Keith Stegall: Wears Many Hats

When Keith Stegall was just 20, Kris Kristofferson advised him to move to Nashville and write professionally.  “It was in 1975, and I was thrilled and petrified,” relates Stegall.  “I played about three of my songs for him, and he harmonized with me on them.  He was the nicest guy and is one of the greatest songwriters – period.”

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When Keith Stegall was just 20, Kris Kristofferson advised him to move to Nashville and write professionally.  “It was in 1975, and I was thrilled and petrified,” relates Stegall.  “I played about three of my songs for him, and he harmonized with me on them.  He was the nicest guy and is one of the greatest songwriters – period.”

Does Stegall have any advice of his own for novice songwriters?  “Trying to break into the music business as a songwriter these days is probably more difficult than when I first came to town.  Things have changed a lot since the mid-70s.  There are a lot more writers and publishers, and the level of competition is much higher.  Be persistent.  When I started, I would go to BMI and ASCAP and talk to the people who would listen to my songs.  If you are a novice, I suggest that you try to make as many writers’ nights as possible.  The key is networking, and there’s no concrete plan to do that except for going out and meeting as many people as possible and believing in your songs.”

The son of Johnny Horton’s steel guitarist, Stegall began playing piano at the age of four and “started writing songs when I was eight or nine.  My father and grandmother wrote songs, so I had that in my life from the beginning.  It seemed like fun and like something I could do.  I still use the piano to write most of my ballads and pop-oriented songs.  It creates a mood that lends itself well to ballads.  I write the more country or up-tempo songs with guitar base because you can strum and be a little grittier on guitar.  I got into the Nashville system when I moved here in 1978, and learned  from great writers here how to craft a great song.”

He learned so well that just two years later, Dr. Hook cut a huge pop hit of his, “Sexy Eyes,” beginning a string of hits including Stegall-penned “We’re In This Love Together” (Al Jarreau), “Don’t Rock The Jukebox” (Alan Jackson), “If I Could Make A Living” (Clay Walker) and “Stranger Things Have Happened (Ronnie Milsap).

The song closest to his heart is “Between An Old Memory And Me,” which “was cut first by Keith Whitley and was later a single for Travis Tritt.  Keith called me on the Saturday before he passed away to say he’d recorded it and how great it had turned out.  He made the song his, and it still knocks me out.”

These days, Stegall is a successful songwriter, artist, producer, and record company executive.  As vice president of artists and repertoire at Mercury, he reveals “I hate the word chart.  The business side aspect is a double-edged sword.  Three has to be a business side to pay the bills, but at the same time, the artist’s integrity shouldn’t be sacrificed.  The ideal is to have an  artist-driven record company and to find unique stylists and great artists who move people emotionally.  In a radio-oriented format, it’s hard to keep focused on an artist having more than a three-minute ditty as a single.”

Stegall feels “An album is composed of snapshots of an artist musically and lyrically at that place in his or her life.”  Last year, he had his own album, Passages, which could be considered an ultimate record of feelings, disillusionment and personal growth for the generation which came of age in the late sixties and early seventies.  With unflinchingly honest, powerful and often poignant lyrics, it was praised critically but never seemed to find the recognition it deserved.

The 42 year-old says its “Baltimore Street” (where “A promise is a promise/And forever never ends”) was written because “People out of the generation before us had the dream of a house with a white picket fence, but it was given for our generation.  We became disenchanted when we didn’t get to do what we loved.  We had a more tumultuous journey because we were trying to find something that would fill us up.”

Stegall is excited about writing with Dan Hill for his next album, and advises, “it probably will be a different type of record, probably more positive than Passages and with more acoustic guitar and maybe drum machines.  I think it’s important to keep redefining where you are in your life when you record.  For example, there were no boundaries with the Beatles.  “Revolution” and “Rocky Raccoon” are on the same album.  So on the palette of an album, there can be as many colors as you want.

A new Mercury artist that I’m real excited about is Neal Coty.  His album is very diverse and all over the place musically.  His records are more like out of the Bruce Springsteen school, and it gives me a chance to get experience in another musical area.”

Stegall has been producing John Anderson, Sammy Kershaw and Terri Clark.  He claims, “I’ll produce Alan Jackson as long as he’ll let me because it’s been a wonderful thing.  Alan is the only outside act I’m allowed to produce in my exclusive deal with Mercury.  I signed Kim Richey but I’m not producing her.  It all depends on which marriage of artist and producer will make the best record.  I think John Anderson and Sammy Kershaw are tremendous stylists, so it’s a pleasure to work with them.”

He acknowledges that “it’s pretty tough to balance” his writing, singing, producing, and executive responsibilities, adding, “I think the thing that suffers most is my writing time.  I have to shut everything down and concentrate.  Each day, I just get up and try to accomplish what has to be done.  I usually try to get the production and record company responsibilities out of the way first.  They are more tedious, and it’s hard to write when you’re in the middle of making a record with someone or trying to take care of A&R duties.  I try to schedule three or four days in a row where I can commit to write.  I try to write at home and get away from the telephone so I can focus on writing.  I usually come to a writing session with an idea, hook, melody, or maybe part of a verse on paper – rarely anything on tape.”

Stegall says he writes “two different ways if I’m writing by myself or with co-writers.  If it’s for somebody else’s project, I don’t mind co-writing.  I still write with Carson Chamberlain and Gary Harrison, and I probably will write with Roger Murrah again.  We work together so well, it’s like we just continue the conversation from last time.  There’s constant feedback between writers when you’re working together to wrestle with the lyrics and melodies.  I did co-write some on Passages, but usually it’s easier to write by myself, nurture the songs and keep them close to me if it’s for my own records.”

He adds that “I’ve been real lucky in having great artists do my songs.  I’ve had two George Jones cuts.  Reba McIntire, Kenny Rogers, Charley Pride and other wonderful singers have cut my songs.  It was a thrill to listen to Johnny Mathis in the studio recording two of my songs.  And I remember writing “Love’s Got A Hold On You” with Carson Chamberlain, and to hear Alan sing it was a kick.  I’d love to have Merle Haggard cut any of my songs.”

Stegall says, “I try not to cross over into working on two or three production projects at once because a one-on-one attitude is important in the creative process.  So I try to give each project all of my attention.  And it is hard to work in A&R when there are so many talented artists out there because, unfortunately, a label only has places for so many artists and I have to tell a lot of them to be patient until a slot opens up.”

He still remembers his own first time on stage at the age of eight “vividly.  It was like electricity, being in front Of a big crowd.  My aunt had taken me to K-Mart to get my first pair of cowboy boots for the show, and it was really cool.”  He plans to continue to play “small clubs and try new songs on the audiences at places like Nashville’s Bluebird Café, and I’d also like to focus on the European Market for future performances.”

Stegall’s first love remains songwriting and his publishing companies (Keith Stegall Music, Little Cayman Music and Cayman Moon Music) should continue to provide some of country and pop’s best lyrics and melodies.

He says his goal is to “keep trying to put another dream on the horizon to reach for.”  This multi-talented writer should have no problem at all achieving any of his goals.


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  1. Keith… we must be related somewhere back a generation or two. I’ve been playing piano since I was five. Right now I’m on tour in Europe….Sweden, Germany and Spain….am professor of piano at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC (Myrtle Beach area).

    My brother Mark also has the musical genes….he has a few songs published in Nashville but with who I don’t know.

    My sister is NOT at all musical, she’s in medicine in Memphis.

    Hope to meet you some day.

    Your pianistic cousin?

    Gary Stegall

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