From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music


As the former president of both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, even I have always been intrigued by what inspired or motivated these songwriters to create such wonderful, memorable songs.

Managing country stars like Kenny Rogers, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, Diamond Rio and Collin Raye certainly gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process, but with the exception of Travis and my friend, singer/songwriter Skip Ewing, most of my artists’ songs were written by others and it has never ceased to amaze me how varied and interesting are the stories behind their many hits.

Travis Tritt once said, “Country music is the soundtrack for our lives” and I’ve seen that over and over again. All of us have experienced things in our lives that reflect the lyrics of so many of these songs. I think that’s why we are so fascinated by what it was that moved the writer to put those words into a song.

I remember many years ago a young songwriter who was living in my guest room wrote a #1 song about a difficult situation I was experiencing in my personal life. (I thought perhaps he should have paid me royalties on that.)

Another thing I love about this book is it brings to the forefront so many great writers who rarely get the recognition they so richly deserve. It’s eye-opening to see how many songs we attribute solely to the artist who performed them rather than the writer who created them. Most people think Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings wrote “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” when it actually was Patsy and Ed Bruce. And Collin Raye is so identified with “Love Me” that it’s easy to think he wrote it when, in fact, it was the work of Skip Ewing and Max T. Barnes.

Of course, the writers have other compensation. I once returned from Europe with my client, the late John Hartford, and in his mailbox we found a package with dozens of royalty checks for his Glen Campbell hit, “Gentle On My Mind.” They totaled nearly $100,000 and John and I sat on his living room floor and tossed the checks up in the air as we laughed and celebrated this unexpected windfall.

A few years back I produced an award-winning television special called A Day In The Life Of Country Music where we sent 24 different film crews out to follow country stars for 24 hours. What struck me when I looked at the footage from that show is how much of a star’s day is spent just like the rest of us, being a real person, living a real life, rather than the glamour and glitter we all associate with stardom. I guess that’s why they sing songs that remind us all of what we’re going through in our own lives.

Speaking of producing, I’ll never forget the moment, sitting on the set of Kenny Rogers’ first Gambler movie, when his co-star, Bruce Boxleitner turned to me and said, “The next film you guys should do is Kenny’s current hit, ‘Coward of the County.’” I called CBS that very day and made a deal to make that song into a television movie. At first Kenny resisted doing the project, but eventually he went ahead and delivered what I still consider his best ever acting performance.

The story in the song “Coward of The County” was so strong that the picture basically wrote itself. Still, I always wondered what had inspired the songwriters to create it and how they came to call the villains in the piece the Gatlins. I was particularly curious because Kenny toured often with Larry Gatlin and his brothers and kiddingly referred to them when he sang the song. In these pages you’ll learn the true story of how Billy Edd Wheeler and Roger Bowling decided to use that name in the song.

Another song in this collection that I was closely associated with is Hugh Prestwood’s brilliant “The Song Remembers When,” which my then-client Trisha Yearwood recorded. Reading Hugh’s description of how he came to write that song reminds me of what wonderful poets so many of our best songwriters are. He mentions loving Robert Frost, Edwin A. Robinson and Emily Dickinson and taking direct inspiration from a poem by Anne Sexton. He also talks about how he drew directly on things he was experiencing at the time. As he talks about driving through the clouds in Denver and hearing one of his own songs on the car radio, the images of the beautiful video Trisha did for the song comes to mind.

The story Jon Vezner tells about what brought him to write “Where’ve You Been?” — a song that became such a huge hit for Kathy Mattea — will literally make you cry. His publisher did exactly that when he played it for her. Music means so much to us. We don’t just listen to it; we work out to it, make love to it, sing along with it, and relate to it in so many ways. Jon’s journey with this song also is illustrative of the serendipitous nature of getting a song recorded.

Reading Alex Harvey’s explanation of how he adapted co-writer Barry Etris’ “Reuben James” is also quite a revelation. He drew on his and his father’s experiences and adapted them to the song. I was managing Kenny Rogers when Alex’s persistence finally paid off and Kenny sat down and listened to Alex and his music. It shows you writing a song is only part of the game. You’ve got to really believe in yourself and your material and keep plugging away to make something happen.

Also, don’t miss reading Alex Harvey’s story of how he came to write “Delta Dawn” with Larry Collins. Artists are often motivated by tragedies or hard times, but this one will take your breath away. No wonder so many artists recorded that song. It truly came from Alex’s heart and as he said, “it literally wrote itself.” I’ve heard the same thing many times from writers but this one makes a total believer out of me.

Collin Raye had a #1 hit with the Karen Taylor-Good and Joie Scott song “Not That Different” several years before I began managing him. Still, I got to hear the song over and over as Collin performed it at show after show and audiences sang along to these moving lyrics. That’s one more reason I love reading the story of how these two ladies collaborated on the song while living far apart in two different cities and how Joie eventually moved to Nashville on a dare.

And I guess it is a songwriter’s dream to have a hit the size of Curly Putman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home.” There have been something like 700 different recordings of that song worldwide and he’s still writing away for (Sony) Tree Publishing 45 years later. But these are just a few of the 101 stories in this book.

I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to assemble a book like this. My cowboy hat’s off to Randy Rudder, Mark Victor Hansen and Jack Canfield for the incredible work that went into gathering and editing the treasure trove of delightful and revealing stories that make this book such a terrific read.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be amazed and entertained. The next time someone says, “I wonder why they wrote that?” you’ll know right where to go to get the answer. And if, by chance, you’re one of those people who love to write music and lyrics, you’ll get all the motivation you could ever ask for in the pages of this book. Enjoy it.

~Ken Kragen

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