Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Wayne Carson

December 3, 2011

Wayne Carson wrote his first song to try and impress a young woman he had just met. He named the song “Coco,” the nickname given the woman by her friends, because they said her short, Audrey Hepburn-styled hairdo made her look like a coconut.

The song achieved its goal: The two went on a date. More importantly, it led Carson, a young guitarist at the time, to talk shop with other professional songwriters.

“I found out they were making money,” Carson said. “I thought, ‘God, you can do this and get paid for it-and there’s girls involved!‘That was right up my alley, so I started writing songs.”

Watch the entire program here.

A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1997, Carson blossomed into one of the most successful and admired songwriters of his generation.

Carson discussed his career and several of his best-known songs-including 1960s rock hit “The Letter” by the Box Tops and country classic “Always on My Mind,” which won three Grammys in 1982 for the hit version by Willie Nelson-during a 90-minute program at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The program was the fourth 2011 installment of the quarterly series Poets and Prophets, which honors songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music.

Carson grew up in a show-business family. His parents, Odie and Olivia Head, performed country, pop, and western swing tunes under the stage names Shorty and Sue Thompson.

The couple met in Nebraska, where they performed on radio station KMMJ in the mid-1940s.

The duo found success in Denver, where they performed on radio station KFEL, and in Springfield, Missouri, where the duo appeared on radio station WTLO and on the 1950s network TV series Ozark Jubilee.

Inspired by Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, Carson began playing guitar at age 14. His parents thought he too needed a stage name, dubbing him Wayne Carson. The various family names led to him occasionally being misidentified as Wayne Carson Thompson, Wayne Thompson, and even Carson Thompson.

During the time his parents performed in Denver, Carson formed a band, playing a western circuit that included such cities as Cheyenne, Wyoming. After the family moved to Springfield, Carson began playing guitar for Country Music Hall of Fame member Red Foley, becoming “his right-hand man,” Carson said.

“Red was a huge star,” Carson explained, citing Foley’s role as host of the Ozark Jubilee and his acting roles in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Jimmy Stewart. “I was kind of his go-to guy. He helped me a great deal.”

He learned to write songs just as he had picked up guitar playing-through trial and error. “At first, there were a lot of stupid little songs, but then some pretty good things started coming up,” he said. “It took me a few years to have a ‘substance’ song, a song that was worth anything at all.”

His first success came with “Turn Around and Look Again,” cut by Roy Clark in 1964. He garnered his first #1 hit in 1966 when Eddy Arnold recorded “Somebody Like Me.”

Carson told of receiving a call from Arnold after the star heard a demo of the song. Carson imitated Arnold’s gentlemanly, molasses-sweet southern drawl, saying, “Wayne, I love the tune, but I think it could use another verse.”

Carson replied, “Do you have a pencil?” Arnold got one from Atkins’s assistant. Carson made up a third verse on the spot, reciting it to Arnold over the phone. Arnold paused to finish writing the verse and to read it, then replied, “That’s marvelous. Did you have that?” Carson said, “No, sir.” Arnold retorted, “That’s also amazing.”

Arnold recorded the song that evening. “If you look up ‘nice guy’ and ‘gentleman’ in the dictionary, there will be a picture of Eddy Arnold there,” Carson said. “Of course, this was back in the day when you could get right to the artist and to the producer. It was before you had those Monday morning meetings where you had to be approved by eight people there who don’t have anything to do with it anyway.”

After Arnold’s hit, Carson traveled regularly from Springfield to Nashville with manger Si Siman, who had produced the Ozark Jubilee and was responsible for getting it on network television. Another important executive who helped his career grow was Jim Vienneau, a successful music publisher, producer, and record executive. During a publishing company meeting, Vienneau told Carson “he was a very talented man with a lot of potential to become a star. But I noticed that three-quarters of your songs aren’t country.”

Vienneau referred Carson to Chips Moman, at the time a Memphis-based rock, pop, and soul producer and proprietor of American Sound Studio. “He’s got a hot rock & roll band, and he’s a great producer,” Vienneau told Carson.

Carson traveled with Siman to Memphis and met Moman at American Sound, where a new recording console was being installed. “A room like that made you want to play music,” said Carson, who recited several of the musicians working as the house band at American, including Gene Chrisman, Tommy Cogbill, Bobby Emmons, Mike Leech, Bobby Wood, and Reggie Young. “Those guys will make your day. It was amazing music. I learned nearly everything I know there.”

Moman tried to buy Carson’s songwriting contract from Siman, who told Moman the contract wasn’t for sale, and $25,000 wasn’t nearly enough anyway. Nonetheless, Moman and Siman became fast friends, recognizing each other as smart, hard-nosed music men.

Through Moman, Carson was introduced to songwriter-producer Dan Penn and the Box Tops, a Memphis rock band that recorded several of Carson’s songs, notably the hits “The Letter,” “Neon Rainbow,” and “Soul Deep.”

