The great songwriter John D. Loudermilk practically defied easy description.
Though you won’t find his name in the Country Music or Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, Loudermilk helped write the history of those two genres with songs like “Tobacco Road,” “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” and a plethora of others. He spread the wealth of his talent generously, writing hits in the country, rock and pop worlds. His songs were recorded by a diverse roster of artists, including everyone from Stonewall Jackson and Eddy Arnold to the Everly Brothers and Norah Jones.
“Tobacco Road” alone was covered by British Invasion band The Nashville Teens, psychedelic rockers Blues Magoos and soul singer Lou Rawls, a prime example of the wide appeal of his work. Among his fellow composers, Loudermilk is regarded as a brilliant innovator who chronicled the complex human condition in deceptively simple language.
Loudermilk died in September 2016 at the age of 82 following a series of illnesses. But before he passed, Music Row fixture Dixie Gamble and Grammy-winning guitarist John Jorgenson helped put together a special tribute to the prolific songwriter at the Franklin Theatre in Franklin, Tenn., with Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and others all taking the stage. Loudermilk, despite his frail condition, was able to attend the show.
The concert was captured for the album, “A Tribute to John D. Loudermilk,” set for release on Sept. 15th. A film of the concert will also air as a PBS television special. Gamble organized the concert and is overseeing production of the PBS program.
There’s a natural question on the heels of this all-star salute: Why hadn’t it been done before this? It was certainly not for lack of trying. Gamble, a song publishing executive as well as a noted filmmaker and author, hatched the idea several years ago and brought it up repeatedly. Getting the elusive Loudermilk to agree often proved the sticking point.
“I met John D. in 1982,” Gamble begins in a lilting tone that seems to suit her first name. “I just adored him from the minute I met him. I was a publisher in my early music business days here in Nashville, and the more I learned about his catalog the more fascinated I became. He was a man who could write an extraordinary narrative from a woman’s perspective. I thought he would have a wall full of Grammys and all these country accolades, but I could never see where he had ever been honored.”
Loudermilk received one Grammy in his career for Best Album Notes for the album “Suburban Attitudes in Country Verse.” He was also a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Gamble was correct in her assessment that the country industry had never showered him with a tribute of any sort.“Ten years ago,” Gamble recalls, picking up the thread of the story, “I started saying to him, ‘Why don’t we produce some kind of tribute album and get people to cover some of these songs.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, darling, let me think about that.’ Over the years, I brought it up several times. He was just a very humble and unassuming man. We talked about it but he still didn’t give me an OK.”
Loudermilk’s health had worsened by January of 2016, as his prostate cancer spread to his bones. That prompted a phone call from Loudermilk’s wife Susan to Gamble. “She said that he was not doing well,” Gamble recalls. “I took that to mean he was terminal. I told Susan that we really need to do this [tribute project] now. She said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to convince him.’ I talked to him and he got real quiet after listening to me go on for about 15 minutes,” Gamble adds, smiling. “He finally agreed. We were thinking August because it takes time to put these things together. But Susan thought that might not work. So I said that we needed to do this in March.”
The Franklin Theatre came on board as the venue. John Jorgenson, who served as musical director for the concert and the album’s producer, remembers that Franklin Theatre Director Dan Hays proved especially helpful, given the somewhat limited time frame. “He really stepped up,” Jorgenson raves. “He took care of ticketing and the crew.” The artists also stepped up for the chance to honor Loudermilk. “They were all able to be here,” Jorgenson says. “I can’t remember anyone saying that they couldn’t make it.”
As far as “casting” the album, Jorgenson was able to recruit stars who had recorded several of Loudermilk’s songs. “Rodney Crowell had cut ‘Tobacco Road,’ so I knew he would do that,” Jorgenson says. “Doyle Lawson already had a hit with ‘Blue Train.’ And Jimmy Hall was performing ‘Bad News’ on his shows for years.” In addition, Becky Hobbs recorded “Talk Back Trembling Lips” in 1990 and reprised her version for the concert and album.
For the moving “Where Have They Gone,” Dixie Gamble sensed that the proper voice belonged solely to one singer: Emmylou Harris. “When I heard that, I thought of Emmylou,” Gamble says. Harris, by her very stature, keeps a schedule that would exhaust even the most energetic among us. “She does so much,” Jorgenson agrees. “Everybody invites her to do everything, like benefits and singing on their albums. And she is so gracious with her time. But we didn’t want to put anything on her.”
Harris joined the mix and performed a beautiful rendition of “Where Have They Gone,” along with top songwriters Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy. The album itself boasts one extraordinary highlight after another, with standout tracks like Rosanne Cash’s version of “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” “Windy and Warm” by Australian guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel, “Waterloo” by Ricky Skaggs with The Whites and Jorgenson’s own take on “Midnight Bus.”
The tribute concert proved another of those magical, “only-in-Nashville” kind of nights. “I have been here since the 1970’s,” Gamble says, “and I have never been part of anything quite like this. The room just elevated. And seeing the expression on John D.’s face was so wonderful.”
Loudermilk will be forever embraced not just as a genre-bending songwriter but also as a colorful, iconoclastic character with his own set of eccentricities. For example, the “D” in his name didn’t stand for anything, although his father was named John D., so perhaps an homage was part of the moniker. Music Row politics wasn’t exactly in his game plan, either.
“He was outside of the box as far as the business was concerned,” Gamble explains. “John D. knew the business end of it. But he didn’t party. He didn’t show up at things because he was supposed to. That was not out of any malice, it’s just that he couldn’t be bothered. He was a genius and he was in his little cocoon.”
Then there was his hobby of chasing hurricanes. Apparently, before The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore ever became a cult figure, Loudermilk and his frequent partner in crime, record producer Norro Wilson, would actually set out on hurricane chasing adventures. Not your average sideline, to be certain.
Mainly, though, the Loudermilk legacy will live on through his array of songs and his widespread influence. “With songwriters, John D. is loved, revered and adored,” says Gamble with a wide smile. “Almost everything he did he wrote by himself, which is not the usual Music Row way. Most of all, he was a storyteller. He wrote these great vignettes with a wonderful melody. He was a creative influence on a lot of people. They all knew John was iconic and wrote this plethora of diverse songs.”
“A Tribute to John D. Loudermilk” is out now. The concert special will run on PBS. Please check local listings or contact your PBS affiliate for air dates and times.