Nashville songwriter Ramsey Kearney pulls up a chair in his crowded workroom, his white cowboy boots poking out beneath gray slacks as he settles in. He’s tied his long gray hair back in a ponytail, his front locks sweeping left like a dash of sleek chrome.
In front of him, a notepad with hand-scrawled song lyrics rests on a music stand. Souvenir plates of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Red Foley hang on the wall, icons sharing space with the music shelved in boxes on an adjacent wall. Numbered in neat rows, the small white boxes hold quarter-inch, reel-to-reel tapes, nearly all of them song-poem demos.
“I surmise I’ve done probably 15,000 demos,” Kearney says. “You can see some of ’em up there.”
A 72-year-old country music veteran and co-writer (with Mel Tillis) of the Brenda Lee pop hit “Emotions,” Kearney survives as he has for decades in one of the industry’s rawest outposts. For 30-plus years, he’s been the force behind Nashco Music Service, a.k.a. Nashville Co-writer Plan, commonly known as a song-poem company.
The antithesis of focus-group, play list-scrubbed music, song-poems land down a magic industry rabbit hole where anything—anything—gets written and recorded. Heartland wordsmiths send him lyrics, or song-poems, and for a fee Kearney puts their words to music and cuts a demo. “I’ve had some lulus,” he says.
Kearney would know. He co-wrote and sang the lulu of them all, John Trubee’s song-poem “Blind Man’s Penis.”
“It’s my worst song I ever have co-written,” Kearney says, “and it’s got more attention than some of my great songs.”
Often recorded in bulk sessions, one hurried take each, in every ersatz genre known to popular music, most song-poems are of no musical distinction whatsoever. Lyrically, they stick close to the classic themes: God, love, the flag, liquor, Elvis. Especially God. But some draw on delights or torments known only to the poets, images that flash on and off like a kitchen light in a faraway house you didn’t know was there. When colliding with the musicians’ porous production methods (where’d that organ come from?), song-poems can produce such low-fi genre favorites as the whimsical “Little Rug Bug” or the psychedelic knockoff “Human Breakdown of Absurdity.”
“Noblemen die in white wigs / when undertakers refuse to dig….”
Kearney had no involvement with those two, but years ago he co-wrote a song-poem called “Jack Benny’s Fiddle,” surely a country tribute first. He remembers other titles that would crack up the staff at the pressing plant, like “Tin Cans for the Garbage Man,” about a drunk on a beer bender, and “She Can’t Wrestle but You Ought to See Her Box.” He still gets some pretty fun titles. Ted Franklin, a good-humored gent from Enid, Okla., recently sent Kearney “Hair of the Dog,” which Kearney sang in a throaty rumble of a voice befitting the hangover theme. Franklin liked the demo so much he followed with his latest, “The Lotto Blues.”
“I assume it’s gonna be good,” he says.
The best song-poems hit the listener with the punch of uncalculating honesty, a quality ever rare in the mainstream of popular music. The blend of unvarnished lyric emotion and no-frills production can now and then lead to records of riveting country elegance. On one of Kearney’s 1980s albums, he sings “Life Is Like a Rose Bud,” a song-poem submitted by an Oklahoma woman named Myrtle Mosley. Despite it’s cheerful title, the song, for which Kearney wrote perfectly sorrowful music, delivers a desolate warning to the young not to waste the bloom of youth. “Soon everything will change / When you’re old and gray / No one to love you.” Your heart breaks for Myrtle Mosley, compelled to write those words.
Filling a need once served by the so-called “event song,” song-poems also chronicle the wars and disasters and crises of our time. With folk ballad instincts uncrushed by the tonnage of modern media punditry, song poets leave a record of homespun rage or despair or religious faith, a hidden window into the state of the nation’s soul.
“I got several songs about Katrina,” Kearney says.
Here’s how the business works: for $345 (which you’re welcome to pay in installments), Kearney will work up a melody and record your song with a five-piece country band, Kearney on vocals. The fee, he stresses, covers the studio demo, not his creative input.
