International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting ē Wayland Holyfield Interview

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Wayland Holyfield Interview

Introduction by Jim Liddane
Wayland D. Holyfield was born in 1942 in Mallettown, Arkansas, in the shadow of the Ozarks. In a career spanning more than three decades heís amassed a catalogue to die for, with hits that include Anne Murrayís "Could I Have This Dance" (immortalised on the "Urban Cowboy" soundtrack); Don Williamsís "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend," "Youíre My Best Friend" and "Till The Rivers All Run Dry"; Johnny Russellís "Rednecks, White Socks And Blue Ribbon Beer," and Billy Deanís "Only Here For A Little While." Other artists tapping the Holyfield vein include Eddy Arnold, Ronnie Milsap, Ed Bruce, Mickey Gilley, Charlie McLain, Crystal Gayle, Tammy Wynette, Keith Whitley, John Anderson, Reba McEntire and Julio Iglesias. His "Arkansas, You Run Deep In Me" was written for the 1986 Arkansas Sesquicentennial celebration. A year later it was adopted as the official state song and was played at President Bill Clintonís 1993 inauguration. Heís a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer, a former NSAI president, an ASCAP board member and a lifelong crusader for songwritersí rights.

No longer affiliated with a major publisher, Holyfield - who also takes his NSAI and ASCAP work, not to mention his golf game, very seriously - might be regarded by some as being in a state of at least semi- retirement. He claims otherwise, but concedes that the business itself, and his role within it, have both changed considerably over the years.

We asked Larry Wayne Clark to travel down to Nashville, Tennessee, to talk to Wayland, and ask him about one of the most successful songwriting careers in the history of country music.

As a master of rich, wholesome melodies that take up residence in your brain and linger forever. His work is undeniably American yet somehow European tinged; it travels well and has made him a popular writer in several countries. He has the kind of practical canniness and raised - poor work ethic that, when blended with a measure of pure talent, can result in excellent financial gain, which is evidently the case here. Sitting in his well-appointed home in Nashvilleís Oak Hill area, contemplatively puffing a good cigar in his panelled library surrounded by musical instruments and BMI and ASCAP plaques on several walls,

Holyfield appears every inch the affable country gentleman, at once humble in manner yet clearly the proud lord of all he surveys. His face bears a passing resemblance to a subdued Robin Williams, and careful scrutiny will reveal a slight laziness in one corner of his mouth, a souvenir of recent surgery to repair a blocked carotid artery. He has, moments before, shown me the week-old scar on his neck where the incision was made. Fortunately the operation was a success and he appears youthful, healthy and content.

Settling in, we talk about the current state of affairs on Music Row, and how difficult it is to get a song cut in todayís country market. Holyfield admits: "I barely do it anymore. I havenít written a song in a while. But Iíve been here since í72 and, you know, the fire in the belly kind of burns out. You start rewriting yourself. You come up with a title and you think, "Thatís a coolÖhey, wait a minute! I wrote that! I wrote that premise in í76."

Thereís a lovely story that I read - Iím a big fan of Irving Berlin - and thereís a story where he was at some function many years ago and Noel Coward was sitting noodling at the piano, idly amusing himself and whoever else chose to listen. And Berlin went over to him at one point: "What was that you just played?" Coward said, "Well, Irving, that was one of yours!" Apparently Coward had been sitting there playing nothing but Berlin songs.
You know, the interesting thing about him was not only did he write so many, but he wrote both words and music. And at that time that wasnít done. I remember when Hal David was president of ASCAP, when I first got to know him back in the early í80s, and Irving had to be 97. He would call Hal once or twice a week to check on stuff. Hell, he had so much damn money involvedÖ [laughs]

And he was hungry. You talk about the fire in the belly -
He never lost it! He was not particularly a likeable guy, from what I understand.

Did you ever meet him?
No. But from what I understand, he was so driven. He was hard-nosed.

And got very crotchety later on.
Yeah, really got crotchety; thatís what Hal David would say: "Oh God, here comes a call from Irving Berlin to say, ĎHowís my money?í But my theory is, hell, the kind of money he was bringing in, he stayed alive just to see another quarterís statement. It was the way he kept score.

