Randy Travis Booksigning
There were 150 people at the Barnes and Noble that day, Saturday, June 8th, 2019 . We had paid for the book online and we each received our copy from a clerk, as we waited. (Randy had previously signed his name using his left hand, having to learn how to write with it.) The queue snaked up and down and around the bookshelves. It moved fairly quickly, and I realized I would have only a couple of minutes with him. When I sat down beside him I took his good hand. “Randy,” I said. “My name is Denny O’Rourke. I wrote Honky Tonk Moon. You did a great job on it and you helped me buy a house.” The words came out in a rush and the photo below shows his reaction. I babbled something else complimentary and he was beginning to smile as we turned to face the photographer. I would have liked more time with him, but too many fans waited patiently behind me. I squeezed his hand again and wished him the very best.
Odyssey of a Song
By order of Governor Bill Haslam, Wednesday, February 8, 2017 was proclaimed Randy Travis Day in the state of Tennessee . A tribute was held that night at the formidable Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville and a mighty lineup of Country artists performed his songs. He had been an inspiration to many of them and had almost single-handedly brought the music out of the Urban Cowboy fad and back to its traditional roots. Now having been struck down by a massive stroke that had nearly cost him his life a few years earlier, he had to be assisted to a chair, at the lip of the stage, by his wife Mary. It was there the two of them, side by side, often holding hands, would watch a four hour show celebrating the man and his songs. Each guest artist would sing one of the songs Randy had made famous, many of them number one hits. One of those number ones was Honky Tonk Moon, a tune I had written in 1986, a Country Blues that was passed on for two years by all in the business, on and off Music Row. I often heard it would make a good tune for Leon Redbone, in that it sounded like something written in the nineteen-forties. I was a fan of Redbone’s, but I was after a major artist.
Where did it come from and how did it get to Randy Travis? Well, it all unfolded this way.
I worked with Tiger Fitzhugh and Milton Cavender, two of the first and best musicians I met after arriving in Nashville in 1983. Milton had a basement studio and a Fostex; he programmed the drum machine and played bass, and Tiger would play electric or acoustic guitar. I would bring in a new song and we’d knock it out in a couple of hours.
Occasionally, Tiger would show me the chords of a song I wanted to cover, and then one day, in teacher mode, he laid out a time-worn, simple, Country-bluesy chord progression which I quickly embraced. I had written quite a few songs prior to Nashville , and even recorded a country rock album in New England some years prior. My club work then, however, was in Irish pubs, and selling Broken Crystal there was a chore. Fans would pick it up, and after a moment’s perusal would say, “Where’s The Black Velvet Band? The Wild Rover? Whiskey in the Jar?”
“Well, these songs are all originals,” I’d say, and sadly watch as they set it down.
“Make an Irish album and I’ll buy it.”
Undaunted, I sent two of those songs to a disc jockey in New York City who had once worked the Boston market. (“Juicy” Brucie Bradley at WBZ. Anyone remember him?) He replied immediately, and the first line of his letter was, “Go to Nashville .” I took his advice.
Not long into my sojourn, by 1985 I was a Nashville bartender and a workout enthusiast. And I believed I was writing better songs. On one afternoon I was driving to the gym when Floyd Cramer’s Last Date, a piano instrumental and a particular favorite of mine, played on the radio. I hummed along. I got to the club’s parking lot just as it ended. I sat there thinking how I had always felt the song could be better served by a different title; that those bittersweet, melancholy notes suggested another idea, perhaps an old beer and wine joint at sunset, especially sunset, on the outskirts of town? I thought of Honky Tonk Sunset.
I got on the track and started running, working that idea in my head, finally settling on the moon as opposed to a sunset, and then, focused on the little bar. When I began writing country songs I resolved to steer clear of the clichés, i.e. pickup trucks, divorce, and honky-tonks, but the more I ruminated as I ran the more I realized my setting had to be just that, my first inclination, a honky-tonk. I put the two together and after a few more laps I came up with Honky tonk moon, Keep shining on my baby and me. I couldn’t get home fast enough; tossed the gym bag onto the floor, sat down and quickly pulled out the legal pad and pen, and took up the big Guild. There was no doubt about the chord progression; it would be the one Tiger had shown me.
