Being Songwriter Of The Year

Friends are more precious to me these days than gold and I consider Jerry Salley one of those precious gems in my life. I have had the joy of observing this gentle man work at the craft of songwriting, never letting a lyric go until the page he is working on is full of the very best he can write. He raises the bar for any songwriter and the accolades coming his way these days are so well deserved. The reigning IBMA 2019 Songwriter Of The Year has to share space on his shelf with the IBMA 2018 Songwriter Of The Year. That is two years in a row and quite an accomplishment. But these milestones rest among so many triumphs for Jerry Salley, as he has enjoyed multiple awards and numerous cuts by many great artists in many genres of music, and I know that I am not alone in saying that he is just hitting his stride. It is my pleasure to let Jerry Salley tell part of his story, enjoy!

1- How old were you when you wrote your first song and what was the title and the story?

I was 16 years old when I wrote my first song. It was a bluegrass song and it was entitled “Even Though Your Love Is Gone (Where the Bluegrass Grows)”. A peppy little up-tempo tune about a break up and losing your girl. There was so much falling in love and breaking up at that time in my life that I can’t remember which girl it was about.

2- Do you remember where you wrote your first song and why?

I wrote it at home. I had been listening to a lot of Tom T. Hall and the Osborne Brothers at the time. I’m sure that influenced me musically. I had been studying Tom T.’s lyrics and stories and singing a lot of his songs in the little country band my brothers and I had – Jerry Salley and the Country Ramblers.  Anyway, lyrically, I can’t remember which girl inspired the story, but I was so inspired at that time in my life by Tom T.’s storytelling and his songwriting and almost felt a “calling” to start writing my own songs like he did. (I had loved writing stories since I was a little fellow).  So, I took what very little I knew about heartbreak and songwriting and turned it into an uptempo, feel good about losing your girl, bluegrass song: The chorus goes: “Even though your love is gone, I am right where I belong, You’re love is gone, Oh this I know, but I will stay where the Bluegrass grows.” Isn’t that terrible? But, it was a start!

3- Did you have a great amount of support when you-started writing and if so, can you elaborate on who and how?

Other than studying the lyrics of the songs I learned and performed when I was young – trying to figure out how these Songwriters put a song together. I never really was around many real-life songwriters until I got older. My parents were both so supportive of everything I did musically. Dad played the five string (not professionally, but he really was a very good picker) and gave me my love of Bluegrass, Gospel and Traditional country music. So yes, my parents were very encouraging and always gave me the confidence to pursue my dream of going to Nashville and being a progressional songwriter and artist. I recorded my first record in Nashville in 1976 (I was 16 – a lot of musical things happened to me that year – it’s when I sincerely began to believe I was put on this earth to make music and realized I could actually make a living doing it), but when I returned for my second trip to Music City (while I was in college -1979) I met a lady named Dianne Petty who ran the country music division of SESAC, one of the three performance rights companies in the U.S. that represents songwriters. I walked in with my little briefcase of songs and my cassette tapes and she listened to them and immediately called a lady named Meredith Stewart who ran Coal Miners Music – Loretta Lynns Publishing Company. Before I left town they had two of my songs published with “Coal Dust Music” – Loretta’s SESAC Company. Dianne became a life long friend. She was more than an incredible encourager and supporter – she was like a mother to me when I moved to Nashville in 1982 –  just eight weeks after graduating college. She was always encouraging me and introducing me to other writers and producers. When she passed a few years ago, I was one of her pall bearers and was asked to sing at her funeral, which was extremely emotional for me. She was a Music City Icon and one of the very first female music business executives. She was an incredible songwriter advocate, and she loved her songwriters. Her support and sincere belief in my ability as a songwriter had a tremendous affect on my entire career.

4- Name a songwriter that has influenced your writing style and give me an example of this writers composition that still blows you away today…a chorus or verse perhaps?

I’ve already mentioned my songwriting hero, Tom T. Hall. Of course, a lot of his early hits didn’t really have a chorus. They just told a story from beginning to end. Some of my favorite lyrics are from his song “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine”. He paints such a wonderful picture in the first part of the song. You can just see him sitting there at the bar – with the TV when an elderly janitor strikes up a conversation then sits down to impart some incredible wisdom.  Again, the song has no chorus, but my favorite part of the song is these third and fourth verses:

“3. He said women think about themselves when their
menfolk aren’t around
And friends are hard to find when they discover that you’re down
He said I tried it all when I was young and in my natural prime
Now it’s old dogs and children
and watermelon wine
4. He said old dogs care about you when you make mistakesH
God bless the little children while they’re still too young to hate
As he moved away I got my pen and copied down that line
On old dogs and children
and watermelon wine

Another of of my favorite lines is from Tom’s song “The Ballad Of Forty Dollar’s” –

“Well, that must be
the widow in the car
And would you take a look at that
That sure is a pretty dress
You know some women
do look good in black”

There are so many songwriters I have admired and appreciated over the years. Many of whom I have had a chance to write with on this incredible musical journey. Jim McBride, Jim Rushing, and A.L.  ”Doodle” Owens are just a few of the mentors I had when I got to Nashville and started co-writing professionally. I learned so much from them about digging deep for something great and not just settling for the first thing you think of – and also about learning the difference between a good song and a great song. Always pursuing that chill factor you get when you know you’ve got the lyric right. Through the years I’ve been blessed to write with so many songwriting greats – Bill Anderson, Larry Gatlin, Bill Gaither to name a few. The opportunity to learn from each of them has been invaluable.  And of course, Hank Williams’ songwriting has had an impact on me as it has most songwriters. A good example of this:

“The Silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry”

5- How often do you sit and write these days and is it still something you enjoy?