Itís a marvellous thing. I guess you could say the same about Harlan Howard. People who just donít want to let it go. You obviously have found other places to invest yourself.
Yeah. Not that I donít want to; I donít have to. I donít mean financially. I mean itís not something where I have got to write a song. Iíve done it. I sort of wish I didnít think that way; I wish I just had to do it. Now I noodle and, you know, Iíll write a bit. But toÖcommerciallyÖto go out there and fight that fight right nowÖ

Whatís the last cut you had?
UhÖwellÖactually, strangely enough, it was a couple or three years ago; it was by Ronan Keating in Europe - you know Boyzone? - "When The World Was Mine." Billy Livesay and I wrote it. It was on an album that sold several million over there. It never was [a hit] over here. And the last single I had over here was "Meanwhile" by George Strait, which was three, four years ago.

Thatís not too shabby!
No. But I just donítÖ I have my own publishing company and I was telling somebody, "Iíd drop me as a writer!" [laughs]

Wasnít "Meanwhile" a waltz?
Yeah. Fred Knobloch and I.

Youíve written a few of those.
Well, "Could I Have This Dance" is the most notable waltz.

That is a classic song. Youíve written a modern classic thatís going to live way beyond you and will always sound good. Itís one of those songs.
Thank you. Obviously, as a writer, as you know, you donít do it for the money - I mean, you want it, after the fact - but you donít do it for the money.

Believe me, I know that better than you! I donít have any money! You live pretty well here.
[laughs] But thatís a result of some things that happened, the reason I live well. You know, "the old blind hog found an acorn" - some longevity with a couple of tunes that wear well. But people using "Could I Have This Dance" at their weddings, that really is neat to me. I mean, people I run into all the time, they find out I wrote it and they say [with great surprise], "WeÖweÖwe danced to that when we got married!" Or stuff like that, which is kinda cool. Itís a cool thing to have written.

Take me back to the beginning a little bit. I know youíre from Arkansas. I know you have a degree in marketing, like Garth Brooks and others in the business.
Yeah. Grew up in Arkansas. Played in a rock íní roll band in college; thatís how I went through school. The rock íní roll band of that era was stuff like Ronnie Hawkins, kinda rockabilly.

What did you play?
I played bass and sang. We all would sing.

Where did the initial spark come from? Was your family musical at all?
Yeah, my dad played horns. And my mother was musical, just kind of instinctively. But it wasnít like we sat around the kitchen table and played. I actually started on ukulele. I was just always fascinated by songs and musicÖ

You and Roger Cook! [Cook also writes on ukulele and tenor guitar.]
Yeah, absolutely. Iíve written most of my songs on a four - string tenor guitar, just because of the easy transition from ukulele. I probably started writing - you know, making stuff up - when I was 12, 13 years old. Just making up songs. Didnít know why. I needed to.

So you were aware that there was such a thing as a songwriter? I donít know when that awareness came to me.
No, not then. You didnít think about how the process worked. You knew that somebody was singing them, but it didnít click when you were 12. Or it didnít for me. I just did it ícause it was fun and I liked to do it. It was interesting; it was like a puzzle. It still is. Making the puzzle work and fit.

I love doing crossword puzzles and I agree with that. I think thereís a real correlation between songwriting - or any kind of wordsmithing - and doing something like crossword puzzles. Thereís a theme to it, and you have to get your head in a certain place to read the clues and find the hidden trick.
Right. And one thing leads to another.

Who taught you how to play?
Oh, I just learned by myself. Books. My older sister played the piano and she would have these books with all the great standards - you know, compilations of Broadway hits or something. And so I would learn a lot of chords. And it would be fun - all of a sudden, hereís a diminished, golly! - I would just fool with it and thatís really how I learned to do it.

And I played violin. My only formal training was violin when I was a kid, for about four years. I love the violin. Still, to me, nothing sounds better than a well played violin and nothing sounds worse than a poorly played violin. And I could do both, mostly the latter [chuckles]. But my problem with violin was I had a good ear - Iíve always had a good ear (at the time you donít know that, when youíre a kid) - but Iíd hear stuff. It would make sense. And I loved sports and, man, I hated to practice - you know, staying in when everybody else is outside - so when I was reading the music I just pretty much memorised the melody. Which is okay as long as youíre playing the melody. But what nailed me was sometimes we would play in an orchestra and I would be assigned second violin. Well, hell, you canít fake it; you gotta be able to read that! So the jig was up for me as far as not studying the reading part like I should. But that was, like I say, my formal training. And that way the bass was pretty easy for me when I started playing ícause it was the same thing as a violin, except bigger. I played electric bass.