The song was nearly complete in just over an hour; all that remained was a lyric for the bridge I had written. That would take a few more days, till one afternoon, effortlessly, it was suddenly there. Oddly enough, although I knew it was a good song and I was proud of it, there were a few others I thought were better. I demoed it first with Tiger and Milton and then moved up to a Music Row studio, still using my two friends, among others. Two years passed. At last I had three solid songs I believed would get me in the record label ballpark; Honky Tonk Moon, Moonmad, and When You Grow Up You’re Gonna Break Hearts. Milton had introduced me to pianist Dennis Burnside, a well known session player and composer, who had written a piano arrangement for a song of mine, Maybe If I Fell in Love, that I had composed in my head and found I couldn’t play on the guitar, but that’s another story. At the time I felt I had a chance at a record contract as an artist, and I enlisted Burnside to produce three or four songs, vinyl-ready, that we could shop to the labels.
I gave him a copy of Broken Crystal and he immediately went for a fired-up tune of youthful passion called On a Hot Summer Afternoon. It was settled. We would do these four, and to that end I borrowed a chunk of money from a few friends and me Ma, five thousand dollars in all. The studio was Audio Media on Music Row. Burnside wanted to start with On a Hot Summer Afternoon. After a couple of unsatisfactory takes he came out of the control room with a boom box, set it on the piano, called the musicians to gather round, and played my album version of the song. It jumped out of the radio. Near the end he shouted, “Are you hearing this? Are you listening?” Then he smacked his hand down on the top of the piano and shouted, “And these are New England musicians!” Suitably chagrined and fired up at the same time, the Nashville musicians resumed their places and tore into the song with bared teeth. One take. Done.
The other three went equally as well, with You’re Gonna Break Hearts, a daddy/daughter song, the musician’s pick for a hit. When Burnside played the four for his teenage kids I was surprised to hear they all voted Honky Tonk Moon as their favorite.
Burnside had promised to “knock on the big doors” with the project, but after several weeks I had heard nothing from him. I called and asked what feedback he was getting. He replied that he hadn’t pitched it to anyone yet, and when I asked why, he said, “Fear of failure.” The only failure I could see was being unable to pay back the five thousand dollars. He said he would gear up and move on it.
Two months passed. The Mexican bar had long closed and I was working at Applebee’s on Elliston Place . Tiger waited tables there, as well. One afternoon immediately following the lunch rush I answered the phone at the bar and found Holly, my girlfriend at the time, on the line. After a few banal pleasantries about the niceties of the day I couldn’t quite figure the reason for her call. We hung up at last. Two minutes later she called back. In a halting voice, but one that could not suppress her rising excitement, she detailed how she had been worried about whether or not I had made it to work on time, if anyone had called me, so she had tapped into my answering machine, the passcode to which I had given her. She rushed ahead quickly. “There’s a message from Warner Brothers Records! A Martha Sharp. They’re calling about Honky Tonk Moon!”
This moved me to quickly put aside the idea that she had been checking the machine to see if another woman was calling me, and to dial it up myself. I was ignoring customers at this point. And there was Martha Sharp, sure enough, leaving a message, asking was I the Dennis O’Rourke, the writer of the hit song Honky Tonk Moon?
Tiger stopped to hear what I was worked up about. I asked the manager for a break, bolted into the office, and dialed up Warner Brothers. I got to Martha Sharp’s secretary Wanda Collier, who began shuffling through papers on her desk, telling me that there were two songs that Martha had been interested in, but she was going to pass on one. “Where did I put…? I think it’s your song,” she said. “I’m not sure, let me…. Yes, I think…Wait just a second.” After a very long, agonizing minute, she spoke up confidently. “Yes, Honky Tonk Moon. That’s the one. She’s going to pass on that one, I’m afraid.”
I hung up, stunned, crushed, drained, pole axed, you name it. I sat there staring at the phone. Tiger poked his head in and I sadly related the news. The manager appeared and I asked for another few minutes, which he granted, closing the door. The phone rang, once, twice, I picked it up just out of habit.
“Applebee’s, Dennis speaking. May I help you?”
