(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I never met anyone like Barbara Orbison before. She was smarter than any other woman I have ever known — with the possible exception of Dolly Parton and my own darling bride — but she was also caring and compassionate and ever curious to learn everything she could about everything. And she had a consuming love of music. That love continued up to the moment she died a few days ago.
I first met her a couple of years after her husband Roy Orbison died. She had apparently approved me from a list of writers presented to her by her editor to work on a Roy project with her. I was from Texas, like Roy, and loved his music, so I was glad for the opportunity. Several people in the music industry — I was then living in New York City — tried to warn me off her.
“Barbara is a dragon lady,” one very high-up Manhattan record label executive told me. “She eats nails and small people for breakfast.”
Well, that certainly intrigued me, so I agreed to a meeting.
We met in a Manhattan hotel’s small adjacent bar, where I had a bourbon-rocks and she had an espresso. I found her very striking-looking. Her eyes, in particular, were riveting. She was one of those rare people who are not merely beautiful — she projected beauty. She had a very charming Germanic accent that was sometimes a little hard to decipher. It took me several minutes to figure out the word “epple.” Apple, of course. Silly me. I liked her immediately. We discussed everything but the matter at hand. When we got up to leave, she asked, “So, when do you start?” And that was that.
She bought me a plane ticket to L.A., picked me up at LAX in her Land Rover and deposited me at a waterfront condo she owned at Latigo Bay just north of Malibu and said she’d see me in the morning. There was a cold six-pack waiting for me in the refrigerator.
The next day, she gave me the keys to Roy’s classic Cadillac convertible to drive while I was there. And we got to work.
She was living in a Malibu condo further down the Pacific Coast Highway, in a two-bedroom right on the water. I noticed the first day I met with her there that she had converted half the two-car garage into a bedroom, and there was a slightly unkempt young man living there. She introduced us. And I later asked her what his role was in everything. Oh, she said, matter-of-factly, he’s recovering from heroin addiction and just got out of rehab and needs a place to stay while he gets himself together. So he’s staying here for a while. That was Barbara.
Later, on another visit to Malibu, I was again driving the Caddy convertible. She told me one day that she was selling the car to Charlie Sheen to try to shed some of Roy’s many cars from his collection. Before I left town, I told her I had left a note for Sheen in the Caddy’s dashboard ashtray reading, “You don’t deserve this car.” She just laughed when I told her about that. I wonder if Charlie ever found the note. I hope so.
She and Roy first met when she was a teenager from Germany named Barbara Anne Marie Wellhoner Jakobs. She was 17 and enjoying the sights and sounds of England in its musical heyday. A club manager in Leeds trying to hit on her gave her a ticket to Roy’s show at his place. Barbara found the older, slightly mysterious denim sport coat-wearing Texan in trendy England somehow engaging, and they began a friendship that turned into a courtship, and they were married within a year in Hendersonville, Tenn., outside Nashville, where Roy was living. Thus began a lifelong friendship, a great love affair and business partnership.
Barbara became Roy’s manager and did very well at it. She had a real knack at shifting from wearing her manager hat to wearing a wife’s hat, to the point where Roy would sometimes say, “Baby, take your manager hat off and be my wife for a while.”
As manager, she fought for him at every turn, and people in the industry learned they could not take advantage of Roy. She was as tough a negotiator as there was. She was rugged, but fair, and fought for her own. She was not afraid of taking on a megalithic worldwide record label and winning more often than not. Away from music, she was heavily involved in several charities, something which was never publicized.
She was also probably the last link between the new Nashville and the old Nashville, where Roy Acuff and Wesley Rose of the publishing and management giant Acuff-Rose were ruling the roost and the world still revolved around the Everly Brothers and the record label chiefs Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley and songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and small lakeside get-togethers with Roy and Johnny Cash and other prominent country singers and songwriters and their families. A small, clubby atmosphere, where everyone was very comfortable with the status quo.
Barbara’s new Nashville also included links and friendships with the world at large, with the worlds of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Yoko Ono, Elvis Costello, Jeff Lynne, Bono and Olivia Harrison and projects on a global scale. Whenever she called, I never knew where she would be — New Delhi, London, Melbourne, Shanghai, anywhere. In the brave new global business place, she planted Roy Orbison flags around the globe and spread her publishing partnerships — but she equally traveled to satisfy her curiosity about the world.
She once took me on a driving tour of the Hendersonville that the Orbison family inhabited back when they were all together. It was a fairly small, quiet, very orderly, family-oriented world. The focal point, of course, was their house on Old Hickory Lake where they lived just down the street from Johnny Cash. The house, with the black wrought iron gate still emblazoned with “RKO” iron letters (for “Roy Kelton Orbison”), was an idyllic hideaway for Roy when he was off the road. The large grounds were ideal for growing kids to run and play. Barbara proudly showed me the house’s hidden doors and staircases, which Roy himself was very proud of.
Last year, one of Barbara’s song publishing companies had a No. 1 hit with a Taylor Swift song. Taylor lived in Hendersonville then, of course, but it’s a very different world now. Barbara inhabited many worlds. And she did so very well. God speed, Barbara.