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Billy Yates: what you see is what you get

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2003

Billy Yates has been to the promised land a few times and back again. And that's not necessarily so bad in the eyes of the singer, who has carved out a career as a songwriter, but also is nurturing an indie singing career.

Yates, the pen behind George Jones' "Choices" and "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," could be victim of being labeled as too country.

After all, when you call your album, "Country," seems like you better deliver.

Inside the album jacket, Yates writes, "What you see is what you get, what you get is what you see. No, I ain't tryin' to fool no one. God knows I'm proud to be...country."

The lines are from the only totally self-penned song on the new disc and title track. While country music is never specifically mentioned - the country lifestyle is the focal point - Yates says in a telephone interview from Nashville that country music clearly is part of the equation for him.

"The only reason I did just go for that is that the song came entirely to me in a dream. Every songwriter will tell you they got a song in dreams. Typically you write it down and look at the song and realize George Jones cut that song 20 years ago, or it's no good. I had this real long dream, and I woke up and came to my senses. I got up, went to my computer and didn't touch (the song). That's just the way it was."

"I have an appreciation for that real country lifestyle," says Yates. "That's the way I was raised."

Yates, 40, grew up in the in southern Missouri near the Ozarks in Doniphan, a little town of 1,500 people. "We lived five miles from town out on a gravel road on a small farm. We had cattle, three or four cows. We had chickens for eggs. Every year, we got a mail order of baby chicks...I did get to experience that kind of life."

The meaty, 14-song album is a mixture of traditional country and some bluegrass.

Yates is a keen songwriter with a mixture of honky tonkers and ballads.

He diverges with "Smokin' Grass," written with Shannon Lawson, which is a double entendre song. One would think it's about smoking marijuana, but in reality the subject matter is bluegrass.

"I've always had that idea," says Yates. "I've had it for years. I've always thought I'd see it somewhere. I never got a handle on it, of what I wanted to do with it. I also thought it would be a great title for a bluegrass record or a band. I was writing with Shannon Lawson, and it got that way. It was one of those things that came early, and it was pretty much done."

"Everybody has gotten a big kick out of it because of the double meaning. We've tried to make it as clear as we could."

After one album on the defunct Almo Sounds label (the Los Angeles-based label had the likes of Garbage and Gillian Welch, but never established itself in Nashville) and a long cup of coffee with Sony that produced one single, Yates was eager to do his own thing.

"The beauty of doing your own thing is you can sell that amount and make some money. You're not going to get rich."

"Last year at Fan Fair, I did an in store at Tower Records (with three other singers), and afterwards, the manager came up to me, 'you'll be proud to know you came in second (in album sales).' She said, 'The cool thing is you get to stick it in your pocket.'"

When Yates left Missouri behind for greener pastures in Nashville 20 years ago, he was not interested in doing his own thing. He had opened for various acts at a theatre he managed in West Plains, Mo., the hometown of Porter Wagoner. He also DJ'd at a radio station in Doniphan.

College didn't work out (Yates says he had a reading problem), and he went into his father's line of work, cutting hair in a hip shop in town.

He made his first trip to Nashville in 1982, trying to get to know people and the music business.

He sang demos, but was not ready for prime time. "I thought in my mind, I'm trying to get a record deal," Yates says. "I was so far from being ready."

Yates received encouragement from an RCA talent scout, who saw his potential.

Five years of commuting between Missouri and Nashville ended with a decision to make the big move in 1987. "It was really hard for me to adjust to city life, growing out in the sticks," he says.

During the next five years, Yates had showcases demonstrating his talent to record labels. "I came here to be an artist. I didn't come here to be a songwriter at all. I didn't have any idea how to write songs. I did dabble."

In the small town of Nashville, Yates showcased one night at the Douglas Corner Café in Nashville and invited the wife of producer Ray Baker (he produced Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley), who he met at work. The Bakers had dinner nearby and checked out Yates.

The producer liked what he heard and offered help. That led to a writing deal for Yates, even though he acknowledged he only had about two or three decent songs under his belt.

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