What if the first serious opinions that millions of rock music fans formed about country music were based on a few massive errors which then got passed down to future generations? How long do you think it would take for society to build a fundamentally flawed history of an entire genre on top of such a foundation? Fifty years? Well, that’s exactly what happened.
Billy Sherrill’s name means nothing to many country music fans. Some recognize it from the album credits of a few of their favorite country artists. Others manage to cast him as an enemy of the genre. But anyone who hears the name Billy Sherrill and thinks anything less than “he’s one of the most important producers in the history of Nashville, who made some of the greatest and most influential records of all time in any genre” has not been given enough information about the man or the music. That changes today.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
Transcript of Episode
One of the main reasons noble families in Europe spent medieval fortunes on extravagant architecture and other ostentatious displays of wealth was to reinforce the notion they were the ruling class for a reason. Their ancient bloodlines and God above made them rich, you poor and that’s the way it would always be because that’s the way it was supposed to be. It’s certainly the reason Catherine de Medici ramped up the arts and entertainment budget as soon as she came to power in France, then kept it up even after doing so required borrowed money. She rode aristocratic elites around in carrousel parades not simply because it was fun to dress up in lavish couture and get on a horse but to stun the lower classes with unattainable splendor and centuries-old eminence – sort of like a military parade’s demonstration of power, only this was a demonstration of social superiority.
Throughout history, a primary purpose served by fashion has been to rank the classes with a form of visual identification nearly as blatant and immediate as the uniform decorations which rank military personnel. Just as it is illegal in the United States to falsely claim you received certain military decorations in order to qualify for money, property or other tangible benefit, there have been various forms of legislation – collectively known as sumptuary laws – established in various places and times to prevent ordinary citizens from dressing above their social station. Sometimes a person could be put to death for even assisting someone else in pretending to belong to a higher caste. But the punishment for breaking a sumptuary law was more often some kind of fine, typically applied to everyone in order to give the appearance of equality while actually assigning a dress code to the poor. For example, say it’s technically illegal for any man of any standing to wear whatever is determined to be an excessive amount of jewelry or expensive fabric or certain color dye in their clothing. If his punishment is nothing more than a fine, then this sumptuary law really functions more like a tax, easily paid by the wealthiest members of society while a prohibitive expense to the poor, who would likely rack up some additional punishment if caught breaking a sumptuary law while unable to pay the fine.
This is no kind of revolutionary reframing of the past or modern perspective mapped onto history. Many sumptuary laws were written in plain, contemporary language to prohibit people dressing as if they held more money or status. In the colonial United States, it was illegal for any person who didn’t own a certain amount of wealth to wear clothing with silver thread, gold thread, lace or embroidery. And these were attitudes inherited from England, where the House of Tudor had allowed only the royal family to wear silk fabric, gold jewelry or the color purple. Anyone could wear fur but only those of title at the level of earldom or higher were allowed to wear the fur of sables. The shogun system of government in feudal Japan came with a detailed dress code much too complicated to get into here, centered entirely around every citizen’s social rank. But even without such legislation, there are unwritten sumptuary laws woven into the fabric of modern society. Clumsy attempts to dress above one’s station are likely to be met with mockery from one’s peers or even strangers. A guy shows up to the club in an expensive yet ill-fitting suit and his friends make fun of him for trying to front. A pretty girl puts on a t-shirt for a rock or metal or punk band and some dickhead at the record store gives her a pop quiz to see if she’s a poser. Any deviation from what we perceive to be the defining visual codes of any given category of person will at least be noted in the minds of observers, if not commented upon. Of course, those funded and favored by high society have often been granted exemption. The wealthy will allow you to wear their costumes. You just have to fight a bull as well as Costillares or provide some other entertainment with world-class skill, such as playing a piano as well as Beethoven, whose notorious ill temper and bad manners gave cause for Phillipe V’s great-grandson to issue a royal decree stating typical rules of court etiquette did not apply to Beethoven. Otherwise, a musician of common birth may have suffered jail or worse as lawful consequence for mouthing off to someone of noble blood. However, the thing about all sumptuary laws – written or unwritten – is there are only consequences if you get caught. A poor person walking down the street dressed up like a rich person will only be viewed and treated as such if they present the appearance of a poor person dressed up like a rich person. Anyone who presents the appearance of a rich person walking down the street will be viewed and treated as such.
What You Think, What You Feel, What You Know
So, let’s say there were sumptuary laws in place throughout the United States in the 19th century, which there were, preventing citizens from dressing in drag – that’s “men” made up like “women,” or vice versa. And let’s say there were exemptions, which there were, allowing citizens to dress in drag so long as it was to attend a masquerade ball, as the ruling class had by this point done in drag for centuries to flaunt their above-the-law existence, easily paying fines or arranging exemptions to throw these balls. (It is impossible to know what percentage of these elites actually identified as bi, gay or trans, just as it’s impossible to know whether the documented prevalence of drag and homosexuality among working class men in remote logging towns and mining camps of the American West was a result of there being very few women around or a product of gay men and trans women deliberately seeking out such overwhelmingly masculine environments on the outskirts of civilization.) But what do you think happens in the middle of the 19th century when previously underground LGBTQ communities begin taking advantage of masquerade ball exemptions to gather in large numbers in public places, dressed as whatever gender they feel?
Congratulations to everyone who guessed a legal crackdown, resurrecting outdated laws meant to deter bandits from dressing in disguise and establishing new laws to ban masquerades, then selectively applying this legislation to target and harass lower class individuals for participating in behavior which continued largely unchecked in upper class communities. Again, this is all simply a matter of record. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century in New York City, those with financial means purchased licenses from local government in order to throw masquerade balls, some including or explicitly themed around drag. The largest of these parties were attended by hundreds of people and city cops were often hired to work security. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, police stopped folks who appeared to be violating whatever dress code they were assigned at birth and made them prove what was in their underwear.
Then Federal Prohibition went into effect at the beginning of the 1920s. Customs and laws which had prevented men and women from integrating en masse in saloons were laughed off within the devil-may-care culture of illegal speakeasies and it suddenly became easier for any given individual to blend in with a crowd of drunk people, whether dressed as a “man” or a “woman.” And when mob outfits paid bribes for police to not bother bar patrons, they meant all of their patrons. If an LGBTQ person had a good time at a certain place, they were liable to return with friends, rinse and repeat until a greater number of U.S. citizens than ever before were exposed to members of previously underground communities only to learn someone they’d been taught was insane or perverted or evil was really just as normal as any other person they’d ever met and breaking merely one or two more laws beyond those presently being broken by everyone in the room. While this was absolutely not the end of homophobia or transphobia in the United States, Prohibition did coincide with a window of increased tolerance in mainstream society. So much so it became almost de rigueur for speakeasies with primarily straight clientele to feature at least one drag queen or king on the bandstand lineup – pantomiming or parodying popular songs, telling dirty jokes, roasting audience members – all with interspersed reminders the entertainer was in drag, this being the pivotal concept of the subversive performance. This surge in drag shows, of course, led to the backlash of moral panic you’d expect from all the usual suspects, many of whom had campaigned to unknowingly enable this culture in the first place.
Approximately six months after the 18th Amendment was eventually repealed and the barroom economy again became dependent on receiving liquor permits from local governments, the same attitudes which withheld permits from bars known to serve “deviants” cemented what’s known as the Hays Code in Hollywood, keeping nearly every major studio film from depicting “any inference of sex perversion” until the 1960s. Since everyone knew what these words, laws and attitudes meant, the LGBTQ community returned underground and the rise of drag was momentarily obstructed.
To Be Real
One of the romantic ideas rich folk always held about masquerade balls was how they supposedly rendered all attendants equal and classless through the anonymity of masks. Was a woman dancing with a prince or a pauper? How could she ever know? Well, for one thing, paupers don’t have a lot of money to spend on a new elaborate costume every time there’s a trendy ball to attend. But the aristocracy’s penchant for such fantasies is probably what also helped them develop an obsession with “authenticity,” which they’ve evidently always believed can simply be purchased. By the end of the 19th century, a popular theme for costume balls, with or without masks, was to dress as near as possible to famous figures from centuries past. The struggle for “authenticity” often came down to spending a fortune on one’s outfit, sometimes to acquire actual antiques. In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt threw a ball in New York City which she attended wearing pearls that once belonged to Catherine the Great. In 1897, to attend another New York City ball, Cornelia Bradley-Martin spent what would be nearly $10 million in modern currency (over 10% of the entire party’s budget) so her Mary, Queen of Scots costume would appear “authentic.” Needless to say, the quality, volume and price of silver- and golden-threaded embroidery at these parties was entirely off the charts. And this was literally the class of party thrown by the elites who bought government licenses to skirt anti-masquerade laws, with or without drag involved. Many of the balls centered on drag were a few rungs lower on the social ladder and most thrown by actual LGBTQ communities were held secretly without permits but these were the aesthetic ideals handed down from on high to those who wished to participate in this ritual. Nearly all of these costume balls – licensed or underground, ruling or working class – would at some point in the evening have a costume contest. Contestants paraded their looks in front of each other and a judge (or panel of judges) designated the best, sometimes sub-divided into categories, like Best Military Leader or Best King or Best Queen.
Then Federal Prohibition went into effect at the beginning of the 1920s. The illegal speakeasy culture which saw a surge in drag shows on bandstands and emboldened more crossdressers to appear in public outside the context of masquerade balls also coincided with a surge in drag balls. For all the same reasons, drag masquerades became more common in the mainstream and even the underground balls became a little less clandestine. But there’s a major difference between a drag show and a drag ball. Where the drag show drew ironic attention to the off-stage identity subversively wearing an on-stage persona, contestants won the prize at authenticity-obsessed costume balls because they were best at making their identity disappear inside a convincing embodiment of the category. When Prohibition ended and the LGBTQ community returned underground, it was with these aesthetic ideals, which were largely upheld for several decades.