On writing “The Letter,” Carson recalled looking over several pages of lyrics his father sent him, with one that included the spelling “aero-plane” for “airplane.” Seeing that word inspired Carson to want to use it in a song, so he crafted the memorable first line, “Give me a ticket for an aero-plane.”

Moving on to “Always on My Mind,” which won 1982 Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Country Song, Carson recalled having written a couple of the verses at his dining-room table. “It’s one of the few songs I’ve ever written down like that,” he said. “They were in a notebook, and I carried that around for the longest time.”

He played what he had written for Moman, who said, “I like it, but it’s not what we’re looking for right now.” Monument Records owner Fred Foster and other producers and artists also turned the song down. Later, Moman reconsidered while working on one of the several albums Carson has recorded over the years. But he said, “I still think the song needs a bridge.”

Carson was sitting at a piano working on “Always on My Mind” when Johnny Christopher walked in. “Johnny, help me write this,” Carson called out. The two “banged around and banged around” on it, but weren’t getting anywhere.

At that moment, another songwriter, Mark James, came into the room. Carson played James the song, who responded, “That sounds great to me.” James joined Carson and Christopher, and they came up with the bridge Moman had requested. “The three of us wrote the rest of the lines,” Carson said. “We cut it that morning.”

Brenda Lee recorded the song first in 1972; later the same year Elvis Presley cut his well-known version in Hollywood. But it wasn’t until Nelson’s 1982 version that the song became an award-winning, classic country song.

Initially, Nelson planned to record it as a duet with Merle Haggard. But when Haggard heard it, according to Carson, he leaned back and said, “Who wrote this piece of shit?” Somebody said, “Wayne Carson.” Haggard replied, “Well, no wonder I don’t like it.” (Carson laughed along with the crowd, saying Haggard wasn’t being malicious, and that the two are old friends.)

Nelson disagreed, saying, “Well, I like it. You go wait outside.” Nelson’s version also won him a 1982 Best Country Vocal Performance by a Male at the Grammy Awards.

As program host Michael Gray pointed out, the song was revived as a dance hit in 1988 by an English band, the Pet Shop Boys. Gray included a video clip of the latter in a compilation of performances of the song by Carson (with Christopher and James), Presley, Nelson, and the U.K. band.

Before asking about Carson’s professional relationship with singer Gary Stewart, for whom he wrote several of the honky tonker’s best-loved songs, Gray quoted museum staffer Ali Tonn as saying, “The merging of Wayne Carson’s songs with Gary Stewart’s voice is one of the great combinations in the history of country music.”

Carson met Stewart through publisher Bob Beckham, a close friend. Beckham heard Carson’s song, “Drinkin’ Thing,” and suggested he play it for RCA staff producer Roy Dea, who was recording Stewart’s first album.

Carson went to meet Dea that day and handed him the demo to play. “This is exactly what I’m looking for,” Dea said after hearing “Drinkin’ Thing. “You got any more?”

Carson did indeed, establishing himself as Stewart’s primary outside writer with such cuts as “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” “Oh, Sweet Temptation,” “Ten Years of This,” and “Whiskey Trip.”

“I not only wrote songs about whiskey,” Carson said with a sly smile. “I did something about it.”

Stewart opened some shows for Conway Twitty shortly after releasing “Drinkin’ Thing” as a single. Twitty heard the B-side, “I See the Want To in Your Eyes,” and asked about his plans for the song. When Stewart said there weren’t any, Twitty wondered if Stewart would mind if he cut it. With Stewart’s OK, Twitty turned the tune into a #1 hit in 1974.

Gray also cited several other of Carson’s hits, including “Nine Pound Steel” for soul singer Joe Simon, “Who’s Julie” for Mel Tillis, “No Love at All” by B.J. Thomas, “(Don’t Let the Sun Set on You) Tulsa” by Waylon Jennings, “Slide off of Your Satin Sheets” by Johnny Paycheck, “Barstool Mountain” by Moe Bandy, and “The Clown” by Conway Twitty.

Carson performed during the program, presenting “The Letter” and “Always on My Mind” before finishing with a recent co-write with a young songwriter, Brice Long, who described Carson as a hero and mentor.

The audience in the museum’s Ford Theater included several previous Poets and Prophets, including Jerry Foster, John Loudermilk, Dan Penn, and Norro Wilson. Chips Moman, Carson’s longtime supporter, traveled from Georgia to sit in the front row. The Box Tops’ guitarist, Gary Talley, also was in attendance, as was keyboardist, producer, and music publisher David Briggs.

Midway through the program, Carson asked if he could speak directly to the crowd. “I want to thank you folks,” he said. “I didn’t realize I had this many friends. You just made whatever I have left good. I appreciate it.”

-Michael McCall