Billy Sherrill, country music starmaker, is at work in CBS records' studio B, the "Quonset Hut": "Y'll lay a little bit and try for the bridges. John, you flat to the piano . . . hold it, give them an E.
"Okay, lay one down."
The tape reels is the engineer's booth begin to turn. The singer at the mike is Johnny Duncan, a big, bearded Texan who has had middling success before breaking through with two straight hits in recent months. He desperately wants a third. He has been alternating tonight between drinking Heineken and Maalox.
Duncan begins singing in a rich, rough-hewn voice:
She just sat there and brushed her hair,
Lord, it sure was dar and long.
I got up and drank a half-warm beer.
Found my boots and put 'em on.
Found my boots and put 'em on.
Sherrill, a boyish, low-keyed man, leans with his elbow on a waist-high acoustic partition in the middle of a maze of partitions, wires, booms, microphones and stone-faced musicians in the beat-up but legend-filled old Quonset Hut around which Colombia has built its modern offices. He pulls on a cigarette, then sips some of the imported Russian vodka he is carrying in a styrofoam cup. His fingers tap to the music. Is it another hit?
The above scene was in November. Since then, the song, "It Couldn't Have Been Any Better," has climbed to No. 1 on the country charts and Duncan is riding high. But for Sherrill, it is just one more notch, one more added to the thousands of songs he has produced enroute to becoming the seminal figure in country music today.
In the '40s and '50s, the legendary Owen Bradley was the major influence on the direction of country music. He opened one of the first recording studios in Nashville - this same Quonset Hut - and founded an industry. Guitar-picker Chet Atkins took over as RCA's head of "artists and repertoire" - A&R - in the 1960s and gave us the "Nashville Sound:" toned-down twang that is more palatable - and saleable - to urban audiences. Bradley and Atkins are still producing, but the '70s belong to 38-year-old Billy Sherrill, the iconoclastic A&R head at Columbia, the largest seller of country records.
In Nashville, people now talk of the "Sherrill sound." It is, essentially, Atkins, further toned down and slickened. It is, depending on your point of view, either the rank commercialism that has destroyed the soul in country music, or the refinement that reflects the increased sophistication of rural Americans. It is, more pointedly, Tammy Wynette put to violins.
The slickness has brought him strong supporters and vehement detractors. But love him or hate him, all agree: He is the most successful producer of country music today. That is to say, he turns out more hits, finds and directs more stars, and makes more money than anyone else.
"Those people who have the time to bitch about my music are conspicuously absent from the charts. Sherrill wisecracks in one of his infamous fits of brashness. "I would use 40 zithers if it lent to the artist."
This from the iconolast who says he has never been to the Grand Ole Opry, the country music shindig and radio show that put Nashville on the map and attracted 27,000 faithful fans to two shows in Washington April 16. "It's the same bunch out there," says Sherrill of Opry. "Anyway, the Opry is one thing and the recording business is another."
Sherrill did not like "Nashville," the Robert Altman film about the world of country music. The music was bad, he says. And, as he told reporters upon leaving the Nashville premier, "You don't do the anatomy of a man and just show his a - ."
At Columbia, Sherrill oversees almost all of the recording by the company's 50 or so Nashville acts. His reputation, however, is based more on the 15 singers he produces himself. Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Barbara Fairchild, Johnny Paycheck - his stable includes some of country music's greatest celebrities.
Sherrill has written or co-written 100 or so songs. Eighty per cent have made the top 10 and about half have hit Number One. They include such classics as Charlie Rich's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and "A Very Special Love Song;" David Houston's "Almost Persuaded" and Tammy Wynette's celebrated "Stand By Your Man," "This Time I Almost Made It" and "My Elusive Dream."
While the singers reap the glory, Sherrill in addition to writing many of their hits selects their songs, directs their recording sessions and edits their final releases. He demands complete control over singers, musicians and technicians alike, but his control is soft, understated, often tactful. Easy, as they say in Nashville. Real easy.
