“If you can get in the tree with the monkeys,” chuckles J. Fred Knobloch, “you get to eat some bananas.” For three spectacular years in the 1980s, everyone on Music Row wanted to join the feast at 1101 17th Avenue South.
“Crazy!” Cliff Audretch Jr. marvels, recalling The Writers Group. “We were so wildly successful in our first year.” The recession-era Music Row Audretch had encountered at the cusp of the ’80s “…wasn’t a ghost town, but it was very, very slim.” Having sold 40,000 self-issued LPs, Ohio-based country rockers McGuffey Lane were primed for major label distribution. Thus, their manager, Audretch, needed an accelerated education in the record/music-publishing biz. Nashville was the place to procure both.
Audretch found a willing mentor in Jim Malloy, co-proprietor of DebDave/Briar Patch Music, one of the Row’s few thriving indie publishing houses — success more than partly due to Malloy’s partner, country popster Eddie Rabbitt, seeing sound business sense in padding his hit albums with compositions from the company catalog.
Up-and-coming DebDave staffer Thom Schuyler, however, wasn’t content to rest exclusively on Rabbitt album fillers. The Pennsylvania transplant shared credit on Kenny Rogers’ 1982 crossover smash “Love Will Turn You Around,” before cracking the country top 10 with Lacy J. Dalton’s single of his “16th Avenue.” Schuyler: “I had a nice run at DebDave. And if I ever had a moment to take a giant step forward, it happened when Writers Group formed.”
The Writers Group concept was the brainchild of gregarious session drummer/producer James Stroud. As Eddie Rabbitt’s go-to beatkeeper, Stroud frequented the DebDave office. There, he befriended Audretch, while Schuyler was becoming “… joined at the hip, writing a lot of tunes” with Stroud’s lifelong Jackson, Mississippi musical comrade, Fred Knobloch.
Knobloch had pulled his moving truck into Nashville in 1983 wielding some legit singer-songwriter cred — the Stroud-produced pop singles “Why Not Me” and “Killing Time” (dueting with Susan Anton) — and a whopping $64 bank balance. Knobloch: “I was doing everything I could to drag money through the door. Whenever the phone rang, somebody was saying, ‘Hey, can you..?’ And the answer was ‘Yes!’” Using his pop cachet, Knobloch wrangled co-writes with Music Row stalwarts. Within six months, he — with Dan Tyler (Oakridge Boys’ “Bobbie Sue”) — had a BJ Thomas single. Fall, 1984. Business is looking up. Music Row coffers are jingling with Urban Cowboy royalties. The entrepreneurial Stroud pounces, cajoling six individual investors into financing a fledgling publishing venture in a most unconventional way — by writing monthly checks. Knobloch: “Stroud is so talented and high energy that you say, ‘I’m in! I’ll follow you, Buddy!’” As Stroud isn’t about to stop playing sessions, he summons Audretch to oversee day-to-day operations.
Of himself, Knobloch, and Dan Tyler, Schuyler muses, “We were all floppin’ around on the deck trying to figure out what to do next.” By snapping up those three, Stroud already had a crackerjack writing staff. Then, R. S. Fields and Mitch Humphries came aboard. The total magical equation, however, was not yet complete.
At Schuyler’s urging, Stroud and Audretch drafted two additional and, as it turned out, essential players: DebDave junior plugger Robin Palmer (as creative director) and another singer-songwriter who’d “… been kicking around with nothing much happening” — Paul Overstreet.
January, 1985. Good news: Producer Kyle Lehning plans to cut “On The Other Hand” (Overstreet/Don Schlitz). Bad news: Lehning plans to cut the tune Schuyler considered “…one of the best country songs I’d ever heard” with an unproven stringbean named Randy Travis. Schuyler is pissed: “I was trying to get Jones or Haggard on it.”
Schuyler’s consternation proved to be sooth. Stringbean’s single peaked at #67. Abruptly, however, the fates turned. After Travis’ follow-up, “1982,” went top 10, the re-released “On The Other Hand” shot to #1, and the Storms Of Life LP was rocketing toward quadruple platinum.
By that summer, The Writers Group, too, was blasting off. Audretch: “We had the number one, two, and three songs — in the same week!” “Modern Day Romance” (Dirt Band — Tyler/Kix Brooks), “I Fell In Love Again Last Night” (Forester Sisters — Schuyler/Overstreet) and “Used To Blue” (Sawyer Brown — Knobloch/Bill LaBounty). “I almost got fired,” Audretch snickers. “Those nervous investors thought I was lying on my monthly reports.”
Spring, 1986. Overstreet takes Travis to the top again with the darkly humorous “Diggin’ Up Bones,” (“… exhumin’ things that’s better left alone”), while his soon-to-be-classic Schlitz co-write “Forever and Ever, Amen” waits on deck. Hours together in the studio cemented company comradery. Drummer Stroud and guitarist Knobloch, with Mitch Humphries and/or Carson Whitsett on keys, cranked out master-quality demos, enhanced by tight Schuyler-Knobloch-Overstreet harmonies. One such demo, “You Can’t Stop Love” (Schuyler/Overstreet), became the vocal trio’s first single release as S-K-O — after an impromptu 1986 benefit performance, MTM Records’ Tommy West surprised the hit-making triumvirate with an out-of-the-blue contract offer.
March, 1987. S-K-O’s “Baby’s Got a New Baby” (Knobloch/Tyler) hits #1 — the first of countless James Stroud productions to top the country charts.
By year’s end, a buy-out offer from EMI/Screen Gems proved too tempting for Stroud’s nervous, impatient investors. Audretch, Palmer, Schuyler, and Knobloch moved on to EMI with the catalog, while Overstreet, Tyler, et al begged out — and none of the ultra-gifted songwriters responsible for the extraordinary success of The Writers Group received a nickel from the sale.