Over three decades, he wrote 31 country songs that went to No. 1. He worked songwriting like a 9-to-5 job and saved every legal pad he ever wrote on. Now, those 217 legal pads are in the collection of the Country Music Hall of Fame, teaching young writers how he made those hits.
Story by Jennifer Justus | Photographs by Tamara Reynolds
In 1985, Michael Jordan earned NBA Rookie of the Year, Michael J. Fox went “Back to the Future,” and for at least one week, Bob McDill had six songs on the country charts – four of them in the Top 10.
No, most people probably didn’t know McDill’s name. He was the songwriter – the guy behind the guy (or gal). But they could probably hum along as Mel McDaniel sang McDill’s hit, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On.”
McDill wrote an astonishing 31 No. 1 songs in a career that spanned three decades and weathered a slew of changes in country music.
He wrote enduring tunes like “Song of the South” for Alabama, “Good Ole Boys Like Me” for Don Williams, “Don’t Close Your Eyes” for Keith Whitley, and “Louisiana Saturday Night” for McDaniel. At the height of his career, people in Nashville’s music business joked that BMI, the music performing-rights organization that collects royalties for writers and performers, stood for “Bob McDill Incorporated.” But more important than his charted success, he also found a way to balance commerce and art by lending a literary sensibility to many of his songs. He explored the complicated South by reflecting it with detail, heart, and a work ethic that kept him aiming to write a song a week for 30 years.
Then, he just stopped. McDill hasn’t written a new song since the turn of the century. But last year, McDill made headlines in Nashville again when he donated his life’s work to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum – awards, recordings, photos and a 4-foot stack of 217 legal pads bearing the scribbled maps of a songwriting mind at work.
“What a remarkable donation,” says Kyle Young, the CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “It’s Bob saying, ‘Here’s my life.’”
Bob McDill at his home in Nashville
The museum, which already has more than 2.5 million artifacts, held a rare donation ceremony for McDill’s work. The Hall had mounted such ceremonies only eight times previously (and often posthumously) — for relics like Mother Maybelle Carter’s guitar or Bill Monroe's mandolin.
“We don’t have days like this one often,” Young says at the event.
As for McDill, who is now 73 years old, he shrugged off the fanfare with dry, unassuming humor.
“Who would have thought,” he says, “that cleaning out the basement would make so many people so happy?”
But this was no simple basement cleanup. Curators spent hours combing through McDill’s work at his 1920s Tudor home in a tony section of Nashville, looking for scraps McDill himself might not have recognized as valuable to the museum. After all, musicians often leave old guitars and notes in their attics, too.
Young also acknowledges the vast majority of McDill’s collection is not what people might expect the museum to want, particularly after the Hall opened a $100 million, 210,000-square-feet expansion in 2014.
“People tend to focus on the shiny objects and the flash of this thing,” Young says. “I just felt there had been all this talk about people and dollars and expansions and 210,000 more square feet and a million visitors and all this kind of stuff. That’s part of it, but that’s not really the heart of it.”
The museum’s collection of flashy costumes, Elvis Presley’s Cadillac, and walls of gold records might represent the fruits of country musicians’ labors, but Young says the museum is in the business of collecting the things that show the paths they took to get there. McDill’s manuscripts might be displayed in a collection, for example, but they also might be part of an educational curriculum for young adults in the museum’s Words and Music program.
Kyle Young, the CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
“That’s the place for it,” McDill says of the museum. “I didn’t want to burden my daughter with that.”
And so, a van made repeated trips to his home to deliver the donation to public trust.
“We’re great movers and we’re free,” Young says, quoting his colleague Carolyn Tate, the Hall’s vice president for museum services.
In this story, we dig deep into the history of three of McDill’s songs — one from each decade of his career. We look at what inspired the songs and the man to make a life of writing music.
And we’ll look at how he managed to make art — and a little money, too — through not only discipline and commitment to craft, but also with a discerning eye toward the thorny issues of the South.
A fishing buddy of McDill’s turned him on to the work of Kentucky-born Robert Penn Warren, the only writer to win Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry. It was Warren’s final novel, “A Place to Come To,” that inspired McDill’s “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” a song that name-checks Hank Williams and Tennessee Williams in the same breath. A verse later, the narrator hears North Carolina author “Thomas Wolfe whispering in my head.”
In the Warren novel — much like McDill’s song — a Southern man leaves his home to find success. But despite his attempts at shedding parts of his upbringing, much of it is destined to remain. Don Williams, who died last year at 78, loved the song and recorded it after he first suggested it to Kenny Rogers.
“I guess you’ll have to settle for me,” Williams told McDill.
“That’ll work, too,” McDill replied.
