Rollin’ on the River: BMI Salutes Writers of George Strait’s “River of Love”

Nautical Party Spotlights Billy Burnette, Shawn Camp and Dennis Morgan

What better place to revel in the success of George Strait‘s latest hit, “River of Love,” than a secluded cove on Nashville’s own Cumberland River?

That’s what happened Thursday (May 14) as carloads of Music Row executives and worker bees swarmed downstream to the Blue Moon Lagoon restaurant at Rock Harbor Marina. Strait’s long-time manager, Erv Woolsey, co-owns the wave-lapped eatery.

Since Strait seldom attends such functions — including this one — the objects of adulation were the song’s three writers, Billy Burnette, Shawn Camp and Dennis Morgan. BMI, the writers’ performance rights organization, sponsored the event.

In addition to writing “River of Love,” Burnette, Camp and Morgan also sang on Strait’s recording of the song and backed him when he performed it on last year’s CMA Awards show.

The sun was out and a cool breeze was ruffling napkins as guests trickled in and hugged their way toward the bar. Out on the oily water, boats with names like “Second Wind” and “God’s Blessing” bobbed and squeaked at their moorings.

Among the revelers were Strait’s producer, Tony Brown, his label head, Luke Lewis, songwriter Larry Henley (“Wind Beneath My Wings”) and legendary producer and musical muse Cowboy Jack Clement.

“Having George Strait record one of your songs is truly the Holy Grail,” said BMI’s Jody Williams when it came time to hand out trophies to those key to the song’s achievements.

Williams noted that this was Strait’s 57th No. 1 single (a string that stretches back to his breakthrough chart-topper, “Fool Hearted Memory,” in 1982).

In introducing the songwriters one by one and presenting each a commemorative guitar, Williams noted that Morgan has written 30 No. 1′s in various formats and has had his songs on more than 300 million albums sold.

Burnette, Williams continued, is the son of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Dorsey Burnette and recorded his first album when he was 11 years old. At 13, he toured with Brenda Lee, Williams said. He went on to become a member of Fleetwood Mac in 1987 (a post he held for the next six years).

Furthermore, Williams reported, Burnette and Camp had recorded an album in 2007 as “the Bluegrass Elvises” that took the King’s music in an entirely new direction.

Camp, Williams pointed out, had come to Nashville from his native Arkansas to play fiddle in the Osborne Brothers‘ band but soon had his own recording contract. His songs would eventually be recorded by such country luminaries as Garth Brooks, Josh Turner and Brooks & Dunn.

“I love this song as a producer,” said Brown. “When I hear it on the radio, I’m proud of it.”

Brown, who has helmed 34 of Strait’s No. 1′s, contrasted working with him and with another superstar.

“I think my musical career was defined by working for Elvis [as a piano player]. … I think George defined my career as a producer — and he’s still good and getting better,” Brown said.

“One of the best things about this record,” Burnette observed, “is to have a hit with your friends.” He recalled that he had once gotten to “hang out” with Strait at the Kentucky Derby and had enjoyed the encounter.

Camp explained that he and Burnette were playing ukuleles when they were writing “River of Love.” Camp had borrowed his uke from Clement and Burnette’s was a gift from Mick Fleetwood.

“Sounds to me like I ought to get 10 percent of that song,” Camp recalled Clement asserting.

Morgan had the final say. “I want to thank this fella, George Strait, for singing on the record with us,” he cracked. “Thirty-one years ago, I had my first No. 1. We’re not through yet.”