Of all the honors that a country artist can find in the gilded streets of Nashville, joining the oh-so-coveted Grand Ole Opry is surely at the top of the list.
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If you’re lucky enough to receive an invitation, you’ll find your nameplate on the wall beside the likes of Chet Atkins, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and 220 other members that are the undisputed best that the genre has to offer—well 221 now, thanks to the legendary songwriter, Don Schlitz.
“The Gambler.” “When You Say Nothing At All.” “Forever and Ever Amen.” These are songs that come with the beginner’s guide to country music and tend to stick around in the rotation long after you earn your stripes. They are classics for good reason—beautiful melodies underneath lyrics that deliver a wealth of emotion bolstered by the vocals of Kenny Rogers, Keith Whitley, and Randy Travis. But, another man that deserves his dues for these enduring hits is Schlitz.
Across his decades-long career, pumping out hit after hit for all of our favorite country stars, Schlitz has earned Two Grammy Awards, four ASCAP Songwriter of the Year awards, an induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and one to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In June, his long-time friend Vince Gill bestowed yet another honor on him, inviting him to step into that iconic circle and become a member of the Opry. Schlitz’s invitation marks the first time a non-artist songwriter has earned the invitation.
A few months before Gill made things official, he also gave Schlitz his first opportunity to play on the Opry stage. After dragging him along to work while their wives went to their “real jobs,” Gill brought Schlitz onstage for a round of “The Gambler.”
“I remember whispering to Vince onstage, ‘don’t leave me here alone,’” Schlitz recalled how he felt when he first walked out on stage. “I went out and played ‘The Gambler’ and everyone applauded. As we were driving home, we were quiet like old friends can be. I asked him, ‘does it ever get old?’ He told me ‘nope,’ and that has turned out to be true.”
American Songwriter was given the opportunity to chat with Schlitz before he headed out on stage to take his spot in the Opry. Sitting in the “Songwriters Room,” Schlitz got his first piece of mail as an Opry member, which seemed to sink the moment in even more.
When asked if the nerves were settling in for the night, Schlitz replied, “People want to love you. If I just find that logical conclusion. I can enjoy it and get my work done.”
A pacifying, and perhaps humbling, notion for Schlitz is his belief that he plays the role of a stand-in for the country artists who sang his songs. When he takes the stage, he is the bridge between the audience and their heroes who aren’t around to sing for them anymore.
“I’m not gonna think about my legacy yet,” he said. “But I get to share Kenny Rogers’ legacy. Keith Whitley’s legacy. Randy Travis’ legacy. These are songs that they know from their heroes.”
Rogers once said, “Don doesn’t just write songs, he writes careers.” An apt description, given he has produced chart-topping cuts for The Judds, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Alison Krauss among others. With a discerning look at the world and a penchant for earworm melodies, Schlitz has struck gold across decades of country music.
His run as a songwriter has unfortunately come to an end. Schlitz decided to holster his pen a few years ago.
As his nameplate was being screwed into the wall backstage at the Opry, one member of the large group of family and friends that came out to support him screamed, “I think there’s a song in here Don!” To which he quickly replied, “No there is not!”
On his decision to stop songwriting he said, “I woke up and looked at my wife and said, ‘I want to stop. I want to stop thinking about it all the time. That was my process. I listened to people talk. I read. I wanted to write songs that I wanted to hear. Most importantly, I wanted to find an honest way of saying something that came from my heart.
“You never know what song is going to be the song,” he continued. “You’re going to tell me that a song that is too long about a guy talking to an older guy who is either drunk or doesn’t have any cigarettes of his own is something that needs to be written? Yeah, I wanted to hear that story.”
Much to Schlitz’s surprise the rest of the world wanted to hear it too. As evident by the crowd’s reaction to “The Gambler” once Schlitz started up the first few notes on his Opry induction night, it’s safe to say that track alone is enough to cement Schlitz’s spot among the country greats.
The crowd’s reaction was something Schlitz was prepared for—predicted even —before he took the stage. He said, “I’ll go up there and I’ll say ‘you have no idea who I am’ but they will be singing with me nonetheless.”