Looking like the tenured English professor he might have become, Bob McDill is a Nashville legend whose vivid, observational and relentlessly literate songs were the backbone of country music throughout the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. Among them are Alan Jackson’s “Gone Country” and Alabama’s “Song of the South.”
Earlier this year, McDill told an overflow crowd at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum how he got into songwriting, what kept him there and why, eight years ago, he retired from his lyrical rigors. His presentation was part of the museum’s Poets & Prophets songwriter interviews, a series that has already featured conversations with Hank Cochran, John D. Loudermilk, Bobby Braddock and Craig Wiseman.
McDill made his mark with a string of hits that also includes Don Williams’ “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” Waylon Jennings’ “Amanda,” Dan Seals’ “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” Sammy Kershaw’s “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful,” Pam Tillis’ “All the Good Ones Are Gone,” Johnny Russell’s “Catfish John” and “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer” and Mel McDaniel’s “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” and “Louisiana Saturday Night.”
Dressed in a sport coat with leather elbow patches, open-collar shirt, pressed khakis and loafers, McDill was the very model of a man who trades in words. He was ably quizzed and prompted by the museum’s Michael Gray, who sat facing him in a matching easy chair. Gray periodically departed from the dialogue to show film clips and photos or to call for the playing of a McDill song.
In the Ford Theater audience were McDill’s friends and fellow songwriters Braddock, Dickey Lee, Allen Reynolds (who’s also Garth Brooks’ producer), Layng Martine, Bill Lloyd, Buzz Cason and producer Garth Fundis.
McDill was born in Walden, Texas, near Beaumont, and learned to play the viola in grade school. In church, he sang with his mother and brother. His father, he noted, “couldn’t carry a tune [but] could sing [Vernon Dalhart’s] ‘The Prisoner’s Song’ and nothing else.”
At Lamar University in Beaumont, where he studied literature, McDill also played in a skiffle band, the Newcomers. The group worked weekends at a club called the Taproom.
“Janis [Joplin] used to come in and do her homework while listening to us,” McDill recalled. “That’s a comment on how exciting we were, I guess.”
Even then, McDill was writing songs, one of which, “Happy Man,” crooner Perry Como recorded in 1967. Aspiring to a career in pop music, McDill said he let singer-songwriter Lee persuade him to move to Nashville after Lee had assured him the town was on the verge of becoming a pop and rock music center.
McDill said he first grasped the profundity and potential of country songwriting while riding in the back of fellow writer Vince Matthews’ Cadillac and listening to George Jones sing Jerry Chesnut’s “A Good Year for the Roses.”
“I just had an epiphany,” McDill said. “Then I began studying country music like a seminary student studies gospel.” Prior to his country epiphany, McDill’s major songwriting role models had been Joni Mitchell, Roger Miller and Paul Simon.
It was “Catfish John,” a tune he co-penned with Reynolds, that propelled McDill into the front ranks of country songwriters. Russell recorded the song in 1972 and made it a No. 12 hit. “Catfish John was a real person,” McDill said. “He was a friend of my dad’s. I resurrected him.”
McDill admitted that he was concerned from the start with his songs’ commercial prospects as well as their artistic stature. “I had a habit I had to support,” he explained, “a ’56 Jaguar roadster.”
Through producer Jack Clement, a friend of Reynolds and Lee, McDill became acquainted with singer Don Williams, the man who would turn many of the young songwriter’s works into hits. Describing his attraction to Williams as an artist, McDill said, “He had that plaintive, windy, West Texas sound. We’re both Texas guys, both folkies.”
Gray then asked the sound engineer to play Williams’ recording of “Good Ole Boys Like Me” in its entirety so the audience could appreciate the richness of its lyrics. In it, McDill alludes to “those Williams boys … Hank and Tennessee,” as well as to novelist Thomas Wolfe, Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales, Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and fabled all-night disc jockeys “John R and the Wolfman.” The song is a tapestry of clashing cultural influences that McDill somehow managed to reconcile.
McDill said he got the idea for “Good Ole Boys” after reading Robert Penn Warren’s A Place to Come To, a novel he said he ranked second only to All the King’s Men in the Warren canon.
It was the disappearance from radio of such sensitive song interpreters as Don Williams, Kathy Mattea and Dan Seals, McDill said, that primarily caused him to retire from songwriting in 2000. He said he found singers who came later “less interesting.” He did joke, however, “If Alan Jackson hadn’t been such a great songwriter, I might still be in the music business.”
Jackson’s 1994 recording of McDill’s “Gone Country” went No. 1, and Jackson later scored another chart-topper with his cover of McDill’s “It Must Be Love.”
In 1985, the year he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, McDill had six songs on the Billboard singles chart the same week, Gray pointed out.
“I used to try to write a song a week,” McDill told the crowd, “but it got so I couldn’t keep that up.” He said he worked with co-writer Seals for “months and months and months” before they completed “Everything That Glitters” to their mutual satisfaction.
Gray noted that Alabama had left one verse out of their version of “Song of the South” and asked McDill if such modification of his lyrics bothered him. He said it didn’t. “I was very pliable,” he said. He speculated that the verse omitted was “too brutal” for Alabama’s purposes.
Although he’s written some of his best-known songs by himself, McDill said he had no objection to co-writing. “If it’s working, you do it by yourself,” he asserted. “If it’s not, you bring in some help.”
McDill said he usually found songwriting to be a long and exacting process. He remembered only one song that he was able to write quickly. “‘Amanda’ came to me in about 30 minutes,” he said, “and that’s the last gift I got. Afterward, it was blood, sweat and tears.”
McDill ended his appearance by singing “Gone Country” to pre-recorded tracks. It earned him a standing ovation.