How I Lost My Marbles as a Songwriter
The rumor is that I live up to the words of that old Waylon Jennings’ song, I’ve Always Been Crazy. That’s not exactly true. I didn’t lose all my marbles until I discovered Outlaw, Honky-Tonk Country Music, and decided I wanted to be a songwriter.
My name is Joe Kent. Presently, I am a no-name songwriter. However, that is about to change in a BIG way very soon.
I recently found out that a major artist has recorded a song for his upcoming album that I had a hand in writing. And not only did he record the song but he also wrote an additional verse for the song, which now makes me a co-writer with an established elite of Country Music.
Finally, after chasing this dream for most of my life, my hard work and determination has paid off. To top it all off, it is not just any ol’ artist that recorded my song— it happens to be my musical hero and greatest influence that chose my song.
Hank Williams, Jr. has been my idol since I first heard the song, A Country Boy Can Survive when I was still small enough that a shrimp could have folded me up and stuck me in his pocket.
At that time in my life, I had not a care in the world. When not in school, my days were usually spent running wild on deer trails through the woods and relaxing under a walnut tree and listening to my grandpa tell stories of his life. As he did, a family of squirrels that had made their home in the old barn would tease the dog by running on the ground between trees. That dog always chased those squirrels probably knowing he would never catch them. He was only doing what dogs do, and he loved the game. He would be in hot pursuit of one of those squirrels so closely that I would bet money he was going to catch it, when the squirrel would jump on the base of a tree and shoot straight to the top. Above, and standing out on a limb, the squirrel would chatter and bark down at the dog like he was laughing at him. I think the squirrels loved the chase as well.
Not everything was fun and games for me back then. I was taught early on to have a strong work ethic and there were jobs that I would sometimes have to do. I helped my grandpa tend the garden and cut the grass, but spending time with my grandpa wasn’t really work. On occasion, I would have to work the hay field. I called it work, but considering that I didn’t have enough ass to set off a mousetrap at the time, and was yet unable to pick up the seventy-five pound bales, I was the driver of the hay truck. It was an early 60’s model—a green, step-side, Chevrolet pick-up truck with a straight six and three speed shift on the column. I was too short to reach the pedals and steer the truck at the same time, so I would kneel in the seat with the truck in first gear.
Whenever I was told to move forward, I would pull the choke and creep along the field as the hay was loaded and stacked in the bed of the truck and on the trailer. When I was told to stop, I would push the choke back in and the truck would roll to a stop. Sometimes, when the truck was on a downhill slope, my adrenaline would surge knowing that I couldn’t reach the brake pedal, and them ol’ boys behind me loading the truck would have to step it up in order to keep up if they didn’t want to tote those large bales very far. I did learn that by pushing in the choke and turning the wheel as hard as I could in that low gear, I still could almost stop that tank of a truck even on a grade. There was no power steering and I had to stay in between the rows, so I just rode those hills for all they were worth. I remember the only thing that distinguished that pull choke switch from the cigarette lighter was the word “choke” stamped into the metal around it. I would sit in the cab of that old Chevy listening to Country music on WLBB 1100 AM out of Carrollton, Georgia, spitting tobacco juice out the open window like a grown man. Yes sir, I chewed tobacco on occasions when I was that young. I was working with the men-folk, so just like any other man if I wanted a chaw, then I got a chaw. An AM-only radio was the best technology had to offer in vehicles of that era and WLBB was the only station it would pick up. Even that had a lot of static from time to time. I can still remember the smell of hay and chicken feed mixed with gasoline that permeated the inside of that truck, and the feel of that huge steering wheel that seemed like it was more suited for a Deuce and a Half than that old farm truck. I guess in that truck is where I fell in love with Country Music.
Another job I acquired was with some ol’ boys who lived across the woods from us who were contracted to tear down old houses. Real estate was doing pretty well back then, and every time a property changed hands, the new owners wanted the old, condemned, pine board, shotgun houses of yesteryear removed so that they could build new, modern structures in their place. The crew that was hired to do the demolition would oftentimes employ me, and I would get a few dollars for toting the trash, boards, tin, and various other debris out to a trailer where I stacked it to be hauled off when the job was finished.
Frequently I found old, rusty snuff cans and Mason jars buried just under the surface of the dirt beneath the porches of those old structures. They almost always contained a motherlode of coins and marbles that I was sometimes allowed to keep. Usually, the coins were wheat pennies and buffalo nickels. The huge cat’s-eye glass marbles were an extremely sought-after commodity, but the buffalo nickels were by far the most valued and were considered nearly priceless by all us kids if they happened to still have a date that had not worn away with time. I’d use the bounty from those finds to trade for football cards, Hot Wheels cars, and other cool stuff that I wanted. I was a master negotiator and considered myself a very rich kid even though in all actuality we were all poor as dirt-we just didn’t know it.