“I don’t charge for writing melodies,” he says. “You don’t do it thataway. It’s unethical.”
Some on Music Row might smirk at such ethical fine distinctions. The standard knock against song-poem merchants in Nashville and elsewhere is they prey on the hopes and dreams of the innocent. Hinting of songwriting riches to come, their tabloid ads lure would-be Harlan Howards unaware that no “legitimate,” “reputable,” “traditional,” take your pick, songwriter or publisher will charge them money upfront. The industry has a name for those that do charge: song sharks.
Kearney knows that term and doesn’t like it. With what he’s seen of the so-called legitimate music business, he wonders who’s calling who a shark. He says he doesn’t promise anyone a song will be a hit, but then again, to look at his website come-on, you can see he’s not going to promise it won’t.
“You have to start somewhere, so why not now?” reads the copy on www.ramseykearney.com. “A successful song can earn the writer $50,000 or even $1,000,000 on a smash hit, depending on record sales and it’s acceptance and appeal to the buying public.”
In recent years, small parts of the buying public have found these songs more and more appealing. Once the vinyl castoffs Goodwill couldn’t sell, older song-poem albums are sought, treasured, studied and archived by connoisseurs of folk Americana, or of the merely strange. Many credit drummer Tom Ardolino of the band NRBQ as the first dedicated—“serious” might be the wrong word—song-poem compiler. An enthusiast named Phil Milstein oversees an engrossing website, the American Song-Poem Music Archives (www.songpoemmusic.com), and in 2003, PBS aired Jamie Meltzer’s excellent song-poem documentary Off the Charts, in which Kearney appeared. That same year, Kearney’s recording of “Blind Man’s Penis” closed out The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush, released on New Jersey’s Bar-None Records.
Whether others approve of his methods, Kearney provides each of his co-writers with something unique and of real value: their own song, to play for family or friends or to send to the local DJ. He says his customer feedback is usually positive.
“Most of my business is repeat business now. And they’ll call, and they’ll cry on the phone and say how beautiful it is, and how it touches ’em. And it touches me. It makes it all worthwhile when they’re happy with it.”
Occasionally, he hears complaints. “On this last demo I done, everybody was happy and said how great it was, except one customer. And they said that it wasn’t what they expected. They thought it would be more modern, today’s country music. Which I’m more of the traditional country music,” he says.
John Ball, of Marion, Va., sent Kearney “Can’t Forget,” a ballad song-poem inspired by his “past love life.” Thrilled with his demo, he describes what it feels like to get the finished song back: “I more or less feel like I’m on cloud nine,” he says. “And it gives me a sense of accomplishment. I get to thinking, ‘Well, I’m glad I went ahead and done this.’ It just makes me feel good about myself.”
Looking at Kearney’s demo shelves, the boxed tapes inert and still, their silence seems profound. How many other writers felt the same as Ball? Critics of the song-poem business might view Kearney’s archive as the dead end against which thousands of dreams died. Up close, it feels more like the only place those dreams together live.
Past the front door of Kearney’s office bungalow in Melrose, there is more cat food than audio gear. Ex-strays roam from room to room, including a shy black longhair with a missing eye and mangled leg that Kearney found almost dead as a kitten. Kearney figured a possum tore the kitten up, so he named it George, after George “Possum” Jones. He named his pet monkey Marty, in honor of Marty Robbins. (Oh yes, he really has one.)
Kearney moved to Nashville in 1958 and into his present office in 1979. Once a dreamer like the song-poets with whom he writes, he arrived in town with the same background as a thousand other country singers. Born William Ramsey Kearney, a sharecropper’s son, in 1933 in the West Tennessee town of Bolivar (drawled, “BALL-a-ver”), he sang on a local talent show at age 15 and decided to try for radio. He approached a local tractor dealer who agreed to sponsor him on the Farm and Home Hour, hosted by Uncle Tom Williams on WDXI in Jackson.