Sherrill comes over and sits down. If he is brash at times, he is equally shy at others. The combination gives him his certain childish quality. Indeed, Sherrill even looks young.
He lives in Nashville's exclusive Belle Meade section, a bastion of the Old South where many of his neighbors eschew the "nouveau riche red-necks" sprouting over on Music Row. He doesn't socialize with his neighbors, however - he has a 6-foot fence around his house - or, for that matter, very much with anyone. When not working his long hours, he stays home with his wife and 14-year-old daughter, listening to, of all things, Viennese Waltzes and reading about Hitler.
He believes in God and a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. The Red Sea parted, as his father told him, it parted.
At the moment, Sherrill is couteously explaining what he is trying to do in this recording session. he is trying to make Duncan into a star.
"We're in a situation where we have hit the Top 10 twice now and the label wants an album. Johnny's come up with two or three songs and I've found two or three. I'm not annihilated by the material, but it's all right. I don't know if it's commercial, but I'd like to follow up with a single if I could do."
We're going to have more writers and publishers come by tomorrow with new material. We're looking for 'Duncan material.' like some tempo country ballads. Johnny usually sings in the first person and brings some chick into it. That's his gimmick, like Paul Anka or any other singer has his."
Sherrill pauses and reflects a moment. "Oh, I don't know. There's really no such thing as a 'Duncan song.' If we find a good song, we'll make Johnny fit."
Then comes the Sherrill credo of country music.
"The song is more important than the artist anyway. Johnny knows that. Any artist with any brains does."
The song . Sherrill says in country music today it is the song , not the star, that counts in the end.
There was a time, in the earlier days of country music, when an Ernest Tubb or a Kitty Wells, or even young Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn, could sing whatever came along and it would be a hit. Now things are different: Country radio stations are switching to a pop-style Top 40 format, "bullets" on the Billboard magazine charts indicate songs rising fast, and there is a voracious appetite for hits. If a star cannot come up with them, then someone else will.
Many of the songs Sherrill has written have neem done on short notice, often under pressure, a fact which underlines his facile creativity.
Nashville legend has it - and Sherrill does not deny the story - that he took time out in the middle of a recording session with Tammy Wynette and in five minutes expanded a fragmentary lyric into "Stand By Your Man." They recorded it then and there, and the record has since gone on to become one of the biggest hits of all time.
Sherrill was born in the town of Bill Campbell, Ala., the son of a fiery Baptist evangelist father who traveled around the South preaching fire and brimstone. He took his young family from one reveval tent meeting to the next, supporting them mainly on donations from the poor, rural whites who came to testify.
Sherrill has had no formal music training but by his mid-teens he could play four instruments. He began blowing a rythm and blues soxophone in honky-tonks after graduating from high school in Florence, Ala.
Playing piano and saxophone, he drifted with several local bands through Alabama and Tennessee, under bridges. Some of the dives in which he played were rough. The first night of what was supposed to be a weekly gig at a soldiers bar outside Ft. Campbell, Ky., Sherrill witnessed the killing of a mn by a karate chop. The year was 1961 and Sherrill was 23.Shortly afterward, he stopped performing and went to Nashville to write songs and learn production.
San Phillips, founder of Sun Records, took Sherrill under his wing and turned him loose in Phillips' small recording studio. "Sam was good to me," Sherrill recalled. "Basically, he was letting me play with his instrument for nothing, I guess because he had confidence in me."
Two years later, he came to the attention of the bosses at Colombia and was hired to upgrade the company's Epic label, a second-rate stepchild to the main Columbia line. Sherrill hired a few singers, and then the next year, 1964, co-wrote with Glen Sutton and produced pic's first big hit, "Almost persuaded," sung by then-obscure David Houston.
The song - about a married man almost, but not quite, persuaded by a temptress - violated the sacrosanct rules of country music at the time. It was long, a waltz, ad the "hook," the point of the song, did not come until two-thirds of the way through. But it sold almost a million copies. The Billy Sherrill legend had begun.
Three songs are being recorded in three hours tonight. The side men have heard none of the songs before.