The song’s images are so extraordinarily rich — “the smell of cape jasmine through the window screen" — it’s been called a four-minute masterpiece:
Cowboy Jack Clement — the legendary producer who wrote hits for Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and more — had an adage for songwriters. “You should reveal some of yourself with most of your songs,” he would say. But as Young noted at the Museum’s donation ceremony, McDill used empathy and wisdom to give us some of ourselves in all his songs.
He does so with detail that offers a gentle reflection — less like a mirror and more like the wavy image looking back from the surface of a pond.
Indeed, any Southerner who has heard her own accent like a banjo in a room full of guitars can put herself in the third verse of “Good Ole Boys Like Me.”
“I learned to talk like the man on the 6 o’clock news,” McDill’s character says on his mission to leave home and find a new place to belong.
For songwriter Shane McAnally, the line hits home. One of the hottest songwriters in Nashville today, McAnally has written Grammy winners with Kacey Musgraves and chart toppers for Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, and many more.
“I’m gay,” McAnally says. “I came to Nashville very much trying to fit into the good ol’ boys club. I think the equivalent of me trying to talk like the man on the 6 o’clock news was me trying to sound macho — to fit in.”
Songwriter Shane McAnally
McAnally says it’s the specifics that help us see ourselves in McDill’s lyrics even when they aren’t specific to our situation.
McDill includes “John R.” in this song with intention: “I wanted to mention race,” he says. “But very lightly.”
John Richbourg was a DJ on Nashville’s WLAC. As a rival station to WSM, which created the Grand Ole Opry, WLAC played late-night R&B. McDill grew up in Texas listening to Cajun music, German polka, and Western swing, but he also heard the “race music” of WLAC. He’s heard other white music lovers talk of listening on transistor radios under the covers, so their parents couldn’t hear. Historians believe the station’s music had a profound influence on listeners and rock and roll – from the Allman Brothers to the Band and maybe even Bob Marley. The station’s reach covered the Eastern coast from Canada to the islands.
But even those who didn’t listen to WLAC’s R&B can relate in other ways.
“We instantly go to our own DJ in our head,” McAnally says. “And the smells that came through our windows … if you get specific enough and honest enough, it becomes universal.”
Specifics are a hallmark of country music — particularly in the work of the genre’s greatest writers. In a 2017 episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast, which McDill recommended, Gladwell notes country and hip-hop are two genres with lyrics that target a specific demographic through detailed vocabulary. When they ran the lyrics of pop, country, and hip-hop songs through an algorithm, the country and hip-hop songs used far more words than pop.
“Popular music is written for everyone,” McDill says. “It can’t take the chance of saying something.”
But McDill wasn’t always a country music guy. It would take a Cadillac, one late night, and a George Jones ballad to do that.
Before country, McDill played folk music in a skiffle band — sort of a Texas version of the Quarrymen, John Lennon’s band pre-Beatles. McDill gigged in a hotel bar in Beaumont, Texas, near where he grew up and where he had fallen in love with literature at Lamar College.
McDill does talk a bit like the man on the news, but with a high, wispy voice, like the Texas wind. He wears khakis and loafers instead of jeans and boots. He’s direct, but warm and funny. He’ll veer into a story now and then, as Southerners are apt to do, but mostly he doesn’t elaborate. It’s not that he seems to be hiding anything. He’s just saying what needs to be says and nothing more — like a tightly written song.
Allen Reynolds, who would go on to produce Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, and nearly all Garth Brooks’ records, met McDill in the college bar. Both men, unaware of the careers to come, were under 25.
“He was quiet and seemed nice and interested in music,” Reynolds recalls. “A lot of writers when they start are writing little love ditties. Bob’s were more meaty than that. I was really impressed. This guy is somebody that ought to be encouraged. It revealed an interesting mind at work.”
Reynolds worked at the time with Cowboy Jack Clement and Bill Hall, who had opened Gulf Coast Recording Studio behind the hotel bar (where, incidentally, Janis Joplin would come to do her homework). Reynolds and McDill stayed in touch even as McDill headed off for the Navy. Meanwhile, Reynolds and Dickey Lee had a few of McDill’s songs recorded: “Happy Man” by Perry Como and “Black Sheep” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
“What an amazing bit of luck for me to be playing in the little town of Beaumont, Texas, and Bill Hall and Jack Clement decided to build a studio behind the hotel,” McDill says. “And then they imported Allen (Reynolds) and Dickey (Lee) to come down to write songs and make records. That’s how we met.”
McDill reconnected with the group after their move to Memphis and followed in their wake to Nashville. Reynolds and McDill wrote a folk song called “Catfish John,” which Johnny Russell ended up making a country hit in 1972.
