By Robert K. Oermann
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Jerry Chesnut has passed away at age 87.
The folksy, charming personality was noted for writing “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” “It’s Four in the Morning,” “A Good Year for the Roses” and other classics.
His songs were recorded by a country who’s-who, including Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams Jr., George Strait, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, Elvis Presley and George Jones.
Chesnut died on Saturday (Dec. 15). He had been suffering with a respiratory problem, but his death was unexpected, said Hall of Fame executive director Mark Ford.
Jerry Chesnut grew up in the coal camps of Eastern Kentucky. Following a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War, he settled in St. Augustine, Florida. He was a railroad conductor by day and a country entertainer in area honky-tonks at night for seven years.
He moved to Nashville in 1958, aiming to become a recording artist. Country star Webb Pierce advised him to concentrate on songwriting, rather than singing.
But Chesnut had no success with either endeavor for nine long years. He kept on writing, but sold vacuum cleaners to make a living. He worked without a publisher, doing his own song plugging on Music Row.
In 1967, Del Reeves recorded Chesnut’s “A Dime at a Time,” which rose to No. 12 on the country charts. The following year, Reeves scored an even bigger hit with “Looking at the World Through a Windshield,” cementing the songwriter’s status.
Jerry Chesnut’s “Another Place, Another Time,” launched rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis’s new career as a country singer in 1968. Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton had a duet hit with Chesnut’s “Holding On to Nothing” in that year, as well.
Other early songwriting successes included “Weakness In a Man” (Roy Drusky, 1968), “Good Time Charlie’s” (Del Reeves, 1969), “If Not for You” (George Jones, 1969), “When We Tried” (Jan Howard, 1970) and “The Wonders You Perform” (Tammy Wynette, 1970).
“Woman Without Love” proved to be an evergreen. After Johnny Darrell made it a hit in 1969, it was recorded by Waylon Jennings, Bob Luman, Ray Price, Bobby Goldsboro, Brook Benton, Joe Simon and Elvis Presley.
Similarly, “A Good Year for the Roses” had staying power. George Jones had a hit with it in 1970. Elvis Costello picked it up and had a major success in the U.K. with the song in 1981. Alan Jackson revived it as a duet with Jones in 1994. Lorrie Morgan, Johnny Paycheck and others have also sung the standard.
Jerry Chesnut recorded some singles for United Artists in the early 1970s, but never had a singing hit. However, he did find success as a TV personality. His natural wit and comedic talent, as well as his musical ability, led to him being cast as a regular on Hee Haw in 1971.
But he gave up both television and recording work because he felt that they interfered with his songwriting. Chesnut established an office on Music Row and continued to pursue his career as an independent song craftsman.
In 1972, his “It’s Four in the Morning” became an international smash. Faron Young took the waltz to the top of the country charts in America, and then the song became a huge pop hit in the U.K. It was subsequently recorded by Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Tom Jones, Hank Thompson, Willie Nelson and others.
Other big songwriting hits in the 1970s included “Oney” (Johnny Cash, 1972), “Don’t She Look Good” (Bill Anderson, 1972), “Pride’s Not Hard to Swallow” (Hank Williams Jr., 1972), “If It Feels Good, Do It” (Dave Dudley, 1972), “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy” (Loretta Lynn, 1974), “It’s Midnight” (Elvis Presley, 1975) and “Best Way I Know How” (Mel Tillis, 1975).
Jerry Chesnut was named Billboard’s Country Songwriter of the Year in 1972. “Another Place, Another Time” was nominated for a Grammy Award.
He retired from songwriting in 1980, but continued to perform from time to time. Revivals of his songs provided ongoing income. For instance, “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” became a big hit for Travis Tritt in 1993. Chesnut had originally written it for Elvis Presley, who had a big hit with the song in 1975.
Mark Chesnutt (no relation) brought back “Pride’s Not Hard to Swallow” in 1995. Son Volt recorded “Looking at the World Through a Windshield in 1996. George Strait sang “Good Time Charlie’s” in 2001, and Marty Stuart revived “Holding On to Nothing” in 2012.
Jerry Chesnut was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2004, he was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.
In 2010, BMI certified that “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” had been performed more than four million times. The portion of Kentucky State Highway 840 that runs through Chesnut’s hometown of Loyall has been named in his honor.
To date, more than 100 artists have recorded Jerry Chesnut songs, including 30 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
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