As the format of competition for most secret drag balls centered on femme looks became influenced by beauty pageants like Miss America, contestants could expect to be judged on the way they walked and talked, the way they looked in a gown or swimsuit and the way they did their hair and makeup. Even though secret balls were likely to be racially integrated to some degree, there were still blatant biases equating only pale skin with glamor and eminence, as the noble families of Europe had done for centuries and beauty pageants like Miss America continued to do. Well into the 1960s, even after the Hays Code fell out of favor and drag returned to visibility in hit movies like 1959’s Some Like It Hot, queens with dark skin tones had little hope of winning a ball unless they used powder and makeup to lighten their skin, which many did try to do. But the panel of judges was still likely to be all or mostly White and likely to crown a winner they could tell was “authentically” White. So the non-White ballroom crowd eventually started throwing their own parties in order to be judged on the assignment, not the color of their skin. It’s generally agreed that modern ballroom came into existence as a result of the race-based discrimination Crystal LaBeija experienced in mainstream drag contests. The fact she, a Black queen who lightened her skin with makeup, had to first win Miss Manhattan at a predominately White drag ball in order to qualify for competition in the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant in New York City, gave her all the information she needed to know exactly how robbed to feel when a panel of celebrity judges (including Andy Warhol and Terry Southern) dismissed her with fourth place. Crystal’s reaction that night was captured on film and released in the 1968 documentary, The Queen. You can hear a man tell her she’s showing her “color” with her response. Five years after the infamous snub, one of Crystal’s drag queen friends, Lottie, asked her to help start a new ball and Crystal agreed under one condition: it must be thrown in honor of herself. 1972’s inaugural House of LaBeija Ball debuted and established the structure of ballroom which exists to this day.
Thrown out of their homes by intolerant families, vulnerable to all manner of violent hate crimes and discriminated against by a healthcare system which officially regarded their identities as a form of mental illness, a society hostile to their very existence has always forced LGBTQ people into tight-knit groups when they’re able to find one. Looking out for each other has always been a matter of survival, not to mention a source of acceptance and familial love. Those in a position to offer guidance, housing and support often have, creating what are essentially orphanages for teenagers and young adults with nowhere else to go. But Crystal LaBeija was first to proclaim herself the mother of a formal “house” in ballroom. Within three years of founding the House of LaBeija in 1972, several other houses had formed: House of Dupree, House of Dior, House of Corey, House of Wong. Now, Crystal chose the word “house” as a reference to the elite fashion houses of early 20th century Europe – like the House of Worth, House of Chanel and House of Balenciaga – whose “in-house” designers made elegant pieces of clothing for the world’s wealthiest socialites. And ballroom houses have traditionally created most of their own looks. After everyone else followed Crystal’s lead, though, these houses began to function much more like the noble family houses of Europe. First, members typically adopted the name of the house as a surname. (After Lottie co-founded the House of LaBeija, she became known as Lottie LaBeija, and so on.) Second, the primary focus of each house was to battle other houses for trophies and crowns, which quickly drove the intensity and quality of ballroom competition into unprecedented territory. By the end of the 1970s, there were maybe a dozen houses recognized in New York City ballroom – Omni, Ebony, Plenty, Pendavis, Chanel, Christian, etc. – each taking turns hosting a monthly ball.
This proliferation of houses coincided with an explosion in the variety of competition categories. Prior to this point, the categories remained as basic as any beauty pageant divided into gendered looks. There were butch categories for contestants in masculine drag and femme categories for everyone serving a feminine appearance. Here in the 1970s, with so many contestants living in drag part- or full-time (some even in various stages of transition), their safety in the outside world sometimes depended on the ability to code switch, legitimately passing as either butch or femme whenever necessary. So some individuals were able to successfully compete in both butch and femme categories and the relatively quaint, no-risk notions of “authenticity” handed down from high class masquerades evolved into “realness.” If “authenticity” meant spending millions of dollars trying to dress like Mary, Queen of Scots, “realness” means working with a shoestring budget to convince a room full of people you are Mary, Queen of Scots. Where previous categories were as simple as Best Butch Face or Best Evening Gown, this new era came with complex categories like Executive Butch Realness and Runway Femme Realness. Can you sell a room on being not just a straight man but a straight man who is also the boss of other straight men? Can you sell a room on being not just a woman but an actual supermodel?
Some fashion-oriented categories – like Bizarre Couture or, simply, Opulence – have been less focused on gendered variants of “realness.” But the same level of confidence necessary to win a realness category has always been an unspoken prerequisite for any category and any tie in scoring began to be settled by contestants hitting a runway at the same time for head-to-head presentations. At some point in the 1980s, this combative display of aesthetic beauty evolved into what we now call voguing. As is standard in the histories of all truly oppressed peoples, the origins of vogue are hazy but runways in modern ballroom are set to the beat of club music, so voguing likely began as a form of dance battle similar to breakdance. The physical tropes of the form were a sort of fluid glitching through a series of briefly held static postures, almost as if a camera shutter was set to snap every so many beats and the dancers’ goal was to get into a new pose in time, freeze, then get into a new pose and repeat, like the most efficient fashion photoshoot possible. In fact, one of the most common and plausible origin stories for vogue puts the legendary Paris Dupree in a dance battle with a rival house member when she allegedly pulled out an issue of Vogue magazine, opened it to a random page and held up the magazine while pulling the same pose as the model on that page, then flipped to another random page to repeat the act, again and again, proving she could effortlessly assimilate not one supermodel but all supermodels. Most of the world found out about voguing through the Madonna song “Vogue,” a fairly straightforward ripoff of Malcolm McLaren’s earlier “Deep in Vogue,” which featured vocals from ballroom legend Willie Ninja and name-checked several houses of ballroom instead of listing a bunch of famous White people who had nothing to do with vogue or ballroom, like the Madonna song. Of course, neither “Vogue” nor “Deep in Vogue” would exist without those artists being introduced to ballroom by the maker of Paris Is Burning, a hit 1991 documentary named after Paris Dupree, one of several drag queens who mistakenly believed she would become rich and famous when the movie came out or Madonna’s song was such a huge hit. Several queens and the scene in general certainly did become more famous but the money didn’t follow, at least not for their generation.
With hit TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose and Legendary, ballroom and drag are now more visible than ever, finally receiving more credit than ever for innovations lifted by pop culture. In recent years, some members of the ballroom scene have criticized “realness” categories for reinforcing the gender stereotypes contestants are told to aspire to. Others claim this misses the entire point of a realness category: it only presents something to marvel at if in a room full of people who know what they’re seeing is a performance. If you took that same degree of “realness” out onto the street, nobody would question their eyes for a second.
The Road to Fame
Billy Sherrill is one of the most controversial figures in the history of country music. Not because of his personal politics, familiar enough to those of you who’ve heard all the Tammy Wynette records in recent episodes. But because he was the most successful and imitated producer in Nashville for nearly twenty years, during which time he only did things the way he wanted, using a small group of artists, writers and musicians it was nearly impossible for outsiders to join. And the closest he ever came to caring how a single other person felt about it was the time he flew to New York City to meet with Clive Davis, then-President of Columbia Records, parent company of Epic. Billy was aware other Columbia-associated producers from all over the nation often complained they weren’t allowed to cut songs they’d written or co-written in order to pocket extra royalties while Billy Sherrill down in Nashville put several of his own songs on all his artists’ albums and had writing credit on dozens of hit singles. Again, it’s not that Billy gave any kinda damn how all those guys felt about any of this but he did want to make sure there wasn’t a problem with The Boss, thus the trip up to New York City in the late 1960s. Telling the story to MixOnline.com in 2002, Billy remembered walking in to Clive Davis’ office and asking if there was a problem, to which Clive responded with another question, “Who am I?” Billy answered that Clive was the President of Columbia records. The President of Columbia records then asked, “Can I fire you?” Billy answered that he could. Clive asked, “Do you want to get in trouble with me?” Billy said he absolutely did not and Clive told him, “So go back down to Nashville and keep doing what you’re doing and making hit records.” This is exactly what Billy Sherrill did, much to the annoyance of others in the industry who weren’t directly participating in the financial benefits of his process.
An unnamed Nashville songwriter once told Tammy Wynette something to the effect he was no longer going to bother pitching new songs to her because she only recorded stuff written by her producer. Tammy responded she’d cut whatever that songwriter came up with the day he brought in something better than a Billy Sherrill song. Hit songwriter Bobby Braddock always said Billy was one of the few producers in town who could change a line or two in one of Bobby’s songs and it would almost always be for the better. Braddock also once said, “I think Billy is an American original who made his mark on country music like no other producer, with the possible exception of Owen Bradley.” In Robert Altman’s Nashville, when the Haven Hamilton character throws a fit during a recording session and demands the piano player be replaced with Pig, it’s a reference to Pig Robbins. The first thing Altman would have learned researching the Music Row studio system in 1975 is nearly everyone tried to copy whatever Billy Sherrill did and major label artists who couldn’t be produced by Billy would at least want to use the same musicians as him. In the same MixOnline.com article, Billy’s engineer Lou Bradley said, “A lot of people tried to copy what Billy did. And they’d hire that studio, they’d hire the same engineer. And they’d hire the same musicians and background singers. But they wouldn’t get it because they were listening to the end result. And the end result was what you heard after you walked the path to get there.”
Here’s the path Billy Sherrill walked to get there.
He was born in 1936, about 30 miles south of the Florence-Muscle Shoals region in Alabama. His father was a preacher, so when Billy started playing piano around the age of six years old, he was soon put to work playing during service. For the rest of his life, Billy said he learned everything he knew about making music from gospel composers like Virgil O. Stamps. However, he was given to making such sweeping statements, which were often tailored to whatever he thought would most intrigue the journalist on the other side of the interview. If pressed to clarify or speaking to a different journalist, Billy could just as easily gush at length over Johan Strauss and other composers of Viennese waltzes. He enjoyed more popular forms of music as well, as evidenced by one of his favorite stories, about the time he decided to play a hymnal arrangement of “That’s Where My Money Goes” while the collection plate was passed in his father’s church. His father caught on to the joke and whipped Billy’s ass when they got home. He took his first paying gig a little more seriously, earning $10 to play piano at a funeral.
