Monday, December 30, 2013

Record Exec Bradley 'Slim' Williamson Dies at 86

Posted By on Mon, Dec 30, 2013 at 11:08 AM

The history of Nashville’s recording industry is a tale of big ideas — in the 1960s and '70s, ambitious musicians elevated country music into an art that intellectuals could parse. But the story of Chart Records is a narrative that includes such names as Jim Nesbitt, Lorene Mann and Junior Samples, who created ephemeral music that is deeply significant, as if in defiance of analysis. What Chart achieved in the ‘60s and early '70s had everything to do with the hard work and optimism of Bradley “Slim” Williamson, the Georgia-born entrepreneur who took over the label in 1964. Williamson had the music business in his bones, and his death at 86 on Christmas Day marks the passing of a freewheeling era in popular music.

In the beginning, Chart Records wasn’t a label at all. Started by Missouri-born songwriter and record producer Gary Walker, Chart was a way for Walker to make records in Nashville with union musicians. “If you wanted to do regular union sessions using union musicians, you had to have a license as a record company with the union,” Walker says. “Essentially, my Chart Records concept was simply a license vehicle, to do recordings and lease to other record labels.”

Walker had come to Nashville as a songwriter, and penned country tunes for Porter Wagoner and Kitty Wells. Today, Walker owns the Nashville-based Great Escape record and comic-book stores. He first met Williamson in the early ‘60s, when Walker was working at Atlanta’s Lowery Music Company.

“I had a call from Bill Lowery, and he said, ‘There’s this guy down here, and he’s got a little record label called Peach, and he’s a radio-station owner,’” Walker remembers. “Slim wanted to basically get out of the status he was in, and actually own a legitimate mainstream label. He had networks and had already had success getting radio play and releasing records.”

Williamson bought Chart in 1964 from Walker, and the reconstituted label’s first hit was “Lookin’ for More in ‘64,” a topical novelty tune by South Carolina disc jockey Jim Nesbitt. The record hit Billboard’s country charts, and Nesbitt would become one of the decade’s greatest all-purpose novelty-country artists — his 1970 Chart single “When They Sent My Old Lady to the Moon” features a protagonist who makes the trip eating Moon Pies in a space suit too small for her.

Nesbitt may have been the quintessential Chart artist — he wrote about pollution and hippies with deadpan humor. Still, Chart released records by artists who aspired to a more conventional success. Chart released Lynn Anderson’s 1966 single, “Ride, Ride, Ride,” which started her career. On the other hand, you’ll find Chart singles by Samples, Rudy Wesley and the Palace Aides, and Al Chaney, whose 1966 “If This Is Love (The Whole World Is in Trouble),” presents a skeptical view of human nature.

With his son Cliff helping out, Slim Williamson turned Chart into a independent label with clout — RCA distributed and manufactured Chart for a while, and Cliff began recording rock-oriented artists in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Slim sold Chart in 1974 and moved back to Georgia, where he worked in real estate. Cliff has worked with Reba McEntire for many years, and Cliff’s daughter, Cortney Tidwell, is a well-known Nashville singer and songwriter. With Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner, Tidwell released a 2010 full-length collection of songs first recorded by Chart artists, Invariable Heartache, under the name KORT. (See our cover story on that project here.)

Walker remembers Williamson as a magnetic figure: “He had a personality that was extremely appealing, and he had tremendous personal power and people skills. That was a part of his success, and his capability to actually go up against the majors and have success, which was a tremendously significant accomplishment at that time.”

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