Videos by American Songwriter
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2000 issue.
The first time I ever heard of Mac Davis was when I was going to college at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He was scheduled for a concert at the school, and the organizers of the event were worried that they were not gonna get a crowd. They bugged the college newspaper every day, asking us to run another story about this singer named Mac Davis. By the time the night of the concert arrived, I had to go just to see who I had been writing about for the past month!
His claim to fame at the time was the Bobby Goldsboro single, “Watching Scotty Grow,” but he had already written songs for Lou Rawls (“You’re Good For Me”) and O.C. Smith (“Friend, Lover, Woman, Wife” and “Daddy’s Little Man”). Davis wrote “Memories” and “Nothingsville” for Elvis Presley’s 1968 television special. Presley also recorded “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry, Daddy.” He wrote “Something’s Burning,” a hit for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition.
One concert convinced me that he was an amazingly talented individual. His songs touched our hearts and his humor was right on target for a mid-70s college crowd. And he did that thing where we yelled lines at him and he made up songs. My friends and I liked him so much that we went that next weekend to Dallas to see him again.
Obviously we were not the only people who latched on to the talent of Mac Davis. He soon had signed a recording deal himself and was releasing songs like “I Believe In Music,” “Memories,” “One Hell of a Woman,” “Texas in my Rear View Mirror,” “Stop and Smell the Roses,” “It’s Hard to be Humble” and “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me.”
Davis went through the highs or seeing his music climb the charts and touch people’s hearts. He went through the lows of losing his wife and battling alcoholism. Today he’s a better man for his struggles, having gotten a handle on the alcoholism and celebrating life with his new wife and two sons. The shame of it is that while he’s writing, we’re not hearing any of his new stuff on CD or on other people’s albums.
Probably the only place you can hear new Mac Davis tunes is on his weekly radio show over KZLA, a show which allows him to play not only his music but other music that he enjoys.
“Last year about this time I met this guy at the gold course from KZLA radio, and he asked if I had something (new album or single) coming out. I said ‘You’re not gonna play it, I’m over 40 and that’s not happening in country radio.’
“I kinda bowled him over a little bit, and he didn’t have an answer. Then I got a letter and he wanted to sit down and talk about it, and two weeks later I was on the air on Sunday evening (9 p.m. – 1 a.m. PST). I get to play what I want, so if I hear something I like I play it, old or new. I play Ray Benson…Dolly Parton’s bluegrass album…George Jones and Merle Haggard. I sing live if the mood hits me, just things I’ve written over the years. I do interviews.”
Davis says he was a writer before he was a performer, and he continues to write new material but admits “I have become the king of procrastinators. I write a lot but I just sit out here in Los Angeles and play them for my friends and play them over my radio show. One of the new songs has become one of the top requests on the show, but I haven’t recorded it. I have my own publishing company and I write these songs and I want to put together a stack of stuff and come to town (Nashville) and cut some demos but I just haven’t done it.
“I got so lucky with my career, I’m fortunate to be able to retire and kick back and do what I want to. I always said one day I’d kick back and play golf and drink expensive whiskey…well, I’ve had to quit drinking the expensive whiskey but I still play golf!”
One of the last times Davis came off the golf course, it was to write with Dolly Parton, at her insistence.
“Dolly does that once in a while; she’s one of the easiest people for me to co-write with. We’ve known each other so long, she’s like an old easy chair to me; we don’t see each other for a year at a time, and then we sit down and it’s like we just saw each other yesterday.
“I didn’t write for a long time when I was an alcoholic. I told people, ‘I’ve said all I want to say – I don’t like the business.’ I was just drinking. When I did sober up and wake up I got invited to play the lead role in The Will Rogers Follies in New York City.
“I went there and got to really enjoy myself and got the bug to entertain again. I said the first thing I have to do is start writing, and the first song I wrote was ‘Slow Dancing with the Moon.’ I guess this was about eight years ago. The more I wrote the song the more I realized I was writing Dolly’s life story. I played it for her and it was like, ‘I want you to change the first two lines. I’m gonna cut that song.’ It became the title song of her next album. It was kind of like it got me going, and that’s just the kind of friend Dolly is.
“I started writing and I wrote a collection of 14-15 songs. I’m one of these street writers; some people do it like a business every day – the Nashville writers do that – they co-write, they are forced to do that. With the exception of Dolly, at any rate, my process is a little different, so I wrote these songs and got prolific and they were really good songs; a lot were personal songs, stuff coming out. A lot of us have the same things in our lives; I just collected them all together, went to Nashville and played them with my guitar – and the business had changed so much, I was shocked.”