A fixture on WDXI all through high school, he met and picked with Carl Perkins, long before “Blue Suede Shoes,” after Perkins called him one Saturday morning to introduce himself. “He says, ‘I’d like to come up and pick with you,’ ” Kearney recalls. “I says, ‘Well, what do you do?’ He said, ‘Well, I beat around on a old guitar.’ I thought to myself, that don’t sound too good.”
After graduation, Kearney moved to Memphis and sang on KWEM in West Memphis, Ark., but in 1953 he got drafted.
“I come out on my first leave, and I was visiting this disc jockey in Memphis, Sleepy Eyed John,” he says. “He was always interested in me, and always wanted me to help him write songs and stuff.” Sleepy Eyed John suggested they go visit Sam Phillips at Sun Records, who recorded three sides with Kearney. “I went back in the Army, and Sam never released ’em,” he says. “And I come out of the Army, and I asked Sam why he never released ’em. He said, ‘Well, I got busy with Elvis Presley.’ ”
For his next music misadventure, Kearney and a partner named Jimmie Martin—the head of a construction company, not the King of Bluegrass—started Jaxon Records in Jackson. Together they cut the rockabilly single “Red Bobby Socks” and “Rock the Bop,” as collectible now as it was ignored at the time. Then in 1957, while holding down a day job at a Piggly-Wiggly factory in Jackson, Kearney made a demo of his song “Emotions” and brought it to Nashville.
This was the heady era when publishing companies such as Acuff-Rose, Tree and Cedarwood secured Music City’s identity as a songwriter’s town. Cedarwood staff writers Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis both took an instant liking to “Emotions” when Kearney brought it to the company.
“I really liked the song,” Tillis says, “and I told him, I said, ‘You know, I think that I can get the song recorded by Carl Smith.’ And I did.”
But Tillis couldn’t get “Emotions” out of his head, so in the summer of 1960 he rewrote the lyrics and pitched the song to Brenda Lee. He and Kearney split the credit, which was fine with Kearney. Lee’s version of “Emotions” hit the pop Top 10.
“It helped to pay the grocery bills for old Ramsey for a long time,” Tillis says.
Having moved to Nashville permanently in 1958, Kearney sold Kirby vacuum cleaners for a living, then found better work fueling aircraft at Berry Field for a dollar an hour. Still hoping to make it as a singer, he landed with Hickory Records and recorded several singles produced by Wesley Rose, son of the songwriting great Fred Rose, and debuted on the Grand Ole Opry. But his most lucrative studio work, pointing him to his future, remained a side job he found singing song-poem demos for a company called Globe at a studio on Lower Broadway.
“That’s how I got into doing this,” he says. “They had a song-poem business. They paid me two dollars a song. And I would go in on Monday, and do 50 songs in three hours, and make more money in one day than I did all week at the airport.”
Song-sharking isn’t the oldest profession, but it might seem like it to see how far back the ads run. A stupendous wealth of song-poem ephemera, the website for the American Song-Poem Music Archives includes sheet music from as early as 1901.
Locally, R&B songwriting great Ted Jarrett remembers falling for song-poem ads during the Depression, while he was a boy living on a farm in Rutherford County. The author of “You Can Make It if You Try” and other R&B classics, he relates in his autobiography, “I had been writing poetry for quite a while, and my teachers were impressed. When I began to see certain ads for song lyrics in magazines that Mama brought home, I thought, ‘Oh, ho! Opportunity knocks! This is my way out of the cotton fields!’ ”
After the war, song-poem companies proliferated throughout the country. In Nashville, the business seems to have grown up in the postwar underbrush alongside the Trees and Cedarwoods. During the early 1950s, the bellwether Popular Mechanics classifieds, where many song-poem companies advertised, included no Nashville addresses. But by 1955, a firm called Songcrafters with a post office box in the Arcade began running a regular ad declaring the familiar “poems needed for new songs.”
