Billy Sherrill, right, talks with Jimmy Buffett and Willie Nelson before the BMI awards dinner in October 1975 (photo: Jimmy Ellis/The Tennessean).
by Peter Cooper
After a week of drying out, loading out, cursing losses and filing claims, Saturday seemed a fine evening for a party.
So 150 music industry veterans gathered at downtown club Cellar One to remember what once was. Changes come through natural disasters and natural progressions, and the music business shifts mostly on the latter.
Saturday’s party was a reunion for those who worked at Columbia Nashville and sister label Epic Records in the years between 1975 and 1995.
Bobby Bare attended, as did Mary Chapin Carpenter, Crystal Gayle, Joe Diffie, Lacy J. Dalton, Charlie McCoy, Lynn Anderson, Janie Fricke and many more recording artists, executives and foot soldiers. Any industry grudges of days gone by were washed clean in the celebratory moment.
“You make friends in this business, even when things don’t work out right,” said Roy W. Wunsch, who ran CBS Nashville in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wunsch and Mary Ann McCready served as hosts for the reunion. “And for so many of us, this is about getting Billy Sherrill out there with his old friends.
Sherrill, 73, enters the Country Music Hall of Fame later this month. He’s the producer who popularized a sound sometimes called “Countrypolitan,” augmenting the classic voices of George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich and others with elegant piano work from Hargus “Pig” Robbins and with decidedly uptown string sections.
During his time at CBS, he developed relationships with Willie Nelson Johnny Cash, Larry Gatlin and other CBS artists, but for the most part he allowed the Nashville branch something close to autonomy.
Sherrill also wrote or co-wrote a slew of classic songs, including “Almost Persuaded,” “Stand By Your Man” and “I Don’t Wanna Play House.” In the 1970s, he was an artistic figurehead at CBS Nashville, a label that had a more complete Music Row infrastructure than other labels at the time. Promotion, art and recordings were all done in-house.
Walter Yetnikoff, who was the New York-based president of CBS Records from 1975–1990, traveled to Nashville for the party. He oversaw the careers of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and others.
“Billy Sherrill was there, and he was a major talent,” Yetnikoff said. “Beyond belief, really. And the business was different in that era. It was, ‘These guys are making money, let’s leave them alone.’ These days, it’s more about, ‘Do what you did yesterday. Don’t take a risk.’ And the music gets very boring. Then, the artists were encouraged to try new things.”
Trying new things
At CBS, they did try new things in that era. Nelson’s 1975 Red Headed Stranger album was a minimalist treasure that predated the Americana scene by a quarter century. Bare’s 1975 Hard Time Hungrys was a concept album about poverty, and his 1980 Drunk & Crazy came 18 years before hip-hopper Lil Jon popularized the “crunk” (the combination of crazy and drunk) lifestyle.
Lacy J. Dalton’s “16th Avenue” became a poignant calling card for Music Row. Columbia artists Carpenter, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell brought sophisticated, Dylan-inspired lyrics to country radio. And in 1981, Ricky Skaggs’ Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine kick-started Nashville’s neo-traditionalist movement.
“Rick Blackburn was the label head, and he signed me,” Skaggs said. “He was willing to let me do something nobody else was doing on a major label, and I think he saw youth and freshness but also something that was based in tradition. And we wound up with something newsworthy.”
The Quonset Hut
Part of the appeal of CBS was the famed Quonset Hut, the unlikely-looking, Owen Bradley-built studio that CBS purchased in the early 1960s. Yetnikoff, then a young lawyer working for industry kingpin Clive Davis, helped negotiate the deal to buy the studio.
“Clive said, ‘The people in Nashville want to buy a studio. It’s a Quonset hut. Go down there and take a look. See if this looks like a real recording studio.’
“I’m a lawyer. What do I know from recording studios? I got there, saw a Quonset hut with recording equipment. I said, ‘They tell me this is great stuff. Acoustics are really good. I think we ought to go ahead with it. But, Clive, I gotta tell you . . . it really is a Quonset hut.’”
It really was. And it worked out just fine. Saturday night was a reminder of that. Down by what had just days before been the roaring Cumberland, they toasted that Quonset hut, and old times, and the songs they brought to enduring life.