Near missing with George Jones

With the passing of the legend, George Jones, I have to revisit the could-a-been of a song.

I had moved to Nashville after producing a string of Lps there for a North Carolina label called Collegetown Records. It was the early 80s and after the demise of Collegetown, I picked up from the middle of the tarheel state and went to where the world as I hoped to know it was waiting. I bought and renovated a house in Berry Hill from a hugely successful songwriter named Ben Peters (Kiss An Angel Good Morning, Daytime Friends and Nighttime Lovers, among many others) and began trying to insinuate myself into the grist mill of Music City, the songwriting capitol of the world.

It is an iconic place.  From Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline to Dylan's counter culture Nashville Skyline to the current cookie-cutter sound alikes of every new male or female artist on the 10-song rotation of contemporary radio, BNA has been a mecca of inspiration for millions of musicians and writers, and it's the center of one of the richest music scenes in the world.  The talent there will humble the most intrepid of self-believers.  The writers are an amazing collection of stories, Even Stevens sleeping on the side of the road in a VW bug writing and pitching during the day until Eddie Rabbitt began recording his material. He moved out of the VW pretty quickly after that.  There are many, many others.

So, I began writing what I thought was country.  Actually, anything can be country, but at the time I began exploring it from a jazz and blues side of things, because in reality I wasn't legit. I had grown up hearing the strains of Dolly and Porter and Conway and Johnny and Tammy and Doc, all firmly in the pantheon of a first-name only world of celebrity, but I was a Clapton/Alman Brothers/Beatles devotee with a knack for a commercial hook. I had not been on the road with anyone in the genre. It had been funk or blues or rock 'n roll. Now, it had to be country.

The first song was, what else, but a cheatin' and drinkin' piece called Drink Her Right Out Of My Mind. It's a poignant number about a man who finds out about the inevitable and copes through the elixir of pain abatement by way of a bottle. I played it for a friend when I had just finished it and she cried.  I thought maybe I had something.

But the bridge goes from a basic E triad to an A Major 7 and begins to depart a little from a straight ahead country progression to a more jazz influenced one.  So, it was really no surprise when a guy I knew who was working with Ronnie Milsap told me it would not fly in country music.  He thought I should rewrite it.

I would almost rather write a new song than continue to edit one I think is complete and thought, well, maybe someday someone might record it.  So, I took it to CBS records. I didn't know their roster, and I couldn't say, "I have the perfect song for so and so."  I just wanted someone else to give it a listen since it was obviously not the perfect song for Ronnie Milsap.

Nashville is remarkable because if you have a modicum of credibility you can get in to see just about anyone, once.  I was able to get to CBS.  I only wanted to present one song, that song, and the girl screening material told me to come by and she would give it a few minutes.  You really cannot ask more than that.

But you have to be realistic.  There are thousands of writers pitching thousands of songs everyday.  Still, I was at CBS and the cassette demo, guitar and voice only, was under consideration.  After she listened to it she looked at me with a bit of surprise and said, "This is a good song.  I like the way it moves from straight ahead country to these more progessive sounding chords.  And you know, George Jones is in the studio this week with Billy Sherrill. I'm going to send it over for them to listen to.  I think the album is almost finished, but they might like to hear this."

I left the CBS building on Music Row thinking I had just pitched my first attempt at country to a major label and they were going to put it before the most iconic singer in the industry, George friggin' Jones! Beyond that I figured the song didn't have much of a chance.

It was the next day that I got a call from Margie at CBS.  Her words were an amazement. "Winslow, I played your song for George and Billy and they want to record it.  They think it's going to be George's next single."  Stunned comes to mind.  I had hit the mother lode.  George Jones was going to release Drink Her Right Out Of My Mind as the next single in one of the most storied careers in all of popular music.

I didn't go buy a new car.  I didn't even say anything to anyone. I just basked in a new reality of the life I had always wanted - to be in music writing, producing, playing, anything.  And now in Nashville, years of effort were about to pay off.  But I had to wait.

Good thing, I guess.  Life can pitch you a few curves and the following week the home run I had hit was snagged at the fence. It happen in realtime.  I was watching the news on Channel 5. The lead story showed a picture of a white cadillac on the side of Interstate 65 South at the Brentwood exit.  "Legendary country star, George Jones, is in trouble again.  We'll have the full story coming up on News Channel 5 live at Six..." That didn't sound promising.

