My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Moving backstage

Former Wrecker Jessica Harp surprised many by her recent announcement that she was leaving her record label and abandoning hopes of a solo career in favour of becoming a full time songwriter. While retaining rather more dignity than Jason Michael Carroll’s unforgettable but rather sad “Arista and I are going our seperate [sic] ways! They called and said they would be moving forward without me!” this may be a case of jumping before she was pushed, as Jessica’s solo singles had failed to set the charts alight, although her now ex-label has chosen to release her album digitally as a parting gift for her fans.

Time will tell whether she will be successful in her new course. She would hardly be the first Nashville songwriter to start out wanting to be an artist in her own right, or indeed the first to enjoy a short chart career.

Dean Dillon’s distinctive turn of phrase has made him one of the most sought-after writers in the past 20 years. With a voice as quirky and distinctive as his writing, he started out as a singer. A string of singles on RCA were minor hits in the late 70s and early 80s, including the first versions of his own songs ‘Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’ and ‘Famous Last Words Of A Fool’. The former was a top 30 hit, the latter failed to make the top 50, but neither had the chart impact they deserved – or that they had when George Strait covered them. The label also teamed Dean up with honky tonker Gary Stewart as a duo, releasing one full length album and a six track EP. Those early RCA recordings (both solo and duet) are virtually all now available on one CD. A successful run as a songwriter followed, but he had not given up his dreams of solo stardom, and in 1988 he signed to Capitol. Two albums for that label, and two more for Atlantic, failed to quite take off. The critical moment arrived when he planned to release ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ as a single – and found Strait wanted to record the song. He relinquished the song, and settled down to life as a writer for others.

I’ve never really understood why Larry Boone’s solo career never took off. He was signed to Mercury in the late 80s, and later Columbia; he was good looking, had a great voice, and was an excellent songwriter. But only a few of his singles charted, the most successful being his #10 ‘Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger’ which was our Classic Rewind a week ago. Luckily, he had that songwriting talent to fall back on.

Skip Ewing was another recording artist to enjoy a handful of hit singles in the late 80s, then turn to writing them for others when his own chart career wound down. He had much more success in the latter capacity, writing multiple #1s. He made a return to the airwaves in his own right as Reba’s duet partner on the radio version of ‘Every Other Weekend’.

Keith Stegall started as an artist on Epic in the mid 80s, his biggest hit, the now-forgotten ‘Pretty Lady’, reaching #10 in 1985. He was an unremarkable vocalist but earned an ACM Best New Male Vocalist nomination the same year, but his website declares that after that:

Stegall felt disillusioned with his own career. A lifetime on the road had taken its toll, and he wanted out. He wished to concentrate exclusively on his first love: songwriting.

He also moved into record producing, and is now best known for his work with this month’s Spotlight Artist Alan Jackson. He has also spent time even further behind the scenes as a label executive. He did however have one final fling in front of the microphone when he released the excellent Passages in 1996.

Commercially successful pop-country songwriter and producer Brett James had an album on Arista in the 90s. Harley Allen, who has written many fine songs, often bluegrass tinged, and has several cuts by our current and most recent Spotlight Artists Alan Jackson and Gary Allan to his name, had an album on Mercury in the 90s. The prolific Jeffrey Steele started out as lead singer of the group Boy Howdy, and frequent Brooks & Dunn co-writer Terry McBride formerly led McBride and the Ride.

Kevin Denney, who was on Lyric Street early last decade when that label still had actually country singers on its books, appears occasionally on song credits, as do John Wayne Wiggins, who recorded on Mercury with his sister as John and Audrey Wiggins in the 90s, and the one-time chart-topper Rhett Akins. Bobbie Cryner released two excellent albums on Epic and MCA respectively in the mid 90s, but despite her beautiful voice and great material, her career never took off. She subsequently wrote a number of songs for other artists.

