Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Red Lane

August 28, 2010

Merle Haggard once goaded his longtime friend Red Lane by calling him the world's third-best songwriter. "Hank Cochran is first," Haggard said. "I'm second. You're third."

The famously laid-back Lane shrugged, telling Haggard, "Thank you...I think."

Lane recalled the story during a celebration of his songwriting career as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's quarterly Poets and Prophets series, which celebrates songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. The two-hour program, filled with Lane's colorful stories and exploits, featured family photos as well as rare audio and video clips from the Museum's Frist Library and Archive.

A 1993 inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Lane opened the program talking about Cochran, a lifelong friend and fellow classic country songwriter who died July 15, 2010. Lane told a long story about how Cochran convinced him to take a boat ride on the Cumberland River that resulted in Lane missing his flight to a concert by Justin Tubb, for whom Lane played guitar. As the crowd laughed and applauded, Lane grew emotional.

"I ain't going to be able to talk a minute," he said. After gathering himself, he addressed his friendship with Cochran, adding, "I loved him, absolutely."

Born Hollis DeLaughter in 1939 in Zona, Louisiana (a small town now incorporated into Bogalusa, Louisiana), Lane acquired his stage name when serving in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s. "The government didn't smile too much on soldiers going out playing music in nightclubs," he said. "So I had to get another name." 

He already had the nickname "Red," and when a friend recommended "Lane" as a last name, the songwriter-guitarist said, "OK." 

Before the Air Force, the DeLaughter family moved often. Red's father worked heavy construction machinery, and he went wherever he could find work, moving as far as Michigan and Indiana. In Indiana, Lane began to learn guitar, after his father sold his favorite .22 -caliber rifle to buy an acoustic guitar from Sears, Roebuck and Co.

"I didn't know it but I was already a picker," Lane quipped. "I picked peaches, strawberries...."

In the U.S. Air Force, besides playing guitar in country bands, Lane worked on airplanes, cultivating a lifelong love affair with aircraft. "That was my very first love," he said. In the air force, he began playing guitar more earnestly, emulating his heroes Merle Travis and, later, Chet Atkins and John D. Loudermilk.

Lane landed in Southern California after leaving the air force and briefly gave up music. Then he met Buck and Bonnie Owens, among others, which sparked his interest. He eventually moved to Phoenix, where he picked cotton to make ends meet and for a while lived under a bridge because he couldn't afford rent.

Before long, he began playing in Phoenix bands and met another young, up-and-coming musician, Waylon Jennings. "Boys and girls, y'all should have heard that son-of-a-bitch sing," Lane said. "He could get back and just sing right over all the talking. He and Bonnie Owens are the only two people who, I swear, if you put a piece of paper in front of them, they'd cut it with their voices. Whenever he would sing, things would just crawl all over your back and neck. I wish everybody could have heard him then."

At the time, Lane didn't write songs. But he fell in love with the early albums of Willie Nelson, whose original songs inspired Lane to write his own compositions. Nelson's influence continues through to today, Lane said.

"Songs arrive on gossamer wings," Lane said. "They move, and you don't know where they're going to go next. You have to have faith in the fact that it will go where it needs to. You just follow that sucker, and you have to have faith that you will like where it goes."

He paused and added, "That's the whole story of my life right there. We can quit right now."

From Phoenix, Lane then moved to Indiana and worked three shifts as a guitarist, working from noon to five a.m. in different settings. "I got my chops up pretty good doing that," Lane said. In 1963, he met country star Justin Tubb, for whom he played three or four songs. Tubb suggested Lane take his songs to Nashville. After a short audition, Tubb hired Lane as his guitarist as well.

In April 1964, Lane signed as a staff writer at Tree International. By the time Lane moved to Nashville near the end of that year, Faron Young had a #11 hit with "My Friend on the Right," a song he'd co-written with Lane. Just after arriving in town, Lane also performed on the Grand Ole Opry with Tubb.

"What do you do after you've reached all your dreams in eight days?" said Lane, who had been a blue-collar worker whenever not making a living in the air force or as a musician. "I've never walked the streets of Nashville looking for a job."

Not long after arriving in Nashville, Lane began a long-running association with singer Dottie West, who recorded dozens of his songs, including "Clinging to My Baby's Hand," "It's Dawned on Me You're Gone," "Come See Me and Come Lonely," and "Country Girl," a Top Twenty hit in 1968.

"We were very close," Lane said. "She was a real writer's friend. Every time she got a chance, she'd call a bunch of us together. She wanted to hear our songs."

Lane flirted briefly with a solo career, signing with RCA Records and scoring a #32 hit with "The World Needs a Melody," which he wrote with Larry Henley and Johnny Slate. He made some TV appearances, including one on ABC's Johnny Cash Show that was shown during the museum program. Others who covered the song include Bill Anderson, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, the Kingston Trio, Kenny Rogers, and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters with Johnny Cash, who made it a Top Forty hit for the second time, in 1972.

Lane quickly decided he preferred the songwriter's lifestyle to that of a star performer. "I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the fact that I could do what I do, and I've been able to do it all these years, and get paid enough for it so that I could keep doing it," he said. "That's the most wonderful thing in my life."

His hits have included John Conlee's "Miss Emily's Picture," Merle Haggard's "My Own Kind of Hat," Waylon Jennings's "Walk On Out of My Mind," Willie Nelson's "Blackjack County Chain," George Strait's "Tell Me Something Bad about Tulsa," B.J. Thomas's "New Looks from an Old Lover," Conway Twitty's "Darling, You Know I Wouldn't Lie," and Tammy Wynette's "'Til I Get It Right." Other significant cuts include Gatemouth Brown's "Monroe, Louisiana," Ray Charles' "Ain't Your Memory Got No Pride at All," Johnny Paycheck's "I've Seen Better Days," and Lee Ann Womack's "He'll Be Back."

Lane also is a well-regarded guitarist who frequently records and tours with Haggard; and he has played on albums by Bobby Bare, Gatemouth Brown, Cash, Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Keith Whitley, and many others.

As part of the program, Poets and Prophets host Michael Gray related that Lane is almost as renowned for his unconventional lifestyle and personality as for his songs. "Red is one of those creative geniuses living a peculiar life somewhat different than the rest of us," Gray noted. "He converted a 1958 DC-8 passenger jetliner into his home. He virtually lives in an airplane."

The program included photos and comments from Lane about a 1970s charitable effort in which he helped the Nashville police department with a camp for impoverished young boys from ages eight to fourteen who grew up without fathers. Lane took the boys boating on Old Hickory Lake, surprising them by pulling up to a dock at Cash's home in Hendersonville. Cash came out and greeted the boys with arms full of LPs for each of them.

"It was one of my better times, to be able to do things for people, because the stuff I got was given to me," Lane said. "The only time information is good is when you get it, and you give it away."

Years later, at a Nashville nightclub, a police officer walked up to Lane and said, "Mr. Red, you don't remember me, do you? I just wanted you to know that you and five police officers were the reason why I'm a policeman today."

The experience overwhelmed him with emotion, Lane said. "I've never forgotten that. It was nice to meet somebody for whom I might have done some good."

-Michael McCall