Not missing an angle, the same Nashville company bought time on John Richbourg’s late-night R&B show on WLAC during the 1960s. John R’s 50,000-watt song-poem pitch fit nicely with his plugs for other midnight products such as “Smoke-No-More” and the infamous WLAC baby chicks.
“Hey, you write poems, friends? You think you might make a good songwriter…?”
When Kearney started the Nashville Co-writer Plan, he advertised in Writer’s Digest and the tabloids. In 1976, a 19-year-old Princeton musician named John Trubee saw one of Kearney’s ads in the Midnight Globe.
“In the back pages, in the classified ads, it said, ‘send your lyrics to Nashville and get $20,000 royalties,’ ” Trubee recalls. “And even at 19, I knew it was a scam, and it was just a bullshit sort of come-on.”
Having a “sort of prankish nature,” as he puts it, Trubee sat down at a typewriter and dashed off “the most idiotic, vulgar, obnoxious lyrics” he could think of and sent them to Nashville. Originally titled “Peace and Love,” his song-poem included incoherencies such as “gelatin fingers oozed electric marbles” and the delicate sentiment “vomit on me, baby / yeah, yeah, yeah.” The whole thing turned on the chorus hook, “Stevie Wonder’s penis is erect because he’s blind.”
Trubee gleefully awaited the personal thrashing he expected in response from the Nashville Co-writer Plan. Instead, he got an acceptance letter and contract:
“We have just received your lyrics and think they are very worthy of being recorded with the full Nashville Sound Production.”
“Back then I didn’t screen my own stuff,” Kearney explains. “And my daughter screened my material, and she didn’t know Adam about how lyrics work.”
Kearney says he doesn’t do risqué fare, and he wouldn’t have taken Trubee’s song had he seen the words before he put them on the music stand. But Trubee had already sent payment, so what the heck. Kearney worked up his melody and sang it over a prerecorded country track.
As a lone concession to good taste, Kearney did change the line about Stevie Wonder to the marginally less tacky “a blind man’s penis is erect because he’s blind.”
“I didn’t figure if Stevie ever heard that, he would appreciate it,” Kearney says.
But in making the edit, he also created an all-important, pseudo-aphoristic chorus hook. Sung by Kearney in the deadpan voice of a honky-tonk sage, Trubee’s song-poem sounded weirdly like it meant something.
As Trubee recalls, when he first received his acetate single of “Peace and Love,” he thought it the stupidest thing he had ever heard and he laughed uproariously. Then he tested it on his brother.
“I played it for him, and he started laughing,” Trubee says. “And when I saw him laughing, I thought, ‘Well, then it’s worth the effort of actually doing this and sending the money off, because it got somebody laughing, and who knows how many other people I can get laughing with this stuff.’ ”
After study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Trubee followed his impish muse to Los Angeles. Inclined to pass around tape samplers of his music, he managed to get the retitled “Blind Man’s Penis” released as a single by Enigma Records in 1983. When Trubee sent a copy to KROQ disc jockey Cassandra Peterson, better known as the horror TV hostess Elvira, she sent back a postcard telling Trubee she’d try to play the record, but she didn’t know if she could get away with it.
“And so that Sunday I was at home,” he says, “and one of my friends called me up, they said, ’you’d better turn on K-ROQ really quick, cause they’re playing your single.’ And evidently Cassandra actually put on the single, and before she played it, she prefaced it by saying, ‘the lyrics are a little weird and off, and if you’re offended by them, don’t bother to call the studio because I will have left by then.’ It was the last song on her show.”
Meanwhile, a young writer with the LA Reader named Matt Groening took a liking to “Blind Man’s Penis” and devoted a column to Trubee’s single. (If Bart Simpson ever hits age 19, the little scamp will probably send Kearney lyrics.) Trubee himself told all in a 1985 article he wrote for Spin. An underground, college-radio sensation in its time, “Blind Man’s Penis” inspires rude mischief on the Internet to this day. Trubee says he’s made virtually no money off the record, but he’s proud of it, and he says it was all worthwhile for the fun of a prank that endures after 30 years.
