JOHN D. LOUDERMILK: Veteran Takes New Songwriters Under His Wing
It’s a typical scene for John D. Loudermilk. He enjoys his role as unofficial guidance counselor for young songwriters.
“Look, just bring me a tape of your best song tomorrow, and I’ll critique it for you,” Loudermilk tells the young patron at Tempo’s Restaurant in Nashville, a frequent Loudermilk hangout. “Just be sure you’re not thin-skinned.”
The aspiring writer looks happy. Loudermilk has a lot to offer the city’s young songwriters – 29 years of experience and a string of hits including almost as much pop as country. He’s written classics that include “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” “Tobacco Road” and “Talk Back Trembling Lips.”
“Kids can take criticism now,” says Loudermilk as he stirs his coffee. “They couldn’t 20 years ago. Competition’s worse now, and that humbles them.”
Loudermilk says he spends an average of a half hour per day writing critiques of songs for other writers. Basically, his advice to all young songwriters is that they learn to be good musicians and read a lot, paying particular attention to poets.
“If there’s one word in a poem that you don’t understand, look it up in the dictionary. Carl Sandburg (Loudermilk’s favorite poet) won a Pulitzer Prize with a poem that had only 14 words, ‘The Fawn’. Each word’s important in a song lyric too, more so than in a poem I think.
“The other advice that I give songwriters is that they start playing with a band or playing along with records, learning all the songs on the radio. Your better songwriters are also better musicians. That’s the way the direction of music’s running.”
Loudermilk, who came to Nashville in 1956, was one of the city’s first full-time songwriters. Unlike several other Nashville-based songwriters who preceded him, Loudermilk never really pursued a career as a public performer, mainly because he learned the hard way that he wasn’t cut out for it.
Loudermilk was performing at the Kentucky Derby in the ‘50s, singing a set of smooth ballads that didn’t suit a heckler down front who yelled for rock ‘n’ roll. At the time, Loudermilk’s first song, “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” was a rock ‘n’ roll hit for a young George Hamilton IV. Loudermilk himself had a hit at the time with another self-penned tune called “Sittin’ In a Balcony,” which he’d recorded under the name Johnny Dee.
Loudermilk launched into “Sittin’ In a Balcony” to appease the heckler, and the result was disaster. His unamplified guitar had no volume. There were no monitors. Sound was bouncing everywhere. And, the band didn’t know the song.
“I walked off the stage and put my guitar in the case and didn’t perform again publicly for 10 years. I decided right then just to be a songwriter because I realized that you need a strength (to perform) that I didn’t have. You have to be able to smile and be the whipping boy for an audience.”
The disaster led to good fortune. Having decided to bow out of the spotlight, Loudermilk moved to Nashville, where he produced recordings for artists as diverse as The Browns and The Allman Brothers and wrote a string of hits which ran the gamut from a country-to-the-core “Waterloo” to the bitter, bluesy “Tobacco Road.”
Loudermilk’s background had primed him well for what was about to happen to the pop music world in general. A former Durham, N.C., television station art director, he grew up with fundamentalist religion but also observed the Southern black culture.
“I was raised in the Salvation Army. My mother was a missionary to the Cherokee Indians. From the time I was 6 years old, I was standing on the street corner with a tambourine, singing hymns. I was in show business, man. Being on the street is show business.”
Loudermilk learned to percussion and wind instruments in the Salvation Army, and his mother taught him to play a variety of stringed instruments. By the time he was 11, he had a one-hour weekly radio program, singing mainly Eddy Arnold songs.
“Eddy Arnold and Josh White were my idols. I think ‘Tobacco Road’ sounded just like Josh White’s music, bitter and biting. I got the idea for writing that song from a road in our town that was called Tobacco Road because it was where they rolled the hogsheads full of Tobacco down to the river to be loaded onto barges. Along that road were a lot of real tough, seedy-type people, and your folks would have just died if they thought you ever went down there.”