“Dennis, this is Wanda at Warner’s. Oh, dear, I made a big mistake, big. Martha is passing on the other song, not yours. She loves yours. Oh, God. Dennis, please don’t tell her I made this mistake. She’ll kill me. You could have taken it across the street, pitched it to someone else and if they cut it… Oh, she’d kill me.”
Now, back on the roller coaster, I assured her that I would not breathe a word, and hustled into the restaurant to tell Tiger the latest. He shook his head and said, “ Nashville .” I finished my shift walking on air delivered from another world.
I eventually had the opportunity to speak to Martha Sharp at which time she congratulated me on writing such a good song. Then a few months later, on a December afternoon, I got a call at Applebee’s from Burnside. He’d been in the studio that morning. Randy had recorded Honky Tonk Moon; Dennis had played the piano break. He assured me that Travis had done a superb job, that it was probably a hit, and that I should count on making some good money. Singer and song, he said, was a perfect match. Album release was scheduled for the late spring, early summer of 1988.
In February I was back in New England for a string of Irish Pub gigs. I told a few of my friends about my approaching success, but I kept it low-key for good reason. Two years prior I had been told by Rick Blackburn, then head of CBS Records, that one of my songs was slated for an album in development called The Highwaywomen. It was to be the companion volume to The Highwaymen, which starred Willie, Waylon, Cash, and Kristofferson. The female side was to be Tammy Wynette, Connie Smith, Shelley West, and a young Reba McIntire, the latter chosen by Blackburn for my song. I told all who would listen. Well, didn’t the parent company of the label fall into financial hard times; whole departments were eliminated as were several recording projects, one of which was The Highwaywomen. It was my first real encounter with the old wisdom of the Nashville songwriter’s mantra: It ain’t final till its vinyl.
Also, treading lightly, I did not stay in touch with Warner Brothers, feeling it best to keep my distance, thereby not risking derailing this happy juggernaut with an inappropriate action or word, in person or by phone. Let the thing play out on its own, I reasoned. If they want you, they’ll call.
Stopping in a small town in New York State , after a gig in New Hampshire , and on my way back to Nashville , I found a phone booth and tapped into my answering machine. I found a message from Warner’s requesting me to call Martha and I immediately imploded, certain I was to be informed that my song had been dropped from the record. I called, asked for Martha, and was put through. Her voice was pleasant, even bright, asking me where I was; indeed, where had I been? I was a bit confused, but mumbled something about doing a gig in New England . “Well,” she said, “I was a little worried not hearing from you. Am I going to wake up some morning and hear George Strait singing Honky Tonk Moon on the radio?”
I was momentarily knocked off balance and speechless, until I was able to stammer, “God, no, no. I would never… No, the song is for you and Randy.”
“Okay, she said. “But I was wondering why we hadn’t heard from you.”
“Well, because… Well, I presumed that everything was going fine and I shouldn’t be calling, bothering you.”
“Dennis,” she said. “You’ve written a hit song. You can call me any time.”
I walked away from that phone booth relieved and excited, now utterly convinced of coming success.
A few months later, again, at Applebee’s I received a call from Wanda. “Dennis, the song is in the can. Do you want to come over and listen to it?
“I don’t get off till five. I could be there at five-thirty. Would that be too late?”
At the time, Warner Brothers, like so many other labels and publishing companies, was housed in an old, tree-shaded, brick building on Music Row that looked like someone’s home, albeit a large one. Wanda escorted me into Martha’s office, and suddenly there I was, in my Applebee’s work shirt, ready for my life to change. She rose from her desk and we shook hands. I took a seat in front of her.
“One thing I would like to know before we start; who brought the tape in? I came in one day and there it was, sitting in the middle of my desk; only the title of the song and your name on it; no publishing company, no address, no phone number.”
“It was Dennis Burnside. He produced it”
“Really? Why just leave it? I know Dennis. I’d listen to anything he brought in. Well, like I say, I had no idea where it came from, so I picked it up and it was headed for that wastepaper basket, that one over there. But something made me stop, and instead I turned around and put it in the cassette player. It wasn’t half over before I realized, I knew, it was a hit song for Randy.” She paused and then smiled. “Want to hear it?”