One Sunday, I visited a neighbor buddy of mine after church and we played all afternoon in the woods. Much too soon, his momma was yelling for us to come in to get ready for the Sunday night church service. While we were cleaning up and changing clothes, my friend told me he had something he wanted me to hear. He led me to a stereo system in a back bedroom, turned it on and dropped the needle on a red-labeled 45 rpm vinyl record of a song called A Country Boy Can Survive. What I felt when I first heard that song, is almost beyond description. Everyone I knew was from the country and there, playing on the turntable in front of me, was the ultimate anthem that celebrated our way of life.
We lived in the woods where hunting and fishing were the bulk of our leisure activities and we didn’t take no shit off nobody. Ever. Never before had I heard anything that described exactly the kind of man I wanted to be when I grew up. I had to hear it again. And again. My friend, who had been after a few key pieces of my collections, began to smile with the knowledge that he was about to get what he wanted. Within a few minutes, I had flat fell in love with that song. My hero worship of some fellow named Hank Williams, Jr. had begun.
Immediately, I started wheeling and dealing, offering up a couple of the nickels that I knew he had an interest in as a trade for the record. I was trying to offer as little as possible and he was trying to snag it all.
Unfortunately, for me that day, I couldn’t hide my great interest in that record, and my power of negotiation was seriously undermined by my own actions. I had to have that song. Of course, I lost all my marbles and my entire buffalo nickel collection to boot. That’s what it took to obtain that one little ol’ cheap vinyl 45 rpm record. I probably could have bought a dozen of them with the numismatic value of just the coins, but that thought never entered my mind. I had to have that record and I had to have it right then. It could have been a solid gold record and it would have been no more valuable than it already was to me.
The boy that I traded with made out like a bandit, especially considering that the 45 probably wasn’t even his to begin with. I suspect it belonged to his older brother, who was unaware of our little deal. My buddy probably at some point risked a good working-over by his brother, and an ass whipping from his pop for trading away something that didn’t belong to him in the first place—that is, if he was ever caught. And, had he ratted me out, I would surely have earned the same treatment for receiving stolen property. But none of that mattered to me at that moment. I got what I wanted, went home and set out to run the needle slap through the vinyl of that record.
Within a day, I had the words to the song memorized and was singing them everywhere I went. Within a week, I had played that record hundreds of times. I still have that same old red-labeled record. It’s well-worn and scratched, but it is still a prized possession.
I already had a love for country music long before I heard A Country Boy Can Survive, and had even tried my hand at writing lyrics to my own songs. The preacher man was always telling us about the end of time, just like the song says, and I wanted to make sure I avoided hell-fire and brimstone. In addition, I had fallen head-over-heels, puppy-dog in love with a gorgeous little blue eyed blonde—the preacher’s daughter.
Being the hopeless romantic that I am, I had been in love quite a few times before, but that blonde was serious business. I now had a lot on my mind, and I would lay awake at night dreaming about her. In my mind I was living the lyrics to the songs I heard on WLBB, hoping that none of it was sinful. One night, I felt like my heart would bust if I didn’t find a pressure release for all the new things that had filled it. I found that release when I wrote my first song at the age of eight. That particular song just happened to be about Jesus, and my momma still carries the original, hand-written lyrics in her purse everywhere she goes.
Imagine my surprise when, a few years later, after hearing what I considered to be the perfect Country and Western song, I discovered that my momma not only knew who Hank Williams, Jr. was, but that she, herself, also had a 45 collection by this great artist. It seemed that Hank Williams, Jr. had been making music for quite a spell before I even knew who he was.
My momma had been a waitress at Rayburn’s cafe just outside of Hueytown, Alabama in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I was just a tadpole in diapers and I would crawl around the floor at Rayburn’s while my mom waited tables. When the man came by to change out the records in the jukebox, the waitresses would buy the old records with quarters from their tips. Hank Williams, Jr. was one of my momma’s favorite artists and she had purchased several Bocephus records from the jukebox man. They were old blue-labeled MGM discs with a drawing of the trademarked lion on both sides. I had to hear them and I had to have them. As I recall, my momma never officially gave me those records but I believe possession is nine-tenths of the law, so once she handed them to me to listen to, I never returned them. I’m still keeping them safe for her. I wonder what my momma would have thought way back then if someone had told her that her baby boy would grow up and one day co-write a song with Hank.