After his interest in music spread from piano to other instruments, Billy spent his teenage years playing guitar in bands at the square dances which in the early 1950s were more popular than ever before, leading to the swell of interest in folk music that spilled out into the mainstream with the Kingston Trio near the end of the decade. But Billy didn’t really care about folk or country music and took those gigs for the money, which he then spent on B.B. King records like “Woke Up this Morning.” By the time he moved into his own apartment around the age of 18, he’d learned to play saxophone and assembled various R&B bands on the side while continuing to earn $30-40 a week from the square dances. This is when he met Rick Hall, not in one of the various R&B bands (as is often incorrectly reported) but as members of Carmol Taylor & His Country Pals, formed to play square dances in approximately 1954, when Carmol and Billy were still teenagers and Rick Hall was in his early twenties. Rick had just returned to Alabama from serving in the Army during the Korean War and he sincerely loved country music but this was just another paying gig for Billy until 1955, the year he was one of very few people to hear the George Jones single “Seasons of My Heart” on the radio before its flip side became a massive hit. Even after becoming a country convert, Billy persisted in trying to break with an R&B band and recruited Rick Hall to his side mission.
Rick said Billy never partied like the other guys in any of the bands they were in and, in fact, Billy was so conservative and shy it made Rick consciously try to not even use swear words around him. He said Billy was more than a loner, he was straight-up isolated from the world and the condition only grew more severe after Billy’s mother died in 1955, then again when his father followed in ’57. Since Rick’s young wife had died in a car accident in 1955 and his father died in a tractor accident only two months later, he was the only person who Billy knew could relate to the pain. The two became as close as brothers, sticking together through ups and downs, trying to make their music dreams come true. In one especially down period, they lived out of an old two-door Mercury coupe someone abandoned beneath a bridge. What turned it all around was beginning to write songs for other people.
In 1956, Kelso Herston and James Joiner launched an indie record label in Florence and put out word they were looking for songs. In late ’57 or early ’58, Rick and Billy drove over to the label’s office with a bunch of songs they’d written. Or, really, Rick talked Billy into at least riding over there with him because Billy was too shy to get out of the car. Rick went in alone with the songs, some they’d written together and some solo compositions. Kelso Herston was interested in the lot but most impressed by “Your Sweet Love,” one of Billy’s. Rick said the songwriter was sitting in a car outside, so Kelso went out to meet him but Billy just stuck his hand out the window for a handshake, too shy to even look up and make eye contact. It’s pretty likely the cause of his embarrassment was Kelso being the first person other than Rick to see the stack of love songs Billy had written. In 2010, when Barry Mazor asked a 73-year-old Billy Sherrill what he hoped his legacy would be, Billy’s eyes teared up as he said, “Let’s see… Somewhere there might be a boy and a girl… And he’s too shy to tell her that he loves her and she’s too shy to tell him… So, I tell them. All they have to do is play my record. That’s it.” Kelso Herston had a deal worked out with Tree Music’s Buddy Killen to forward along his best writers and split publishing on whatever got used, so a couple months after meeting Rick and Billy a guy named Bobby Denton cut the Hall-Sherrill composition “Sweet and Innocent.” Though few people remember Bobby Denton anymore, he was the first person to record “A Fallen Star” prior to Jimmy C. Newman running away with the hit cover and Bobby’s regional career was still pretty hot when “Sweet and Innocent” came out on the b-side of a record. Two months later, Chet Atkins put it on the b-side of one of Roy Orbison’s two failed singles at RCA.
When a guy named Tom Stafford took out a newspaper ad saying he needed songwriters to launch a publishing company, Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill showed up with their recent minor placements and, in 1959, the three of them founded Florence Alabama Music Enterprise, a.k.a. FAME. They built what passed for a recording studio above a drugstore in Florence and, since many of the musicians in their circle were broke and homeless, several people often just slept in the studio after working all day. This is when and where Dann Penn. a name you may recognize as a writer on “Do Right Woman” and “Dark End of the Street,” got his start in the music business. After becoming the singer in one of Billy Sherrill’s R&B bands, The Fairlanes, Dan was told to bring any songs he had by the new studio, where he found Billy, Rick, Peanutt Montgomery and Hurschel Wiginton (later of The Nashville Edition) all still sleeping, having spent the night in the studio with nowhere else to go. Soon after, The Fairlanes recorded their first single, Billy Sherrill’s “Comin’ After You.” It wasn’t any kind of hit and by the time it came out, Billy had his sights set on the Nashville music industry, thanks to Owen Bradley cutting “Your Sweet Love” with Bob Beckham. This wasn’t any kind of hit either but it was on the b-side of Beckham’s “Just as Much as Ever,” which hit the pop Top 40. The $4,000 check Billy received in the mail was all the information he needed to know he belonged in Nashville.
The Road from FAME
With two other Muscle Shoals guys, he created a studio out of a gigantic room on the third floor of the old 7th Avenue Masonic lodge building where the Tree, Sure-Fire and Sam Phillips publishing companies all had offices. Decades later, Billy would say his first Nashville studio, called Sonico, was only fit to record demoes but this was just him downplaying his past. Two Billboard articles from June 1960 announced Sonico’s opening as “the fourth major studio” in Nashville and it was also the biggest, the live room being larger than those at the Quonset Hut, RCA and Starday. Apparently, Sonico was also the only studio in the city at that time with a 4-track stereo recording unit. So, when the second of those Billboard articles mentioned Billy Sherrill signing an artist contract with Mercury Records, what they meant was Mercury would begin releasing his late-night, one-man-with-the-power-to-overdub-and-screw-whatever-the-Musician’s-Union-has-to-say-about-it creations, such as 1960’s “Like Makin’ Love.” The song’s lyrics are obviously nonsense but the fact Billy played every instrument and the unique sound of the sped-up piano are worth hearing. Not being a drummer, one of the ways he faked percussion was by taking a silent section of some album or acetate and scratching logarithmic grooves of varying depth into the surface. He’d then play it on a turntable and record the needle popping in rhythm over those scratches, essentially creating an analog click track, which he then treated with radical EQ and reverb until it sounded like a trap kit when looped. “Like Makin’ Love” wound up being the only Billy Sherrill single Mercury released, which is a shame, because it’s difficult to imagine he wouldn’t have eventually found a hit after listening to the b-side, “Rules of the Game.” Again, the only sounds you hear were created by Billy, late at night, alone in a studio. Make sure to point that out to anyone who’ll listen after the song is placed in a movie or TV show in the next five years. Sonico was only open for a few months when Billy realized they weren’t getting enough business to afford the rent in Nashville. Since Kelso Herston had by this point come up from Florence to work in the same building, at Sam Phillips’ publishing company, Billy asked if Sun Records maybe wanted to own a studio in Nashville. Turns out, they did. Sam Phillips bought Sonico, renamed it Phillips International and put Billy on staff at $100 a week, engineering sessions for artists on Sun.
Billy’s move to Nashville was not the cause or result of ending his relationship with Rick Hall or The Fairlanes. They put out a couple more singles and he’d drive to Alabama or they’d pick him up on the way to Kentucky for gigs but nothing big ever came together for them. In the end, Billy said he quit the band and sold his shares in FAME because he grew tired of how overbearing Rick had become in the studio. He would certainly not be the last person to make this complaint. Rick’s aggressive attempts to dominate recording sessions and leave his own mark on the work can perhaps be partially explained by the many comments he went on to give several reporters about how much he disliked the reputation he was getting for being the guy who rode Billy Sherrill’s coattails to success. Rick would, of course, eventually leave his mark on an enormous swath of American music but this is where he leaves today’s story.
Without The Fairlanes taking him out of town every so often, Billy’s focus turned to learning everything he could in recording sessions during the day, then teaching himself how to use the studio as an instrument at night. In 1960, Tommy Roe released the song “Sheila” as a single and pretty much nobody cared, except the producer Felton Jarvis, who didn’t understand why nobody responded to what he knew was a hit record. So, in 1962, he brought the tape to Billy Sherrill and Billy overdubbed a tom across the entire song, which was evidently the only difference between a bomb in 1960 and a pop #1 in 1962. In 1963, ABC Records released the second and final of Billy Sherrill’s one-man studio jobs to see the light of day. The single “Tipsy” brings back the sped-up, woodpecker piano and he’s definitely hitting a real cymbal on top of the fake drum kit trickery. Acknowledging the fantastic “drink pour” foley, his growing skills as a composer and arranger are the real star of the record. And for everyone still trying to see through Billy’s fake drums, they’re most identifiable on the b-side, “Drag Race.” The forgery is impressive, achieved by manipulating the EQ of each click on a slowed-down tape then ramping it up to speed. But the trick is revealed by how perfectly metronomic the results sound. The year this record came out, Jerry Kennedy left his job as Shelby Singleton’s sidekick at Mercury because Columbia Records needed someone to open the Nashville office for their Epic imprint. But Mercury soon offered more money for Jerry to come back and he did, leaving Columbia with a recommendation to hire Billy Sherrill as his replacement. At this time, the hotshot producer at Epic was Bob Morgan, the guy who took Bobby Vinton from being a recording artist nobody cared about to having #1 records (like “Roses Are Red”) on the pop charts. So Bob Morgan is who Jerry Kennedy told to hire Billy Sherrill. Bob tried several times to interview Billy for the position but each time they set the dinner meeting in Printer’s Alley they both wound up just getting drunk and hanging out. When it came down to the wire and Bob had to make a decision, he figured what the hell? The guy Columbia hired before said Billy was the guy and Bob also had a great time with him, so, in 1964, Billy became the guy. When Epic officially offered the chance to become a full-time producer, he went to Sam Phillips and made sure it was okay to leave for the job. Sam gave his blessing and spent the rest of his life praising Billy Sherrill’s innovations and extravagance, calling him one of the best things to happen to the music industry.
But it did take a while before Billy did anything that would inspire journalists to go ask Sam Phillips for quotes about him. His first couple years at Epic, he was paid a little less than $200 a week to produce artists none of the label’s other producers wanted to risk being associated with in case they got dropped from their deals. He later summed up this era of his career by saying, “I was low man on the totem pole. They sent artists down to my office that no one else could do anything with. They didn’t want to drop them, so they figured, give the new guy a shot. In terms of production, I was stealing from everyone — Chet, Owen, Phil Spector. If you asked me who was the greatest producer around, I would say there was Owen Bradley, and then there was everyone else. He cut stuff 50 years ago that sounds like it was recorded yesterday.” A couple years before hiring him, Columbia purchased the 804 16th. Ave. compound, so Billy’s Epic sessions were in Owen Bradley’s studios from the beginning and his production style quickly veered toward the work of the man who built those rooms.