“Imagine you had a weird brainchild when you were 19 years old,” he says, “and then it somehow grew feet of its own and walked off in the world, is out causing trouble out in the world.”
Kearney never knew what happened. He says he first learned of the song’s notoriety when Jamie Meltzer came to Nashville to interview him for Off the Charts. MTV approached him, too, he says, but he turned them down, protesting he was a country singer, not rock ’n’ roll. He regrets that decision as spurned publicity.
Though still a little sheepish about the record, Kearney, too, sounds ever so slightly proud. “I’ve been told,” he says, “that the most famous song-poem in the history is my recording of ‘Blind Man’s Penis.’ ”
Behind Kearney’s office, the house celebrity, Marty, roams between a linked pair of lumber and wire cages that together cover much of the yard. A 20-year-old grass monkey, Marty used to roam free of his cage sometimes, which is how he got his primate 15 minutes. Back in 1989, a neighboring couple took exception to Marty’s onanistic rooftop frolics and repeatedly lodged complaints. Heated accusations followed and escalated into a full-scale feud. The whole thing wound up in court and in the news, but Marty was allowed to stay.
Kearney and his friend Buddy Mize co-wrote “Ramsey’s Monkey” about the episode. “It all started when some neighbors / Said the social behavior / Of that furry thing was too much to be viewed.” Kearney released “Ramsey’s Monkey” as a single on his Safari label and sent it to Europe, where he’s had better luck with airplay and the charts. Next thing he knew, a Denmark disc jockey called. “He says, ‘People over here are asking about him, they want to know how the trial—monkey trial—is going.’ ”
Watching Kearney’s face light up at the mere mention of Marty, he comes across as a gentle soul for whom the term “shark” seems singularly inappropriate. But given the reputation of the song-poem business, he long ago had to learn to deal with the stigma.
“I got in this business, I didn’t want to get in it to stay, because people I thought looked down on doing this,” he says. “And, I just thought to myself, well, they’re not putting any bread on my table.”
As was common practice, he often wrote under a pseudonym, Will Gentry, though unlike many of the song-poem specialists he used his real name as the singer. For a time, Kearney salved his wounded dignity with the bottle. Those days are over, he says.
In 1989, TheTennessean ran a song-shark piece that didn’t mention Kearney by name but lumped Nashville Co-writer Plan with four other local companies to which it ascribed the common complaints—misleading ads, false promises of promotion, recordings made with recycled melodies, the melodies shoe-horned into prerecorded tracks. “Their advertisements promise fame and fortune, but some Music City ‘publishers’ give would-be writers a song-and-dance and leave them singing a sad tune,” the story read.
Little of this seems to describe Kearney today. He cares about the service he provides, and he puts effort into his co-writing and demos. Though in the past he worked with prerecorded tracks “once in a while” when business slowed (“Blind Man’s Penis,” for instance), he says he hasn’t done so in years. He prefers to record with a studio band for the better emotional feel it provides. After 30 years and thousands of demos, he recognizes he’s bound to have repeated some tunes, but he prides himself on approaching each new song and melody fresh. He’ll rewrite lyrics he thinks need help, which many do, “and when the lyrics are really poor,” he says, “I try to give it a uplift with a good melody. And what I call a bad song, I try to give it just as good a treatment as something I think is really all together.”
Curious, I pulled a random tape from his archive and asked him to play it. The reel held five song-poem demos from 1981, each distinct and recorded live in the studio. “See, those melodies, don’t any of them sound the same,” he says.
Of the fame and fortune part, there’s no question at least some of Kearney’s co-writers keep hoping. A repeat customer, Ted Franklin found him through the Country Weekly classifieds after submitting to other companies before. Franklin sounds like a guy it would be fun to co-write with. He calls Kearney “Rambo.” But he’s also a guy on Social Security with medical bills, so he doesn’t write just as a hobby.
