Most major country music artists are always on the lookout for that perfect song—the one that has a melody you can’t get out of your head, lyrics that can make you cry or laugh, or just a catchy beat that makes you tap your toes. The results can be extraordinary when a great song meets the right singer. Some singers have been blessed with such a song. For some artists, the tune made them famous; for others, it blasted an already-thriving career into the stratosphere. There is also a power inside the song, that signature riff or melody that can identify the song in just a few notes. We’re gonna take a look at the humble giants behind signature songs.
Take musicians like Buddy Spicher, who played the fiddle on George Strait’s song “Amarillo By Morning” and many more legendary signature songs. He became a Nashville-based session musician in the late ‘60s when he started doing fiddle sessions for artists like Bob Dylan. When I spoke with Buddy Spicher, we talked about his fiddle performances on Gene Watson’s song “Love on a Hot Afternoon” and Faron Young’s “Wind Me Up.” He gives credit to his fellow musicians Tommy Jackson, Dale Potter and Shorty Lavender for helping him become so successful as a Nashville session musician. Spicher has performed on stage with artists like Hank Snow, Ray Price and the Charles River Valley Boys, just to name a few. He was inducted into the Fiddlers Hall of Fame in 2010, and he still does session work till this day. Spicher also spoke highly of Delia Upchurch and credited her for playing a crucial role in his success. According to Spicher, Delia Upchurch was a “den mother” who rented rooms to Grand Ole Opry musicians and provided a stable and moral home environment for these young musicians. Some musicians who stayed there were Dale Potter, Billy Robinson, Hank Garland, Joel Price, Butterball Paige, Grady Martin, Don Helms, Jack Drake, Billy Byrd and the list goes on.
Few can compare to Buddy Spicher, but fiddler Aubrey Haynie is fast making a name for himself as well. In 2004, Haynie won the fiddle category at the 39th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards and now earns a living as a session musician performing on several signature songs, but he still finds time to perform in small venues around Nashville. If you live in Nashville, it is pretty common to find legendary musicians performing around town—many who have played the signature lick on many a signature song. A lot of times these melodic crafters play for almost nothing, just for the pure joy of jamming with their peers. Take musicians like Jeff Taylor, who plays accordion for The Time Jumpers. A lot of times, you can find him performing in various places around town, although he has recorded with artists such as Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Harry Connick, Jr., Amy Grant, George Strait, Martina McBride, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs, just to name a few.
One of Nashville’s top harmonica players is Buddy Greene. When we spoke, Greene claims some of his favorite places to play are the Station Inn, Puckett’s in Franklin, and The Bluebird. When asked what one event launched his harmonica legacy, Buddy stated, “In 2002, I had the opportunity to play in Carnegie Hall. A video of that performance has since gone viral with what I think is now close to 4 million views. Basically, that video has brought me more recognition in the last 10 years than the previous 30!” Buddy Greene’s most well-known “claim to fame” may be a song he co-wrote with Mark Lowry named “Mary, Did You Know,” which has become a modern-day Christmas classic.
Even though they may be popular, many hit songs in the US and across the globe are not considered signature songs, and some songs are considered a signature song for more than one artist. One of the most successful of those tunes is undoubtedly Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” In fact, this song was No. 1 more than once. Dolly Parton wrote the song in 1973, for her partner and mentor Porter Wagoner, with whom she was professionally splitting at the time. The song was released on June 6, 1974 as the second single from Dolly Parton’s 13th solo studio album.
“I Will Always Love You” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart two times, because Parton also released the song in 1982 for the film “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” In 1992, Whitney Houston recorded a version of the song for the film “The Bodyguard.” It has since become one of the best selling singles of all time. Parton became the first artist ever to earn a number one record twice with the same song as a singer, and three times as a writer. Dolly found success on the country charts for a third time with the song when she took a duet version with Vince Gill to No. 15 in 1995.
When you think of signature song you might wonder what makes a signature song. Take the song “Goodbye Time,” which was performed by Conway Twitty and also Blake Shelton and written by James Dean Hicks and Roger Murrah. Talking with Roger Murrah, he seems to think that signature songs happen organically. “The power of the musical lick or chord progression are underestimated, and the songwriters are indebted to the amazing musicians who are so often the unsung heroes behind those signature musical hooks, which often identifies the song. In some cases, the songwriters often write such licks, or intro arrangements, as part of their creation of a given song,” Murrah explained.
When you thinks of legendary musicians, even the top music industry executives mention legendary steel guitar player Jay Dee Maness. Maness credits his greatest work to be his work with the Desert Rose Band and, of course, playing on Eric Clapton’s hit “Tears in Heaven.” “I usually come up with my own ideas when I’m performing,” related Maness.
“But on ‘Tears in Heaven,’ Eric showed me the solo note for note. He knew exactly what he wanted. I also got to play on Ray Stevens’ Grammy award-winning album ‘Misty.’” Like a true humble giant, Maness gave credit to the musicians who were the greatest influences on him, including Lloyd Green, Buddy Emmons, Tommy White, and Weldon Myrick.
There are many artists with signature songs that immediately come to mind when they are mentioned, like the band Led Zeppelin and their song “Stairway To Heaven.” When people think of the song “Hard to Handle,” the band The Black Crowes comes to mind. Few realize that song was originally written and performed by the legendary artist Otis Redding. When you think of “Funny Man” Ray Stevens, the song “The Streak” comes to mind. Most people don’t know that Ray Stevens is an extraordinary musician and has performed on many other artists’ records. He was also the first artist to record Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”
I asked Ray Stevens how he got into novelty songs. “I was looking for a way to get some attention at radio and I thought a comedy song might do it,” he reflected. Stevens was part of the Nashville Sound from its beginnings in 1958, performing as a session musician for the National Recording Corporation. “I played on hundreds of other artists’ records—almost everyone that recorded at NRC. I played on sessions for Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Leroy Van Dyke and Jerry Reed, just to name a few,” claimed Stevens. I asked Stevens about the secret behind signature songs. “It’s hard to say how signature songs happen. But whether it is the demo session, the master session or when the song is being written, there are little pieces of magic through the whole process. In other words, you know it when you hear it.” Ray Stevens is one of the few artists who has been a session player, record producer, songwriter and arranger of many signature songs. When asked what he is doing now, Stevens replied, “I just finished a gospel CD and a book and two CDs that are yet to be released, and I’m working on a couple of musical plays. But other than that, nothing much.”
Some songs can be recorded multiple times by many artists and not be a hit for any of them, but then an artist cuts it who the song fits perfectly, and it launches that artist into super stardom. Take John Berry’s hit song “Change My Mind,” a song written by Jason Blume and A. J. Masters and originally recorded by the legendary group “The Oak Ridge Boys,” where it only peaked at No. 70 on the Billboard charts for them . So, just because a song might be right for one artist doesn’t mean it’s right for another. I guess sometimes it’s just luck, and other times it’s planned and well thought out. There is no one answer to what makes a signature song.
The heroes behind the signature songs are the songwriters, musicians, producers, record executives and all the people playing their part in bringing a song to the public. The legacy of Nashville has its own troops, each doing their part and carving a life for themselves in an industry that takes no prisoners. So the next time you hear your favorite song, listen a little closer to the arrangement, the instrumentation. Read the credits and give recognition to the heroes behind the music, and you might understand a little better the struggles of the music industry and the world in which many professionals dedicate their lives to the power of music.