John D. Loudermilk, a prolific Nashville songwriter whose best-known songs, “Tobacco Road” and “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” were covered hundreds of times and evoked heartache and a gritty side of the South, died Sept. 21 at his home in Christiana, Tenn. He was 82.
He had prostate cancer and respiratory ailments, said his wife, Susan Chollette Loudermilk.
Mr. Loudermilk began as a teenage performer in his native North Carolina, and he occasionally cut records as a hybrid rock-folk-country singer and guitarist. But he found much greater success for what he wrote than for what he sang.
When Mr. Loudermilk moved to Nashville in 1958, he took to heart the advice he received from a record company executive: “Don’t save all your best songs for yourself.”
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Loudermilk composed songs that would be recorded by artists as diverse as Lou Rawls, the Everly Brothers, David Lee Roth, Johnny Mathis, Chet Atkins, Nina Simone and Norah Jones. In 1971, the rock group Paul Revere & the Raiders had a No. 1 hit with Mr. Loudermilk’s “Indian Reservation,” about the Cherokee people.
He was named to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976 and was “as big a pop writer as a country writer,” hall of fame chairman Pat Alger said Thursday in an interview. “His lyrics were very direct, and they always matched up with these wonderful melodies. He was really tuned into what people wanted to sing.”
Mr. Loudermilk’s songs were recorded by country superstars Dolly Parton, George Jones and Johnny Cash, but his music was easily adaptable to other styles. The ballad “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” sounded touching whether performed by country star Eddy Arnold, rhythm-and-blues singers Solomon Burke and Bettye Swann, or the pop group the Casinos, whose 1967 version of the song reached No. 6 on the Billboard chart.
Mr. Loudermilk’s most famous tune, “Tobacco Road,” which he first recorded in 1960, grew out of memories of his childhood in the tobacco town of Durham, N.C. The bluesy tune has been recorded more than 200 times. The British Invasion group the Nashville Teens had a Top 20 hit with the song in 1964, and it was also recorded by Rawls, Roth, the Jefferson Airplane, Eric Burdon and Edgar Winter.
The bleak yet tender lyrics of “Tobacco Road” seem to draw a universally recognized portrait of a struggling, hard-luck town:
Grew up in a rusty shack
All I had was hangin’ on my back
Only you know how I loathe
This place called
Tobacco Road ...
I despise ya, because you’re filthy
But I love ya, cause you’re home
John D. Loudermilk Jr. — the middle initial did not stand for anything — was born March 31, 1934, in Durham. His father was an illiterate carpenter.
“I didn’t even know my family didn’t have any money,” Mr. Loudermilk said in 2007. “I had a bicycle, a pair of shorts and no shoes, and you could go all over Durham with that, but you had to be back by dark.”
As a child, Mr. Loudermilk sang in church and listened to radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry. Two of his cousins, Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, became well-known country stars under the name the Louvin Brothers.
He learned to play several instruments, including trumpet, trombone, saxophone and drums, in a Salvation Army band. He later became adept on guitar and by age 13 was appearing on local radio stations as Johnny Dee.
One of his first songwriting efforts, “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” became a Top 10 hit for a fellow North Carolinian, George Hamilton IV, in 1956. Seven years later, Mr. Loudermilk’s song “Abilene,” became a No. 1 country hit for Hamilton.
Mr. Loudermilk released several recordings on small labels before signing with Columbia in 1958, but he soon realized that he was better suited to writing than the life of a performer.
“I could stay home with my family, and it was a wonderful thing,” he said in 2007. “So I chose to do that, and I’ve always prided myself in making a good decision.”
His first marriage, to Gwen Cooke, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Susan Chollette Loudermilk of Christiana; three sons from his first marriage, John D. Loudermilk III of Wilmington, N.C., Rick Loudermilk of Austin and Mike Loudermilk, a guitarist in Nashville.
Mr. Loudermilk received a Grammy Award in 1967 for best liner notes for his album “Suburban Attitudes in Country Verse.” He continued to perform on occasion into his later years.
“I’m looking for the most different thing I can find,” Mr. Loudermilk said early in his career, describing his approach to songwriting. “I talk to drunks at the bus station, browse through kiddie books at the public library, get phrases from college kids and our babysitter. You’ve got to be looking all the time.”