LifeNotes: Songwriting Great John D. Loudermilk Passes

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• September 22, 2016

John D. Loudermilk
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member John D. Loudermilk has died at age 82 following a struggle with bone cancer. He died on Wednesday (Sept. 21), according to a Facebook post by songwriter Bobby Braddock.

Loudermilk’s classics include “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” “Break My Mind,” “Tobacco Road,” “Abilene,” “Talk Back Trembling Lips” and “Waterloo.” He is unusual as a Nashville songwriter of his generation who had as many pop successes as country hits.

The native North Carolinian worked in a variety of occupations before becoming a songwriting professional. As a youngster, he was a shoeshine boy, janitor, door-to-door Bible salesman, sign painter, grocery bagger, bulldozer operator, radio entertainer and telegram delivery boy.

He was a graduate of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. His first cousins were Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, who found country fame as The Louvin Brothers.

Loudermilk was working for a local TV station, painting sets and doing commercial artwork when he began to write poems and songs. In 1956, he wrote “A Rose and a Baby Ruth.” Fellow North Carolinian George Hamilton IV turned it into a teen pop smash.

Recording as “Johnny Dee,” Loudermilk, himself, scored a modest teen pop hit in 1957 with “Sittin’ in the Balcony.” Rockabilly sensation Eddie Cochran also scored with the tune that year.

Loudermilk moved to Nashville in 1958 and continued to pursue dual careers as a songwriter for others as well as a recording artist.

RCA executive Chet Atkins took a shine to him. He hired Loudermilk to screen songs for the label’s Nashville artists and signed him to make records. Atkins used him as a session musician and backup vocalist, as well. Loudermilk’s career was also bolstered when he signed as a staff writer for Cedarwood Publishing, then Acuff-Rose Music.

His Nashville career took off in 1959. “Grin and Bear It” was a hit for Jimmy C. Newman and “Half Breed” did the same for Marvin Rainwater. But it was “Waterloo,” sung by Stonewall Jackson, that made Loudermilk a songwriting star. Co-written with Marijohn Wilkin, the song became a No. 1 country smash and a No. 4 pop-crossover hit.

In early 1960, Loudermilk scored again, this time as the cowriter of the Kitty Wells country hit “Amigo’s Guitar.” Meanwhile, on the pop charts, Johnny Ferguson hit with 1960’s “Angela Jones” and Connie Francis had 1961 successes with Loudermilk’s “(He’s My) Dreamboat” and “Hollywood.” Mark Dinning had a minor pop hit with “Top Forty News, Weather and Sports.”

Also in 1961, Loudermilk began writing a string of pop hits for Sue Thompson. These included “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” (1961), “Norman” (1962), “James (Hold the Ladder Steady)” (1962) and “Paper Tiger” (1965). The Everly Brothers had a big 1961 pop hit with Loudermilk’s classic death ballad “Ebony Eyes.”

The songwriter returned to the pop charts as an artist in 1961-62 with self-penned RCA singles including “Language of Love,” “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” “Callin’ Doctor Casey” and “Road Hog.”

Chet Atkins recorded the songwriter’s “Windy and Warm” in 1961, and the instrumental has since been recorded by many other guitarists. Bobby Vee had a 1961 pop hit with the teen-themed “Stayin’ In.”

The following year, Loudermilk’s pop activity included “Torture,” sung by Kris Jensen. The song later achieved camp status via its inclusion in Kenneth Anger’s 1963 underground cult film Scorpio Rising.

Loudermilk’s “Talk Back Trembling Lips” was a country and pop audio icon of 1963, thanks to recordings by Ernie Ashworth and Johnny Tillotson, respectively. George Hamilton IV solidified his transition from pop to country stardom thanks to Loudermilk’s “Abilene” in 1963. Stonewall Jackson also returned to the songwriter’s catalog for “Can’t Hang Up the Phone” that year.

Hamilton had two more country hits with Loudermilk’s “Linda With the Lonely Eyes” and “Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston” in 1964. In addition, Johnny Cash scored on the country hit parade with “Bad News.” Bobby Lord’s version of “Life Can Have Meaning” and Bob Luman’s recording of “The File” were also significant country chart entries of 1964.

