Lurking Behind The Stars

Last May I took a nine-day motor-bus tour of the mid-western U.S., featuring the scenic Ozarks, as well as stops in St. Louis and Branson, Missouri. Our group of travelers consisted mostly of retired East Coast dwellers like myself, for which the area produced a modest amount of culture shock. We were eager to embrace the many planned activities that featured country music. Some of us were less prepared for certain side attractions, such as overt demonstrations of Bible Belt religion. One of our local guides, appointed to show us a few sites including the church-oriented College of the Ozarks, took special pride in pointing out huge crosses and other Christian displays that had been erected on public land. She seemed to dare the Feds to come in and try to take them down. At one point on the highway we were accosted by an enormous pro-Trump billboard (“Thank you for making America great again, Mr. President!”) that would have suffered effacement, if not a total take-down, had someone tried to erect it near where I live (and I would gladly have assisted in such desecration). Religious music, however, seemed easier to to digest. We heard numerous soaring versions of “Amazing Grace,” and a few renditions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a lovely hymn which seems to embrace a host of traditions.

The Ozarks have a way of producing huge families that are often musically talented. We were treated to the Hughes Brothers Six, described in the brochure as “six real brothers (out of ten in the family) … an orchestra of human voices … who sound like a band using only their mouths.” In contrast to these a cappella heroics, the Haygoods, described as “five spirited brothers and one vivacious sister,” use 20 different instruments, as well as dancing and spectacular aerial entrances. We also took in the combined Dublin Irish Tenors and Celtic Ladies, who start their show with their native Irish music and branch out into just about everything else imaginable, including opera.

We enjoyed seeing two elderly and rather decrepit legends, Johnny Lee (“looking for love in all the wrong places”) and Mickey Gilley (don’t the girls all get prettier at closing time”), who could barely drag themselves onto the stage, and could no longer manage their instruments, owing to the various accidents and illnesses that have befallen them. But they can still sing; in fact, Gilley sounds uncannily like his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. With more than enough instrumentalists to back them up, this pair will undoubtedly continue to soak up acclaim in Branson, as long as they can manage to sit upright in front of their microphones.

Afterward, my closest friends on the trip discussed which musical performances we liked best. I was the only one who put in a good word for “Billy Yates’s Hit Songwriters in the Round.” Yates is best known for collaborating with a much bigger star, George Jones, on songs like “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” He is also a regular performer at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. My friends tended to dismiss his show as disorganized and lacking in star power.

But to me, that was the point. The “stars” of that show, which change every day, were not big-time celebrities. The advertisement reads: “See and hear Nashville’s top songwriters perform their hits and tell the stories that inspired them.” Telling the stories is key. These guys have written numerous hits for other people, but real fame has eluded them. While they do perform live on occasion, that is not the essence of who they are. They don’t make flamboyant entrances, and don’t deck themselves out in spangles and feathers. Like all writers, they built their careers on persistence. In order to get their songs heard, they often had to fling themselves at famous singers or sneak into recording studios, where the stars might or might not be receptive. One of the composers described his chagrin when a famous singer heard his song twice, and twice pronounced it “nothing special.” Yet the second time worked the charm. The singer happened to be in need of a song, any song, so the “nothing special” effort got recorded, and turned out to be worth it.

I think I liked this show best because it’s unscripted and unpredictable, and therefore takes the most courage to put on every day. Or maybe I just sympathize with fellow writers. For example, “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a widely recognized song, having been a major hit on both the country and top 100 charts back in the mid-1970s. Likewise, most people can easily identify Glen Campbell, who popularized it. But who has heard of Larry Weiss, who actually wrote it? His own recording of his own song wasn’t a hit. Most music fans would have to google the names of the non-star songwriters in order to learn any intimate details about their lives, since they’ve never been sprayed across the gossip columns.

My point, I guess, is that life isn’t always fair to writers. Since we’re introverts, we’re okay with that most of the time. But thanks to shows like “Hit Songwriters in the Round,” there’s a chance for those toiling behind the scenes to become stars, if only for one night.