Nashville Songwriter Series: Bobby Fischer

(PHOTO: Bobby Fischer, co-writer of Reba McEntire’s “You Lie” and hundreds of other songs during a successful 40-year Nashville career.)

Around 1970, when he was in his mid-30s, Bobby Fischer did something most people would consider insane or suicidal or both. He quit his prized, long-tenured day job with a major farm implement company near his home in the Iowa-Illinois Quad-Cities and moved to Nashville to try the music business. While his supportive wife and kids stayed behind until he could make something happen, Fischer wrote songs, recorded, worked as a record promoter to radio and did whatever else he could to make a buck, playing in honky-tonks along the road between Nashville and Iowa to pay for gas to go home and visit his family.

Within a couple years the gamble paid off, with Fischer’s face appearing in Billboard as a successful Nashville record promoter. Wife Helen and the kids (Robbi and Lori, who ended up making a living in the arts themselves) moved to Nashville, and Fischer became a fixture on Music Row. As a writer he began to get cuts, with names like Conway Twitty, George Jones, Eddy Arnold, Faron Young, Charley Pride and others recording his material. He also produced, promoted, and did whatever else necessary to keep food on the table, even working on a project with actor John Wayne.

That relative success that most people would kill for lasted for the better part of 20 years until Fischer, with co-writers Charlie Black and Austin Roberts, finally got a “career record” with Reba McEntire’s recording of “You Lie,” which spent five months on the country charts. The song was on albums of McEntire’s that would eventually sell more than 8,000,000 copies. Fischer followed this success a few years later with the BlackHawk hit “Goodbye Says It All,” a song that enjoyed heavy airplay and pretty much cemented his reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter.

Today Fischer is semi-retired but still writes with such successful Nashville writers as Steve Leslie and James House, still looking for that elusive cut. American Songwriter caught up with Fischer just a few miles from Music Row at his longtime Green Hills home, where the walls of his office are covered with numerous sales awards and other memorabilia, including a reject letter from Arista Records for “You Lie.”

A lot of your peers have packed it in and moved to the beach. What makes you keep writing?

I guess I still don’t have it out of my system. I think I’ll have some more cuts, even though it’s more about politics than it is a matter of getting the best material for the artist and recording what’s best for the music.

You must really like the music business as a whole, though, not just songwriting. So many of your contemporaries could well still be writing, but got so fed up with the business in general, changes of the digital age, and what is considered “country” music that they just gave up. How have you adapted?

Yes, a lot of my contemporaries have gotten fed up and left the music biz. It’s a great loss to the public. But the way I adapt has not changed: I just continue to write with great songwriters.

You’ve said that you don’t even pick up a guitar much anymore, including when you’re writing. Do you just hear melodies and lyrics in your head and sing them into a tape recorder, or what? What’s your process?

No, I don’t pick up the guitar much. My picking skills are limited but I understand more music than I can play. But I write hundreds of ideas down and throw them out with co-writers, and somehow songs happen.

In the process of demoing and pitching them, many of your songs have been sung by unknown demo singers who went on to become pretty familiar names on the country charts themselves. Who were some of those singers, and are you still in touch with many of them?

The most famous demo singers that graced us with vocals were Garth Brooks – at $45 per song – Buddy Jewell, Phil Vassar, Freddie Weller, Joe Diffie and many more. I’m still in touch with some of them. I still write some with Phil.

You actually had a single in 1968 on Buddy Killen’s Dial Records before you moved to Nashville. Do you ever wish you’d had more success as an artist?

I really enjoyed recording with producer Buddy Killen for Dial/Atlantic. But the more I heard other artists sing what I wrote I enjoyed that more. And there was no road work involved. I actually ended up writing for (Killen’s company) Tree International for three years.

What would you tell a new writer just coming to town to focus on in his or her first 90 days?

To new writers in town I’d say to make connections and make a good impression on those connections. It will get you listened to easier. Then I guess it depends on your talent and staying power. Stay positive. Enjoy what you do and have patience and learn from everyone. Love your family and friends.

You’ve had hundreds of cuts on dozens and dozens of artists. Is there one artist you would especially love to get a cut on before you finally call it a day?

A couple weeks ago I got my 561st cut, on Phil Vassar actually. There are artists out there I’d love to have a cut on, but I’m afraid I already missed two of the ones I wanted most: Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash.

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