“At the time, we thought Nashville was going to be a pop and rock center, and that’s how Dickey sold it to me,” McDill recall on “Poets and Prophets,” an interview series produced by the Country Music Hall of Fame. “The pop and rock thing never happened, so I had to go to Plan B and learn to write country music.”
And that brings us back to the late night in the back of a Cadillac when he heard George Jones singing “A Good Year for the Roses.”
“I just had an epiphany. I got it,” McDill says on “Poets.” “It was sort of this subdued rage or anger in that record that I had never heard before. Then I started studying country music like a seminary student studies the gospel. ... You’re kidding yourself if you think you can write it without understanding it and loving it.”
That’s one of the keys to McDill’s connection, McAnally says. He doesn’t look down his nose at the characters in his songs.
McAnally, for example, doesn’t consider gin on the father’s breath in “Good Ole Boys Like Me” as a bad thing.
“That’s a nostalgic reference that we relate to,” he says.
McAnally points to another McDill composition, “Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold,” which went to No. 1 in 1986 when Dan Seals recorded it. The song’s narrator is a man, caring for a child after his wife leaves the family. Still, McDill’s lyrics makes the listener feel for the woman who left, too.
“You have an empathy for this character who wanted something else,” McAnally says. Even when McDill’s characters are poor or struggling, McAnally says, they feel “rich with humor and love and history.”
It’s not easy to write about getting your heart broken without making the heartbreaker sound like a jerk. But McDill pulls it off. In all McDill’s songs, McAnally sees two constants: “a sadness, even in his up-tempos” and “a conversation about the South.”
Of course, McAnally is far from the only songwriter McDill has inspired.
At the Country Music Hall of Fame’s donation ceremony for McDill’s work, acclaimed songwriter Don Schlitz performed “Good Ole Boys Like Me” on the same Martin guitar McDill used to write it. The lyrics, scribbled in McDill’s hand on a legal pad, were projected overhead.
Schlitz met McDill soon after arriving to town on a Greyhound bus in the 1970s. He was 20. He had $80 to his name and hair longer than what was favored by Nashville’s country stars of the time. Through a connection and the open doors of that era, Schlitz ended up with an appointment at J-M-I Records, where McDill listened to a few of his songs.
“He was about the only person who would see me,” Schlitz says. “I didn’t know how great he was. I just knew he was taking some time to spend with me.”
Schlitz says he remembers McDill in that first session as smart, quiet and thoughtful.
“He was in control of himself, comfortable being who he was,” he says. “I thought immediately that he loved music. You could tell.”
During one session, while Schlitz was still working the graveyard shift at Vanderbilt University as a computer operator, he spent some time with McDill talking about writers’ block. McDill suggested he try an open tuning on his guitar. So after Schlitz left McDill’s office, he walked to his efficiency apartment and began writing a song to a story in his head.
The song was called “The Gambler.” Kenny Rogers recorded it. It sold more than 35 million copies worldwide.
By the time Alabama recorded “Song of the South" in the 1980s, it had already charted a couple times with other artists.
But when Alabama recorded the song, which McDill had set in the Great Depression, the producer chose to leave this verse out:
Well, I was 18 before I ate my fill
We lived on the garden and the cow’s good will
Winter was wet and summer was dry
And mama, she was old at 35
It’s a searing portrait of poverty, but the verse’s absence from Alabama’s recording didn’t bother McDill — especially after their version shot to No. 1.
“It had been kind of an art thing. They made it a radio thing, so I was pleased,” McDill says on “Poets.”
McDill doesn’t believe big hits and art tunes have to live exclusively.
“You don’t have to be a great artist like Leonard Cohen or something and be angry at the markets and the commerciality of it. And you don’t have to be a hack,” he says. “You don’t have to choose one or the other.”
Sometimes, as McDill’s songwriting colleague Waylon Holyfield would say, you aren’t trying to convert any natives, you’re just trying to sell a few Bibles. But when an idea like “Song of the South” came along, McDill was happy to pursue that, too.
“Some of those arty things were hits — contrary to what anybody would have thought,” he says. And while the songs he wrote for fun might have faded, his songs of conviction have staying power.
As with “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” literature inspired “Song of the South.” McDill had been reading “I’ll Take My Stand” and the work of the Vanderbilt Agrarians such as Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate.
“They were all lamenting the loss of the old agrarian South and losing our love for the land and ties to family and blah blah blah,” he says. “But they were all soft-handed gentleman. Every one of them. None of them had grown up on those hardscrabble farms, and those people couldn’t wait to get a job at a factory or with the TVA. … (Robert Penn) Warren and those people romanticized it. But I don’t think it was romantic to the people doing it.”