As for the artists “no one else could do anything with,” most were country and R&B acts. Charlie Walker had about a decade of records and only a handful of country hits behind him when he was given to Billy. Info on these sessions is scarce but it sounds like Pig Robbins playing tack piano (that’s piano with a thumbtack pressed in to each hammer so it strikes the string with a cheap and metallic sound) on “Close All the Honky Tonks.” This first single only made it halfway up the Top 40 country records but Charlie’s third single with Billy, the Carmol Taylor song “Wild as a Wildcat,” hit the Top 10. Another country act handed to Billy in ’64 which he kept producing until the end of the decade was bluegrass brothers Jim & Jesse. It took a few years to hit on the biggest record they ever had, a kinda-truckin’ song called “Diesel on My Tail.” Lois Johnson’s records never broke until the mid-1970s, long after leaving Epic, but 1965’s “The Whole World Is Turning (Just for Us)” is a clear example of how quickly Billy Sherrill was learning to mimic Owen Bradley by working with A-Team players. Listen to the way the dobro, piano and pedal steel keep handing off the melody to each other beneath the lead vocal. Columbia slapped their Okeh subsidiary label on some of the R&B records Billy produced in this period, like Ted Taylor’s biggest hit, “Stay Away from My Baby.” Surprisingly, though, quite a few of the soul singers Billy worked with were released on Epic proper. Obrey Wilson may have never had a hit but Billy put a great arrangement behind him on “Love Will Be Right There.” It took signing with Stax in the 1970s for the Staple Singers to finally break through to the mainstream but Billy produced their sessions the first four years they were on Epic, including the Civil Rights anthem title track from a live album recorded in a church in Chicago, Freedom Highway. The b-side of the single was a phenomenal rendition of Hank Williams’ Luke the Drifter piece, “The Funeral.” Other artists “no one else could do anything with” included some pop acts, like Cliff Richard of The Shadows, a superstar pretty much everywhere in the world except the United States. Cliff’s “Wind Me Up” and “The Minute You’re Gone,” were both giant pop hits in Europe but did nothing stateside. Billy Sherrill co-produced these singles with Bob Morgan, who also brought in Billy for some Bobby Vinton sessions in this period, including “What Color Is a Man.” There were not an outsized number of Billy Sherrill compositions taken into sessions during his early career. When he first came to Nashville, he signed to write exclusively for Tree, where he and Buddy Killen co-wrote a near-instrumental called “Sugar Lips,” which eventually hit the pop Top 40 for Al Hirt on RCA. By the time his contract with Tree expired, Billy was in a position to not have to sign an exclusive deal with any publishing company, so he didn’t…
Pulling Ahead of the Pack
Al Gallico came to town by way of the Painted Desert publishing company. One of their writers was Merle Kilgore, who spent nine weeks at #1 country with Claude King’s recording of “Wolverton Mountain,” which crossed over to the pop Top 10 in 1962. When Al Gallico saw the size of those “Wolverton Mountain” checks, he decided to stop working for Painted Desert and start his own pub. co., Al Gallico Music, launched in 1963. He leased an office a few doors down from the Quonset Hut, in the 812 16th Ave. building where Johnny Cash, Screen Gems, SESAC and a couple booking agencies all had offices. In 1964, Epic leased additional office space in the same building. Billy Sherrill already had a few songs filed with Gallico but, now that they were neighbors and passing each other in the hall all the time, the relationship grew stronger and Billy started getting to know some of Gallico’s writers as well, particularly a guy named Glenn Sutton, who Gallico had poached away from Starday to come join the big show on Music Row. Soon after being introduced to Billy, Glenn and he were going to lunch, playing pinball after work, talking a lot about songwriting and, naturally, writing songs together. Their first notable cut was “Kiss Away,” recorded by Ronnie Dove for the small Diamond Records label in 1965. Ray Stevens does deserve a ton of credit for arranging that cello intro but everything after was baked into the composition by Glenn and Billy, especially and obviously the Strauss-ian crescendo leading into the refrain, a dynamic device Billy returned to a few years later on “Stand by Your Man.” “Kiss Away” made it about halfway up the pop Top 40, as did their next notable cut but this one’s a little more impressive because it also happens to be a country song.
Like most people who know what they’re talking about, Billy always shied away from defining what country music is supposed to sound like but he was never afraid to talk about who and what it was for, “Country music is adult music, adult entertainment. Everybody that’s interested in a story with a beginning and an ending will like it. It’s sheer entertainment.” Billy may have learned to appreciate listening to country songs from hearing George Jones and how to produce country songs from working with the A-Team but he learned everything he knew about writing country songs from Glenn Sutton. In the beginning of their partnership, Glenn handled most of the lyrics and left the catchy melodies to Billy. They both put in equal work on the bottle of scotch typically taken down over the course of a writing session. When Al Gallico heard Glenn and Billy were writing songs together, he asked if they’d mind him sitting in on the process some time. They already had plans to write something for Billy’s next Charlie Walker session, so they told Gallico he could watch. After coming up with a plot and quickly writing the verses, they found themselves staring at the blank space where a chorus should be. The pressure of Gallico being there made it worse and, pretty soon, they were good and stuck. Now, Billy quit going to church quite a while before this because he couldn’t find one that taught a literal enough interpretation of the Bible to suit his beliefs but he never stopped loving gospel music and always kept books of hymns on hand. This night, he reached for an old hymnal and began thumbing through the pages for ideas, finally landing on a late 1800s song inspired by Acts 26, in which Paul speaks of his conversion on the road to Damascus and “almost persuadest” Agrippa to become a Christian. Phillip Bliss had heard a sermon on this story and was inspired to write the hymn “Almost Persuaded” about how almost being saved is to remain damned. Some of you have heard the Louvin Brothers’ cut. Well, Billy saw the title in his book of old hymns and subverted it to suit the tale he and Glenn were writing about a man “almost persuadest” to commit adultery with a beautiful woman in a bar. He took a little bit of the hymn’s chorus, too, but changed the melody enough to maybe prevent his father rolling over in the grave. Charlie Walker’s bad luck had him out on tour and the session this song was written for too many days away for Billy to wait. Since he had a David Houston session the next day, they cut it there, within hours of the song being written.
This was not David Houston’s first hit record. However, it’s difficult to gauge how much of David’s success was real, what with Tillman Franks’ admitted fondness for payola tactics to boost chart rankings. Tillman was a sort-of Pappy Daily figure in the Shreveport country music scene. He didn’t own a record label but becoming Johnny Horton’s manager in the mid-1950s and helping him become a star gave Tillman a certain amount of clout, which he then used to help launch the careers of other artists, like Jerry Kennedy and David Houston. Houston was just a teenager when he first came to Tillman for guitar lessons in the early 1950s and Tillman began letting the kid sing on his Saturday morning radio show. Fast forward to 1963, Houston’s been signed and dropped by the various labels who released his early flops but, now, Tillman has a master tape of David singing a song called “Mountain of Love.” They both know it’s a hit. They just need a label to sign David and put out the record. Tillman goes up to Nashville, where RCA and Decca both say they like the song but neither is going to drop everything else to release it at once like Tillman is asking. He talks to Jerry Kennedy at Epic but Jerry’s about to head back to Mercury, so it’s not a great time to make quick moves at either label. Then Tillman talks to Al Gallico, who says he can get the record pressed on Epic immediately as long as they file the song with him as publisher, which Tillman agrees to arrange. The record comes out and becomes David Houston’s first hit. Listening to it, though, one has to wonder if Tillman’s urgent need to get the song released quickly was due to some arrangement he’d made to secure a high chart placement for David Houston’s next record, no matter what was on it, as long as it was released by the time a certain issue of a certain industry trade was sent to press. Because the song and performance are solid but the recording sounds cheaper than anything ever cut for Starday in Jack Starns’ living room. Regardless, it charted at #2 country as David Houston’s first hit and he became one of Billy Sherrill’s artists. It took a few sessions to figure out a sound for David but, once he did, they had more hits, like the cheating song “One if for Him, Two if for Me,” which barely missed the Top 10. It’s frustrating “Cowpoke” was never released as a single because it’s one of the greatest vocal performances in country music and Billy’s production, particularly the layered vocal tracks, explains why Marty Robbins later became obsessed with getting Billy as his producer in the ‘70s.
When Epic released “Almost Persuaded” three days after the song was written, they put it on the b-side of an entirely forgettable single called “We Got Love.” Then a DJ in Atlanta named Mac Curtis played the flip side one time and his station received about 100 phone calls from listeners wanting to know who the artist was and where they could buy the song. Mac did Epic the favor of calling to say they were pushing the wrong side of David Houston’s new record. According to Billy, selling 25,000 units of a single was enough to hit #1 country in those days. So when Epic’s Atlanta distributor called in an order for 10,000 copies of “Almost Persuaded,” he assumed it was some kind of mistake. A few hours later, they called back and said to make it 20,000 copies. When Epic switched “Almost Persuaded” to the a-side for future pressings and the publisher of “We Got Love” called to give Billy grief over their song being relegated to a b-side, Billy said Epic would be happy to put a different song on the b-side of a sure thing hit record if that’s what they preferred. The publisher stopped complaining. “Almost Persuaded” stayed at #1 country for over two months, hit #25 pop, and won three Grammy awards. The song was cut by pretty much everyone with a record deal at the time – The Statler Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Jim Nabors, Conway Twitty, Patti Page, George Jones, Etta James… In the late 1960s when he was still on Little Darlin’, Johnny PayCheck recorded both versions of “Almost Persuaded,” the original hymn and the country appropriation of the title, within about a year of each other. From then on, Billy wasn’t very shy about bringing his own songs to a session. Just about every artist he ever had under contract cut a version of “Almost Persuaded.” When he discovered Tammy Wynette, the song went straight on her first album. A couple years later, he brought “Kiss Away” to the sessions for her D-I-V-O-R-C-E LP.