She hit the play button and stood back. For the first time I heard another singer performing a song of mine and it took me a few seconds to get into it, I was so accustomed to my own voice. But there it was. He was doing a fine job. Then I heard something that caused my stomach to knot, and suddenly I was adrift in the ether. He had changed a word.
There is no chorus in the song, just the tag line: “Honky Tonk Moon, Keep shining on my baby and me,” which comes at the end of each verse. The bridge went like this:
Through the blue smoky haze
All of the day’s troubles seem to melt away.
What I heard in disbelief was:
Through the blue smoky haze
All through the days, troubles seem to melt away
It makes no sense. I sat and stared unblinking at nothing. The song came to an end. During it all Martha had paced slowly behind her desk and once or twice had murmured, “This is a hit.” Now she put both hands down on the desk top and leaned toward me. “This is a hit.” Then she tilted her head and eyed me. “How long have you been in town?” Despite my consternation I knew she was ascertaining if I had paid my dues, slogging away in the songwriting trenches. I was happy to hold up my hand, spread my fingers, and say, “Five years, Martha. Five.”
She nodded, satisfied. “Well,” she said, “You’re going to make a lot of money with this.”
I can’t say that my concern about the lyric change vanished at that moment, but it did take a back seat. I decided to say nothing about the glitch, and later that evening, thinking it over, I realized it would have been futile to point it out. The album was in the can. There was no chance of him going back in and redoing one line. I seemed to recall the story of Janis Joplin making a slight change to the lyric in Bobby Magee. Kristofferson said that when the checks started coming in he had no problem with it.
Better still, I was the publisher; my company is Hannah Rhodes Music. Martha had no interest in wresting that from me. This was a rarity, indeed. It was standard practice then, as now, for a new writer to give up the publishing rights and ensuing royalties to the artist, or the record label, or even the producer. To be blunt, I always considered it a form of extortion. “Give us the publishing and we’ll cut your song. If not, there’s the door.”
Martha’s only focus was on the song as it applied to Randy’s career. And I had heard that the word on The Row was Randy had peaked with his second album. They were expecting him to fall off, to disappoint with the third. It was the writer Mentor Williams (Drift Away) who told me later that recording HTM was a “good move” on Travis’s part. Why? Because it was so different from anything he’d done. Well, I knew that good move was initiated by Martha Sharp. Travis was always forthcoming in his praise of Martha for finding good songs.
Honky Tonk Moon was the first single released from the album Old 8 x 10, in early July and was number one on the Billboard Country charts October 8, 1988 .
A few weeks after hearing it in Martha’s office I received a call from Warner’s asking me for a copy of the lyrics for the inner sleeve of the album. I said I would get it to them immediately, but there was a slight problem. When I related the word change it was lightly dismissed. “Oh, that happens a lot. Just give it to us the way you wrote it.” And so I did that. On the album you will read my finished lyric, but you will hear Randy singing his own version.
I watched the tribute show with a mixture of delight and sadness. Randy’s road band backed all the singers and they played all the old songs with an unbounded joy. I don’t remember who it was covered my tune, and indeed, he was several bars into it before I realized it was mine. But half of the other artists were unknown to me. I’d stopped listening to the radio, because I knew that the material they were recording, the songs they were cutting now were closer to Pop than Country, and getting further from the roots of the old music every day. Worse still, they all sounded the same. There were writers and critics who predicted this major shift twenty years ago. One writer went so far as to suggest the business people would eventually find a way to eliminate the word Country and replace it with something like Heartland Music. This hasn’t happened yet, but don’t be surprised. In the end it seemed to me that the concert was as much a farewell as a tribute to the traditional music Randy personified. I wonder if he felt that way, too.
That’s it. I left Martha’s office that day lighthearted, and that night, celebrating with a few friends, I related Martha’s story about how she found the tape, what she was going to do with it, and how “something” had stopped her from tossing it into the waste basket, how “something” had pushed her into playing it. But it was plain to me then as it is now that that “something” came from the Other Side, and from On High. No doubts.
Footnote: The Washington Post reviewed Randy’s album and stated, “Dennis O’Rourke’s Honky Tonk Moon sounds like something Hoagie Carmichael might have written.” Me Ma loved that!