WORKING MAN (Kenny O’Dell, R.I.P.)

Kenny O’Dell started in Duane Eddy’s band and had some modest success as a recording artist. But he made his lasting mark as a Hall of Fame country songwriter who had a knack for scoring signature hits for era-defining country acts.

His best known song, “Behind Closed Doors,” made Charlie Rich a huge crossover star after Sam Phillips and a string of Nashville’s crack producers had been trying to put him over since the fifties. Released in 1973, the record probably did more than any other to open Nashville up to modern crossover and while that might have been a mixed blessing for those who liked to keep their country pure (it was only a year or two later that Rich himself, after reading John Denver’s name off a card that read Entertainer of the Year, proceeded to pull out his cigarette lighter and set the card on fire), it established an art and business model the town adhered to for the rest of the decade.

The New Nashville that emerged in the eighties was defined by the Judds if it was defined by anyone and O’Dell wrote their breakout hit “Mama He’s Crazy” as well.

Before, during and after all that he wrote a few dozen other hits and the several hundred other songs that won him every accolade a Nashville songwriter could hope for, from the Grammy on down.

One of those did something that meant as much to me personally as any record could. It was the first single Tanya Tucker released after she left Billy Sherrill (one of the aforementioned crack producers who had, incidentally, helmed “Behind Closed Doors”), Columbia Records and (for the time) Nashville.

Those were considered three very big mistakes at the time. Tucker was still a teenager and was supposed to know her place. The experience was not, in the end, entirely a happy one for her, either personally or professionally.

But the first single she released on her new label went #1 country, #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart and became her only single to reach Billboard’s Top 40. It laid to rest any question of whether she needed Billy Sherrill or Columbia or Nashville.

I missed all that. But a few years later the record was in constant rotation on the same weird little station that played the only Pop or Oldies format in my North Florida county and introduced me to Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My,” Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak”er” and “Black Dog,” Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugartown” and more than a few timeless others.

Nothing ever opened my ears more than waiting for that one song to come back around.

And out of all that, Tanya Tucker ended up being the only singer besides Elvis and Patty Loveless who ever kept me up all night.

Kenny O’dell passed away last week at 73. He outlived the wife he married long enough ago to leave five great grandchildren behind by less than a year.

God speed brother. I ain’t forgot.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Tanya Tucker Up)

“The Jamestown Ferry”
Tanya Tucker (1972)
B-side of “Love’s the Answer”
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: Greatest Hits (Columbia)

“Horseshoe Bend”
Tanya Tucker (1973)
Album cut from What’s Your Mama’s Name
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: What’s Your Mama’s Name

“Greener Than the Grass We Laid On”
Tanya Tucker (1975)
#23 Billboard Country
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: Best of (Gusto/TeeVee)…as far as I know the only source released on CD

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Tanya Tucker hit Nashville as a force of nature and a challenge.She had a hundred-year-old voice in a thirteen-year-old body. What to do, what to do? Fortunately, Bette Midler (who  had sung a song on television after hearing it from Tracy Nelson, who had heard it from the song’s co-writer Alex Harvey) was not available to be signed to Billy Sherrill’s label, Columbia (she had just signed with Atlantic)  and Tanya was handed the song Sherrill definitely wanted to record on somebody, which was “Delta Dawn.” Turned out she knew just what to do.

But the road to figuring out how to follow it up was not entirely smooth. At least not artistically speaking. Since the teenager could sell anything–and would become, and remain, the youngest singer to ever be truly accepted by country radio (which had stacked the deck against Brenda Lee in the early days of rock and roll threatening Nashville’s hegemony)–the powers that be decided the rather mundane “Love’s the Answer” would be the followup.

It did fine, reaching #5 country.

In the world I lived in, though, nobody talked about “Love’s the Answer.” They talked about (and requested) the B-side.

The grassroots reaction to the song opened a vein of sorts and re-raised the central question. What to do, what to do?

Go with it.