Though he continued to write specifically for other artists, most of Billy’s writing sessions over the next 15 years were with Tammy Wynette in mind and it’s clear from counting credits on album jackets he felt more comfortable writing for her voice than any other. Perhaps it was the character they created for her. Perhaps it was her unquestioning faith in him. Tammy often told reporters she was so confident in Billy Sherrill’s genius, if he walked in the studio and said they were cutting “Yankee Doodle” her only question would be in what key. Around the time “I Don’t Wanna Play House” became the second Sherrill/Sutton composition to win Grammy awards, Billy hired Glenn as a staff producer at Epic in order to keep his main writing partner close and with plenty of incentive to create great songs. The next Sherrill/Sutton composition to come out as a Tammy Wynette single was actually the product of a writing session for one of Glenn’s artists, Beverly Byrd. Glenn even got as far as recording it with Beverly. But then he gave the tape to Billy to overdub strings on it and once Billy heard the finished product he said it had to go to Tammy. Her cut of “Take Me To Your World” went #1 and the reason you’ve never heard of Beverly Byrd is because the label dropped her soon after this, probably because her best chances at having a hit record continued being seen as a better chance for Tammy Wynette to have a bigger hit.
And this all happened around the time Glenn Sutton married Lynn Anderson and became her producer. Though they remained married for nearly ten years, Lynn later disclosed how frustrating it was for Glenn to come home from writing sessions with Billy Sherrill and tell her about these incredible songs they’d written, only to then say Lynn couldn’t have any of the best ones because they were going to Tammy. Lynn understood this was part of Glenn’s job description at Epic and the professional relationship with Billy predated his relationship with her by several years but that didn’t make it any easier to have a husband working so hard for an artist Lynn regarded as her “direct competition,” especially when there were only so few women allowed to even attempt playing this game at any given time. Lynn’s husband did write her a few hits, like “Keep Me in Mind” and “You’re My Man,” but nowhere near as many as he wrote for Tammy. Lynn had to go find her biggest record entirely on her own. In fact, Glenn tried on multiple occasions to talk her out of cutting Joe South’s “Rose Garden” because he thought the song only worked from a man’s perspective the way it was written. But Lynn kept bringing it into the studio and one day they had 20 minutes left at the tail end of a session so Glenn finally let her record it. When Billy Sherrill said he had a string section booked for a couple of Tammy’s songs and asked if anyone else needed strings while they were there, Glenn gave him “Rose Garden.” Cam Mullins threw together an arrangement and everyone agreed it was Good Enough for album filler. But Clive Davis happened to be in town and happened to drop by the studio at the moment they were listening back to the tape. When he heard it, Clive told them to cancel whatever plans they had for Lynn Anderson’s next single because they were listening to it right now. It became one of the biggest country records of all time.
No One Grabs the Brass Ring Every Time
Billy Sherrill did sign other women after hitting with Tammy but rarely to such great success. One night in the late ‘60s, he was hanging around Printer’s Alley and caught a set from the Mandrell Sisters, so Billy asked if they ever thought about making a record. When Barbara Mandrell came to see him at his office the next day, he gave her a record deal and became her producer for the next five years. He wrote and produced her first country Top 40, “Playin’ Around with Love.” All of her singles produced by Billy were minor hits and some even made it into the Top 10, like 1973’s “The Midnight Oil.” Billy wanted a mandolin on the track but his regular mandolin guy was out on tour, so he turned to an old trick, went in the studio late at night himself to overdub tack piano onto a slowed-down tape, then brought it up to playback speed raising the pitch somewhere near the register of a mandolin. Despite all their minor hits, Barbara and Billy never had a smash.
Same thing with Jody Miller. Not having much to show for the couple minor records she charted at Capitol in the 1960s, Jody got in touch with Billy. He was already a fan and signed her to Epic, producing her sessions for the next six years. He didn’t think her voice was all that country but decided to treat this as an asset rather than a hindrance by placing country arrangements behind old pop hits. Her versions of “Baby, I’m Yours” and “He’s So Fine” were back-to-back Top 5 records. In 1972, Glenn Sutton and Billy Sherrill wrote “There’s a Party Goin’ On.” When Jody Miller took it Top 5 as well, Lynn Anderson got mad at her husband. She understood Tammy was a higher priority than any other woman on Epic but she’d be damned if Glenn was gonna write hits for Billy’s new girl over her. Fortunately for Glenn’s marriage, Jody Miller’s run near the top of the country charts didn’t last much longer. But this was also around the time Billy found another “girl singer.” In fact, this time it was a thirteen-year-old girl singer, named Tanya Tucker, whose first single came out in 1972.
If there’s a journalist who ever went to Billy Sherrill’s office and didn’t write about the stacks and stacks of tapes he listened to every day, I’ve not read the article. Nearly every tape in those stacks was of a song some writer wanted Billy to hear and consider cutting with one of his artists. But some of the tapes were from singers trying to become one of his artists. With very few exceptions, this kind of tape came from or on the recommendation of someone in his inner circle of artists, writers and publishers. One day he put in a tape and heard demo recordings of “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and “For the Good Times.” Since he knew these were not unrecorded songs, he also knew the thing he was supposed to be paying attention to was the voice. He liked the voice. Then he found it belonged to a girl who was barely a teenager and he liked the voice even more. It was only after bringing Tanya Tucker to Nashville that Billy found out he hadn’t just discovered the girl who was going to have the country hit on Donna Fargo’s “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” In some versions of the story, he asked her to record the song for her debut single. In his version of the story, he told her the song would be her debut single. In every version, she didn’t like the song and told Nashville’s biggest deal producer it wasn’t going to be her debut single. Years later, Billy liked to say Tanya Tucker was a diamond in the rough and the rough never wore off. He also said she was the only person he ever recorded who had no fear and was entirely confident in the studio. One of their first sessions together, Billy was trying to tell the musicians what he wanted on a song but Tanya was having a loud and distracting conversation in another part of the room, so he turned and yelled at her to shut up. Everyone got real quiet until she yelled back, “YOU shut up!” So, after a thirteen year old girl shot down his suggestion for her debut single, Billy started looking around for a song she may like a little better. One night, he was watching Johnny Carson and saw Bette Midler do a song called “Delta Dawn,” which he then found out hadn’t been recorded yet, so Billy had Tanya cut it the next day. If it sounds like a lot of singers on the record, it’s because he booked both The Jordanaires and The Nashville Edition on the session. When the single went Top 10 and the label needed an album quickly thrown together around it, Billy had to tell all the publishing companies in town to stop sending over children’s songs because Tanya was “young, but not a kid.” Her second single – “Love’s the Answer” by Emily Mitchell and Norro Wilson – hit the Top 5. She then released three #1 records in a row: “What’s Your Mama’s Name?” by Dallas Frazier and Peanutt Montgomery (which you heard in Dallas Frazier’s episode), “Blood Red and Goin’ Down” by Curly Putman and “Would You Lay with Me in a Field of Stone?” by David Allan Coe. Billy did get her to cover “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” for that first LP, by the way, but it was never released as a single. Neither was “Soul Song,” with a chorus written by George Richey and verses by Norro Wilson and Billy, though it did become Joe Stampley’s first #1 a few months later.
Well, several years passed and everyone in town who laughed behind Billy’s back at him making the age old mistake of signing some cute kid whose voice was gonna change, they all heard Tanya’s voice change for the better and they heard it all over the radio because she continued releasing hit after hit. By 1975, the laughter turned to talk of how Billy Sherrill had done it again, discovered one more voice to sculpt his hit records around, one more artist who trusted and depended on him the way Tammy Wynette did. Whenever his name came up in an interview, Tanya talked about how much she loved working with Billy Sherrill, how he listened to her and treated her with the same respect he’d give any adult artist. When he found out there were people on her team, including a manager, who wanted Tanya to take choreography lessons and wanted to sexualize her image like some beauty pageant Lolita even though Tanya herself wanted no part of it, Billy made sure the entire plan was shut down. So, everyone was pretty shocked when her three-year contract came up for renewal and Tanya left Epic to sign with MCA. Turns out, one of those managers (who was later dropped because of this) completely botched the contract renegotiation with Columbia’s New York City office and insulted Tanya’s parents in the process. By the time Billy found out about the problem, it was too late for anything to be done. After the fact, he would say, “We had a short, beautiful relationship and then dark, dismal, lurking, corporate powers took over and we separated. I still like her and she still likes me.” He and Tanya both hated it but she was gone. According to some close sources, this crushed Billy. But at least he still had Tammy Wynette and, by the mid-1970s, the bet he’d placed on Charlie Rich was finally paying off.
After “Mohair Sam” was a pop hit in 1965, Charlie’s subsequent singles all tanked and Smash Records let him go. Billy signed him to Epic in 1968. Though it took close to five years before the general public noticed, the records they made were fantastic from the jump. Rolling Stone magazine called Charlie’s third Epic single as good as anything he’d ever done, which was correct. Unfortunately, they were incorrect when they proposed it may be a hit on pop, R&B, easy listening and country radio all at once. Though it’s now regarded as one of his greatest recordings, “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” didn’t even make it into the Top 40 country singles upon release in 1969. But Charlie and Billy continued making fantastic music together, mostly for the pleasure of doing it, until the early 1970s when they hit with two Kenny O’Dell singles back-to-back. First, “I Take It on Home” was kind of the same idea as “Almost Persuaded,” except Charlie Rich was much more of a stud than David Houston, so he had to turn down a lady pretty much every time he went to a bar. After that went Top 10 country it was followed by “Behind Closed Doors.” Kenny O’Dell did write the song but Billy changed a couple lines without taking any credit. This was the first of seven #1 country records in a row for Charlie Rich, five of which crossed over to the pop Top 40 and the single he released after “Behind Closed Doors” went #1 pop. Both songs were recorded on the same day but this second one was written years earlier.
Well, kind of.
