Billy Yates: what you see is what you get

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"

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.

He seemed to learn quickly. He wrote "Walls Can Fall" with Frank Dycus, which became the title track of a Jones album. Kenny Chesney recorded his second song, "Turn for the Worse," on an early album.

"Rockin' Chair" was penned with Dycus a few songs later. "When things started happening, they started happening fast," Yates says.

With some success under his belt as a songwriter, Yates has an idea about the method to being a good writer.

"To be a good songwriter, you have to study the craft," he says. "You have to practice the craft, study the craft, until you get your gut, if a line is good or bad, if a melody is good or bad. If you develop your gut, you throw the craft out the window. You write with your gut, and then you use your craft to edit."

"The whole songwriting thing kind of fell in my lap," Yates says. "During this time, I was still completely clueless."

He learned as he has had folks like Sara Evans, Gary Allan and David Allan Coe cut his material.

Finally, Yates got his chance with Almo to record his own album.

"The whole Almo days for me - as short lived as it was - was a blast. They were a little on the grassroots side of things because they were an independent label...It was a good experience for me."

But three singles did not do much, and he even suffered from having one song that had attracted airplay from DJs even though it wasn't released as a single compete with the song that was.

After Almo shut its doors, Yates quickly hooked up with Sony.

"I was there forever before we got anything going on. They signed me, and I just kind of sat around."

"I think the fact that (because) I (was) so traditional...they had a hard time with it."

It was also a case of when they did understand Yates, "now what do we do with it?" he says.

The fact that country was becoming increasingly pop oriented also didn't bode well for Yates.

"That was a real hard time," Yates says of his Sony time. "After they finally recorded an album, there was no single and no set up."

One single, out in November 2000, did very little.

The label released a second single.

Two weeks after, he asked Sony head Allen Butler out of the deal. "I've given them how many years to make something of this and to get to that point where we can put something out," Yates says. "There was no support."

Yates says without being specific that he thought there was some undermining of efforts within Sony.

"When I asked out of my deal with Sony, I'll never forget...(I was told) 'we could move you to one of the other (Sony) labels.' I said, 'I can't do that.' They said, 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'If I could leave now, and you can assure me I'm free to do what I want to do, I'm going to start a new record deal. He said, "You've got another deal." I said 'No. I wish I did. If someone wanted to sign me, I'm just asking you to let me go have a life. I'm going to make my own record and enjoy life.'"

"I'm going to work it as hard as I can possibly work it and take it as far as I can possibly take it."

Yates said Butler told him, "'Billy there is no way I'd stand in the way of you doing that. If that's what you really want to do... we won't make you stay. You have the honor of my word that we won't buck you.'"

Since going on his own, Yates released "If I Could Go Back" with such songs as the lead-off "Too Country And Proud of It" in 2001 and "Country" in May. The former has sold about 6,000 copies, not too shabby for an indie release.

Meanwhile, Yates has not exactly been a slouch in the writing department. He has a cut on George Strait's new disc, "My Infinite Love," a song mainly written with Byron Hill, but inspired by a close neighbor friend dying of cancer.

Annette Grossberg, the neighbor, wanted Yates to write a song for her funeral. Looking through letters from her, he accomplished the difficult task and sang at her funeral about six months ago.

Yates had sung the song to Grossberg at her house before she died. "She said, 'Well maybe we'll get rich' and laughed, "so now, I'm a big songwriter."

Yates had no expectations beyond that for the song, but it went to his publisher. A few weeks later, Strait was interested.

"That kind of thing just doesn't happen. You write songs, and everybody always goes to work your publishers how to get them cut. ("My Infinite Love") was (us) trying to write something in mind that was appropriate for that great lady. The hearts still won. It's a great kind of testimony to songwriters. We often put too much emphasis on what's commercial. The best thing is to write what you feel."

"I think by doing my own thing, if nothing else I've established within the industry what my true passion is as far as my direction. I think I've garnered some respect for taking on, going out and doing my own thing. I have recently kind of have had a couple of major labels sniffing around."

"I'm sort of amazed that someone would show interest. Am I damaged goods? Whatever, but apparently not. I will never rule that out, and my main reason for not ruling it out is there is a larger audience you can be exposed to...I would do it again in a minute."

"The indie thing is a blast. It's challenging, and it's fun to have the freedom. It's challenging to see how far you can take it and take it outside the box."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •