"Follow your dreams.
Except for the one where you're naked in church."
- Rev. David Ault
For reasons which will become clear, that's an especially apt quote to begin this little story about big money - or the lack thereof.
Back in 1984 I was living in Kansas City, slogging out a living playing cover songs in bars and clubs. It was just me and my trusty Ovation nylon string acoustic-electric guitar.
There was a certain sense of accomplishment in having worked hard to become good enough to make a living at these bar gigs. But as I sat there night after night, gazing out through the smoky, boozy haze, I was clearly able to discern that my long-term career path for this line of work was not unlike a Twilight Zone episode that ends in Dante's 5th ring of hell. It was what you could call a dim future. With a low ceiling.
And besides, what I really wanted was to be a professional songwriter. I loved writing songs. And you should do what you love, right? But there was a problem. I honestly hadn't written any very good ones. And not for lack of trying. I'd cranked out dozens of songs over the years, the best of them not even good enough for a Jimmy Dean sausage commercial. So I didn't have any confidence I could ever pull it off.
But as it happens, right about then I started dating a new girlfriend. (You knew there would be a woman involved.) Our regular topics of conversation included her too much caffeine jitters and perpetual bad boss blues. I'm not sure if those two things were related, but they gave me an idea for a happy, uptempo love song called (What I Got Is) Good For You.
Would you like to hear it? You can in a minute. I mean, if you want to.
I Can See Clearly Now
You know how you can work hard at something - maybe for years - and finally one day make what feels like a breakthrough to another level? It seems like it happens fast but really it was the culmination of all that learning and effort.
Well this song was like that.
It was not only the best song I had written up till then, it was the first one I thought might actually be good enough to make some money. Meaning: get recorded by a famous recording artist and become a huge international hit! Or even just a small hit. Whatever. I felt a noticeable uptick in the self-esteem department.
So, armed with one good song and a couple of questionable ones, I packed up the little gray Honda and drove to Nashville. I got a cheap motel room, opened the yellow pages, looked up "music publishers" and started dialing.
Right here I need to interject that before I'd started singing in clubs, before I ever even worked up my courage to go audition someplace, I'd had numerous sales jobs: water softeners, encyclopedias, office artwork, advertising, and probably some other things I've forgotten. (If you lived in KC back then, I might have even sold you some stuff.) I was never great at it, but I always worked hard and paid attention to the training. The point is that all that sales experience had made me basically immune to rejection.
* Tip: All artists who pitch their own stuff should get sales training.
So when I called those publishers and told them I was a songwriter from Kansas City, in town for a couple of days with a few good songs, and could I come by and play them, I wasn't crushed if they said no. I just went on to the next one. And it worked. I ended up getting 5 good appointments.
* You could never do this today. The music business is too corporate.
But back then there were a lot of small publishers, even mom and pop operators.
** Usually the mom and pop ones were the most fun.
Walking On Sunshine
To my astonishment and delight, I had two offers to publish Good For You and one offer for another song called Don't You Lie To Me, written for an earlier girlfriend who I wasn't seeing anymore for obvious reasons. I chose the more established publisher. It was not a big outfit, but the owner was a legendary Nashville name (Bradley), so I thought that might help.
If you're not sure how the music business works, a music publisher is like an agent for the song. It's his or her job to try and get the song recorded by an artist, or get it into movies or commercials. In other words, to make money with it. Typically you as the writer then split the royalties with the publisher.
It's also the publisher's job to make a demo recording (hereafter referred to as "The Demo") to pitch to record companies, producers, agents, and anybody else who might influence the artist to record the song, including the actual artist, if possible.
Having signed two songs, I drove back to KC feeling pretty darn good about it. I was a signed writer! I could literally call myself a professional. I was also, however, only marginally optimistic. As hard as it is to get a song published, I knew how much absurdly harder it is to get a song recorded and released.
Oh Happy Day
A few months went by. One day I got a package in the mail containing a cassette labeled "What I Got Is Good For You - Demo."
At this point you have to understand something. The quality of this Demo: the sound, the band, the vocals, literally everything about it was out of my control. I was at the mercy of my new publisher, whom I liked but barely knew. I had no idea what to expect.
I played the cassette. I couldn't believe it. I danced around the room like Steve Martin on SNL. I was in total shock, and at the same time endorphins were exploding. The song sounded great. The demo was perfect. I loved it. The publisher had chosen a soulful (not country) singer named Jimmy Stewart whose voice I really liked. Also, the great blind blues singer Johnny Neal did the keyboards, the arrangement, and backup vocals. I loved it. Did I say that? I really loved it. This was maybe my happiest day ever. I mean it.
Would you like to hear it? Okay. Patience, grasshopper. It's coming...
Good Luck Charm
Meanwhile the publisher was doing his job. He was pitching the song. In almost no time, it was picked up by a lovely country artist named Becky Hobbs. Becky is an Oklahoma gal, cute as all get out, a talented swing-rockin' piano player/singer, full of energy. She loved the song and recorded it for her new Capitol Records album.
Holy Moly. Now I had a song recorded by a major-label recording artist for an upcoming release! Jeepers.
Would you like to hear it? You can hear her version too. It's a LOT different than the Demo. Okay, not much longer now, grasshopper....
Don't Be Cruel
Nashville, we have a problem. Capitol Records decided to release Becky from her recording contract for reasons that were never explained to me (and absolutely should have been, don't you think?). This relegated her recently recorded album (with my song on it) to Capitol's Basement Vault of Broken Dreams. (Dylan fans: this is a totally different kind of basement tapes. They are never heard from again.)
But wait...all was not lost! Becky really liked my song. She generously suggested to my publisher (whose name is Glenn Middleworth and I should have mentioned that way before now) that he pitch it to a new artist on RCA records who had been paired with a hot young producer.
Who was the artist? Have you heard of Reba McEntire?
Well....it was not her.
It was her brother, Pake McEntire. Pake's real name is Del Stanley McEntire, but everybody calls him Pake. Presumably for the Pecos River. But I don't know. That's just what I heard.
So this was good news, right? Being Reba's brother (she was already famous at this point) he'd get a good look and listen from the industry. This hot young producer, Mark Wright, had a lot of buzz too. So thanks to Becky and Glenn the song got pitched to Mark Wright for Pake McEntire, and.....they liked it. They recorded it for his debut album.
By the way, Pake's version is totally different from Becky's version, which is totally different from the Demo.
Would you like to hear it? You can hear his version too if you like.
Patience, grasshopper. We're almost there. Honest.
The Waiting Is The Hardest Part
Meanwhile, back in Kansas City, I had a decision to make. I was the only "novice" songwriter on this Pake McEntire album. All the other songwriters were well known, even famous. If I lived in Nashville, that would give me some really good, door-opening street cred. But I wasn't there. If I wanted to get serious about this songwriting-as-a-career thing, I needed to think about moving.
So I made the decision to go.
As soon as I made that decision - I mean the very moment I made it - I felt a strange sensation. Eventually it dawned on me that this was my inner self jumping for joy because I absolutely knew (maybe for the first time ever) I was doing the right thing.
It took a few months to save some money and get organized. My friend Jerry Vandiver had offered me a small studio apartment in Nashville. It didn't hold much, but it was great of him, and now I had a place to land. It seemed like everything was unfolding for me.
Meanwhile RCA started releasing singles from Pake's album. The first single did well, got to about #20 on the country charts. The second single did even better, Top 10.
Incredibly, Glenn informed me that MY SONG had been chosen to be the 4th single. Wow.
Why is a single a big deal? Because it's promoted to radio with a huge push. Radio stations pay "airplay royalties" to the publisher and songwriter. (This is different from "mechanical royalties" from sales of physical albums: vinyl, CD, cassette.) Airplay royalties for a hit single can be humongous.
Finally, shortly after Pake's 3rd single was released, I hit the road. I got to Nashville, settled in, and started using my "upcoming-single street cred" to try and wrangle a staff songwriter job from Glenn and some other publishers.
Meanwhile Pake's 3rd single was doing well too. Not quite as hot as his 2nd, but moving up the charts.
Don't Let Me Down
Right about here this story takes a bizarre turn.
After a month or so in Music City, I had an opportunity to attend an all day meet-and-greet with music industry bigwigs. This was a chance for little industry peons like myself to get up close and personal with record company presidents, publishing company CEOs, producers, and other Very Important Persons.
Each of them had their own round table in a big ballroom full of tables. People like myself could then (for a fee) circulate among the tables and politely inflict ourselves on whomever we wanted to. Ideally we'd get to ask questions and become enlightened at the feet of these country music business gurus.
As it happened, the head of RCA records, Joe Gallante, was one of the people with a table. At some point I wandered over to his table and sat down. When there was a lull in the conversation, I asked him how - at RCA Records - they decided which songs were going to be released as singles.
To be clear, this guy did not know me from Garth Brooks (who did not yet then exist in his current form). I was just some plebe asking questions.
Joe Gallante's response was not what I expected. He said that choosing singles was a team effort, with opinions from all the departments weighing in. But that the final decision was always his. Then he said, "Let me give you an example. We have this new artist, Pake McEntire. His first three singles have all been fun, uptempo songs. The scheduled fourth single was in the same vein, an uptempo swing tune, but this week I decided to make a change and release a ballad as the fourth single. It's a sad duet with his sister Reba."
Rich Man, Poor Man
And that, my friends, is how I found out I lost a potential hit single and possibly half a million dollars in royalties.
As the only writer on the song, all of the writer's royalties would have come to me. Even if it had not been a big hit, just something like a top 25 single (the minimum Pake had achieved so far), the money still would have been considerable. For me, at that time, it would have been life-changing.
* The duet with Reba they released as the 4th single stalled at about #25 on the country chart.
Obviously they should have released my song instead!
** The writer of that sad duet, Don Henry, later became a friend of mine.
I should add here that it's not unusual for a record company to change its mind about what songs become singles. What's unique about this story is the record company president telling me himself, and not having a clue that I was the songwriter!
I know what you're thinking. Did I tell him that I was the songwriter he just skewered through the heart with a dull lance? Nah. What would have been the point? But I've often thought that if I had, he probably would have remembered me.
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where
thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
- Hunter S. Thompson
The Grand Design
I'm not as cynical as Hunter Thompson, but as you can clearly see, in the music business the songwriter is at the bottom of the food chain. As my friend Jana Stanfield says, it's like playing a slot machine in Vegas. Except that instead of inserting your coins, you're constantly, endlessly depositing your talent. With no idea if there will ever be a payoff.
What I wonder now is, had I come into all that money way back then, how much longer would it have taken me to figure that out? Would that much money have kept me tied to the music biz for a lot longer? Would I ever have gone out on my own as an independent artist, writing songs for me, recording them for you, and making friends all over the world?
Would I have wound up performing (among other places) in centers of spirituality where I frequently and metaphorically (contrary to my friend David Ault's advice) get naked in church?
It's hard to say.
But I'm glad I made the leap when I did. It's been a great career so far, and somehow I'm still getting away with it. The best part is meeting all of you. I look forward to seeing you again after Covid, and sharing atoms in person.
Good For You
Finally, The Demo, Becky Hobbs, and Pake McEntire, are not the only versions of (What I Got Is) Good For You. You can also listen to my version, and all four are right here.
As you'll hear, they're all very different from each other, which I thought you might find interesting.
You can also download them, for a small fee.
I mean, if you want to.
Thanks for reading, thanks for listening!
© 2020 Greg Tamblyn.
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