Norro Wilson got into the business as a singer for various vocal groups, including The Omegas, who were produced by Owen Bradley on singles like “Failing in Love.” But none of those groups worked out, so Norro took a job as a song plugger at Screen Gems while waiting on his next recording contract to come along. When Screen Gems fired him, he went across the hall and became a song plugger for Al Gallico. Around the time Charlie Rich signed at Epic, Norro Wilson signed an artist contract at Smash and asked one of the label’s promo men, a guy named Rory Bourke, to help him write a hit single. Rory came up with the idea of a song about a guy who regretted ending a relationship with a beautiful girl and was out looking around for her so he could apologize. Norro figured the guy would probably give a description of the girl when asking people if they’d seen her, so they started coming up with physical attributes for her but then realized saying she was tall, short, blonde, brunette or any other thing would limit the appeal of a single because every person is attracted to a different type of girl. Since they were trying to write a hit, they left her beauty undefined and Norro cut the song as “Hey Mister.” And nobody cared. Norro tried several times to get Billy Sherrill interested in the song for any artist on Epic but Billy wanted nothing to do with it. Norro’s next single on Smash was called “Mama McCluskie,” pretty much about the same thing as “Hey Mister,” except this time Norro gives the girl a name and goes straight to her mother with his message of regret. And nobody cared about this record either. But when he pitched “Mama McCluskey” to Epic, Billy said Norro may be on to something if they took the best parts of both songs and wove them together, which is what they did for Charlie Rich. Released in fall of 1973, it took little more than a year for “The Most Beautiful Girl” to sell two million copies. Charlie won Entertainer of the Year and Album of the Year at the 1974 CMAs and he probably would have taken home more awards if “Behind Closed Doors” hadn’t won four CMAs the previous year. Charlie is tied with Eddy Arnold for the artist who released the most #1 records in a single calendar year, each having five. Two of Charlie’s #1’s during this streak were old tapes RCA issued as singles due to his success at Epic. There was one week when three different Charlie Rich singles held the top three positions on the country chart. After “The Most Beautiful Girl,” Norro Wilson and Billy Sherrill began writing songs together, specifically for Charlie, including “I Love My Friend” and “A Very Special Love Song,” which both went #1.
These were profoundly influential records. You won’t find many artists with a years-long streak of such market dominance who weren’t immediately imitated by the rest of their industry. Prior to Charlie Rich, nearly every artist who recorded in the Quonset Hut stood on the thirteenth tile from the wall to sing, as this was believed to be the room’s sweet spot for vocals. But Charlie liked to cut vocal tracks while standing by Pig Robbins on piano, so he could better hear and see the piano parts he’d have to play while performing these songs on tour. After Charlie spent two years releasing nothing but #1 singles standing by the piano, other artists stopped standing on Tile 13 and started standing by the piano.
The Nashville Sound By Any Other Name
Just as Owen Bradley’s many imitators previously pulled him and his Nashville Sound into the pop country debate, so did Owen’s greatest imitator find himself and his records at the center of the same debate. Only now everyone was calling Billy Sherrill’s version of the Nashville Sound “countrypolitan.” There are many reasons this is a ridiculous word. For one thing, look at it. But, also, the first usage of “countrypolitan” was by country radio stations in southern cities describing their listener demographics to potential sponsors in industry trades. To be clear, they were not calling the music they played “countrypolitan.” They were saying their airwaves reached a “countrypolitan” audience. That’s listeners near enough to pick up signal from a major city who also happened to have a lot of money to spend because they worked in booming rural industries, like agriculture. If this sounds like a product of the CMA forming two decades earlier at the beginning of the Nashville Sound era to educate radio stations on how much money country music fans have, it is. And for all the other reasons “countrypolitan” is useless as a musical term, you can simply revisit my examination of the Nashville Sound from the beginning of Season 2. Because “countrypolitan” music is nothing more than the Nashville Sound recorded with newer and better instruments and equipment, which resulted in a cleaner sound, more space in the mix and wider dynamic range. As such, lazy usage of “countrypolitan” leads us right back to confusing production and arrangement techniques for an argument over genre.
Just like it takes a special kind of logic to say guitars belong to a certain genre or some songs on a recording session are the Nashville Sound while others aren’t, it is utterly foolish to argue Owen Bradley’s 1950’s and 1960’s records are examples of the Nashville Sound while Owen Bradley’s 1970’s records are examples of a “countrypolitan” sound because they took on characteristics of Billy Sherrill records. The reason 1970s Owen Bradley records sound like Billy Sherrill records, which they do, is because Billy was always trying to make the records Owen would’ve made with newer and better instruments and equipment. Owen didn’t have to try very hard to do that; all he had to do was buy newer and better instruments and equipment, which is what he did. If we forced Billy to use Owen’s gear from the ‘50s and ‘60s the whole time he was at Epic, nobody would call the records anything other than examples of the Nashville Sound because it’s the same people doing the same stuff in the same rooms for the same reasons. The first thing everyone made sure sounded correct in a Billy Sherrill session was the piano because Owen Bradley’s Nashville Sound was built around the piano. You know how Billy loved to tell people he was such a huge fan of Johan Strauss? Well, it’s probably not a coincidence that Owen Bradley cut an entire album’s worth of Strauss waltzes for Coral Records in the early 1950s.
The Nashville Sound’s utility man Charlie McCoy also played on thousands of Music Row sessions in the so-called “countrypolitan” era. When he accepted an award for Instrumentalist of the Year at the 1972 CMAs, Charlie referred to the records being made by the A-Team at that time as the Nashville Sound. So should we. It’s important to make these distinctions here because the pop country debate in this era was more platformed and heated than ever before, due to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings bringing unprecedented numbers of rock music fans to form their first opinions on country music via the “outlaw” movement. Many of these opinions cast Billy Sherrill in the role of Satan, previously played by Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins. And, just like blaming Chet Atkins’ production work on Owen Bradley or believing Owen Bradley’s Brenda Lee records somehow negate his work with Loretta Lynn or Warner Mack, that is ignorant. Like whatever you like but anyone whose definition of “outlaw country” doesn’t include Johnny PayCheck automatically has no idea what they’re talking about. Billy probably saved PayCheck’s life by signing him to Epic in 1970, two years before Waylon Jennings released the Ladies Love Outlaws LP and three years before Wille Nelson released Shotgun Willie.
PayCheck had a few minor hits at Little Darlin’ in the ‘60s but, by the end of the decade, he and Aubrey Mayhew wanted nothing to do with each other. He was out in L.A. trying to drink and drug his way over it all when Billy called in 1970 and said to come back to Nashville for one more try at Epic. Their first single together was Swamp Dogg’s “She’s All I Got,” a #2 country hit, the biggest of PayCheck’s career at that point. They followed it up with “Someone to Give My Love To,” a #4 record for Johnny. Over the next several years, his Epic singles stayed dialed in on love songs and most were successful, including several more big hits, like “Mr. Lovemaker.” Then outlaw country broke through to mainstream pop culture, PayCheck grew a beard to go with his mustache and began cutting stuff that could have been pulled from the pages of his life story, like the Mack Vickery, Wayne Kemp and Bobby Borchers song, “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised).” After that hit Top 10 country, PayCheck sent the David Allan Coe song “Take This Job and Shove It” all the way to #1 as the title track of a platinum-selling LP.
Here’s another thing many outlaw country fans are wrong about. Supposedly, one of Billy Sherrill’s greatest sins against the genre is the role he played in trying to keep Columbia from releasing Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger LP. The full story is too complicated to unpack here but the first thing you need to understand is that Willie’s deal with Columbia was through the New York City office, not through Billy in Nashville. When Waylon Jennings flew in the masters to play them for Columbia, he took them to Bruce Lundvall in New York City, not Billy Sherrill in Nashville. Bruce Lundvall is who pissed off Waylon by saying they should have Billy Sherrill overdub strings on the album and Bruce said this to Waylon before Billy had even heard Willie’s album. When Billy Sherrill did hear the album, he did say it sounded like a demo because, by contemporary standards, it did. But this was not a matter of some Nashville industry executive just not understanding country music. If anyone out there thinks they’re “more country” than Charlie Louvin, I would love for you to go on record and argue your case. Charlie Louvin said he thought Red Headed Stranger sounded worse than a demo and when it became popular he never understood why anyone liked it. Further, anyone who thinks they’re taking Willie Nelson’s side in some beef he has against Billy Sherrill needs to understand Willie has no such beef. In an issue of Picking Up the Tempo from 1975 – the year Red Headed Stranger came out, made Columbia executives in New York City look like a bunch of idiots who then tried to forward the embarrassment along to Billy Sherrill in Nashville – Willie Nelson said he and Billy never had anything but fond words for each other. He said it was other people *cough*newyorkcity*cough* who tried to portray them as being against each other when they really never were.
Heavy Is the Head
The truth is Billy inspired a lot of jealousy throughout the music industry. His dedication to creating hit records with little regard for anything else – especially social niceties – rubbed a lot of executives, artists and fans the wrong way. Glenn Sutton said he thought artists were intimidated by Billy because you could never tell if he was happy or not. Tammy Wynette said as much in her autobiography and that for the first six months she was around him she thought Billy was the strangest man she’d ever met. If there were five or six people hanging out in his office, Billy would get up and leave without saying a word to anyone and not return. Tammy later realized this was because being around groups of people anywhere but in a recording studio gave Billy anxiety, which is probably the same reason he spent the first ten minutes of nearly every interview he ever did giving a joke response to each question before giving a real answer and probably the same reason why anyone save for a select crew of artists and songwriters found it very difficult to get a meeting with him. The story goes Tammy was only able to see him that first time because Billy was temporarily without a secretary and/or Tammy waited outside his office for several hours until he had no choice but to talk to her if he wanted to go home at the end of the day. But a lot of people misread this social anxiety as the aloofness of a man who believed his own press whenever someone called him a genius. This was easy to do given his talent for saying outrageous things and his confidence in the one place where he did feel comfortable: the studio.
He was once explaining to journalist Walter Campbell how easy it is for an artist and producer to get burned out on working with each other when Walter asked, well, what about the studio musicians? At first, Billy didn’t even understand the question, so Walter began to clarify it by pointing out Billy worked with the same studio musicians far more often than any given artist but as soon as Billy realized what Walter was asking he interrupted to say, “No. They’re all great.” In a different interview, he said, “I knew what I wanted to hear, and they knew what they wanted to play. Sometimes, it happened to be the same thing. But there was always a mutual respect.” Pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green said he always thought Billy was the best producer in Nashville because “he literally choreographed the entire song, every song he did.” Like Owen Bradley, Billy would sometimes ask musicians for opinions or suggestions but there was no such thing as questioning a direct instruction. If he told you what he wanted, it’s because he knew what he wanted and that’s what he was gonna get. If he was wrong about something, then everyone was going to find out together after the record came out because nobody dared stand between Billy Sherrill and the record he heard in his head. This certainty came with little patience for artists who didn’t understand all his decisions came from a place of knowing what made each particular artist unique and a desire to spotlight that for the world to see. One time David Houston tried to suggest they do something differently than Billy instructed, so Billy said he was gonna go take a piss and didn’t come back for two hours, at which point they made the record Billy’s way. Billy was Lefty Frizzell’s producer for a while, right up until the day Lefty didn’t want to cut Mel Street’s “Borrowed Angel” and Billy left the studio after calling in Glenn Sutton to take over the session, which wound up being Lefty’s last, as he was dropped from the label soon after. And these are the kinds of stories which give life to rumors Billy Sherrill was secretly a Nazi.