There are many more examples, including George Jones’ 60s duet partner Melba Montgomery. ‘Whispering Bill’ Anderson, always a better songwriter than a singer, has continued many years after his own last hit to write songs for younger artists, often working with younger writers and passing the torch onwards. For instance he wrote the award winning ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss with another former singer, Jon Randall, and George Strait’s hit ‘Give It Away’ with Jamey Johnson – a man who reclaimed his career with the magisterial That Lonesome Song. But after he lost his previous deal he certainly looked as though he would join the ranks of writers-who-used-to-sing.

In some of these cases, songwriting was a fallback option when stardom failed to materialize, or at least to be sustained. But at least they have been able to continue making a living in music, and their songs have had a wider audience than their own recordings enjoyed. And however great a singer is, the song is what matters in the end.

Who is your favorite singer-turned-songwriter? Do you wish he or she had stayed recording? And which of today’s singer-songwriters do you think could make a go of it writing for others?

7 responses to “Moving backstage

  1. Razor X March 17, 2010 at 8:05 am

    I always thought Matraca Berg was a very good singer and was surprised that her singing career never really got off the ground.

  2. Paul W Dennis March 17, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Dillon relinquishing “Easy Come, Easy Go” to Strait was probably the smartest move he ever made – after all George has recorded over 50 of his songs with more recorded each time George releases a new album

    My favorite songwriter turned singer turned songwriter again is Tom T Hall , who wrote many hits for others, then had a sustained career as a hitmaker, and now provides material for bluegrass acts

    By the way, “Whispering Bill” Anderson may not have been a great singer but he was very effective at selling his songs as a singer – he had a very substantial stay at or near the top of the charts that ran over 15 years

  3. Michael March 17, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Good call on Cryner and Stegall’s albums. Girl of Your Dreams and Passages were two criminally ignored albums in the 90s.

  4. Leeann Ward March 17, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I think Darrell Scott, Gretchen Peters, Radney Foster and Leslie Satcher are very good singers.

  5. Bob March 17, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Recently, I’ve been into the music of Gary Burr who, according to his website, was briefly a solo artist before taking over for Vince Gill as lead singer for Pure Prairie League when Vince left. I’ve seen Gary twice recently at the Bluebird Cafe and was so impressed with his singing ability, in addition to his songwriting, that I bought his 2 cds from their on-line store. The cd “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One …” (1997) includes 18 songs he co-wrote and has hits such as Ty Herndon’s “What Mattered Most”, Hal Ketchum’s “Sure Love”, “I Try to Think About Elvis” by Patty Loveless, Wynonna’s “To Be Loved By You”, etc. The other cd, “Marianne’s” (2004) has 11 songs which I’ve enjoyed listening to although they’re not as well known. Favorite so far is “I Will Not Be a Mistake”.

    His website lists about 40 of his songs and it doesn’t include some really great songs, probably because they weren’t hits. Terri Clark’s new cd has 2 songs she co-wrote with Burr, “The One You Love” and “You Tell Me”, a duet with Johnnie Reed. Hal Ketchum’s “In Front of the Alamo” was solely written by Gary. Another favorite of mine is Lisa Brokop’s “West of Crazy”. I think Lisa could make it as a songwriter if she gives up her singing. Hope she doesn’t because I love her music. She has co-written about 80 percent of the songs on her last 5 cds.

  6. highwayman3 March 17, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    I’ll say Sherrie Austin, I like her voice and thought she could have caught on as her sound was very commerical appealing for the time it was released. Now she’s writing and has ‘Where’ve I Been all my Life’ on George Straits latest.
    Cyndi Thomson was also another artist who left to write, and I think if she decided to stay in the spotlight would still be successful today. I dont know if she’s written anything for anyone since walking away. I know she decided to come back to the spotlight, and was signed back to her label but nothing came from it

  7. Nicolas March 24, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    To answer the quesiton: it would be Jessica Harp =)

    I’m really sad that she retired from her recording career, because her debut album is one of the best albums I’ve ever bought

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