i started writing songs when i was just a boy. but my true country songwriter’s journey began in 1972, when my wife and i moved to porterville, california, which is in the san joaquin valley, near bakersfield. i wanted to be close to the, “west coast country” sound and most of that was coming from bakersfield. at the time, that sound was associated mainly with buck owens and merle haggard. i used to drive on two-lane highways with tree orchards on each side, back and forth between the two towns, trying to get either buck or merle interested in my songs or interested in me as a songwriter/recording artist. at the end of the street where we lived was a little stand where you could buy fruits and vegetables that were too ripe to ship.
i had found paradise. a friend of mine, michael karas, also moved to porterville. we had both been docs (medics) together with the marine corps in vietnam and we are still friends today. we’d go fly fishing in the sierra nevada mountains and then come back and eat what michael caught, drink some jack daniels and listen to merle and buck and hank sing their asses off. we knew the pain they were singing about and it definitely touched a nerve.
in 1973, with new songs i’d written including, “love don’t make the bars,” and “a different kind of sad,” i signed an exclusive songwriter’s agreement with blue book music, a publishing company owned by buck owens. jim shaw, who ran the company for buck, brought me in. jim was also the keyboard player for buck’s world-famous band, the buckaroos. that same year, i signed a contract with buck owens productions and capitol records and moved to bakersfield where buck had a studio. during my time there, buck recorded many of my songs. as a recording artist, i got to record with the buckaroos, produced by jim shaw. buck often dropped by the sessions.
jack mcfadden, who managed buck owens, was also my manager, and his booking agency booked my club dates. i played honky-tonks almost every night in bakersfield and across the southwest. several times i played the famous blackboard in bakersfield, where occasionally, a few of merle’s band, the strangers, would sit in. i was adopted by buzz and sandy thomas who played the local clubs in town. they made sure that every patron of every bar in bakersfield that played country music heard me sing. sandy was a talented singer and her husband buzz played bass and found jobs for her and her band. they had several kids and all of them made me feel like a “first generation, genuine, california okie.” my favorite gig back then was when i opened for haggard in ridgecrest, california, at a toys for tots benefit.
i also remember playing a show somewhere and sitting backstage with red simpson, who was real famous at the time for his hit single,
“hello, i’m a truck.” i had just written a poignant ballad and asked red if i could play it for him. the structure of the song was: verse, verse, chorus, instrumental, third verse, chorus, repeat chorus and then i tagged the last two lines. when i was finished i looked up and said,
“well red, do you think it could be your next single?” he replied, “son, i think that could be my next album.”
although i recorded more than an album’s worth of material with the buckaroos, due to forces beyond my control i had only one capitol records’ single released, “goin’ back to the hard times.” tragically, in 1974, buck’s incredible, irreplaceable guitar player, don rich, was killed riding his harley. he and buck were like brothers. after that, things began to fall apart at the buck owens’ companies. i received permission to be released from my contract with buck and capitol records and left for nashville in 1976. i decided not to be an artist. i focused on just writing songs.
since my bakersfield days, i have had songs recorded by johnny paycheck, tammy wynette, george jones, joe sun, barbara mandrell,
jean shepard, freddy hart, david frizzell, the whites (produced by ricky skaggs), the kendalls, t.g. sheppard, loretta lynn, jim and jesse,
vern gosdin, alan jackson, troy olsen (with kid rock), mel tillis, reba mcentire and others.
recently, i began writing songs again for myself, for my first album. i co-wrote three of them with a terrific writer and friend from london,
steve nelson (one of which we co-wrote with his brother simon). i took the songs into the studio with nashville guitar player jeff king. jeff has played on many, many hit records and is well known by pretty much anyone on music row. jeff also co-produced the album. but he’s not just a guitar player and producer. as you’ll hear, his talents go way beyond that. featured on the album is the sparkling imagination of tammy rogers on fiddle, mandolin and viola.
special thanks to chris latham at emi studios who made recording there such a pleasure.
before i close, i have to mention that i’ve worked with a lot of harmony singers in my life, some of the best, and russell terrell is truly one of the greatest.