54: Maybe It Was Memphis

54: Maybe It Was Memphis

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Maybe It Was Memphis

Story by Michael Anderson

Song written by Michael Anderson

Recorded by Pam Tillis

I grew up in Michigan and moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and played in a lot of rock and roll bands. Then, in 1983, I signed a publishing deal with a company, Criterion Publishing, which had an office in Nashville. There was a secretary who worked there, and we got to be friends. While I was there one time, she went out of town for a few days, and she let me stay at her apartment and drive her car while she was gone. She also introduced me to her aunt and her cousin. After having lived in Michigan and L.A., I realized that these women were different from anyone I’d ever met. They were very genteel and gracious.

I would go and visit her cousin, and she and I would sit and talk on the front porch for hours at a time. It was late summer — very hot days and warm, humid nights. The katydids — cicadas — were also out that year and they would make the loudest noises while we were sitting on the front porch having sweet tea and her mother’s key lime pie. All of that detail in the song — the porch swing, the katydids, the willow tree — was true to life, and I used it in the song.

I finished the first verse and originally thought of the title, “Maybe It Was Nashville.” But I knew that was never going to work. First of all, back then there was an unwritten songwriter rule that you didn’t write songs about Nashville. Second of all, it just didn’t sound right, so I came up with “Maybe It Was Memphis.” Sounded much more atmospheric and romantic. I had never been to Memphis at that time, but I liked the feel.

I wrote the first verse, last verse, and the chorus, but had a hard time coming up with a second verse. When we were going to make a demo of it I needed to put something down, thinking I could always go back and change the vocal later if I needed to. I had written the song in Nashville, so I wanted to demo it in Nashville, even though it would cost the publisher more, because they would have to pay for Nashville players instead of using the ones we had in L.A. I talked them into doing it in Nashville. And the first thing that came to mind when I tried to finish the second verse was “I read about you in a Faulkner novel, met you once in a Williams play.” The interesting thing was, I don’t think I had read any Faulkner, and was only familiar with a couple of Tennessee Williams plays, but it just sounded so right and so southern. Since then, I’ve become more familiar with both of them, but at the time, I wasn’t thinking of any specific character in any of the novels or plays. The key phrase for me was “country love song.” I didn’t think anyone would know what I was talking about with “Faulkner novel” and “Williams play.”

When I got back to L.A., the song was pitched for several years, but everyone passed on it. Then Pam Tillis heard it and she put it on her album, Put Yourself in My Place, in 1991. Later, I found out that she had actually recorded the song while she was still on Warner Bros. It was released as a single on that label but nothing ever came of it. Then she signed with Arista and she re-cut it, with Paul Worley producing it. It was the fourth single off her album, and made it to #2 and stayed there for a long time right behind a Garth Brooks hit at the time.

I’ve heard a couple of different stories about how Pam first heard the song. The folks at Criterion said she just heard it in a pitch session. But there was another secretary at Criterion — a different one from the one who lent me her car and all — who saw me once in a restaurant in Nashville. She was eating there with her boyfriend (an original member of the Eagles). She said that while she was working at Criterion she fell in love with the song and made a cassette for herself that she gave to Pam Tillis with the song on it when Pam was at the publishing office one day. I asked Pam once and I didn’t get the feeling she knew exactly either. A publisher and good friend of mine, Michael Puryear, says he pitched the song to Paul Worley directly around that time also. Sometimes you never really know in Nashville. I’m just happy she decided to cut it.

After it became a hit, life changed for me. I was at the Bound’ry Restaurant in Nashville one day and was introduced to Tanya Tucker. She dramatically got down on her knees and started begging me, “Please write me song like ‘Maybe It Was Memphis.’ Please!” She said she had passed on it earlier and was acting like she was crying. It was pretty funny.

I had another interesting encounter while the song was still on the charts. I was at Sunset Grill in Nashville. It was early afternoon and there was hardly anyone there. I walked through the bar area on my way to the restroom and there, all by himself in the bar, drinking a whiskey and smoking a cigarette, was Harlan Howard. I really wanted to meet him, but I also try to respect people’s privacy and don’t usually interrupt them at restaurants. Since there was no one else there, I thought, what the heck, so I went over and said, “Mr. Howard, my name is Michael Anderson and I just wanted to say hello.”

He cocked his head to one side and said, “Maybe It Was Memphis?” and I said “Yes.”

He started telling me where the song was on the charts and how many weeks it had been there and how many albums had been sold. He knew more about my song than I did. Then he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Do you know why that song was such a big hit?” Of course, I wanted to say it was because I’m such a great songwriter, but I said, “No, why?”

He said, “It’s the only song in country music where a nice girl gets laid and you still like her at the end of the song.” I had never thought about it that way. Then he said, “Every great songwriter has a least one song written in a waltz beat, too.” He said, “Now you’ve had yours, so don’t ever do that again.”

I moved to Nashville from about 1992 to 1997 and then moved back to L.A., but I still spend a lot of time in the South. Every time I go to Memphis or Atlanta or Nashville, or any city like that, and I meet people and they find out I wrote that song, they nearly always say the same thing. They say they are very appreciative that I wrote that because it’s one of those songs (because of the second verse) that make southerners and the South sound romantic, literate and sophisticated, instead of just a bunch of hicks, like so many songs do.

Maybe It Was Memphis

Lookin’ at you through a misty moonlight

Katydids sing like a symphony

Porch swing swayin’ like a Tennessee lullaby

Melody blowing through the willow tree

What was I supposed to do

Standin’ there lookin’ at you

A lonely boy far from home?

CHORUS:

Maybe it was Memphis

Maybe it was southern summer nights

Maybe it was you, maybe it was me

But it sure felt right

Read about you in a Faulkner novel

Met you once in a Williams play

Heard about you in a country love song

Summer nights beauty took my breath away

What was I supposed to do

Standin’ there lookin’ at you

A lonely boy far from home?

CHORUS

Every night now once I’ve been back home

I lie awake at night drifting in my memory

I think about you on your momma’s front porch swing

Talking that way so soft to me

What was I supposed to do

Standin’ there lookin’ at you

A lonely boy far from home?

CHORUS

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