Johnny Russell: yup, he wrote that one too

Joel Bernstein, June 2000

For those people who seldom look at songwriting credits, we present the new album from Johnny Russell called "Actin' Naturally." You'll recognize a lot of the song titles. You'll recognize the names of guest performers such as Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle, Buck Owens and Earl Scruggs.

You may even remember Johnny Russell as the singer of such hits as "Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer" or "Catfish John."

But you'll probably be surprised to learn that Johnny Russell wrote every song on his new album.

You wouldn't be alone in underestimating the accomplishments of the 60-year-old Russell. He recently performed at a benefit concert in Nashville for the late Tommy Collins, attended by most of the city's greatest songwriters.

"I sang 'In A Mansion Stands My Love,'" Russell says, "and (songwriter) Max D. Barnes said 'I didn't know you wrote that song." Russell not only wrote it, but when Jim Reeves cut it in 1960 as the B-side to his million seller "He'll Have To Go," it served as Russell's ticket into Nashville's songwriter ranks.

"I did a show recently with Glen Campbell." Russell continues. "I've known him for a long time too. When I did 'Act Naturally,'" he says, 'I didn't know you wrote that.'"

That song is Russell's most famous and most lucrative as well since The Beatles cut it after Buck Owens had a huge country hit with it.

"I run into people all the time who think Buck wrote it. Or The Beatles. That's what happen when you're a songwriter. But I never see Ringo's name on the checks. I never see Buck's name on them."

He might see Voni Morrison's name, since she is listed as co-writer. Russell is a man of a million stories, and he has a few about this song. "I met her in California. She and her husband used to come out to where I played. She wanted to write songs. We agreed to put each others names on the songs we wrote." (Russell at this time was still not an established success in songwriting.) "I wrote 'Act Naturally' and 'Making Plans' myself. None of the songs she wrote ever got recorded."

But Morrison did make a contribution to the song's success. "She was working for Buck, and she's the one who actually took the song to him, that and four other songs we wrote. He was going to record a different one, a ballad, but he changed his mind. I can't even remember the name of the ballad. No one ever recorded it."

Of the song's origins, Russell says, "I was in Fresno, visiting my mother. I had a date. I got called by a record company that was doing a session in Hollywood and wanted me to work on it. When I called to cancel the date, she asked 'What are you going to do in Hollywood?'. I said as a joke 'They're gonna put me in the movies. They're gonna make a big star out of me.' I never called the girl again, but I had a song."

"I tried to get the guy who was recording at the session (country/pop singer Dale Ward) to cut it, but he couldn't learn it." After The Beatles turned the song into a cash cow, another musician at this session unsuccessfully sued claiming he had written part of it. Both Ward and Voni Morrison were among those who testified that Russell had written it all himself.

"I just found out that Blockbuster used it for a commercial. It's going to be in a new Denzel Washington movie. It just keeps making money. It's unbelievable."

The day he learned The Beatles had recorded it, Russell says "I went home and mowed the yard. I called a friend who was a salesman at Capitol and asked him 'How many copies is this going to sell?' He said 'It's coming out next Monday, and we've already sold over a million.'"

Russell hasn't recorded in a while. "People think if you don't have a record out, you've quit the business. But I never stopped working. I've still been writing songs, working the road, doing the Opry and television."

Hugh Moore (owner of Russell's current label OMS) was doing a project on Benny Martin. "We met, and he booked a date and said he was doing an album on me. I turned him down the first two or three times. I'm glad he talked me into it. It's been a lot of fun."

"When he mentioned it to me, I had been at a party. Earl Scruggs was there. We used to have these picking parties. He said 'I'd like to record 'Act Naturally' someday.' I wrote it to be a bluegrass tune with a banjo, but nobody would ever record it that way."

Until now.

As this album started taking shape, "I called Earl. Hugh called Crystal Gayle. She's been a friend of mine since she was 13. I got to thinking I'd ask Dolly. Bobby Bare came by the studio one day, and we got him to do a recitation. I talk to Buck every now and then so I asked him. It all just kind of jelled together."

"Actin' Naturally" also includes Russell's last two songwriting hits, "Let's Fall To Pieces Together" (George Strait) and "Got No Reason Now For Going Home" (Gene Watson).

Of the latter, Russell says, "I had just gotten a divorce. I got off the interstate one evening, and thought to myself 'I got no reason for going home.' By the time I got to my house, I had the chorus and a verse written. Later, I went out to Nashville Now to see Gene - we'd worked a lot of shows together - and I handed him a tape and said, being funny, 'Cut it!.' He said 'I'll listen to it.' I said, 'I can get anyone to listen to it. Cut it!'

"Let's Fall To Pieces" was a co-write with Dickey Lee and Tommy Rocco. "We were writing one day, and we got stuck. Dickey got on the phone, Tommy went into his office, and I dozed off. Then suddenly Tommy came in and yelled out the title. After that it came together pretty fast."

Russell's hits as a singer were with songs written by others. "The songs I write weren't the type I was recording. And it seemed like I could make more money this way."

With identity theft running rampant nowadays, Russell can show that it's not a new problem. "A guy came up to me in a club and said 'Why do you let somebody else sing the records, and you work the shows?' He said his friend told him he was singing on my records, but I wouldn't let him work the road. I told him to call his friend to come down to the club, and we'd straighten it out, but the guy never came over."

In the early '60's, "There were two singers named Bobby Edwards. I knew them both. The one from California is the one that had the big record ("You're The Reason"). The other one, from Alabama, came to Nashville claiming it was him. He even fooled me. The one who had the record was a real bad singer, and I figured he could never have a hit record. I had met him at Terry Fell's studio in California" where the record was made.

The Alabama Edwards (nee Robert Moncrief) fooled almost everyone - including music historians. His lone charted record, "Don't Pretend," was a cowrite with Johnny Russell.

Like many others, Russell is not thrilled with the current state of country music. "Every other form of music respects their heroes and legends. The new crop of country radio people don't respect Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard and Webb Pierce. The two worst things that ever happened to country music are country radio and the CMA."

"Everything now is positive. That's not the way life is. Country music told what life was like, but radio stations now want all positive things."

However, Russell is positive about his own career. "I'm just really proud of this album. I listened to it and called Hugh and thanked him. I had really missed recording and didn't realize it. Now we're already talking about the next one. I'm really looking forward to doing it." >br>

Photo of Russell in Nashville by Morrello/Ghergia

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