From that point on, I considered myself Hank, Jr.’s greatest fan, and I set out on a lifelong mission to own every record and song he ever recorded. At that time, I had no idea what an incredible task I had ahead of me. Ignorance is bliss. Currently, Hank Jr. has fifty-four studio albums, and fourteen compilation albums that have produced ninety-eight singles—eleven of which went to #1. He also has twenty-one music videos. He won a Grammy and is a consecutive five-time Entertainer of the Year award winner who has been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
His career spans over five decades selling seventy million records world-wide, producing twenty gold, six platinum and thirteen #1 albums. The accolades for this incredible artist are just way too numerous to mention. And, get this, it all started when he was eight years old. The same tender age I was when I set out on my own musical journey as a songwriter, three years before I even knew who he was. Since then, I have managed to obtain an extensive collection but it is nowhere near complete. After all, some of the early vinyl is extremely rare, but I have a few of those too. My bucket list includes owning the ultimate Bocephus collection. He is still my favorite entertainer.
The summer after I turned fourteen, I started working as a brick mason’s helper. He was also the preacher man, and it was his beautiful daughter who I was still in love with and constantly thinking of. At first, he wouldn’t hire me because he didn’t think I was man enough to handle the job. I knew better, since I had grown enough to reach the pedals of that old Chevy truck, which meant I was too big to drive it. I was old enough and strong enough to start slinging the bales of hay instead of sitting on my ass chewing tobacco and listening to Country music. I was more than confident that I had the ability to mix mud, and tote bricks and cement blocks all day long.
I asked the preacher if he would at least give me a chance and maybe work me for a few days for free, and if he still felt the same way, it wouldn’t cost him anything. He told me that there was no way he would feel right about working me and not paying me. Something about my determination convinced him, and he reluctantly hired me. When that first week was over, he paid me a grown man’s wage, and told me that he had been wrong about me. Instead of a jar full of nickels, I found myself holding a fist full of cash.
Soon thereafter, my grandpa went to town and I went along for the ride with the intent of buying some music and something pretty for my sweetheart. We went to a new Wal-Mart store and I bought my very first vinyl LP, The Pressure Is On, by Hank Williams, Jr. The cover of that record was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It had a black cover with Hank dressed in a white cowboy hat, lavender John Wayne bib shirt, jeans, a fringed buckskin leather Native American jacket complete with beads, and white Nudie boots with black wing-tips. He stood on a set of railroad tracks in front of a train engine with his shades, beard and long hair. I immediately started wondering where such duds could be obtained, how much they would cost and how I would look with long hair and a beard. There were many other Hank Jr. records for sale there, all with awesome covers, too. I wanted them all right then, but The Pressure Is On was my first choice because it contained the song that grabbed me originally, A Country Boy Can Survive. I would be back often in the following weeks to purchase more Hank albums.
When we made it back to my grandpa’s house, I remembered that underneath one of the beds was an old mono record player. It looked just like a green and white suitcase, but once opened, a world of music waited inside to take you on a journey of the ear and mind. That thing was loaded with extras. It was designed to accommodate 33s, 45s, and 78s. You placed a stack of records on the spindle, and when one finished the next would drop down and start playing, with golden, rocking sounds coming through the built-in speaker. It had been my dad’s before he went off to Vietnam, and he had left two LP, mono records inside, with covers and all. One was a Bobby Vinton album, the other was a Kink’s record. I couldn’t wait to crank up that record player and listen to my new Hank, Jr. album.
However, one thing did give me pause. Next to that old record player was a large triangular-shaped box. I was curious as to what was in it, so I pulled it out and discovered it contained a banjo. It seems my grandpa could play a multitude of stringed instruments including mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass. The previous winter, I had begged for and received a guitar for Christmas because I wanted to play one just like Hank. I didn’t know that Hank was an accomplished musician at more than just the guitar. He had mastered about a dozen instruments but the guitar is what I most identified him with.
Unfortunately, when I got my guitar I didn’t even know how to tune it, much less play it. The same summer I learned of my grandpa’s musical abilities, he taught me my first few chords on the guitar. Yep. Ain’t it something that I got my first guitar when I was fourteen, just like the Waylon song says?
There are many folks in my family to whom musical talent came naturally. My grandpa was one of them. I also had a cousin that started a pawn shop and learned to play every instrument that came through the door within a week of it being pawned. I have seen him beat the hell out of a piano until his fingers bled singing and playing just like Jerry Lee, all by ear, and without ever having a lesson.
When I started trying to play the guitar, I found out I was not similarly blessed. I was so bad, I’m surprised I could play the radio in time and on key. That didn’t stop me from banging on that acoustic guitar and howling along with every song I heard. I had to work hard at everything I wanted to do. It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of time. Even to this day, I make no claims as a singer and am only an average guitar picker, even though I have performed on TV.
