Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter John D. Loudermilk

Jun 23, 2007

June 23, 2007
Fifty-one years ago, a North Carolina record producer told famed songwriter John D. Loudermilk that he lacked the charisma to be a star performer. That’s why, the producer explained, he gave Loudermilk’s song, “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” to another young singer, George Hamilton IV.

The song became Loudermilk’s first hit, and as fate would have it, he’d achieve his greatest success writing songs for others instead of living out his initial dream of becoming a pop star. In retrospect, Loudermilk couldn’t be happier with how his career worked out.

“I looked around and the singers—oh my God, those poor bastards,” quipped Loudermilk, who was honored at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Saturday, June 23, in the museum’s quarterly Poets and Prophets series. “They get on a bus, and they ride, and their wives go to hell, and the family goes to hell. But I could stay home with my family, and it was a wonderful thing. So I chose to do that, and I’ve always prided myself in making a good decision.” 

As for charisma? Loudermilk, age seventy-three, held a packed Ford Theater’s attention for ninety minutes simply by telling stories, answering questions, performing a handful of songs, and commenting on the historic videoclips, recordings, and photos included in the program.

After an introduction by Museum Editor Michael Gray, Loudermilk opened with a solo, acoustic-guitar performance of another early hit, “Tobacco Road,” which has been recorded about two hundred times. A little later, Gray aired a classic 1965 video clip of the Nashville Teens, a British Invasion group, doing their famous version of “Tobacco Road” on the British film Pop Gear.

Born March 31, 1934, Loudermilk grew up in Durham, North Carolina. His mother, Pauline, was a missionary, and his father, John D. Sr., was a carpenter who helped build Duke University and several tobacco factories and hosiery mills.

“I didn’t even know my family didn’t have any money,” Loudermilk said after an introductory question by Gray, who hosted the program. “I always had a place to play, had a camp under the house or a tree house to play in. And I had a bicycle, a pair of shorts and no shoes, and you could go all over Durham with that, but you had to be back by dark.”

His mother, he said, had fresh biscuits on the table for every meal. His father never cursed, drank, told dirty jokes, or missed a church service. Loudermilk learned to play several brass instruments at the Salvation Army church, and he played with toys and wore clothes provided by the Salvation Army as well. His dad built him a ukulele with a cigar box as its body when the young Loudermilk was seven years old, and his mother taught him to play.

“If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back with the same two parents,” he told the crowd. “Once you’ve played an instrument, and once you are able to reach through the veil and appropriate what you need, how can you be poor? That’s the height of wealth, and I’ve felt that way all my life.”

By age thirteen, Loudermilk performed on a Durham radio station, WTIK, as Little Johnny Dee. “I always enjoyed playing music because I got public attention, and I got money,” he said.

Later, guitarist Chet Atkins recorded “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” and invited Loudermilk to visit Nashville. Loudermilk accepted, and on his first visit, Atkins introduced him to Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who were full-time, professional songwriters who didn’t record on their own. Loudermilk considers that moment “a revelation and a revolution,” because it showed him that a songwriter could make a living giving songs to other performers.

Loudermilk also spoke of another influence, a college teacher who gave him a book, There Is a River, by Edgar Cayce, and who taught him the power of visualizing your future and the power of positive thinking. Even now, he believes in it, he says. When his house burned two years ago, he asked himself, “How in the hell am I gonna qualify this as a good happening?” he said. “But it was, and we’re finding out every day that it was a positive thing. We’re not supposed to understand everything.”

To that end, Loudermilk said that when he finishes writing a song, he visualizes a DJ announcing it as a hit and young people flocking into stores to buy it. “I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve been so successful at it,” he said.

He certainly has been successful: his list of hits includes Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,”  George Hamilton IV’s “Abilene” and “Break My Mind,” Johnny Cash’s “Bad News,” Marianne Faithfull’s “This Little Bird,” Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes,” Glen Campbell’s “I Wanna Live,” Sue Thompson’s “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” and “James (Hold the Ladder Steady),” Eddie Cochran’s “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” Ernie Ashworth’s “Talk Back Trembling Lips,” Eddy Arnold’s “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo,” and Chet Atkins’s “Windy and Warm.”

He also told of how he tricked nationally known DJ Casey Kasem into believing he was inspired to write “Indian Reservation” after getting stranded in a snowstorm and picked up by Indians, who took him back to a cave on a reservation and pleaded with him to write about their difficult plight at the hands of the federal government. Kasem broadcast the story across the country and didn’t find out for twenty-five years that the story wasn’t true.

Loudermilk also said songwriting was a great way for people to rid themselves of personal afflictions, and he addressed how personal happiness can make it hard to write meaningful songs. He cited his second marriage, to his wife Susan, in 1968 for clearing his conscience and filling his life with joy.

“Everything became too valuable to write about,” he said. “You don’t take something as valuable as a perfect association with another human being and write songs to make money with. There’s something about that that doesn’t smack true to me.”

He noted that Chet Atkins once told him that other writers in other countries expressed the same sentiment: that you can get too happy to write. “If that be the case, I’ll take the happiness, any day,” Loudermilk said. “It’s bigger than anything else.”

The next Poets and Prophets program will honor Bobby Braddock on September 15.

—Michael McCall

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