Before recording each song, the studio musicians gather around and , under Sherrill's direction, make suggestions and improvise an arrangement of beats, instruments, chorus and so forth. They record the song on the spot, running through it several times to get it down the way Sherrill wants. It's simple and quick and could sell a million records.
But no matter how relaxed the session or how big the star, Sherrill is clearly the one in control. His relation with Tammy Wynette, for instance, is almost a father-daughter one:
"She has never shown one iota of ego with me. She totally puts her entire recording life in my hands. She believes in me, you know what I mean. That's a tremendous responsibility, but it also makes it easier to work with her. I don't have to go through the garbage to convince her to do something."
Sherrill "found" Wynette in what is Nashville's equivalent of Hollywood's Lana Turner and the drug store. About 10 years ago, Wynette, a heavily made up, divorced hairdresser with two daughters to support, appeared in his office late one afternoon after a discouraging round of other Nashville studios. Sherrill listened to her demo tapes and then began giving her the lines about trying next door when she cut short and got up to leave.
"I don't know what it was," he says, "but something told me to give her a try. So I told her to come back in three days, after I could gather some material for her."
Three months later they released "Apartment No. 9," which sailed into the Top 10. Sherrill wrote the next single's release himself. "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad." It went to No. 1. Wynette has since hit No. 1 about 30 times; the working-class woman had an emphathetic star.
When Charlie Rich, now known as the Silver Fox, walked into Sherrill's office six years ago, he hadn't had a hit as a rock singer since "Lonely Weekends" and "Mohair Sam" about a decade earlier. Sherrill made him into a balladier, and a couple of years later Rich sang "Behind Closed Doors." Rich has since won a slew of record industry male singer awards.
Sherrill is a gambler. He gambled on Wynette, on Rich, on former troublemaker Johnny Paycheck, and he won on all of them. His largest vice, in fact, is frequent gambling trips to Las Vegas, where the story is told that on a single play he parlayed a $2 Keno bet into over a $14,000 win. Says a colleague: "Billy would bet on Christ and the gladiators."
But Sherrill's largest gamble was with a 13-year-old girl, Tanya Tucker. Five years ago, when he signed a recording contract with a child, there were guffaws up and down Music Row. Her first song, "Delta Dawn," immediately went to No. 1 on the country charts and soon she was wearing black leather jumpsuits and singing hit songs with lines such as "Would you lay with me in a field of stone." Two years ago, Tucker jumped to another label: "One of those wistful corporate things," he says, meaning more money.
In recent years, Sherrill's large plush office has been invaded daily by an even larger number of another kind of hungry artist: the songwriter. perhaps it is only natural that Sherrill reserves his greatest sympathy for them.
"I have never in my whole life gotten over the dread of having a would-be songwriter come in and sit down. Maybe his wife and kids are with him and they have invested $3,000 to put together a recording session and make a demo tape of his songs. They might have sold the car or the farm. In 10 seconds, I can tell the songs are no good, but I play them through as a courtesy anyway. I tell them they might have better luck down the street, but I know they won't."
From Sherrill's point of view, the quality of country music is increasing yearly. A schism of heretics who call themselves "outlaws" disagree, however, and have launced a much-published reformation from their base in Austin, Tex.
Led by singers such as Willy Nelson and Waylon Jennings the outlaws decry the violins and the pretty metropolitan sounds produced in Nashville and epitomized by Sherrill. They see their music as the "real" country music, rough edges and all.
But the passing of the rich, rough music sung by the Ernest Tubbs and the Lefty Frizells, like the rural audience that listens to them, may be a sad but inevitable fact.
And so in Studio B. Johnny Duncan is singing:
We couldn't have got any closer,
We couldn't have gone any farther,
It couldn't have been any better,
And you're by best friend's girl.
The song ends. The side men look up and their stolid faces turn to congratulatory smiles. This may be the hit: Duncan looks inquisitively at Sherrill.
The producer, his foot up on a piano bench, slaps his knee: "Yeah, that felt good man. Once we get the trombones, it'll be immortal."