Songwriting didn’t come easy either, but I was determined that I was going to create new songs like the ones Hank sung. I wanted to write good lyrics and I tried with everything I had. I wrote some, but I had trouble thinking about what to write. Back then, I just simply hadn’t lived enough to have anything of significance to write about. That soon changed. The preacher’s daughter never, ever gave me the time of day. We lived in two different worlds and it never clicked for us because she was not in the least bit interested. I eventually married some other ol’ gal, and five years later, it all ended in divorce. I wanted the divorce and I filed for it, but it was one of the hardest things I have ever been through. That experience opened the floodgates in my heart and mind, and I really started writing. It was good therapy for a rattled mind and writing helps me make sense of a crazy world even now.
After my divorce, I started thinking for the first time about pitching my songs. I took a job on the river as a deckhand for the twenty-eight days on, fourteen days off schedule, figuring I could use the days off to pitch my songs around Nashville, believing in a year or so, I would be a famous songwriter. Once again, I submit that ignorance is bliss. Over twenty years later, I am still working on the boats, although I am a captain now—and I’m still writing songs.
Just like that old dog that used to chase squirrels, I have been in hot pursuit of an elusive beast that has always been just beyond my grasp. Every time I was sure that I could grab a’hold of the prize, it would again disappear before my eyes, and I would be laughed at for being so presumptuous as to think I was good enough or fast enough to gain purchase on something that belonged high above me at the top of the charts. I started to think that the old dog and I would have been just as well off running in circles, chasing our tails. All except for one thing: that dog never, ever gave up until the day when all the odds were in his favor, he did finally catch one of those squirrels. I couldn’t believe my eyes. When you least expect it, expect it. What followed was about three minutes’ worth of hide skinning between the dog and the squirrel. I’m not real sure who won the battle but both limped away from the altercation. My grandpa laughed and said, “I guess the sun don’t shine up the same dog’s ass everyday!” I wasn’t sure what the sun had to do with the dog’s ass way back then or how it helped the dog nab the squirrel. All these years later, I think now I get it. What he meant was that it was just one of those magical days where all the conditions were right for an underdog to experience what it is like to be a lucky dog. I’m not sure if it was from the contentment of a job well done or if he simply found out he had bit off more than he could chew, but that old dog never chased a squirrel again. The squirrels would run circles around him, trying to entice him, but from that day on, that old dog ignored them.
So how did an underdog like me from the backwoods of Georgia go from being just a fan to being the lucky dog who co-wrote a tune with the greatest outlaw country artist that ever lived? I don’t have enough paper or ink to tell the entire story, so I will relate the abridged version.
I guess it all really started to turn around for me in the latter part of 2010, when the Nashville Music Guide took an interest in me and the owner of that magazine, Randy Matthews, took me under his wing. The next thing I knew, Randy had me on stage performing with a group of legendary hit songwriters. Headlining the show was Billy Yates who wrote Choices and I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair for George Jones.
There I was on stage with about two dozen established songwriters, and no one knew who the hell I was. You know why? Because I was a freaking nobody. How Randy managed to get me on that stage for my debut gig in Nashville as a songwriter is still a mystery to me. The man definitely has connections, is all I can figure.
Among the performers that night was Tommy Barnes who wrote Indian Outlaw for Tim McGraw and Man To Man for Bocephus. Although there were many other awe-inspiring songwriters performing, I followed Tommy around like a chicken after a June bug. He’s a great guy, and besides, he had written a song for my idol. He took me to the very spot he stood in the night he watched Hank, Jr. on TV performing Man To Man on the CMAs. We drank a lot of beer and he told me the story of how he wrote the song. Later, after the show, he and I were staggering drunk out in the parking lot, arms around each other’s shoulders for support, singing every Bocephus song we could think of at the top of our lungs like two old drunken alley cats. I’m surprised the boys in blue didn’t show up to skin those two old alley cats.
The next day, Randy introduced me to a man who has more talent in his pinky finger than most folks have in their entire bodies.
I met Tony Stampley at the offices of the Nashville Music Guide. For those of you who don’t know, Tony is the son of another hero of mine, Joe Stampley. I grew up listening to Joe on the radio and my all-time favorite song of his was Just Good Ol’ Boys. Tony, himself, is also a hit songwriter. When I met him he had fourteen Hank Williams, Jr. cuts under his belt. I didn’t realize then, that we were about to increase that number.
