The River's Badge

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Billy Sherrill, Epic Producer


As a kid just getting into country music, I didn't know what a record producer was. I had a vague notion that he was kind of an "overseer", making sure that everything synched up okay; and that the studio musicians rather went their own way, and the singer went his/her own way; and the producer? Well, he sat in the booth and every once in awhile spoke, "One more take" into the mic. Reading my album liners, I was more interested in who wrote the songs, because I figured if I liked one song by somebody, I might want to check out some others. Therefore, I read, "B. Thimble - S. Sanitary" (they never put the first names of the writers on the liner, so I didn't know who these guys - and they were mostly guys - were. And unless he was a songwriting phenom, it was always co-writes - much like now). So I didn't pay much heed to who the producer was; just like I also didn't understand that a movie director was some big deal.

But I always knew the name Billy Sherrill. First of all, Billy Sherrill was also part of a songwriting team - with Glenn Sutton (he, the ex-husband of Lynn Anderson, who didn't apparently grasp Lynn's appeal to country music purists. See this.)

So when Billy's name started showing up on Tammy Wynette albums, I noticed. For example, there was this (sorry, no live performance video, naturally). This song, by the by, was written by Johnny Paycheck:


Billy was David Houston's producer, too. Everybody has forgotten David Houston - he died young - but he had monster hits in the sixties. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I can't embed a performance of his song that made the charts cringe in 1967, "Almost Persuaded", which was a really maudlin dirge only rescued by the tinkling piano riff that caused drunks across the USA to drop a tear into their beer mugs. However, so as to not forget David Houston, here's a song he did with Barbara Mandrell:


Billy Sherrill's obituaries pounced on his embrace of the "countrypolitan" sound, but I disagree. Countrypolitan, to me, was Chet Atkins adding the Anita Kerr Singers to every recording that might have been country had it not been for the Anita Kerr Singers. As if Bobby Bare was going to take this group out on the road with him. He had, I'm sure, enough trouble just making the payroll for the actual players in the Bare band.

No, Billy Sherrill didn't forgo the steel guitar. Not at all. And he didn't add a bunch of chipmunks behind the vocalist to "smooth out" the sound. He was too smart for that. Yes, he liked the piano, and he was right. Get a load of this:


Billy also produced Tanya Tucker, who I hated because she was thirteen and I was thirteen, but she could actually sing, whereas I couldn't (I love Tanya Tucker, actually.)


And this, I don't think, is any kind of "politan":


I'm not gonna say that Billy "inherited" George Jones, but I will point out that George had a different producer before he hooked up with Tammy. George was, no doubt, grateful for serendipity.


There are, of course, two recordings that will forever cement Billy Sherrill in the annals of country music. The first one he co-wrote with Tammy:


Historians will debate for eons the cultural impact of "Stand By Your Man". It was a song of its time, and that time was 1968 - 47 years ago! Calm down, everyone! Claudette Colbert is no longer hitching up her skirt and thumbing a ride on a country road with Clark Gable, either! Yes, Tammy divorced George. How dare she, when she sang like an angel about how she'd forgive every one of his transgressions?

Here's the deal - it was a song! I was around and listening to country radio when that song hit the airwaves. Know what I like about it? I like the last chorus, where Tammy slides up the scale full throttle and sells it. The secret about good music is, the lyrics don't mean a fig. That's why they call it music. It's melodic. And if you've got a great singer, the lyrics don't matter. Just ask Sinatra and his dooby-dooby-do's.

And that song will last centuries longer than Rose Garden or Achy Breaky Heart or any other song one can name that wriggled its way into becoming an ear worm.

The other song that Billy Sherrill will be remembered for is one that, in a poll of folks who mimic what everybody else says, is the greatest country song of all time. Ahh, contraire! But I'm not here tonight to argue. This recording was done piecemeal, because George was rather - battered - and couldn't make it through a three-minute song if his life depended on it. Heck, he often couldn't even show up for his own concerts. George was down and almost out before Billy Sherrill saved his career with his patience and persistence.

The key to this song, in my opinion, is the key change, which naturally builds tension. Secondly, the twin fiddle glissando that stabs you in the gut. The recitation? I'm thinking that was George just not being able to sing. A good song is sound. That's what a good producer creates.


Billy Sherrill was a good, nay, a great producer. Now I know what producers do - they create. Create glory. It doesn't matter if the words are a fairy tale; it doesn't matter if the singer had to come back to the studio fifty times in order to splice it together just right. It's the sound that comes out of our radio, or our turntable, or our computer that matters. We don't care how much peptic distress the creation caused. We care about what our ears, what our heart, hears.

Good job, Billy Sherrill.

And thanks for the magic.






























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