Don Schlitz performing at a reception following his Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session @NYU
Don Schlitz was the latest songwriter to be feted by New York University songwriter-in-residence Phil Galdston at his Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions @NYU conversation series, held Thursday evening at the Frederick Loewe Theatre in Greenwich Village, with the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee regaling attendees with stories of his big country hit compositions and offering tips to aspiring songwriters in the audience.
The Durham, N.C. native, whose credits include Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler," Randy Travis's "Forever and Ever, Amen" and Keith Whitley's "When You Say Nothing at All"—all among his 24 No. 1 country singles—"doesn't just write hit songs," noted Galdston: "He writes careers."
Self-accompanied by acoustic guitar, Schlitz sang "The Gambler," actually sounding a bit like Rogers. He then related the story of how he was befriended, after arriving in Nashville in the early 1970s, by country songwriting legend Bob McDill, who'd just penned "Amanda," soon to become a classic for both Don Williams and Waylon Jennings. He credited McDill with telling him that if he went back to Durham out of frustration, "you'll never know if you could have made it."
So Schlitz stayed in Nashville with the 10 songs he'd brought with him that he felt proud of.
"Bob said, 'You have to write 40 more in a year that get on the radio—that won't affect those 10 that mean something to you.'"
An excellent typist, Schlitz proceeded to pound out a tune that was "too long ,with no love interest, and too linear melodically—and I didn't know how to end it. Then I remembered something I learned in school--to let the reader participate! And I wrote an ending that didn't really finish the story, and it became 'The Gambler.'"
Galdston saw it as an excellent example of "what it takes to go from inspiration to exploitation," as "The Gambler" not only became a signature song for Rogers, but also inspired a series of TV movies. Schlitz noted that Johnny Cash also cut the song prior to Rogers, but that Rogers' was released first—luckily as the titletrack/first single of his 1978 album.
After Galdston quoted his musician-producer-songwriter pal Jimmy Bralower's contenton that while songwriting always entails self-expression, it's not always an expression of self, Schlitz noted that for him, "every song is about me."
"I wrote every song for me to play at the Bluebird," he said, thanking Rogers for enabling him, via his superhit cover, "to work on whatever I wanted to for the rest of my life."
"They could be good or bad, but I always wanted to work on songs I wanted to hear," he said, "Because if you don't want to hear it, and it becomes a hit, you're stuck with it!"
Luckily, he added, "most of mine are songs I wanted to hear."
Another key song in his catalog, and one of many co-written with Paul Overstreet, was "On the Other Hand," the 1986 country chart-topper for Randy Travis.
"We thought it would be a Merle Haggard or George Jones cut and got real excited—and they said no," recalled Schlitz. "Then producer Kyle Lehning said he had a new act named Randy Traywick, and thought it would be a good song for him, and I said, 'Fine.' Paul hit the ceiling because he didn't know who Randy Traywick was."
After Traywick's name was changed to Travis, and Travis took the song all the way, Overstreet returned from the ceiling.
"It's not a big jump at all from writing a long song like 'Gambler' to 'On the Other Hand'—just a walk around a circle," Schlitz noted. But he acknowledged the input of Overstreet, who he said provided a complementary counterbalance in that they are very different people.
Moving on to "When You Say Nothing at All"—also written with Overstreet, Keith Whitley's 1988 No. 1 hit and a No. 2 hit in 1995 for Alison Krauss—Schlitz said that the most important thing about writing a country song is "making the second verse better than the first--and if you write a really great first verse, make it your second!" "Rockin' with the Rhythm of the Rain," the Judds' No. 1 hit in 1986 (co-written with Brent Maher), was lauded by Galdston for its "fascinating structure," and further distinguished by Schlitz for bearing his regional accent ("It's alright to write to your accent!").
Galdston pointed out that "He Thinks He'll Keep Her," which Schlitz wrote with Mary Chapin Carpenter (it reached No. 2 for Carpenter in 1994) became a feminist anthem—much to Schlitz's pride. They also co-wrote her 1992 No. 4 hit "I Feel Lucky."
"It's her 'Gambler,'" he said. "She has to sing it every night—but I don't. The best thing that happened is that I didn’t have the hit with 'Gambler' and have to be in a Holiday Inn singing the same eight songs!"
Asked about being a country songwriter, Schlitz said that he'd been rejected often when he started out--with the corresponding comment "I like that song, but you should shop it in Nashville" being not uncommon.
"Then I realized that being put in the 'Nashville songwriters' category was a great compliment," he said.
And how might he define "country songwriting" for Martian visitors?
"It depends on the timeframe," he said. "In the '40s it would mean one one thing, and in the '50s, '60s and '70s on up to now, another. But hopefully, country songwriting tells a story—simple but complicated, truth but lies! And you need to know the history of country music, from Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams."
"If the Beatles were today, they'd be country," Schlitz added, pointing out how he "grew up with R&B, and can't tell the difference between [legendary Motown songwriting team] Holland-Dozier-Holland and [country great] Bill Anderson sometimes."
He further noted that he grew up in the 1960s hearing Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles on the same radio stations.
"I was steeped in radio stations that played everything, and on Saturday afternoons there was country TV: Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers' shows, Ralph Emery on Pop! Goes the Country. And being in Durham, I saw the Lovin' Spoonful and the Turtles and Linda Ronstadt at Duke University. But today country songwriters can grow up and listen to anything and everything, so that now it's hard to hear country music without hearing rap or some sort of collaboration."
"We are inclusive at our best," Schlitz concluded. "But you cannot write country music looking down your nose at it."
Galdston closed by mentioning—and playing—"About the Money," a song on Schlitz's own 2010 album Allergic to Crazy, which he wrote with his wife Stacey Schlitz. A line in the chorus was cited as being particularly instructive for all songwriters, whatever the genre: "When they say it's not about the money, it's about the money."