But the songwriter’s biggest triumph that year was in pop. The “British Invasion” band The Nashville Teens scored a rocking hit with his “Tobacco Road,” and the song went on to be recorded by dozens of bands. The group followed it with his “Google Eye,” which became a big hit in England.

Also in the pop world, “Thou Shalt Not Steal” (Dick and DeeDee), “Everything’s Alright” (The Newbeats) and “This Little Bird” (Marianne Faithful) were successful John D. Loudermilk songs of 1964-65.

Meanwhile, the songwriter continued to work as a recording artist. Following his LPs The Language of Love (1961), 12 Sides of John D. Loudermilk (1962) and Presenting John D. Loudermilk (1963), he resumed making RCA albums with John D. Loudermilk Sings a Bizarre Collection of the Most Unusual Songs (1966), Suburban Attitudes in Country Verse (1967), Country Love Songs (1968) and The Open Mind of John D. Loudermilk (1969). His liner notes for Suburban Attitudes won him a Grammy Award.

As a songwriter, he continued to have simultaneous success in both the country and the pop worlds. Sandy Posey posted a pop hit with “What A Woman in Love Won’t Do” in 1967. In the country genre, Hamilton returned with “Break My Mind,” “Little World Girl” and “It’s My Time” in 1967-68. The last-named was also recorded by Jody Miller, Dolly Parton and Lynn Anderson, among others. “Break My Mind” also became much-recorded, entering the repertoires of Linda Ronstadt (1969), Vern Gosdin (1978) and many more.

But the biggest news for Loudermilk during 1967 was “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” a major pop hit for The Casinos that year. The ballad has gone on to become a huge success on various charts for such performers as Eddy Arnold (1968), Glen Campbell (1976), Toby Beau (1979) and Neal McCoy (1996). It has been recorded by more than 200 artists.

Campbell scored a No. 1 country hit with Loudermilk’s “I Wanna Live” in 1968. The songwriter’s final pop No. 1 hit occurred in 1971 with “Indian Reservation” by The Raiders. This song returned him to the spotlight when it was used in Tim McGraw’s 1994 country smash “Indian Outlaw.” The McCoy hit with “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” two years later also kept the songwriter’s name on the charts in the 1990s.

Among the hundreds who have recorded his songs are such rockers as The Allman Brothers, Edgar Winter, David Lee Roth, War, Jefferson Airplane, The Animals, Johnny Winter, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rare Earth. Pop stars Petula Clark, Perry Como, Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, Tracey Ullman, Sammy Davis Jr., The Box Tops, Rick Nelson and many more have dipped into his catalog. So have soul music makers such as James Brown, Solomon Burke, Nina Simone, Norah Jones, Bettye Swann, Jay Z, Kanye West and Barbara Lynn.

Virtually everybody in country music has sung a John D. Loudermilk song, including Skeeter Davis, The Browns, Connie Smith, Webb Pierce, Barbara Mandrell, George Jones, Bobbie Gentry, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Doc Watson, Sonny James, Anne Murray, Conway Twitty and Willie Nelson.

Loudermilk’s last significant country chart success, to date, was in 1973. This was George Hamilton IV’s Top 30 treatment of his “Blue Train,” which has since become a bluegrass favorite.

John D. Loudermilk’s later-career solo albums included 1971’s Volume 1 – Eloree, 1975’s Rockin’ Styles and 1977’s Just Passing Through. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976.

In 1981, he helped to establish the Nashville office of The Songwriters Guild. The organization fights for better contracts for composers.

Loudermilk was long regarded as an eccentric, “unforgettable character” in Nashville. During the 1990s, he devoted himself to travelling, studying ethnomusicology, chasing hurricanes and doing research on Native American burial mounds.

He was honored at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007 in its “Poets and Prophets” speaker series. Also in 2007, Loudermilk donated approximately 2,000 items of career papers, photos, recordings and memorabilia to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. He was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2011.

Following his cancer diagnosis, an all-star group gathered to honor him at The Franklin Theater in March 2016. He said he didn’t want a memorial service after his death, so the Nashville music community gave him one while he was alive.

Performing his catalog of hits were such talents as Rodney Crowell, Bobby Braddock, Lee Roy Parnell, Jimmy Hall, Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, Billy Burnette, Emmylou Harris, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Marty Stuart and Deborah Allen.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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