Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Norro Wilson

March 5, 2011
Norro Wilson trumpeted the importance of creative collaboration during a celebration of his songwriting career as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly Poets and Prophets series. With a mix of humor and humility-well-known traits of one of the most popular personalities on Music Row-Wilson repeatedly recalled details of the songwriting and recording process that he said lifted his contributions to a higher level.

Whether it was George Richey bringing in the title “A Picture of Me (Without You),” or Billy Sherrill changing a crucial word in the chorus of “The Most Beautiful Girl,” or Tammy Wynette instilling emotion into a song’s lyrics, Wilson continually credited others while discussing his own songwriting triumphs.

In doing so, he underscored a magical aspect of Nashville’s music community, which encourages co-writing and an openly collaborative attitude between singers, producers, and songwriters.

“I’m sitting here in this chair today, but just so everybody knows, it wasn’t just me,” Wilson said. “I wrote these songs with other people, together. This moment I share with them, and I think that’s important for everybody to know.”

But while Wilson wanted to share the prestigious event with others, program host Michael Gray emphasized Wilson’s role in his success over five decades. “Few in the business have treaded Music Row’s ever-shifting sands more sure-footedly than Norro Wilson,” Gray said in his introduction.

Wilson has written eleven #1 Billboard country hits and more than twenty other Top Ten songs, prompting his 1996 induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. But his personality, as much as his success, packed the Museum’s Ford Theater with old friends and music-industry veterans for the ninety-minute program, which featured rare photos and audio and video clips from the Museum’s Frist Library and Archive. The program was streamed live at www.countrymusichalloffame.org.

While the program saluted Wilson’s songwriting, the native of Scottsville, Kentucky, also has been a record executive and a producer, working with Shania Twain early in her career as well as guiding recording efforts by Eddy Arnold, Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, George Jones, Sammy Kershaw, Reba McEntire, Charley Pride, and Tammy Wynette.

Wilson also spent several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a recording artist, charting ten records, including a Top Twenty hit, “Do It to Someone You Love,” in 1970. He recorded for several record labels, including Monument, Hickory, Smash, Mercury, RCA, Capitol, and Warner Bros. “I think that’s enough,” Wilson quipped.

Born in 1938, Wilson recalled his mother forcing him to take piano lessons as a child, “and I hated it.” His father was a barber and his mother a factory worker, and Wilson described his small-town childhood as neighborly and enriching. He grew up listening to the pop music of the 1950s (Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole) and to the live radio programs of Flatt & Scruggs.

A fan of 1950s vocal group the Four Freshmen, Wilson became a dedicated member of barbershop quartets as a tenor singer. He attended Western Kentucky University on a vocal scholarship and eventually joined the Southlanders, a gospel quartet. Joining the group brought him to Nashville; he moved to the Madison community on the east side of town.

Wilson brought his background in pop music and quartet singing to bear on his professional career on Music Row. “I had to learn to write country songs,” he said. “I became a giant George Jones fan, but the pop background probably trained my ears for certain things to happen in a record. Really, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’ is a poppish sort of record. I think those influences come out without me really knowing that they do. They’re just there, and they come out melodically and otherwise.”

Wilson started as a songplugger for publisher Al Gallico, meaning he took the original works of other songwriters that were published by Gallico and pitched them to Nashville producers and artists. Eventually, Wilson started co-writing with songwriters as well as pitching their tunes.

In late 1969 and early 1970, Wilson scored his first hit with David Houston’s “Baby,Baby (I Know You’re a Lady),” co-written with Alex Harvey. Wilson credited the song’s success to a guitar lick he created, with the chorus repeating the melody of the guitar lick. “I had to learn from other people about lyrics,” Wilson said. “I got better at it. But ‘Baby’ definitely shows the musical side of it is important, too.”