Nashville was conservative but it wasn’t stupid. If the dirtiest voice in town was coming from a teenage girl, so be it. The audience wanted more. They got more: “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” “The Man That Turned My Mama On.” One smash after another. Whatever those titles promised, the songs delivered. Whatever those songs promised, the voice delivered even more.

And it all happened in such a rush that quite a bit was left laying in between the cracks. A B-side here, an album cut there, a semi-hit that would have been much bigger if it hadn’t been caught up in a label change and gone unpromoted back over here.

Out of an album’s worth, these three end up forming a theme: lost girl, left girl, burned girl who may or may not be left standing because the voice never gives away the ending. It just stays right on the edge between the hurt (I want to die) and the defiance (no way in hell will I give in).

A lot of critics sniggered (and a lot still do). How could she know? Sadder days? Lying in the Alabama sun? Walking through a kingdom of honky tonks and bars? Grow up girl! We know you don’t know!

Mostly, over the years, Tanya has played along. That’s how you survive a wild child reputation in Nashville for forty years. I never bought her reticence myself. I knew plenty of girls who knew exactly what she meant back when–knew exactly how the protagonists she represented in these particular half-hidden stories felt. Pretty hard to believe that she struck exactly the right note, again and again, without also knowing exactly what each song meant.

How?

Well, if she weren’t a wild child female hillbilly who made it big at thirteen and lived it up in everybody’s face instead of learning to write bland, happy songs that fit on everybody’s bland, happy albums, we’d probably just call it art…

JUST COUNTRY ENOUGH (Billy Sherrill, R.I.P.)

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(Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Billy Sherrill)

There used to be what was thought of as a more or less eternal war in Nashville between “too real” and “too pop.” The war still sort of goes on but, unfortunately, it’s a little hollow now because, like everything else in this generation’s popular music the now eternal outcome has been decided elsewhere by people who don’t really feel a need to keep artists or audiences informed. You can turn on the radio and punch buttons straight across the dial if you’re interested in the results.

When the war was hottest and heaviest, the single figure most likely to produce hits, controversy or a way ahead was writer/producer Billy Sherrill. He had a broad-based, deeply nuanced formula. Nobody could have stayed at the top of the heap as long as he did–or straddled both sides of such a thorny fence as spectacularly well–if it had been simple.

But it’s probably fair to say it at least had simple elements. At it’s very best those elements tended to be the same: the lushest arrangements permissible (sometimes built up and then stripped back down, even in the same song…like I said, it wasn’t really simple even when it sounded the simplest) backing the very hardest country voices.

You know. Tammy Wynette, George Jones, David Allan Coe, Johnny Paycheck, Tanya Tucker.

Like that.

Even a cursory listing of his most famous productions (not a few of which he also wrote), reads like at least half of the short list people generally start with when they start writing or talking about “the perfect country record.”

To Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which gets the most run, you could add Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” Tucker’s “Delta Dawn,” David Houston’s “Almost Persuaded,” and maybe fifty others that would spring more readily to mind if those didn’t happen to already exist.

They all exist in the iconic form they now have not just because of Sherrill’s extraordinary skills as one of the dozen or so greatest record men of the twentieth century, but because he was a genuine visionary in a town and an industry that do not exactly encourage visions. If he was slagged for musical and (sometimes) political conservatism in what’s supposed to be the industry’s most conservative town, well, he didn’t let it bother him too much. And if being “conservative” was what it took to make the records he made–as opposed to what the New Conservatism, which prides itself on being anything but, now produces–then I’ll take a dose of it right now and go down smiling.

The obits are ubiquitous on line and I’m sure his most famous records (which would be too numerous to list in full anyway) will get plenty of play. So I’ll stick to a few of my own favorites, which maybe strike even deeper because they won’t be in everyone’s ear today and because, some time or other, they came for me in my own little personal shadow and made things a little brighter.

Owe you brother. More than I can say.

Maybe even as much as the other misfits you somehow made fit.