George had been pulled over by a state trooper for erratic driving and a Channel 5 news truck just happened upon the scene. They rolled film and George gave them everything they needed for the exclusive.  It was not a pretty sight.  We knew the stories.  George through the tumultuous years with Tammy. She took his keys once so he couldn't drive to a bar. He took the riding lawnmower.  "No Show Jones" whose concert cancelations on almost any night were a promoter's nightmare.  The pecadillos.  The hard living.  Now, he was caught on camera beligerent then sobbing then...  Then came the call.

"Winslow, we've decided to take George in a different direction. We're not going to record any more cheatin' and drinkin' songs..."  I didn't have to hear more.  It was a done deal.

Pinnacle to the pit.  First to worst.  Penthouse to flophouse.  All in fewer than seven days.

I've told this story a few times to some friends here and there. Drink Her Right Out Of My Mind is still in my catalog, though I have to admit I've let it lie dormant as country has gone to pickup truck parties out in fields and guys singing about redneck girls and longneck bottles.  Girls dragging keys down guys' cars in jealous revenge and tequila making her clothes fall off.  I guess cheatin' and drinkin' is as much in vogue now as ever.

However, George is gone.  That mournful baritone is now silent. Would that part of his legacy was a song that would have been perfect for him.  But it's part of whatever legacy I happen to leave. Modest, I understand, but I can still hear the what could have been voice on the phone, "...it's going to be his next single."

Maybe that's enough.

 

 

Gifts for readers | CharlotteObserver.com
Winslow Stillman (winslowstillman.com, $12.95). Finding himself in Colombia with some time to kill, this Triangle jazzman fell in with the local jazz players. The result is this lovely collection of tropical-flavored jazz-pop, bright ...
And then Sopó

When the music fades, you turn and look out the bank of windows behind the stage at Islamorada and this is what you see. Any questions?  The staggering beauty of the Colombian landscape melts the apprehension of the set you just played in the realization that nature's handiwork trumps the designs of man every time.

The drive to this popular club 20 miles north of Bogotá can be a bit tortuous, especially on Sunday mornings.  That's the day of family outtings and La Ciclovia, a remarkable city-wide event where lanes of major thoroughfares are closed to vehicular traffic so people can get out and walk or ride bikes for miles undisturbed. The main artery leading north from El Centro downtown is called Septima, or 7th Ave.  Up past Rosales, the community of upscale office buildings where most embassies are located and nestled into the side of the ridge of Andes to the east, is the right turn to La Calera.  La Calera is a town on the way to Sopó, our destination for last week's mid-afternoon gig.

Tortuous is putting it mildly.  The road over to La Calera is two-lanes and often rutted by cracked pavement.  During La Ciclovia, it's also a biker's world with the stalwart and intrepid cycling up with an almost craven disregard for cars heading in the same direction.  Many times you slow to a crawl as the two-wheelers bobble and swerve back and forth climbing to the toll station near a crest.  The rest of the way to Sopó winds and twists through some of the most beautiful landscape on the planet.

So, with a sound check scheduled for 10:00AM, our 9:30 departure initially seemed workable, well, until it ran into the reality of three players having worked the night before.  In Colombia, things go late, 3:30 AM... so when at 10:00 our bleary eyed group hit the highway and La Ciclovia, we had to adjust all expectations.  Our objective was to run our set, learn a new stage setup and sound system, and be ready to go at 2:30.  Alas, the best laid plans of musicians and clubs. No sound engneer, an in-ear monitoring system suddenly supplemented by a couple of brand new floor monitors, and a very "live" room.  When the engineer did arrive, we were an hour behind schedule, and in-ear monitors require hours of setup.  We had to go with the speakers on the floor.

For anyone who plays live, sound is essential.  Players need to hear their instruments in the context of the stage mix, and singers need to hear themselves, period.  Long story short, it was a bit dicey.  But we soldiered on, rehearsed the set for an hour and a half, I blew out my voice, and when we were two thirds of the way through the performance the 8000' altitude took its toll. Pitch became optional, and what started out with a great groove began to muddle into a less than sparkling rendition of a combination of CD cuts and some pretty cool arrangements of a few jazz standards.  The crowd was enthusiastic, but a sudden low frequency hum in the sound system began to drag on things.  It was tough.  But we rallied on an encore of Miles Davis' "All Blues" and finished on a reasonably high note.

Still, when you do this, you demand a lot of yourself, and when you can't deliver no matter how hard you try, you feel like you've let everyone down.  Sure, you're always harder on yourself than the situation deserves, but in your heart you know...  That's when you turn and look out the bank of windows at that stunning view.