Wilson had great success getting cuts by Tammy Wynette, and as Gray mentioned, Wilson’s Poets and Prophets program was scheduled to coincide with the run of the Museum exhibit Tammy Wynette: First Lady of Country Music, Presented by Great American Country Television Network. Wilson benefited from close contact with Billy Sherrill, who produced Wynette’s classic early albums. Like Wilson, Sherrill was signed to Gallico’s publishing company, giving Wilson easy access to Sherrill as both a co-writer and a producer.

“I loved Tammy so very much,” Wilson said. “She was an angel. What you saw was pretty much what you got with her. She was just a sweet, darling person, and so easy to get along with.” As for her vocals on his songs, he added, “She would just knock it right out. You didn’t tune her. You didn’t need to.”

Wilson also described pitching songs to the legendarily taciturn Sherrill. “He didn’t give as much as an ‘mmph’ if he didn’t like it,” Wilson said. “You just knew to get up and go try something else. But if he liked it, he got all excited. He’d jump up out of his fetal position and run over to the piano.”

Wilson spoke of how special it was to work on the album One, a 1995 duet album reuniting Wynette and George Jones-for what turned out to be the last time. “They were both a bit fragile during that process,” said Wilson, who co-produced with Tony Brown. “Tammy was sickly through some of it. But she’d come right in there and do it. I babied them the best I knew how.”

From there, Gray led Wilson to talk about writing songs for Jones. The Wilson co-writes Jones recorded include the classics “A Picture of Me (Without You)” and “The Grand Tour.” On the former, Wilson met with co-writer George Richey, who had the potential title, “A Picture of Me (Without You),” tucked away on a handwritten note in his wallet.

“I’ve often said a good song title, like a picture, is worth a thousand words, is worth a thousand ideas,” Wilson said. “It’s easer to write, I believe. That’s one of my most proud songs to have written.”

Richey also came up with the title “The Grand Tour,” a song that Wilson performed with piano accompaniment by Gary Prim midway through the program. Wilson also had high words of praise for Jones. “He never sang anything the same way twice,” he said. “It didn’t matter how he sang it, it was great every single time.”

Gray also led Wilson through the history of the song “The Most Beautiful Girl.” The songwriter explained that the idea started when visiting co-writer Rory Bourke, who lived in Chicago at the time, working as a promotion executive for Mercury Records. Wilson woke up with a monumental hangover at Bourke’s house, and his host came in and said, “Let’s write a song.” Bourke had a few verses when Wilson had an idea about a guy running out in the street and saying, “Hey mister, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world? And if you did, was she crying?”

Wilson first recorded the song, but later, when Sherrill heard the song, he reacted badly to the clause, “‘Hey mister?’ What is that? Why don’t you just say, ‘Hey.’” Wilson then paused and raised his hands, leaving out the extra word. “That little change made it completely definitive.”

Wilson and Bourke initially titled the song “Hey Mister,” but after Sherrill’s revision, they added him as a co-writer and renamed it “The Most Beautiful Girl.” Joe Stampley recorded it next, in a version Wilson produced. Sherrill later modeled the hit version by Charlie Rich on the arrangement used for Stampley’s recording. The song has been certified, by the performing rights society BMI, for more than six million plays.

“I loved writing a song like that,” Wilson said. “You can work your whole life and not get something that wonderful.”

Wilson pointed out that sometimes the collaborative effort includes someone recognizing that a song isn’t quite as good as it could be. He told of an early 1980s meeting with Jerry Bradley, then head of RCA Records, in which Bradley listened to a song Wilson proposed as Charley Pride’s next single. Bradley offered only lukewarm praise, which Wilson took as a push to come up with a better song. That day, Wilson called co-writer Wayland Holyfield, and they wrote “Never Been So Loved (In All of My Life),” which became a #1 hit for Pride in 1981.

“That’s one of my favorite songs, and one of the records I’m most proud of,” Wilson said, crediting Bradley’s intervention for challenging him to come up with a top-notch song and recording. “It’s kind of weird how it took place. It took stopping and starting all over, and that was the result.”

The program ended with Wilson’s second performance of the day, this time singing “The Most Beautiful Girl” with Prim on piano. He received a standing ovation as he finished.

-Michael McCall