"Durham during the '40s and the '50s was a kid on a bicycle with shorts and no shoes. And I had the bicycle to beat all bicycles. A yellow bicycle with chrome fenders, big whitewall tires, a si-reen, a horn and stuff that hung from the handlebars. The faster I went, the further out they'd go."
That's how legendary songwriter John D. Loudermilk remembers the Bull City of his boyhood. Legendary, indeed: In June, the Country Music Hall of Fame honored Loudermilk with its second edition of Poets and Prophets, a quarterly tribute to some of country's best wordsmiths. Loudermilk is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1976, too. But that's getting ahead of the story, way up to Chapter 19 or so. Loudermilk's is a great tale, and he's a gifted storyteller.
A homemade ukulele and sharing parents are closer to the beginning, he remembers. Loudermilk's father was a carpenter from Stone Mountain, Ala., who helped build several Durham tobacco factories and parts of Duke University. Loudermilk's mother had been a missionary up in the mountains in Cherokee, and she played guitar. When he was 7, she tried to teach him to play.
"The strings were steel and the neck was so big," Loudermilk, now 73, remembers. "So my father, he knew a fella at the shipyards in Norfolk. He got some glue from him because the glue was all going to the military. He took some cigar boxes and made me a ukulele. I had gut strings on it, man. They were just wonderful. They were soft and big, and I didn't have to worry about my fingers getting hurt." Ukulele in hand, Loudermilk performed publicly for the first time, singing "Life's Railway to Heaven" with his mother one Sunday night at an open-air gathering at the Salvation Army at Durham's Five Points.
Music carried Loudermilk through his childhood. He began booking the local country outfit Little Cliff & the Sunnyside Boys when he was just 12. At 13, he landed a regular gig on Julia Martin's WTIK radio show. He was little Johnnie Dee singing the country hits of the day. Soon, Loudermilk was winning all the talent shows at Durham High School. After graduation, he landed a jack-of-all-trades job at WTVD, performing with his trio on The Noon Show.
Then, one afternoon in 1956, he sang "A Rose and a Baby Ruth," a tune he'd just written. The phone lines lit up. One inquiring call was from Chapel Hill's Orville Campbell, who'd just recorded "What It Was Was Football" for Andy Griffith. Loudermilk and Campbell discussed "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" just as Loudermilk headed to Fayetteville for a few weeks. When he returned to Raleigh, the song was already No. 3 in Baltimore—as recorded by George Hamilton IV, a Winston-Salem teenager three years younger than Loudermilk.
Loudermilk asked Campbell why he didn't record the song with him. Campbell asked him to sit down: "John, you don't have charisma," Campbell explained. Loudermilk didn't know what that word meant, so they looked it up in Campbell's office dictionary. "I said, 'Why damn,'" he says. "And then Mr. Campbell said, 'You need to save your best songs for singers who are stars or can be stars, or you'll waste your life's work singing damn good songs but not being able to sell them.'"
Wesley Rose, the president of publishing company Acuff-Rose Music when Loudermilk arrived in Nashville in 1958, said much the same thing: "Don't save all your best songs for yourself." Loudermilk took the advice to heart, even though he had a record deal with RCA-Victor and even though his new friend Chet Atkins told Loudermilk to hang on to his best work. "I said, 'No, uh-uh. I'm going to sing stuff I can't get cut in Nashville, but the rest...," says Loudermilk.
The rest, of course, was fair game, with Stonewall Jackson's take on "Waterloo" becoming Loudermilk's first Nashville smash. (Eddie Cochran scored a Top 20 hit with "Sittin' in the Balcony" just before Loudermilk's move to Music City.) According to a painstaking Web site led by a fan in the Netherlands, Kees van der Hoeven, 323 Loudermilk songs have been recorded by 1,100 artists with names from the household to the "huh?" variety. Chet Atkins, Doc Watson and the Ventures recorded the guitar piece "Windy and Warm." So did Johnny Kongos & the G-Men and the Neon Spores.
Lou Rawls, Jefferson Airplane, the Animals, Junior Wells, David Lee Roth and, most recently, locals Southern Culture on the Skids and about 200 others put their stamp on Loudermilk's signature "Tobacco Road," an autobiographical song that takes dramatic license with Durham and Loudermilk's childhood here. Acts from Japan, Australia, Italy, France, Argentina and a dozen other countries have made it their own.
Loudermilk's songs also know no genre borders. Take the classic "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye," first recorded by a crooner named Don Cherry before Johnny Tillotson gave it a country treatment. It's arguably best known, though, as a country-soul gem recorded by William Bell, Bettye Swann and Solomon Burke.
Such a catalog and career deserve celebration, which leads, of course, to that Poets and Prophets tribute earlier this summer. Loudermilk performed a handful of his best-known songs onstage amid photos documenting his career. And, no doubt best of all, there was John D. Loudermilk holding court, elaborating on five decades of songs: "I talked about things I'd never talked about. Songwriters very seldom get a chance to talk."
"It's all been just a cool slide for me. Gee whiz, it's just been wonderful," he says, summarizing his childhood and the successes that followed. Then he offers a lesson: "I can't advise young parents strongly enough that if your child wants to be in a band or have a band, let him. Forget the drugs and the pussy and all of that, and just let him play, man. That will save him all kinds of psychiatric care. A child finds himself early in a band."
Loudermilk still likes to ride fast on occasion, it seems. He likes to see those handlebar tassels fly.
Editor's Note: For all the information you could ever hope to possess about the songs of John D. Loudermilk, see Kees van der Hoeven's Web site at members.chello.nl/~k.vanderhoeven. Loudermilk asked Rick Cornell that this interview be dedicated to Don Curtis of the Curtis Media Group. He also had a rather cryptic message for Don: "I'm ready for the interview."