Randy set Tony and me up in a back room of the Nashville Music Guide and told us not to come out until we had written a smash hit together. Then he locked us in the building and left for some business meetings. Can you imagine being in a room with the man that wrote Whiskey on Ice for Hank, Jr’s High Notes album? I was a bit intimidated to say the least, and being the honest man I am, I told Tony so. He said, “Don’t worry son, just come up with some killer lyrics and everything will be fine.”
That particular day, just like most days, I was wearing a Bocephus T-shirt. It bore a picture of Hank from his Greatest Hits album on the front with If You Don’t Like Hank Williams You Can Kiss My. . . (with a picture of a donkey) printed on the back. Tony said, “I see you like Hank. Why don’t we write one for ol’ Bocephus? I know a tune that Hank would love to have some lyrics written to.”
Then he pulled out his guitar and started playing. When we walked out of that office, we had written the first draft of The Party’s On. I knew the song was good, but I didn’t realize how good it was until Tony cut the demo a week later.
To celebrate our new collaboration and friendship, Tony and I went to Ruth Kris steak house where we pigged out, doing our best to eat everything on the menu. Songwriting is some hard work and a man has to eat, you know. While we dined, Tony told me some very entertaining stories about a very colorful character, Merle Kilgore. Mr. Kilgore spent the better part of his life with Hank as his opening act and manager. He wrote Johnny Reb for Johnny Horton, Claude King’s huge crossover hit, Wolverton Mountain, John Anderson’s When You Get On The Whiskey and he co-wrote the timeless Ring Of Fire with June Carter Cash. Tony can talk just like Merle Kilgore and had me laughing like a rabid hyena with some of the memories he had of that great man. Sometime during that dinner, Tony went from being a hero of mine to a honky-tonk brother and a friend. I also had a Mr. Kilgore story to tell.
When I first started trying to pitch my songs, I had a few that I thought might make good Hank songs. One day, I worked up the nerve to call Hank’s office to ask if it would be possible to submit a few songs for consideration. I could not believe who answered the phone. Merle Kilgore had such a unique voice that I recognized him immediately. At that point, the adrenaline started coursing through my veins because I was so amazed to be talking to him. I nearly lost the nerve to ask for permission to submit. Mr. Kilgore was kind enough to let me send him three songs. A week or so later he called me back. “Joe, I couldn’t use any of the songs you sent me,” he said, “but you just keep on writing them, brutha, you just might write a Number 1 hit one of these days.” Then he told me about writing Wolverton Mountain and how it became a hit. The next thing I knew, I received an autographed 8×10 of Mr. Kilgore in the mail.
I had the pleasure of having a few more conversations with that great man before he passed away, and I will never forget the words of wisdom he shared with me. For many years, I had been getting torn apart by the music industry for having the audacity to think I could break into the business as a songwriter. Many of the “professionals” made it personal, and ran my name through the mud as well. Mr. Kilgore, however, treated me with respect and actually left me feeling good about myself, even though my songs had been rejected. Remembering what he said all those years ago has helped me pick up the pieces and try again many times when I thought I was too broken to continue.
Once Tony and I finished eating, we were nearly late for a writer’s night that he was putting on at Pick’s Nashville. That night he performed Whiskey On Ice especially for me, and when he finished his set he invited me up on stage to play three of my originals. Man, I couldn’t believe it. I was actually living my Nashville dream.
That entire trip to Nashville was a huge success in my opinion. Randy set up many more things for me including a great promotional photo shoot.
Randy and the whole crew at the Nashville Music Guide supported and encouraged me in a town where most won’t give a no-name like me the time of day. I often wondered why those folks rolled out the red carpet for lil’ ol’ me. I guess they saw potential that I hadn’t realized, and they believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. They champion the cause for independents like me on Music Row and beyond, just like the cover of the magazine says. I found out what the “beyond” means. It means beyond my wildest dreams.
On the way home my wife, Denise, aka Miss Neci, and I started wondering why Randy would invest his time and money in my cause and what was in it for him. We were southbound on I-65 going through Montgomery when I finally decided to call and ask what I owed him for all the work he put into me. His reply was, “You don’t owe me anything. When you make it big then just throw a dog a bone.” I was taken aback. No one had ever given two buckets of manure about me as a songwriter and this man had worked his ass off for me free of charge? I may not have owed him in his book but, in my book, I had a huge debt I was determined to repay.
For some reason, I will work harder for others than I will for myself. Hell, I may have even given up somewhere down the line were it not for the fact that I would have been giving up on the good people that had invested their time, energy and money into my success. It became more than just about me, and I wasn’t about to leave them hanging. The only way I knew to thank those people for what they had done was by working harder to prove them right and to become successful.
