me what you need, and I can write it.’ I remember thinking that was bold, but yeah, I thought I could do that. I just had this feeling if someone would tell me what it is they wanted, I could do it.”

Fleming signed with Tom Collins and Pi-Gem Music and was so happy to be a signed songwriter that the offer to be an artist was not even of interest to her anymore. Singing was really just the vehicle for her songs.

Fleming felt everything fell into place quickly after arriving in Nashville. “All these ‘coincidences’ started occurring ... like somebody was trying to tell me something.”

“I look back now, and I can see it and identify it,” she said. “I had just reached the goal I had been after all my life. I realized there is always something more, and I knew there was more to it. I was down on my knees saying this is great, but if I have to scratch my way to get to the next thing and the next thing ... then I’m done. I give up. “

At that moment, Fleming said, “everything shifted. I fell so in love with life and with myself, and with my friends, and the person checking me out in the grocery line,” she said with a smile.
That was key to unlocking everything that followed. “My focus wasn’t about the #1s and the hit records and all that - although that was awesome,” she said. “It really was about me being happy. After that, everything else fell in place.”

That said, Fleming was quick to credit those who helped her. She called Collins, who was in the crowd, “the best.” She cited the company’s song plugger, David Conrad, and Mary Del Frank (Scobey), with whom Fleming later worked with at Almo Irving publishing company. Frequent co-writer Dennis Morgan, with whom she created many of her best-known hits, proved to be the “perfect” creative partner, she said. Even the receptionist at Tom Collins Music proved important: That staffer, with whom Fleming developed a close relationship, began recording albums under her first name, Sylvia. Fleming and Morgan became her go-to songwriters, resulting in such hits as the award-winning #1 “Nobody” as well as “Like Nothing Ever Happened” and “Sweet Yesterday.”

After joining Pi-Gem Music, Fleming teamed up for the first time with Dennis Morgan. Soon Fleming and Morgan isolated themselves as an exclusive writing team, coming up with hit after hit.

“I think it was the mix of our pop influences and Dennis’s great guitar playing,” she said. For the next six years, Fleming and Morgan wrote hit after hit, setting up a schedule where they arrived at the publishing office at 10 a.m. on weekdays and working through the day.

Fleming and Morgan would start with a title, she said. She described most of their hits as “bubblegum country,” adding, “I don’t mean that to sound bad. It was just fun music.” Their hits included Barbara Mandrell’s “Years,” “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed,” “Fooled by a Feeling,” “Crackers,” “The Best of Strangers,” “Love Is Fair,” “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” “Operator, Long Distance Please,” “In Times Like These,”; Ronnie Milsap’s “Smoky Mountain Rain;” Charley Pride’s “Missin’ You” and “Roll on Mississippi”; and Steve Wariner’s “All Roads Lead to You” and “Kansas City Lights”. Later on they wrote a couple of songs with Charles Quillen, coming up with the hits “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World” (Ronnie Milsap) and “She Used to Love Me a Lot” (David Allan Coe).

Later, Fleming signed with Almo/Irving Music, whose Nashville office was started by David Conrad and Mary Del Frank. Fleming pursued other forms of music, getting hits in pop, R&B, and contemporary Christian music. She also continued to have country hits, including Michael Johnson’s #1 hit “Give Me Wings,” written with Don Schlitz. “I enjoyed writing with Don so much,” Fleming said. “A great guy, and a great, great writer.”
Outside of country music, she and famed singer-songwriter Janis Ian wrote “What About the Love,” which Amy Grant recorded for her landmark Lead Me On album; also with Ian, Fleming wrote “Some People’s Lives,” a hit for Bette Midler; and with pop songwriter Mark Cawley and singer Brenda Russell she wrote “Dancing in my Dreams,” which Tina Turner recorded.

By the 1990s, Fleming branched further out, becoming a music publisher and a mentor of young talent. “I really love working with writers and artists whose dreams are on fire, but before they’ve had anything happen,” Fleming said.

A few successful songwriters Fleming has worked with include Amanda Hunt-Taylor, Jess Leary, and Michael Dulaney - all of whom went on to write top country hits. More recently, she developed the trio Edens Edge and got them their recording contract with Big Machine Records. Along with manager Paula Kay Hornick, Fleming helped develop actress-turned-country singer Jana Kramer, and secured her a label deal with Warner Records. Both acts have recently achieved their first country hits. Fleming and Catt Graviitt, who co-wrote the first singles for both artists, have signed a joint venture with Razor and Tie publishing in order to develop more artists. Their first signing is another young talent, Brennin Hunt.

To close her program, Fleming brought Hunt to the stage. With Hunt on guitar, the two performed “Give Me Wings” as a duet, receiving a standing ovation from the audience.

In the end, Fleming acknowledged that talking about herself in public “was kind of fun,” adding slyly, “I might do it again in another twenty or thirty years.”

-Michael McCall