He’d say “what would Hitler do?” or stamp a swastika on someone’s hand not to be outrageous in a boring record label meeting he hadn’t even wanted to attend but because he was secretly a Nazi. He’d put Triumph of the Will on his TV not to let everyone know a party was over and it was time to get out of his fuckin’ house but because he was secretly a Nazi. He was no more serious in these or other references to Hitler than he was the time a journalist asked what was left to accomplish in his career and Billy responded, “Faith healing.” To be clear, he knew these things were offensive when he said and did them. Like so many ignorant kids in the 1970s UK punk scene who weren’t actually skinheads, that was the entire reason he said and did them. When George Jones biographer Bob Allen point-blank asked if Billy was supportive of Adolf Hitler or Nazis or fascism, he denied it wholesale and said he was no more interested in World War II than he was interested in the history of Ancient Greece and Rome. To be clear, he was deeply interested in the history of Ancient Greece and Rome. There’s no question he was fascinated by the Third Reich’s ability to manipulate the minds of millions of people because it’s what Billy wanted to do to the hearts of millions of people. It’s what Orson Welles and George Lucas wanted to do to millions of eyeballs, which is why they studied, learned from and imitated Triumph of the Will. Unlike David Bowie, Billy’s interests never led him to call Hitler a “rock ’n’ roll star” or publicly praise his stage presence and ability to work a crowd. But Billy was a country music producer from Alabama with Southern Baptist religious beliefs and unapologetically conservative politics, so it was easier for some people to believe he was secretly an actual Nazi rather than another student and practitioner of emotional manipulation, looking for clues on how to convince his audience of an alternate reality, even if only for the running length of a song.
It has never been easy to parse his true beliefs from the things he said and did for shock value. Anyone who claims to know, for instance, which “side” Billy Sherrill would support in the major issues of U.S. politics over the last five years is being presumptuous, at best. I certainly can’t tell you whether he’d view the January 6th, 2021 attack on our nation’s capitol as an act of patriotism or fascist sedition because I don’t know. There’s no question he was politically conservative for most of his adult life but his statements on several issues, like tolerance for non-heterosexual people, seemed to drift toward the center with age. For a man who stopped going to church because he couldn’t find one teaching a literal enough interpretation of the Bible, there was never anything that made him angrier than discussing megachurch televangelists. Billy held pure scorn for what he referred to as the “electric church” and the prosperity doctrine so beloved by today’s far-right. Convenient sensational narratives aside, he was not the heartless, fascist dictator of country music. He felt too much, too strongly and saying controversial things was one of several shields he placed between himself and the rest of the world.
When Tammy Wynette quit working with him early in 1980, it wounded Billy more deeply than any other event in his career. Though he never gave consistent answers for exactly when it was he began to “check out” of the job, plenty of evidence points to right here. Johnny PayCheck lost his record deal with Epic after pleading no contest to charges of misdemeanor sexual assault against a minor. That story really has nothing to do with Billy Sherrill so I’m not going to get into it here but it did happen in 1982, so Billy must have been “checked out” prior to then, as he sometimes didn’t even come down to the studio for PayCheck’s sessions, choosing instead to have an audio line run up to a monitor in his office so he could call down if he had any instructions. And he doesn’t seem to’ve been that “checked out” in 1978, the year Charlie Rich left, probably negotiating a better deal at United Artists on the strength of his #1 Epic record the year before, “Rollin’ with the Flow,” which Billy had hunted down on the b-side of a T.G. Sheppard single. And Billy’s output as a songwriter suddenly dropped at the beginning of the 1980s, almost like he lost the desire to write once he no longer had Tammy Wynette’s voice to write for. Since this used to be what he did to make up for not finding anything good in the piles of tapes heaped on his desk, mostly all he did from then on was listen to those tapes and hate 99% of what he heard.
Still, he kept turning out hit records for most of his artists and it’s pretty easy to hear which ones were the few favorites who kept him doing the job, like George Jones, Lacy J. Dalton and David Allan Coe. DAC signed to Columbia in 1974 but was produced by Ron Bledsoe all the way up until the Human Emotions LP in 1978. There are several reasons to compare David Allan Coe to Tammy Wynette, so it was really only a matter of time before Billy Sherrill took over his sessions. Just listen to the dramatic blend of gospel and heartache across the entire b-side of the album, virtually guaranteed against success at commercial radio because of the way every song transitions seamlessly into the next, as heard in the jump from the title track to “(She’s Finally Crossed Over) Love’s Cheatin’ Line.” That is not something you get with a “checked out” producer in the control room. Their biggest hits together came in the mid-‘80s with songs like “The Ride” and “Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile” but it’s perhaps more relevant here to mention what sounds like a rare and uncredited background vocal from Billy, high in the mix on 1985’s “I’m Gonna Hurt Her on the Radio.” Billy signed Lacy J. Dalton in 1979, just prior to Tammy leaving him. He clearly invested much of himself in Lacy’s sessions, most notably lifting the old Virgil O. Stamps hymn “Beyond the Clouds” for the intro of “16th Avenue” in 1982. But these records never made the impact of his work with Tammy Wynette or Tanya Tucker and, through to the end of his career, George Jones was the only artist whose returns were equal to what Billy gave the sessions. However, it was also these collaborations which resulted in not only their greatest professional embarrassment but that of Elvis Costello as well.
Costello’s Almost Blue is probably the favorite album of everyone who wonders what their mailman would sound like as a country music singer. His previous albums were released through Columbia in the United States and everything he put out sold at least half a million copies, so it wasn’t difficult for Costello to get Billy Sherrill’s attention when he decided to make a country album and asked Billy to produce it. While this request was apparently rooted in Costello being a huge fan of Billy’s George Jones records, every cover of a Jones song on the album is from prior to his years on Epic. It’s possible Elvis was one of many people who mistakenly believed Jones and Billy began working together on “A Good Year for the Roses.” Whatever logic did or didn’t go into this project, the catastrophic results are well documented. In fact, there’s an actual documentary because a video crew filmed the sessions. It is not widely available for reasons that are about to become obvious but if you manage to find and watch it, you’ll see Billy Sherrill trying to understand why Elvis Costello has a recording career and hating every second spent in the studio before he can finally escape to take his boat out on the lake. Billy did a decent job of talking up the project in interviews before the album came out, hitting all the talking points you’d expect about how it was an opportunity to try something new and how this Elvis Costello guy sure was a big country music fan, etc. But his disdain for Costello’s voice and his band’s butchering of country songs really couldn’t be disguised on camera and, ultimately, neither could Billy’s financial motivations for taking the gig. Within a few years, he and Costello were regularly talking shit on each other in the press; Costello calling Billy a hack who didn’t have an ounce of feeling in him and Billy calling Costello the worst singer he ever heard.
Aside from the previously-mentioned favorite artists on his roster, one of Billy’s last great thrills in the business was getting to work with Ray Charles. Ray’s two Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music albums may have been massive hits but a more accurate title would have been Country & Western Songs in Modern Sounds, as these and his other recordings of country material all used big band jazz and R&B arrangements until he signed with Columbia in 1982 and began making country music. Ray self-produced most of these sessions, including his first minor country hit on Columbia, “Born to Love Me.” But Ray didn’t make it to the country Top 10 until he put Billy Sherrill in the control room, first on the George Jones duet “We Didn’t See a Thing,” then the Willie Nelson duet “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Whenever he later reminisced on his time spent in the studio with Ray, Billy spoke like the excited teenager he was when he began obsessing over Ray Charles records, saying things like “Ray Charles, man, he’s it!” So after getting this gig, he dove into finding songs good enough for Ray to record. When he heard “Seven Spanish Angels,” he first wanted Ray to cut it with Ronnie Milsap but Ronnie didn’t like the song. Since Troy Seals and Eddie Setser wrote it as a sort-of “what would Willie Nelson’s version of Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’ sound like?” thing, they sent a demo to Willie, too. Once Billy found out Willie liked the song and wanted to do it, he suggested singing it with Ray and everyone loved the idea. Billy did his session with Ray in Nashville, shipped the tape down to Texas for Willie to overdub his vocal, then back to Nashville for Billy to overdub strings and background vocals. Listening to the finished master, Billy decided he didn’t like the way the song went into a whole different melody to wrap up the story’s plot with a tidy explanation at the end, so he just put a fade out on the record before it reached that part, leaving the plot open to interpretation.
Few things in life ever gave Billy Sherrill as much satisfaction as knowing he’d helped Ray Charles make his only #1 country record. One of the other things was the time Johnny Cash, then signed to Columbia, happened to stop by a Ray Charles session and accepted Billy Sherrill’s impromptu offer to sing on “Crazy Old Soldier.” Billy said when he got in bed that night all he could do was lay awake for hours thinking about how the day had really happened, he’d really just come home from running a session for Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. How could he fall asleep if he was already living some kind of dream?