The funny thing about the music business is that what you are writing today may not pay you for five, ten, or even twenty years down the road, if ever. When you have to wait that long for a paycheck, it can add a lot of meaning to the trite old phrase, “starving artist.” The Party’s On was no different in that regard. Tony and I felt that we had written the perfect Bocephus song in 2011 and Randy Matthews was in agreement with our assessment, so we all went about the business of trying to get the song pitched. There were many uphill battles from then on, and I nearly drove myself, and everyone around me insane trying to get that song cut by the artist it was written for. It became apparent that I had to give it a rest before I ended up slobbering all over a perfectly good straightjacket in a padded cell somewhere.
Early 2015 opened a huge door of opportunity for me. I was the narrator for the History Channel’s series Mississippi Men, plus I wrote and performed the theme song for the show. I also released a critically acclaimed book in January. Towboat Joe has earned me the title of Best Selling Deadly Writes Publishing Author. In June, The Nashville Music Guide invited Miss Neci and me to go to Music City, USA for CMA Fest, aka Fan Fair. I was also invited to St. Louis the following week by the Waterways Journal to sign autographs at a towboat trade show that the Journal was sponsoring.
The day before we left, Miss Neci sprained her ankle really bad, nearly breaking it. We were on a tight schedule so we had absolutely no time for her to receive medical attention before we left. That poor ol’ girl limped and hobbled all over Tennessee and Missouri on a lame leg trying to help me on a book tour for two weeks. There was bad weather and it seemed everything that could go wrong, did.
Somewhere in the middle of Nowhere, Illinois our little dog, Cammie Jo stepped on the lock button and stole a brand-new, $50K truck that she had no idea how to drive. The keys were locked inside with both our cellphones and no one around to help. I had to shatter the back sliding glass and climb my happy ass through that small opening over shards of glass that were threatening to disembowel me in order to unlock the doors. I figured the middle part of the glass would be the cheapest to break into although it was the hardest to navigate through. Wrong! It was a $650 job to replace that glass because the entire back window had to be replaced instead of just the sliding section. Nearly the whole trip was a disaster ruled by Murphy’s Law and I vowed that if I ever made it home I would never go on another promotional tour again. Ever. Yet, as disastrous as that trip was, it turned out to be the most profitable one we have ever made. It just took some time for the seeds I had planted to germinate and start to sprout.
The highlight of those two weeks was the time we spent in Nashville with Randy Matthews and his children. We did way more relaxing and partying than we did work, but we accomplished a lot of work, too. One evening while we were sitting around a campground drinking beer and talking, Randy invited The Amazing Steve Kilgore and his beautiful fiancée, Miss Silver over for dinner. Steve is the son of the late, great Merle Kilgore and I was really looking forward to meeting the offspring of the gentle giant megastar that had encouraged me years before. Both Steve and I were unaware that Randy had an ulterior motive for introducing us. Randy asked me to play The Party’s On for Steve, to see if he would help us pitch it to Hank, since he knows him personally. I told Randy that I had given up on that song a long time ago. Randy said, “I have never given up on the song, so go play it for him!” And so I did.
Evidently, Randy already had Miss Silver in on his plan and both of them insisted that Steve and I leave out the next morning for Paris, Tennessee to take the song to Hank’s office. Steve really liked the song and was sure it was the perfect Bocephus song, but he was worried I would be disappointed if Hank was not at his office to meet with us. Steve was doing everything he could to get out of making the trip, but Miss Silver was making sure he had no excuses. She was not taking “no” for an answer. Finally, Steve told us that he had a magic trick prop that he had made an agreement to sell and that he had to spend the day learning how to sew to finish it because it had to be mailed out the next day.
Steve is a magic man known as The Amazing Kilgore. Not only can he shake a little sand and work a little spell in the music industry, he can also literally pull a rabbit out of a hat. He fell in love with the tricks of the trade when he was six years old and took his talent all the way to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry where he performed his illusions from 1980 to 1986. He is really good at it, too. When I first met him, he asked me for a dime and in the blink of an eye, he transformed it into a quarter. I started thinking about how good of a return that was on my investment and was wondering what would happen if I gave the man a dollar. I reached out to take the quarter from him and thank him but before I could grab it, he made it disappear. I ended up with no dime or quarter so I decided against risking a dollar. Steve is also a master craftsman at making ventriloquist dummies and often builds magic tricks for other magicians. He was down to a deadline on a project and needed the following day to finish it.