Loudermilk recorded the original version of “Tobacco Road,” but it became a hit for a rock group called the Nashville Teens. Other successful recordings of it were by Edgar Winter and Lou Rawls. It’s one of several forays into the pop field for Loudermilk.
The novelty of “Waterloo” made it a pop hit for country singer Stonewall Jackson. “Indian Reservation” was a hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders. Perhaps the greatest crossover success Loudermilk had was with “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” a standard which was at the top of the pop, country and rhythm & blues charts simultaneously.
“I would say that, when I first came to Nashville, Roger Miller, Bobby Goldsboro and myself were about the only writers here in town who were getting a lot of cuts in both pop and country. I’ve always been pop, but when I first came along, if you were a writer who came from the Southeast, you went to Nashville. Had I come along now I probably would have gone to California or New York because my songs are more that way.”
But Loudermilk grew to love Nashville, particularly the ambiance about the town which he thinks is unique. Ever since helping fellow RCA producer Bob Ferguson study some Indian mounds in Nashville in the early ‘60s, Loudermilk has been convinced that this ambiance goes back a long way.
“We found out in our study that there were as many Indians in the general area of Nashville at one time as there are people here today. A city-state is what it was. And according to the (recordings) we read in these burial mounds, the Indians left Nashville 700 years ago because of the ‘death wind’.
“With all those people buried here, something could be coming from their remains that would have something to do with the emotional melancholiness of this area. There is definitely an ambiance of sadness here that makes writers write some of the saddest songs.
“There is something here that is unexplained and undefined that sensitive people seem to find and love, and if they don’t get outta town, it burns ‘em up. That’s why I leave four times a year for a week at a time.”
At one point, the pressure of Nashville was so intense that Loudermilk left for eight ears. In his early years in town, he’d become so wrapped up in his work that he admits he neglected his family. Around ’71 or ’72, he got a divorce. Loudermilk remarried, and he and his family left town, first living in England a year and then spending seven in Louisiana.
“It was a staggering thing for me when my first wife and I broke up. I was very fortunate to be able to leave Nashville that long, but I had some money saved up.”
During his hiatus from Nashville, Loudermilk became interested in the business end of songwriting. Now he sits on the boards of the Nashville Songwriters Association, Int’l, and the Songwriters Guild. He was instrumental in helping the former group develop its relatively new set of guidelines for a fair songwriter’s contract.
“It’s kind of a middle-age thing for me, feeling like you’ve got to give something back (to an industry that’s been good to him). After being gone for eight years, when I came back and looked at the contracts songwriters are signing now, they were worse than they were when I left. The contracts that songwriters sign in Nashville are publishers’ contracts, not songwriters’ contracts. They’re written and offered by the publishers. Writers have nothing to do with them unless they modify them, which they’re just now finding is possible to do.
“My next little goal is to unite songwriter organizations all over the country into a valid, viril political and economic force to force some sort of realistic attitude in Congress toward the music business plight.
Things like home taping and juke boxes are just some of the minor problems. The guild is working to put together a (proposed Tennessee) law to limit the amount of years that a personal service contract could be signed for in this state. Although copyright assignments are done on a national basis, the contracts that songwriters sign with publishers are state contracts.
“There are many songwriters in town today who are struggling under enslavement laws that the First Amendment should have stopped. By getting advances from publishers, they have gotten into long-term contracts that are unfair and inhumane. It becomes a serfdom-type thing.”
Despite the fulfillment Loudermilk says he gets from working for songwriter organizations, he seems anxious to turn more of the work over to others so he can get back into songwriting. At age 50, he says it’s not important whether he will regain a niche in Nashville’s youth oriented song market. The important thing is to keep writing.
“I’ve had songwriters say to me, ‘I’m worried that, when I get to be 29, I’ll quit writing songs.’ You’ll quit writing 28-year-old songs is what you’ll do, but country music is so mature that you can write songs about any age group and find a market. It’s not kid’s music.”