Although I have so many responsibilities these days with my performance schedule, producing and running Billy Blue Records, I still write between 50-60 songs a year. I absolutely still LOVE it and have probably never enjoyed it more than I do at this point in my life. I am so grateful every single time I get the chance to sit down and work on a great idea – crafting it to make it the best it can be. Just yesterday (over the holiday break) I spent the entire day (and part of the night) working on a melody for a new Bluegrass Gospel lyric that Bill Andersonsent to me to work on with him. I’ll write songs until I can’t think anymore or  until I can no longer hold the pen.

6- What is the most difficult part in the writing process for you and why?

Great question. At this stage of my career and life, it’s getting those special ideas and hooks. I’ve written well over 1,000 songs and have had over 500 different songs recorded so far in my career. When I was younger I feel like I came up with a lot of great titles and hooks. Then, when you add to that the number of great ideas and titles I’ve heard that many of my friends have written, it gets tougher to come up with something original. I can’t count the times someone has come to me with a great idea or title and I have to tell them, “hey, that is a great idea but I’ve got a friend who has already written that title – and although theirs has never been recorded or been a hit – it’s just hard for me to write an idea I’ve already heard before”. Plus, I would never want one of my friends to think I took their title or idea.  Beyond that, the biggest challenge is always trying to write to the hook and setting the verse up to feed the chorus so that when you hear the “title” for the first time your audience is like ,“WOW”!!

7- Who do you sing your new songs to before letting artists hear them and do you heed suggestions for change when you get their feedback?

I play my new songs that I am excited about for my closest writer friends that I respect the most. I know if they love it, I’ve done my job! I trust them and I know they will be honest with me. I also love playing my new songs for my wife, Erin. She isn’t nearly as critical, but I can always tell from her initial reaction if it’s something she loves or not. And if she loves it, it’ll be a song that others will connect with. She is also great at casting my songs that is, suggesting who I should pitch them to – who could record the song and make a great record out of it.

8- Where is the strangest place you’ve ever written a song?

One of the strangest memories I have of writing a song was in Australia. I was riding with a friend from Sydney to Tamworth for their biggest Country Music Festival of the year. Thank goodness he was driving because they drive on the wrong side of the road other there! Anyway, after dodging a few Kangaroos (it’s about a four hour drive), a huge dark storm formed in front of us and we realized we were driving right into it. It was a little spooky, but when I first saw it the title “Driving Into The Storm” popped into my head and while my friend was wrestling the steering wheel trying to keep us from blowing off the road, I wrote most of the song. I not only started writing the song in Australia, but it was first recorded by an Australian Bluegrass band named The Davidson Brothers.

9- Can you describe what you feel when you hear something you’ve written come across the radio?

Now, that is hard to put into words. I can tell you it puts a big ol smile on your face and is a feeling of accomplishment.  And, it NEVER gets old. I remember the very first time I ever heard one of my country songs on radio. I was driving to a dental appointment with my oldest daughter, Lindsay Jo. She was five at the time. We were tuned into WSM 650 AM as I knew this new group called Wild Rose was going to be interviewed on there and they were going to play the debut of their very first country single – a song I co-wrote with my buddy Carl Jackson called “Breaking New Ground”.  As it played I got tears in my eyes and when it was finished, Lindsay Jo said, “Well, Daddy, there’s that big ol’ hit you’ve been waiting on”! It became my first big country hit!  Ironically, as I am answering these questions right now, I am literally listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM 650, waiting for Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers sing a song I co-wrote with a couple of friends of mine called, “Bacon In My Beans” – It was co-written with Mark BonDurant and Terry Jacobs at the “Little House Workshops” that Donna Ulisse, Rick Stanley and I conduct once a month in Nashville.

That song is the first song Mark and Terry have ever had recorded. Hearing your songs on the radio is a very, very emotional thing. The very first time is extra special – but again, it NEVER gets old.

10- I know songwriters have a catalog full of songs waiting to be recorded. What song in your catalog still surprises you because it has yet to be recorded ? And would you mind giving us the lyric to display here?

I have a few I can’t believe have never been recorded or been a big hit, but one that really stands out to me is a song called “Let Me Be The Bridge” that I co-wrote years ago with one of my mentors, the “Ol Professor” himself, Jim Rushing. I finally recorded it myself on a brand new project coming out in 2020.

“Let Me Be The Bridge”

Jerry Salley
Jim Rushing

He always leaves a stream of sorrow flowing down your face
And I’ve stood by and watched and wondered how much your heart can take
But you won’t find a new beginning until this hurting ends

Darlin’ let me be the bridge that gets you over him

My shoulders been the pillow
You’ve cried on up till now
But, it’s time you learned to help yourself and I’d love to show you how
Can’t you see you’ve cried a river
that’s impossible to swim
Darlin’ let me be the bridge that get you over him

At times I’ve seen you drowning in a sea of make believe
From where I stand you’re so afraid to face reality
But just beyond the tears lies a road to where the heartache mends
Darlin’ let me be The Bridge that gets you over him


By Donna Ulisse