This story originally ran in American Songwriter in 1996.
After spending the last year in some of this town’s famed recording studios with the cream of the Nashville cats and getting over his writer’s block, Neil Diamond is back with his first album of original material in four years, a TV special, and a world tour. And while it’s not exactly true to say that he’s gone country, Diamond says that he’s adding a steel guitar and fiddle to his road band to accommodate the material on his new 18-cut album, “Tennessee Moon.”
Amid a flurry of activity, the Columbia album was released Feb. 6, domestically and internationally. Diamond then taped an ABC-TV special at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium which aired Feb. 24. Now he will begin a two-year world tour March 26 in Australia.
Columbia plans a big push for the album, according to Peter Fletcher, VP for marketing, West Coat. “This is Neil’s best record in a decade.” He says. “And our main job is to let Neil’s fans know it’s available. They’re incredibly loyal, but they’re not average radio listeners, so we have to find other ways to reach them. The cornerstone of our initial setup will be co-promotion of the TV special with ABC during their (ratings) sweeps. After the album release date, we’ll target Valentine’s Day sales to his fans, and then we’ll kick into high gear the rest of the month, leading up to the TV show.”
Fletcher says plans include a promotion with Target, including a special Diamond CD sampler with seven love songs. “Neil will be the featured musical artist in Target for February and March. We’ll also have a major national contest through Handleman and Kmart, with a chance to win a Harley-Davidson motorcycle (Diamond’s ride of choice) and Harley apparel. We’ll have special in-store displays and end-cap main aisle space in both Target and Kmart.”
Fletcher says a radio promotion strategy is still being finalized, but initial plans are to take the entire record to country and AC, with focus tracks for each format. The album covers the musical spectrum—from traditional, lush Diamond epics to straight country, with some surprises in between (including funny talking blues). Except for a revamped country version of “Kentucky Woman” and two other songs, all the songs were co-written by Diamond with Nashville songwriters (one with son Jesse).
Diamond says his Nashville stay has re-invigorated his writing chops. “Nashville is something every artist thinks about at some point, because of the pool of talent here,” Diamond says. “Bob Gaudio (his producer) pushed me over the edge and told me it would be good for me and my music.”
Diamond ended up writing with Harlan Howard, Gary Burr, Raul Malo, and Hal Ketchum, among others and recording duets with such artists as Malo and Waylon Jennings.
“We ran down a list of potential writers,” he says, “and then got realistic about how many writers I could work with and came down to a list of 20-25. Then I met with them at least once before the writing sessions. I hit it off with just about everyone. Then we set a writing everyone. Then we set a writing schedule, where I would do two writing sessions a day, and I would start a song that we would be excited enough about to continue and finish. We started every song pretty much at this kitchen here (in his house outside Nashville), sitting face to face with two guitars, my DAT machine and a stereo mike pinned to the window curtains here.”
Diamond says that before coming to Nashville, he had not written a song for three or four years. “I have not been able to get myself to complete songs. I had started songs that I really liked, but had not been really motivated. Columbia had given me the easy way out by letting me do Christmas albums. I felt a definite need to write again and express myself about my life and add new repertoire to Neil Diamond’s catalog, or life’s work, or whatever I’ve done. I hope some of these songs will stand among my best.”
“This is American music in a way I’ve never really conceived of before,” he says. “Just listen to Mark O’Connor’s fiddle, the way he lays around my voice. Steel guitar and fiddle are soulful instruments that I’ve never used before—great discovery. I feel good about what we’ve come up with here. I’ve got Chet Atkins on here, which was one of my fantasies.”
Diamond says that as the writing went on, the material became more and more autobiographical. “It’s probably a milestone album for me, in that it proved to me that I can write my own heart and my own feelings after all these years. I can still get down to the nub of the truth. It’s nice for me to know I can still do that.”
Songs like “Prison Doors” and “Win the World,” he says, are very much the story of his life. “I’ve lost two marriages now to my career, without any question, and that song “in The World” is the answer t it. So maybe I won’t do it again.”
Diamond is considering keeping a home in Nashville. “I like the writers’ community here. I had never been out to the clubs before to see the songwriters nights, which are amazing. Even in the Brill Building days the songwriter didn’t have that kind of focus or forum. I like that a lot. The Brill Building was star-driven. This is writer-driven, and the city itself is creatively focused on the writer. The Brill Building, writers had no freedom. They were forced to write for very specific reasons, for very specific artists.”
Diamond, who was a paid house writer in those days, says e appreciates the difference. “There certainly was no golden age back then if you were just another writer. You were just another piece of chattel at 50 bucks a week against future royalties. There was very little respect for the writer then. You were just a hired hand, kept in servitude. I was just lucky. It was just plain dumb luck that I was able to break out of that vicious cycle that writers were caught up in. This album reminds me of that era, except back then I was in the basement. Now, I’m in the penthouse. It makes a big difference.”
Diamond is managed by Gallin-Morey Associates. He has no booking agent. His publishing company is DiamondSongs, administered by Sony Music Publishing and SESAC (except for “Kentucky Woman,” which is Talleyrand Music, Inc).