What kind of a family were you? What did your father do?
Early on, he did everything from drive a bus toÖ We lived out in the country north of Little Rock in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains and we had a few acres. But he wasnít a farmer much. Then he worked for the state of Arkansas for a while; in fact thatís mostly what he did when I was growing up. He was a painter and worked at the state hospital which is a mental institution - which probably explains so much about me! - but he worked as head of the paint department there. We had moved to Little Rock by then. And my mom was a homemaker and I had a brother and sister. Theyíre all dead now. I was sort of the baby. Great folks. Real good rural, country people that raised me well. So I grew up and graduated from high school in Little Rock, went to the University of Arkansas. Actually I played basketball in high school, was a little too small but actually got a scholarship to college. To Hendrix College.

Thatís surprising. You canít be six feet.
No, Iím five - nine. But I could fill it up pretty good! In high school. Then you got into college; then all of a sudden you got into guys who could fill it up and also were big.

You didnít have the giants in those days that we see now.
No. Mine was a small NAIA [note: National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics] school which is certainly not like the large universities. But for me, a very poor boy, to get books and scholarship was a terrific deal, especially at a good school. So it ended up that I tore up my knee so all of that became academic. But we were playing in this band, and then the whole band transferred to the University of Arkansas where we worked and travelled around, like I say, made a good [enough] living to pay my way through school. Making music and making money, that was pretty cool, and getting to go to school. íCause it would have been tough for me.

So this is still about 10 years before you came to Nashville.
Right. And after that, when I finished school, I went out and worked a company called Frank Lyon Company, which was a distributor in Little Rock for Whirlpool appliances and RCA Victor electronics. It was a sales position where I would call on retail outlets. We were the wholesaler, and I had territory and travelled and tried to sell dishwashers and televisions.

Were you any good at it?
Well, you know, I was pretty good at it but I sure didnít like it. I mean, after a while, it was just not what I wanted. Like I say, I wasÖyou know, I was rich in family but we didnít have any money. So, man, I was wanting to at some point get out in the real world and make some.

Were you married at this point?
No, no. I was single. But that just didnít ring my bell and, after about two or three years, I just had to do something different and ended up working for an advertising company, which is a little closer the music thing. The creative; making up stuff.

What were you doing there? Were you selling?
I did a little of everything. I did a little copywriting and, while that was okay, actually one of the great epiphanies, if you will, happened when I was working for that advertising company. We had a meeting in Banff, Alberta - great, beautiful country - and it was a frozen food forum and that was my account. Really, that trip to Canada changed my whole life, ícause I got up there in those mountains and somehow it came to me: "You know, life is awfully short to not try to do something. I donít wanna wake up at 55 saying: ĎWhy didnít IÖ I wish IídÖí" I had a good quote - unquote job, you know, but up there somehow, travelling around in those mountains, it became very important and clear that I needed to give this music and writing thing a shot.

At this point had your band dissolved?
Yeah, I didnít have a band at this point. But Iíd been playing with a little trio for grins - two guys and a girl - and we were playing more country, kinda middle - of - the - road songs. We would play little clubs around. Three - part harmony; pretty cool little group.

What did you call yourselves?
The General Store. And I ended up coming back from Canada and quitting my job, and the trio decided to give it a shot. We all quit our jobs and did this thing. And were okay, we were not great, but my problem was I didnít like performing that much. I mean, I always enjoyed after Iíd done it and people telling you how great you were, but the dread of doing it never matched [the rewards].

I can relate. There are people who become luminous when they get in front of an audience; thatís the thing they were born to do. Some of us are better off behind the scenes.
Right. And I was writing songs for our group all the time. That was the fun part for me. My other two partners, they loved [performing]. This was about the time I met Nancy, and we got married in í71 and moved to Houston, Texas and lived down there. [The General Store] had a contract with a backer and weíd travel out of there and play down in Houston, and, man, to do that - play in clubs and stuff - was just not something that I wanted to do for much longer. So we decided, Nancy and I, that I would leave the trio and move to Nashville. Didnít know anybody. And so we packed up a Ryder [rental] truck and, in í72, we moved up here.