Davis was told he was too old, they wouldn’t play his songs on the radio. Finally he landed a deal with Sony out of Nashville, but the man who signed him left the label and when the album came out the record company didn’t do anything to promote it, he said.
That experience hasn’t stopped him from writing new material. In fact, he has a new song he co-wrote with Clint Black that he feels will be on one of Black’s upcoming albums.
“I’ve written a lot of songs, I have stuff just sitting here. I’m not hungry like I used to be; as far as making money out of me, it’s not important. It is important that I get things off my chest; I still do that. My wife can tell you, at certain times in the month or week, she’ll see me get that far away look in my eyes and they’ll give me space and they know I’m writing. I have a guitar in my hand 50 percent of the time anyway. When I come in from golf, I get a cup of coffee, sit down, plug in my Fender and play the blues or start writing songs. That’s a part of me that will never go away.”
Davis says one of the hard things about being a singer/songwriter who becomes well-known is that other singers are hesitant to cut your songs. “Other artists see those songs and may think it’s a great song, but they also wonder ‘If I were to cut that he would cover me. If he didn’t think it was good enough for a single, why should I?’ Or they think ‘He did such a great job, why should I do it?’ I felt that way too, with other singer/songwriters, so it’s kind of a Catch 22; I still drag out my old records and listen to some of my album cuts.”
Davis says Buddy Holly was his inspiration as a songwriter but Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the old Sun Recording artists turned him on to music.
“Buddy lived in Lubbock where I lived; he was a local fixture; no one ever thought anything because he was just a local guy. We’d go dance to his records at the skating rink. He left town for about a year, and ‘That’ll Be the Day’ came out, went number one, and he came back to town driving this Pontiac Catalina convertible, with this pretty girl, and he drove in front of my house, and I went ‘Man rock and roll is me.’
“Up until that point I figured the song was written by the singer; I think most people think that. I started realizing Buddy Holly wrote all those songs. I thought if Buddy Holly can do that I can do it.”
Davis started trying his hand at writing when he was 14. “I fiddled with it, and I found out I loved it. I didn’t realize you could make anything at it. I wanted to do both. I just kept messing with it.”
As if to prove that perseverance pays off, Davis noted, “I wrote my first song at 14 – I had my own first hit record, ‘Memories,’ when I was 28. ‘Clean Up Your Own Backyard’ was a pseudo pop hit that has since sold a million records, and that was kind of what got the whole thing started.”
Davis’s cuts by Elvis were what he described as “Beyond my wildest dreams. It was like one of those who would have ever thought kind of things. Billy Strange, who was working with Elvis, had been coming in and looking for material at the publishing company where I worked. I played him some songs and he said Elvis might be looking, so I played him a couple things, and I got a couple songs in the movies he was doing. He had been using the same writers, and I think he liked going in a new direction. Strange came back, Elvis had decided he wanted to do a TV special, so I wrote ‘A Little Less Conversation’ and it got in the top 40, and he wanted to start performing again. This TV special was coming out and they wanted to blow everyone away. They were gonna do a segment where he wore a black leather outfit and sang the old hits.
“I called Billy Strange and said ‘how does “Memories” sound?’ Billy said it sounded fine, and I sat up all night in Billy’s garage where he had a little studio, and wrote it. That’s pretty much how my career got started. That’s where it came from…at any rate, good things happened after that, because ‘Suspicious Minds’ became a hit and then ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Don’t Cry Daddy.'”
Davis is well aware of some of the problems facing songwriters, noting “The songwriter may be the last guy to get paid, but he’s the last guy to stop getting paid too. He’s the last guy to get credit, so it’s nice to get up and strut our stuff once in a while. The good news is you can continue making a living long after the hot flash is gone.”
Davis’s advice to new writers is to finish the song. “The last verse should be as good as or better than the first verse. I see writers do a great first verse, and say if they don’t like it by the end of the first verse they will trash it anyway. Or repeat the first verse again – I hate that when I hear it. If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing all the way through.
Asked when a writer knows if a song is finished, Davis offered a few suggestions. “You just have to go with your instincts, say this is good and go with it. It’s also a good idea when it gets three or four minutes long to stop!
“I’m still rewriting ‘In the Ghetto.’ In fact, I’ve decided the next person that records it, instead of saying ‘on a cold and gray Chicago morning,’ I’d say ‘American morning.’ So I’m still rewriting stuff I write years and years ago. If you’re a good songwriter you’re always gonna be thinking about how to make it better.”