That was when I saw the genius behind what Randy Matthews was trying to accomplish, so I intervened. I told Steve that if he would make the two-hour (one-way) trip with us, that I would pay all the expenses—food, gas, drinks, or whatever he wanted. Along the way, Miss Neci would sew his magic trick together for him. I let him know that there would be absolutely no expectations or disappointments, no matter the outcome. Besides, I had already given up on Hank ever cutting my song, so there was absolutely nothing to lose. We could just spend a relaxing day together getting to know each other and maybe even write a song or two together. Reluctantly, Steve decided to go, but Miss Neci still didn’t know I had volunteered her for the sewing project. The next day we made that trip after stopping for magic trick supplies. While The Amazing Kilgore was shopping, Miss Neci was giving me an earful. What I didn’t think about, was how Miss Neci gets motion sickness when she concentrates on doing anything in a moving vehicle. Also, the project was unique, far from being just basic needlework, and Miss Neci was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do an adequate job, so how dare I throw her under the bus and volunteer her for something she wasn’t sure she could do. I explained that I had all the faith in the world in my little seamstress, to do the best she could and it would all work out fine. I told her that I had to volunteer her so that we wouldn’t miss such an incredible opportunity. After all, we were on our way to pitch a song to The Man.
She wasn’t happy about it, but that woman has always gone above and beyond to help me succeed on this road of insanity, and this time was no exception. Ever since meeting me, that poor woman has been dragged from pillar to post, through countless honky-tonks and up and down every river and bayou you can imagine—all the while giving leeway to my restless, wayward soul that just has to see what is over the next horizon. She is committed, or at least she should be committed, for putting up with me. Whenever she has occasion to tell me how crazy I am for living the wild lifestyle I’m living, I just smile and say, “Well honey, you married me so what does that say for you?” She usually replies, “That means that I am even crazier than you!” I would have to agree. She is crazy alright, crazy about me. Miss Neci has stuck by me through thick and thin. Every pot needs a lid and she and I keep it cooking all the time. She did a wonderful job on the project and Steve was extremely pleased, although we are still finding leftover little rogue green boa feathers in the cab of our truck.
On the way to Paris, we all listened to Steve’s CD of music and stories entitled, Growing Up Kilgore. It was very entertaining to listen to Steve talk about his experiences as a child of Country Music royalty. For anyone that has not heard it yet, I highly recommend it.
When we arrived in Paris, Hank was nowhere around and his office was locked up tighter than Dick’s hatband. We found out later that Hank was in Alabama on a fishing expedition. Steve was certain that I was disappointed and would be telling everybody what a wasted journey it was. There was no way that I was going to let him believe that I thought it was a waste of time. We’d had a blast on an unclouded, gorgeous day while we enjoyed the drive there with some high quality entertainment. It is never a squander to spend time with a like-minded individual with a kindred spirit. Besides, I was buying the beer on the way home and the party was on. Before we left, I asked Steve if we should leave my songwriting package at the door with the hope that Hank would receive it. Steve thought that was an excellent idea, so he penned a personal note to Hank on the inside cover of the folder that contained a demo and lyric sheet for The Party’s On. There was a plastic owl sitting on the front porch to Hank’s office to keep the birds from roosting in the portico and making a mess at the entrance to the building. We used that owl to weigh the folder down so that it wouldn’t blow away and left both sitting right in front of the door. That was a most unique way to pitch a song to a major artist. It was a real hoot.
On the way back to Nashville, I volunteered Miss Neci once again. She was the designated driver and I was on beer patrol. We listened to a story from the audio version of my book, Towboat Joe and Steve and I worked on lyrics for some co-writes of our own. Sometime during the ride back, Steve said, “You know I think we just pitched Hank his next hit!” I was thinking, I sure hope you’re right! Instead, what I said with confidence was, “You’re damn right we did and I never could have done it without you!”
That excursion was a sterling success because we had accomplished what we set out to do and during the interim, I had discovered yet another friend and brother to add to my list of honky-tonk family members. Miss Neci and I have become very close with Steve and Miss Silver and we love them to death. Steve owns More and More Music, which is named after his dad’s first hit song that landed at #1 for Web Pierce and stayed there for ten weeks. More And More Music is of course, my publisher on The Party’s On.
The next two weeks were a blur of activity for me and my nearly crippled wife as we pounded the streets of Nashville, and went on to terrorize St. Louis. Eventually we made it back to Louisiana broke down, busted and honky-tonked all to hell— just like the words of another Stampley song that Bocephus cut. We arrived with a shattered back window and Miss Neci in dire need of medical attention. The doctor said that her ankle was so sprained that he was surprised a blood clot hadn’t formed and worked its way to her heart or brain. He told me that I had probably saved her life by keeping her on her feet and moving. I told him, “Don’t blame that shit on me!!” Eventually I went back to work on the 90′ towboat where I am captain, and life started getting back to normal.