What inspired this?
We had been to Nashville a couple of times. The General Store did an album - pretty much an album of stuff I had written - and, with the backer, we came to Nashville in í71 and recorded it. We recorded it at David Briggsís and Norman Putnamís studio and I met a lot of the pickers who played on that session. It was a really expensive deal. Our backer said, "Letís go first rate," so we had some great players. So we ended up having a really good album that, I didnít know, turned out to be a really good demo! It was well done; we had really first rate people. My songs were okay then but they were not really all that country at the time. But thatís okay actually ícause I was coming through a little different window. So when we moved to Nashville I had that to play for people. And, interesting thing, at the time we were doing this album, while we were still in Houston, we had lunch with Chet Atkins. For heavenís sakes, you know, one of the legends! So he was really the only one I knew [in Nashville] in the position of being able to do stuff.

He was with RCA then?
Yeah he was head of A&R at RCA and, to his credit, when Nancy and I moved here I called him. I didnít knowÖ well, I knew he was pretty big time. And he called back. Of course, the joke was I wasnít there! I never did connect with him. Later on I did and he produced songs of mine. Chet was a great guy and he really kinda liked a lot of the stuff that I was writing back then. So it turned out we did connect but the joke was: "You called and I wasnít there!"

No cell phones then.
No, no. Then I signed with Buddy Killen at Tree. That was my first deal and it was based on that album. I was in what they called their pop division - theyíd set up a pop division - ícause my stuff wasnít considered country. And, I mean, this was a pop division in Nashville, Tennessee; that was destined to not work. But I met a lot of people. Ended up I met Allen Reynolds - we had a mutual friend - and then I met Jack Clement, and I started writing for those guys.

Iíve interviewed both.
"Cowboy" Clement, you know, was one of the great talent scouts around. This guy assembled people around him who were really some interesting, creative people. That was where it all started with Don Williams and Bob McDill, Dickie Lee. All these people. Thatís where it all started for me; that was the connection. The standard of excellence was real high too. Iíve told "Cowboy" Clement, you know, he may have been a bad businessman but he was sure a good talent scout. And a facilitator for us. He didnít care - I mean, he wanted to make money - but he liked to see neat things happen. He liked to see neat music happen.

Thereís something very playful about his whole outlook on the business.
Yeah. So from there I started getting things happening. Bob McDill and I wrote "Rednecks, White Sox And Blue Ribbon Beer" in í73 and that was our first Number One hit.

Yeah, Iíve read your bio: "moved to Nashville in í72; had a Number One in í73"!
I know. Well, that was pretty lucky. Pretty lucky. But a lot of it had to do with where I was, with Jack in that [company]. And then McDill and I, and Don, ended up over with Jackís former partner, Bill Hall. Thatís when Don Williams was recording and recorded a lot of my stuff. Thank goodness [knocks the desktop].

"Some Broken Hearts Never Mend." When I think of you the two songs that immediately come to mind are that one and "Could I Have This Dance."
Well, theyíre my two most important songs worldwide. Certainly "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend" is my most important. Itís still played a lot, in Germany particularly.

Your songs have a European flair to me. The melodies are quite Viennese or German. I say that as a compliment.
Well, thank you. I love melody. Some of the stuffÖI donít mean to sound like, "Hereís the old guy talkiní about the stuff today," but you donít hear many classic melodies much anymore. I donít. Thereís some. Hey, all I know is that was to my taste and, at the time, it was to other peopleís taste. And some of them are still to their taste, you know [chuckles]. But "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend" is certainly an important anchor of my catalogue.

Your biggest copyright.
Yeah. Because of the Continent. Itís become almost a standard in Germany, I guess.

How much co-writing did you do? It sounds like, prior to Nashville, you werenít doing any.
No, I didnít do any. I didnít know about co-writing. I just made stuff up by myself; that was the way I understood. McDill and I - that was my first real co-writing [partnership] where we really wrote a lot - we would both write by ourselves. So when weíd get together we were both pretty confident writers. In other words, weíd write something that neither one of us would write by ourselves, but weíd come up with something that would be [special]. That ought to be the idea of co-writing! The other thing about co - writing is you donít have to stare at your own navel all the time. [laughs]. But I always counsel young people: if Iím interested in [a writer] I want to hear what theyíve written by themselves. If they canít write by themselves, if Iíve got my publisher hat on, Iím not really interested. I want to hear something theyíve written by themselves; then you can go from there.

