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Journey of a Hall of Fame Songwriter
October 4, 2012 Archive Learn People Stories
Journey of a Hall of Fame Songwriter
By Amanda Williams – October 4, 2012 – Published by Amanda Williams
Sunday is the day. A new crop of hit songwriters will be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, among them, my dad Kim Williams.
Dad was born in the hills of East Tennessee, the fourth son of Mary Francis & Lonzo nmn Williams.
Ma’am-aw said she gave Dad a Korean name out of necessity. Pap-aw insisted she give each kid a middle name, since the Service (Air Force) branded him “nmn” for no middle name, and he was always ashamed of it. He made her come up with two names for all their children, and Ma’am-aw was running short of name-fodder when it came time for Kim Edwin, so she told me.
Dad grew up in what is known as Poor Valley, TN. It’s not a town, really, but some folks know where to find it. People in the valley used to sit around and play music for entertainment back in those days. Pap-aw was said to be able to play anything with strings on it, and pretty much all the boys learned to play one instrument or another.
As a young kid, I remember going to Ma’am-aw and Pap-aw’s house for holidays and parties and watching my dad, his brothers and their friends pick and grin way into the wee hours of the morning. All the songs they played at those jam sessions were cover songs, like old Hank Williams, and Marty Robbins classics. They would take turns singing, and traded off solos and even instruments from time to time. It was a joyful occasion, always.
When Dad first started writing songs, it was like he became possessed. He had always been serious when it came to his study, but now he became completely engrossed in his work.
I say “his study” with a dual meaning. He had a room in our house he called “his study” and of course, he studied in there. It was a glorious room in my memory, with a desk in one corner and a whole wall of built in bookshelves made of rich dark wood. He had every Isaac Asimov book ever written, and many Robert Heinlein and other Sci Fi writers’ works. He also had a complete set of encyclopedias (remember, this was the ‘80s before Internet), tons of reference manuals, and an ever-expanding philosophy and psychology section.
I loved hanging out in there with him because he would often point things out to me, or we would play with his fascinating astronomy models – like the clear plastic bubble galaxy with its concentric spheres that moved independently – just the thing to keep a curious kid busy for hours.
When he started writing songs, he withdrew into his secret study more and more often. I would peek my head in at him at times and find him pouring over a book on lyric craft writing, or practicing his guitar – he had started taking lessons.
It was an exciting time, because I could see the determination driving him along to pursue his writing. Dad had started attending the weekly meetings of the Knoxville Songwriters Association led by Sara Williams, and was really loving the camaraderie he found there. He started bringing home interesting characters, some related to us, and some not, but all were new friends he had made doing his songwriting.
I remember how excited Dad was the day he finally got up the nerve to ask Benny Wilson to write with him. Benny was the town rock star in Rogersville, TN, and everybody knew his music. He sang backup on the road with country music star, Janie Fricke.
It was raining the day Benny came over to our house for the first time. We lived out in the woods, and the excitement of any visitor was exhilarating, let alone a famous one arriving in the middle of a thunderstorm! Benny wasn’t in the house for five minutes before he and dad were huddled in his study, pouring over their first of a long string of co-writing sessions.
Dad’s enthusiasm for songwriting was contagious. It’s all he talked about, all he wanted to do. He started making regular trips to Nashville at the urging of the Knoxville Songwriters group, to pursue his career. They sensed he had talent, and that his studying was paying off because he was actually getting better. The songs he brought in for evaluation by the group were taking on a life of their own, and his earliest cuts were written with the folks who were part of the KSA like Oscar Turman, co-writer of the Doug Stone cut “Warning Labels.”
By now, Dad had started packing a briefcase with him everywhere he went, and kept a pen and pad of paper in his right front pocket. For a short while, he also packed a squeezable flashlight so he could write down any song ideas he got in dark movie theaters. He did that until we saw the movie “Rainman” and watched him doing the same thing. Mom teased him about it later, and he got mad (more like embarrassed) and didn’t use his flashlight in movie theaters anymore.
By this time, Dad had moved to Nashville. He and Benny got an apartment right on Music Row, a dingy, cockroach infested crap hole of a place, but it was exciting. I was too young to care very much about the accommodations, and just thought that’s how everybody lived in the big city. Truth was, Dad was stretching his budget thin trying to maintain two households and our family with his monthly check and Mom’s nursing income.
Our family was kind of split up for a time during this period, but I know from hearing from others how hard Dad continued to work when he was away from us. He would get up at 6AM and run on his manual treadmill that made a sound like the springs of hell were being pounded on by a herd of slightly unbalanced gorillas wearing tennis shoes.
Dad never was a quiet man, but one thing about him, when he decided to make something a habit, he “by God” did it right. You could set a clock by him.
After his 6AM run with the chirping screeching treadmill of doom, he would puff off into the shower where he would stay for approximately 15 minutes. After a bowl of raisin bran or an “egg in toast”, he’d start his first writing appointment, usually by 8AM. His appointments would last a couple of hours and one would lead right into the next one until his midnight box of microwave Chicken a-la King poured over white bread (or maybe Vienna Sausages on Saltine crackers) for supper.
Sometimes, his co-writers would take him to an afternoon number one party at ASCAP or somewhere, and he’d fill up on the free grub. Music industry parties were lavish in those days when the honey wagon was flowing freely down the streets of Music Row (before illegal downloading). His co-writers quickly learned, however, never to let Dad eat just before a writing appointment. Being slightly narcoleptic, he would sometimes fall asleep while talking to you, especially after eating a big meal. (Garth wouldn’t let him eat anything at all until they were done for the day.)