I didn’t have high hopes that Hank Williams, Jr. would ever hear The Party’s On, much less record it. Later, I learned that Randy Matthews was on a mission. He called Hank’s office nearly every day to ensure that he received my songwriting package. Not long after that, I lost contact with Steve Kilgore and found out later that he had lost his phone. He was determined to find the old one and refused to purchase a new one. Randy was so sure about our quest he fully expected Hank to call Steve about the song, so he went over to help him search. The phone had been lost for a number of days and sure enough, Steve had missed The Phone Call.
I had already worked another twenty-eight day hitch and was back at home. I had been outside catching up on my “honey-do” list that had been severely neglected due to our recent adventures. When I came back inside, I noticed I had a missed call and a voice mail from Tony Stampley. What I heard next was music to my ears that made me dance a jig like a barfly studying for a field sobriety test.
“Hey Joe, this is Tony Stampley. Hey, brother I’ve got some good news. I was just at the studio watching Hank, Jr. record The Party’s On…” The message continued but I had dropped the phone and was yelling out a victory cry. My wife must have thought I had fallen off my rocker and broke something vital. She came hobbling to my rescue only to find out that I had not fallen and we didn’t need the good folks at Life Alert after all. That was the fateful day that will dramatically change the rest of my life. Ha, I guess the sun DON’T shine up the same dog’s ass every day! Now that I finally grabbed hold of something tangible, I can stop chasing squirrels and go lay under that shade tree with the people that have always been there for me while I conveniently ignore all the other long tailed tree rats that used to heckle me from high above. Looking back now, I don’t think that old dog was whipped years ago. I think, instead, he was content with a job well done when he caught that squirrel, and no longer felt the need to give any regard to the chattering of the scoundrels that he once considered so paramount.
Miss Neci said, “Great! Now we can relax a little bit and enjoy a normal life for once.” Maybe I will let her believe that for a little while, but I’m sure deep in her heart she knows that you can’t teach an old, salty dog new tricks, and soon enough I will be back out chasing the wind and painting the town red, white and blue. It’s just what old dogs do, and I love the game. And I know Miss Neci will put on her traveling boots and will be right on my tail barking orders like she thinks she can make me heel…for once.
What more could I ask for out of life, you might ask. I’ll have to admit that it will be mighty hard to top what has already been accomplished thus far. Tony and I had the forethought to leave room in the song for Hank to write some lyrics of his own, which he did. If the song Tony, Hank and I wrote becomes a hit, then it will be like having a gust of wind in my mains to enhance the blue skies and fair tides of a sailor’s delight. How interesting it would be to see how my life might change when I go from being an unknown songwriter to being a hit songwriter.
I am notorious for dreaming BIG because that is the only way I know how to dream and that is what has brought me to this place in my life. And guess what? I am still dreaming BIG. I hope like hell that The Party’s On not only becomes a hit, but that it goes all the way to # 1 and stays there for the Icon that thought enough of my song to write on it, and record it.
Of course, I have no control in those things. It is all up to the fans to decide what constitutes a hit. Yet, I can’t stop the wheels from turning in my head while I imagine what might happen. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that where I am today was just a big dream in a small mind and a million-dollar plan with a ten-dollar wallet.
I’m not done dreaming yet or chasing after what I want in life. Although, I have learned to ignore the blasted squirrels.
It is my full intention to pave the streets of Nashville in solid honky-tonk Country gold, and turn the ordinary into extraordinary and become legendary. When all that is accomplished, I will have properly thanked Randy Matthews and the Nashville Music Guide for believing in me by becoming successful. You might say all of that is impossible and that I’m mighty presumptuous for even thinking such a thing, but let me remind you that my all-time favorite artist, who has been my idol my entire life, has recorded a song that he co-wrote with me. How many songwriters can say that? Impossible you say? I don’t believe in Impossible.
So, how did an underdog like me from the backwoods of Georgia go from being just a fan to being the lucky dog who co-wrote a tune with the greatest outlaw, country artist that ever lived? I lost all my marbles and traded my Buffalo nickels for a Hank, Jr. song. The Party’s On ya’ll…
…and I will see you at the top of the charts.
Captain Joe Kent
-Captain of the M/V Ron Hull
-Narrator, theme song writer/performer for the History channel’s series Mississippi Men
-Author of Towboat Joe (www.deadlywritespublishing.com and www.tjkentmusic.com/towboat-joe/
-Contributing writer for the Nashville Music Guide and other publications
-Co-writer of The Party’s On