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe. While you’re on the website, please visit the SUPPORT page to learn how you may be able to help me keep making this show. If you’d like some podcast merch, the store is currently stocked with t-shirts (including 3x sizes in some designs), a hoodie, embroidered patches, stickers, koozies and who knows what else by now. If you don’t need any more t-shirts in your life but still want to help, that’s even better because most of the money from shirts goes back into making more shirts. There’s a paypal address where you can send one-time donations as well as a Patreon where subscribers get a monthly post detailing my behind-the-scenes work along with ad-free versions of new episodes.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Madonna – “Vogue” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Malcom McLaren ft. Willie Ninja – “Deep in Vogue” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Virgil O. Stamps and Marshall Yandell – “You Must Come In at the Door” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Walter Solek – “That’s Where My Money Goes” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- B.B. King – “Woke Up This Morning” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bobby Denton – “Sweet and Innocent” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roy Orbison – “Sweet and Innocent” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Fairlanes – “Comin’ After You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bob Beckham – “Your Sweet Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bob Beckham – “Just as Much as Ever” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Billy Sherrill – “Like Makin’ Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Billy Sherrill – “Rules of the Game” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tommy Roe & The Satins – “Sheila” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tommy Roe – “Sheila” (with drum overdub) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Billy Sherrill – “Tipsy” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Billy Sherrill – “Drag Race” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bobby Vinton – “Roses Are Red (My Love)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Walker – “Close All the Honky Tonks” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Walker – “Wild as a Wildcat” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jim & Jesse – “Diesel on My Tail” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lois Johnson – “The Whole World Is Turning (Just for Us)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ted Taylor – “Stay Away from My Baby” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Obrey Wilson – “Love Will Be Right There” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Staple Singers – “Freedom Highway” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Staple Singers – “The Funeral” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Cliff Richard – “Wind Me Up (Let Me Go)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Cliff Richard – “The Minute You’re Gone” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Al Hirt – “Sugar Lips” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Claude King – “Wolverton Mountain” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ronnie Dove – “Kiss Away” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Louvin Brothers – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Houston – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Houston – “Mountain of Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Houston – “One if for Him, Two if for Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Houston – “Cowpoke” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Houston – “We Got Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Statler Brothers – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Louis Armstrong – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jim Nabors – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Conway Twitty – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Patti Page – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Etta James – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “Almost Persuaded” (gospel song) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “Almost Persuaded” (honky tonk song) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Kiss Away” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lynn Anderson – “Keep Me in Mind” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lynn Anderson – “You’re My Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Joe South – “Rose Garden” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lynn Anderson – “Rose Garden” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Barbara Mandrell – “Playin’ Around with Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Barbara Mandrell – “The Midnight Oil” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jody Miller – “Baby, I’m Yours” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jody Miller – “He’s So Fine” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jody Miller – “There’s a Party Goin’ On” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tanya Tucker – “Delta Dawn” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tanya Tucker – “Love’s the Answer” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tanya Tucker – “Blood Red and Goin’ Down” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tanya Tucker – “Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tanya Tucker – “Soul Song” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Joe Stampley – “Soul Song” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Rich – “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Rich – “I Take It on Home” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Rich – “Behind Closed Doors” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Omegas – “Failing in Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Norro Wilson – “Hey Mister” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Norro Wilson – “Mama McCluskie” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Rich – “The Most Beautiful Girl” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Rich – “I Love My Friend” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Rich – “A Very Special Love Song” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Owen Bradley & His Sextet – “Wine Women & Song Waltz” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “She’s All I Got” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “Someone to Give My Love To” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “Mr. Lovemaker” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “Take This Job and Shove It” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Willie Nelson – “Red Headed Stranger” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Willie Nelson – “The Time of the Preacher” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Rich – “Rollin’ with the Flow” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- T.G. Sheppard – “Rollin’ with the Flow” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Allan Coe – “Human Emotions” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Allan Coe – “(She Finally Crossed Over) Love’s Cheatin’ Line” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Allan Coe – “I’m Gonna Hurt Her on the Radio” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lacy J. Dalton – “16th Avenue” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Elvis Costello & The Attractions – “Good Year for the Roses” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Elvis Costello & The Attractions – “Colour of the Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Charles – “I Can’t Stop Loving You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Charles – “Born to Love Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Charles & Willie Nelson – “Seven Spanish Angels” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Charles & Johnny Cash – “Crazy Old Soldier” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube (or DailyMotion) may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
As with all of the intros, this was not meant to be a comprehensive history of drag or ballroom or sumptuary laws. These are just pieces of things I think a person should know if they’re interested in learning what country music is and the world it comes from. Usually, rather than direct attention toward things most people are already aware of, what I’m trying to do is fill in the gaps and point out connections. So while I didn’t directly reference, for instance, Stonewall in this intro, what I was trying to do is tell the rest of the story about how that situation arose for all of you who already know the story of Stonewall to see how it fits into everything I discussed here. My hope is you find that more interesting than listening to me say a bunch of things you already know. (If you don’t know what Stonewall is and you enjoyed learning the history in this intro, I would encourage you to go learn about Stonewall.) Similarly, there were, of course, gay women and trans men who ventured out into the Old West, though to a lesser degree and usually not without above-average shooting skills for what I’d think would be readily apparent reasons.
I should point out fashion-centric sumptuary laws are not the only kind of sumptuary law. When Alexander Hamilton proposed the whiskey tax, those who opposed it said he was trying to implement a sumptuary law intended to disproportionately target the poor, etc.
As for sources, I did watch all the documentaries mentioned in the intro. RuPaul’s Drag Race is extremely entertaining but it is also only one facet of drag and I would encourage any fans who haven’t seen The Queen or Paris Is Burning to watch those. There is a lot of upsetting stuff in both – especially Paris Is Burning – both psychologically and viscerally (and there are quite a few people who have problems with who the director of Paris Is Burning was and what she chose to focus on) but all the footage of actual ballroom is priceless and mandatory viewing for anyone interested in this subject.
As for Billy Sherrill, he was a hard nut to crack. There are so many instances of his actions not lining up with the tough, intimidating reputation he gained by saying controversial things. He always told Emily Mitchell (a secretary who was eventually promoted up to executive level) that he hated cats but then she noticed every time a stray started hanging around the streets near the office Billy wouldn’t be able to stop worrying about the cat until they found it a home. When he saw a homeless person in the area he made sure food was sent over to them. There are so many examples of this stuff. It seems the most accurate thing to say is Billy was an equal opportunity offender and, as I’m sure many of us have grown used to in recent years, anyone who took specific offense to a certain thing he said or did was likely to then project all sorts of other negative traits onto him as well, which is really the only explanation I can come up with for how in the same interview where Bob Allen asked Billy Sherrill about rumors he was a Nazi, Bob Allen also asked Billy Sherrill about rumors he was a Communist.
Personally, I was shocked while researching this episode to find how many instances there were of Billy Sherrill being misquoted by the media. He himself commented on this when asked about a statement he supposedly made regarding Robert Altman’s Nashville. The two most common versions of the quote that I’ve seen are “you don’t do the anatomy of a man and just show his ass” and “when you show the anatomy of a man, you should try to show something besides his tail.” Billy Sherrill denied saying this but also declined to clarify what he actually did say because he claimed the press usually came up with a better story than the truth and he didn’t care if people had incorrect ideas about him just as long as they were thinking about him. Since people are always asking for my opinion on Altman’s Nashville, I may as well take a second to say it is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the country music business at its worst, though I would agree with those alleged Billy Sherrill quotes that it isn’t the entire business. My biggest problem with the movie is that most of the singing is unforgivably bad, particularly in the Grand Ole Opry segment. If that’s what Robert Altman thought country singers sound like then I’m not surprised he seemed to view the whole industry as net negative.
There was nowhere it made sense to mention it but for those of you wondering where you may have heard the song “Sweet and Innocent” before, years after the original recordings it sold millions of copies as Donny Osmond’s first hit record.
Speaking of child stars, I don’t believe Larry Collins has come up before on the podcast but for those of you who know the name, Larry is the principal songwriter on “Delta Dawn.” That song was recorded by other people before Tanya Tucker cut it. What I said in the episode is Bette Midler hadn’t yet recorded the song when Billy Sherrill decided to make it Tanya Tucker’s first single.
George Harrison wasn’t sued for plagiarizing “He’s So Fine” in “My Sweet Lord” until way later in the 1970s but it would blow my mind if Billy’s instrumentation on Jody Miller’s 1971 cut of “He So Fine” wasn’t a deliberate inside joke from him immediately recognizing the 1970 Harrison song as a ripoff. Or, since Pete Drake was on the Jody Miller session and he’d also been flown overseas to play on All Things Must Pass, then it’s entirely possible he was the one who clocked the shared melody and decided to make a joke about it. Whoever was responsible, there’s just no way that isn’t a conscious reference to George Harrison’s style of slide guitar.
Some readers may want to disagree with my characterization of the outlaw country movement being full of rock music fans new to country but the reason I know that’s a fact is because of how many outlaw country fans believe the outlaw movement was some kind of return to “real” and “traditional” country music, which is ridiculous because that is the polar opposite of the truth, as evidenced by what all the people paying attention to country music called those artists and their music prior to the term “outlaw” taking off. What they called it was “progressive country,” because of how many elements from other genres were being brought into the form. This is not to say that people who were fans of country music before outlaw country did not enjoy outlaw country. It is to say outlaw country was responsible for millions of people who never gave country music the time of day going from saying they hated country music to saying they loved it. If there’s one subgenre of country music I feel absolutely confident in speaking on without citing sources, it’s outlaw country but anyone who doesn’t want to take my word for it and researches the matter for themselves will ultimately find everything I said to be the truth.
Billy Sherrill and David Allan Coe had done a session or two together prior to the Human Emotions album but that was the first album fully produced by Billy. I have no idea why but a lot of people seem to think Billy was DAC’s producer the whole time he was on Columbia and he’s credited that way all over Wikipedia even though you can just look at the credits on the backs of the albums and see it was not him until 1978. There’s a chance it’s Warren Haynes singing the high harmony part on “I’m Gonna Hurt Her on the Radio” because he was in the room but it sounds a lot more like another Billy Sherrill harmony discussed later in the season than it does anything I’ve heard Warren do. I doubt anyone can say for sure because Billy rarely put parts on records while everyone was still in the studio: “Usually I play a lot on the records I cut, but after everyone’s gone and it’s just me and the engineer. Then I’ll overdub my parts.”
As for my sources, other than the primary sources found on the Season 2 Library page, they were all mentioned in the episode except for the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Much of this episode was a product of the time I spent there and I would encourage you to visit the museum if you ever come to Nashville.
Alright, the reason it was appropriate to focus so much on Tammy Wynette and Billy Sherrill in these past few episodes is that most of what the public had communicated to them regarding George Jones in this period was through the more-famous Tammy Wynette and the albums produced by Billy Sherrill. For his part, Jones was mostly trying to disappear but wound up stumbling into the commercial peak of his career. So next we’re going to talk about that commercial peak, how it happened, what it meant and where it went. Place a wreath upon the door because when the podcast returns it’s with an episode on “He Stopped Loving Her Today” along with a whole mess of other stuff.