“When I first started, I got laid off my job,” he says. “And at my age—I’m 69 right now—but then I was about 55 or something like that. I said, ‘Well, I ain’t gonna be able to get a job.’ That age, there ain’t nobody gonna hire you, so I started writing songs. But I ain’t made no money at it.”
If he never did make money, he probably wouldn’t stop, though. “I still like to write,” he says. “You never know…’cause some of them songs is pretty good.”
Kearney’s co-writer John Ball wouldn’t mind if someone noticed “Can’t Forget” or a new song-poem he just sent Kearney, but he mostly writes them for his own enjoyment, to have them to play around the house. He wrote songs as a teenager and has done so off and on ever since. He took it up again two years ago when back troubles forced him onto disability. Writing helped him get through the pain.
“I sit at my kitchen table, and I’ll just get an idea for a song,” he says. “I’ll be sitting here, I might be watching a little TV or something, then all at once an idea of a song comes drifting in my mind, so I go ahead and start writing the words down.”
Most commercial radio stations won’t play song-poem records, though some regional outlets will. Franklin says KCTI in Gonzalez, Texas, where a sister of his lives, has given “Hair of the Dog” a fair spin. “Maybe somebody’ll hear it,” he says. “I don’t know.”
“The only thing I regret, that I can’t do more for a writer than I do,” Kearney says. “All you can do is a decent demo, and bring their song up to the best of your ability. But I can’t promise somebody something I can’t promise myself. I have my own music, and I can’t do any more with my personal stuff I’ve written by myself than I can for a co-writer. But if I had to go over again, I would do the same thing. I’d still be doing the same thing.”
As a touching feature of Kearney’s office, behind his desk he’s put up Polaroid photos sent to him by some of his co-writers, a smiling few of the thousands who have handed him their dreams. Where else would they go? Who on Music Row would care for their words more than him?
Technology may offer options. Mark Ford, an executive with the Nashville Songwriters Association International, suggests that writers tap the power of the Internet to network with writers in other locations. Even Kearney can sense the old ways disappearing.
“People is not as much into it as they have been in the past,” he says. “I think people now are doing their own demos with computers and so forth.”
Never much more than a living for Kearney, his business at its peak in the 1980s drew maybe several hundred queries every six weeks, of which 20 might commit to a demo, he says. Those numbers have dropped, but he still takes out his Writer’s Digest ad. “Mostly now I do it because I enjoy it,” he says. “It don’t pay my overhead anymore.”
Career mementos cover Kearney’s office walls as they would any Music Row reception area, except instead of multi-platinum CDs, they’re Safari label 45s. In one side room, though, hangs a certificate from Nashville Sound Central, his 1961 BMI Award for “Emotions.” The song still buys him groceries.
“I got a check last month for $5,000,” Kearney says. “Just my half…. It almost knocked me down. I usually get $300 here and there.”
Tucked inside the certificate frame, four royalty checks provide absurd perspective. Kearney points at one from 1981. “That’s the big royalty check I never cashed. Acuff and Rose. One dollar. There’s Wesley’s signature, and Mildred Acuff, was Roy’s wife.”
He’s also saved an ASCAP check for a dollar, and a BMI check for 15 cents. He points at the fourth check, also from BMI.
“This one’s a little bit bigger. It was three dollars, six cents. So you get rich at songwriting,” he says.
Smiling, Kearney corrects himself. “You might.”
by Teddy Bart, Daniel Cooper, Bruce Dobie, Adam Dread, Pat Embry, Randy Fox, Liz Garrigan, Tim Ghianni, Michael Gray, Randy Horick, Demetria Kalodimos, E. Heather Lose, Galyn Martin, Michael McCall, Lyda Phillips, Jim Ridley, Michelle Taylor Wilson, E. Thomas Wood and Nicki Pendleton Wood