Tell me about your publishing history. You were with EMI, I think, when I first met you in the í90s?
Yeah. I was withÖwell, Jack, and then I was with Bill Hall when I was really having lots of cuts in the í70s and early í80s. And then I just decided to change and went with what was United Artists at the time - which ended up being EMI but went from UA to CBS and ended up being EMI - for about 10 years. And I had my own publishing situation. It was a joint venture and I had other writers like T. Graham Brown and Mark Wright, whoís now head of Sony Nashville. Mark and I still are pretty close. But I was still a writer. I mean I was a publisher because I was a writer. I donít consider myself a publisher; I consider myself a writer who was able to have a publishing situation, a joint deal. And then I went to Almo Irving in the early í90s, just ícause David Conrad and I have known each other for a long time - and I loved those people but it was just one of those things, it just never quite clicked. Not personality wise but, from a business viewpoint, we just never got too much stuff going.

I was there for four years and, at this time, I was starting to kindaÖ I donít knowÖ I see [examining a framed certificate on the wall] where I was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in í92, and I swear, in some way, once I was inducted into that Hall of Fame - I mean, I donít know, Iím no shrink! - but, as I look back, it was like: "You know, Iíve done it." So therefore the fire in the belly started kinda burning lower and lower. And my wife would say, "Keep doing it, make more money." But when youíre not really motivated by that anyway, then itís hard to translate doing it for money to being successful because this is a competitive world and you canít just half-ass it. Youíve got to be on your game to have a chance to be competitive. You better have the fire in the belly and be doing it for the right reasons, and I think I probably drifted off to not doing it for the reason that first brought me here. Or maybe I just wasnít writing as well. You know, itís hard to say. And as time goes by the business itself changes, the culture of whatís going on now. Sometimes I think I know too much - I mean, not that Iím very smart but Iíve just been around enough to know a lot. When I first would come to town I might say, "Gosh, Iíve got a great idea for a song: ĎI Love Youí" And I would write it in a fresh way because to me it was still fresh.

You meet yourself coming around the corner after a few too many times.
Yeah. And the other thing is I was elected to the ASCAP board of directors which was a pretty important thing, I thought at the time, and I still think it is. Iím still on the board. And also I was the first writer from Nashville to be elected. I felt like I could do it and ought to do it, and I was sort of an advocate anyway. So I got involved in all that. I think that took away from [the writing], as I look back. Plus you get older. Stuff happens. But Iíve had a good run - Iím not complaining, Iím just observing. Itís been a great run. I feel very fortunate.

Whatís your favourite cover of any of your songs?
One of my favourites is - thereís a French singer, Nana Mouskouri? - who did "Till The Rivers All Run Dry." That was very cool; so different. When I heard that I just played it over and over.

Sheís Greek actually. Did she do it in French?
Yeah, she did it in French. She was a star in France at the time. Iíve had so many cuts in Europe. Iíll tell you, probably the neatest cut was when Pete Townshend did "Till The Rivers All Run Dry."

What on earth inspired that?

Well, he was kind of a fan of Don Williams and Don was big in Europe, and he picked that tune and did it. Now my question has always been, "Was it before or after he went deaf?" [laughs]

Itís interesting how many rockers have been Don Williams fans.
Well, heís so good. Itís hard to deny when youíre that good a singer. One of the tough things about having covers by Don Williams is, man, once itís been done by him itís pretty much done.

Sounds like youíve been married to the same woman all these years.
Yeah, 32 years. Thatís rare, in this business!

It is rare. I talk to a lot of multiply - married songwriters.
Well, I like to say I over-married but, until she figures it out, Iím gonna hang in there.

Is she involved in the business?
Not at all, no. Sheís been a great soulmate. We have three grown children.

Have any of them followed you into this crazy game?
No. I think theyíre grounded too much and saw howÖ Naw, thatís a little unfair. My oldest son dabbled in it a little bit. But heís now in Washington, D.C. working for a congressman.

Did your parents live to see your success?
My dad didnít. My dad died when I was a sophomore in college. But my mom did, and my brother and sister before they died. And thatís fun, to [please] your relatives back in Arkansas. One of the neat things - again, itís not a money thing - is back in í86 they asked me to write a song for the Arkansas State Sesquicentennial celebration. And it ended up they adopted it as the state song. So little kids in Arkansas have to know who I am [chuckles] when they study their history. Which is kinda cool!

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