Dad worked his tail off, and got around networking with all kinds of folks. He called it “politicking”. He said he didn’t much enjoy it, but I think he might have liked it better than he let on. People sure seemed to like him, anyway.
Once, he admitted to me that he often had trouble remembering everyone’s names, and felt bad about it when he forgot. We had a system that, if he didn’t introduce Mom and me to someone by name, that meant he didn’t know it, and it was our cue to introduce ourselves and try to get the person to say his or her name so we’d all know it then without having to ask.
I told him it was normal that people remembered his name because his appearance was so unique. He laughed at this, saying, “Unique. Now is that a nice way of saying burned all to hell?”
Dad had gotten burned before I was born in a fire at his work. He had done the job of an electrician at float glass plants. A float glass plant, he explained, was a place where sheets of glass were made for commercial uses. They float the forming glass on liquids to make it flat and smooth, like the glass in your bedroom window. He had been working on an electrical panel one day with is foreman when it had arced and the flames leapt out and caught both Dad and his boss on fire.
He told me that he had been in shock when the flame engulfed him. His foreman suffered mostly second-degree burns, while Dad’s were third degree. Though more severe from a tissue damage standpoint, Dad’s burns didn’t hurt as badly at first as his foreman’s, whose second degree burns were affecting the layer of skin where the nerves are found.
Dad said he didn’t know how badly he had been burned until they arrived at the emergency room and he looked in the rearview mirror to see his skin was melting off his face. He actually walked in to the hospital and remembers the look on the trauma nurse’s face before he collapsed in the floor.
Six months later, he was allowed to return home for the first time. My mom was only 21 at the time, and they’re still married to this day. (That says a lot about love, don’t it.)
So here is Dad going to number one parties in Nashville and getting around on Music Row, and now his burns make him stand out in the crowd, and help people remember him. Who would have thought it possible?
But people didn’t see him as a burned up former electrician. They recognized his passion, his drive, his talent, and his dedication to becoming a hit songwriter. He found some good friends and collaborators, and worked his way up through the newbies to the place where people were starting to take notice, and to help him.
He got on with the guys over at API, an organization who was charging songwriters in order to help them improve their writing. The organization was run by Danny Morrison (who passed earlier this year) and Johnny Slate. Dad says they took a lot of grief from the industry for charging the writers, but claims that they really helped him and other writers such as Kerry Kurt Phillips. It was through API that Dad met Ron Harbin, the cowriter with whom he and Rich Fagan wrote “Overnight Male,” the song in the George Strait Pure Country movie.
One of his first champions was Peggy Bradley. Not only did Peggy hook Dad up with Rich Fagan, the first pro hit writer Dad ever got the chance of writing with, but Peggy also introduced Dad to Garth.
The story goes, Peggy was standing at the post office when she ran into Bob Doyle. She asked Bob what he was doing, and he told her he had just left his executive job at ASCAP, taken out a second mortgage on his home, and was managing a young artist named Garth Brooks who was similar to George Strait. Peggy said, “I have a writer who writes in that style, we should get them together.” And they did.
Dad started writing with Garth every Monday at his cockroach infested apartment. They wrote “Papa Loved Mama” together right there in that nasty floor (according to Dad, they thought it was so funny that Papa killed Mama with the truck, they were rolling around in the floor laughing).
As time went on, Dad’s hard work started paying off. He and Mom decided that if we were going to be a family, we needed to live in the same place. I was glad. Just between you and me, the third Shoney’s bear I got wrapped in his clear plastic sleeve almost broke my heart. Deep down I knew Dad was just trying to bring me something to show he was thinking about me while he was gone. He just forgot that he had already given me that same gift two other times before – too many songs ago to remember something so small.
Dad’s first number one was a song called “If the Devil Danced In Empty Pockets” written with Ken Spooner and made famous by Joe Diffie. Dad had just been signed by legendary song man, Don “Dirt” Lanier at Tree International, the biggest publishing company on Music Row. We were so proud of him!
We took a family vacation to Jamaica to celebrate, and on the third or fourth day, Dad called his pal Ron Harbin and told him, “I’ve been on vacation less than a week, and I’m about to write all over myself.” He was hooked by the writing bug for sure.
Over the next 20 years, Dad went on to write countless songs. He has a vast catalogue of material housed mainly at his old home place, Tree International, now called Sony ATV Music Publishing. He briefly left Sony to write for Magic Mustang, the publishing company belonging to Broken Bow Records, but returned to Sony after only two years.
16 # 1 country songs including: “Papa Loved Mama,” “Ain’t Going Down Till The Sun Comes Up,” and the Christian cross over smash “Three Wooden Crosses” and over 140 million records sold worldwide later, Dad is going to be honored by his peers for his outstanding achievements in the field of songwriting come this Sunday, October 7th, 2012 here in Nashville, TN at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction banquet.
He will be inducted along with fellow legendary songwriters, Larry Henley, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Tony Arata. It will be truly a wonderful occasion, and a well deserved celebration of Dad’s remarkable contribution to our modern music scene. Congratulations to Dad! You deserve it.
Read the Prayer from the Kim Williams Memorial held at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, May 24th, 2016
What else can we learn about today?
VIDEOS: Royalty Streams
AUDIO FILES: What is a Mechanical License?
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