In “Song of the South,” the characters indeed leave their lives on the farm.
“Ain’t nobody looking back again,” McDill says, quoting his own line. “We’re through with that old hardscrabble, poverty-stricken South. Let’s move on.”
Reynolds, who has written several hits with McDill, recalls their love of reading and how it inspired them. The two sprinkled their songwriting sessions with conversations about books when they needed to relax their brains.
“Reading is always a provocative source of ideas,” Reynolds says. “To me, song writing and reading nourish one another.”
When McDill recalls inspiration, he thinks too of Reynolds and his early lessons on work ethic. McDill remembers a quote Reynolds liked to recite by Henry Mancini.
“Where do you find your inspiration?” people would ask Mancini.
“At the piano every morning at 9 o'clock,” Mancini would answer.
Though McDill has a reputation for his work ethic, he doesn’t consider himself special in that regard.
“None of my contemporaries who had success goofed off,” he says. “Roy Bourke and Waylon Holyfield, Charlie Black and Tommy Rocco — we all worked every day. I don’t know where I got that reputation in being unusual in that way.”
Yet he does admit to being methodical, recalling a professor who used to tell him to “organize or perish.” He likes to have his bills paid and his desk clear for a clear mind. (He stood up to straighten a piece of art on his wall as our interviews started, for example.) He saved all the legal pads on which he wrote — 217 of them are now in the Hall of Fame’s collection — as a habit at first. Then, his publisher told him they’d be a good defense in case of a lawsuit.
But McDill believes in the mysteriousness of art, too.
“There has to be a little magic, but then you’ve got to put in the hours,” he says. To get to the good ones, he says, you have to write the next one.
“Amanda,” McDill’s song that was a hit for both Don Williams and Waylon Jennings, came to him in about 30 minutes. His “last gift,” he calls it.
“Some of it poured out and some of it had to be dredged from the ‘who knows where,’” he says.
Most of his songs took a week or two to write. He remembers working on a song with a newer artist who resisted his tinkering. He wanted it to sound natural.
“This is how we achieve that,” McDill told him.
Sometimes he would put them away for months and go back to them later, but he never gave up on them even when writers’ block inevitably hit.
“The best thing to do is just keep beating your head against that wall — sure don’t need to go home and weep,” he says. When Don Schlitz once told McDill he had written 10 songs so far that year, McDill told him he needed to write 40 more.
“His craft was so precise and concise and incisive,” Schlitz says. “You combine his craft with his magnificent, disciplined process … well ... that’s art.”
What about the romantic notion of jotting down songs on bar napkins or the backs of envelopes? That didn’t much happen for McDill. He worked 30 years of songwriting like a 9-to-5 job.
“I loved laying that burden down at the end of the day,” he says. “Going home and knowing I’d done my best that day. I didn’t want to think about songwriting until the next morning.”
It was a healthy, disciplined way to create.
“Well,” he says, “organize or perish.”
After Alan Jackson had a No. 1 hit with McDill’s song “Gone Country,” a Billboard writer called it the most talked about country song of 1994. Following its 26 weeks on the chart, it ended up in a Ford commercial.
McDill says he wrote it as a playful poke at people moving to Nashville from places like Los Angeles. Country was cool with newcomers following the hot careers of artists like Garth Brooks. McDill wrote it in fun, but several artists turned it down before Jackson recorded it.
“I think we’re afraid in Nashville to make fun of folks,” he says on “Poets.” “We are afraid as Southerners to make fun of New Yorkers and people from L.A., because everything in Nashville was owned by people from New York and L.A. I prefer to think it’s just good manners.”
Toward the end of his career, McDill says he began to miss working with artists who were willing to take on more courageous songs. “Gone Country” was one of his later hits. In 2000, McDill retired. That was 18 years ago. Has he written one since?
“Nope,” he says. “No desire. I’m finished.”
And when it comes to listening to country these days, he says it happens “just accidentally now and then.” Even today, he still counts artists of other genres as favorites — Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, George and Ira Gershwin, Randy Newman, the Band.
But it’s not what you might be thinking. McDill won’t rail against the current state of country music.
“I always wanted it to change,” he says. “I’m sort of like Eddy Arnold.” Arnold was among the pioneers in the 1960s when country records took on the lush, orchestral arrangements of pop music. The singer was asked whether he disliked how country music had been meshed with pop, but he claimed he was never a traditionalist. He just wanted to sell records.
McDill talks about how country music has evolved by pointing to changes he saw in how it was recorded. He recalls how early Nashville studio setups with a single microphone over the drum kit were different from the Memphis groove, with every drum given its own mic, that he learned from producer Stan Kessler of Sun Studios. Nowadays, McDill says he hears more bass drum in country music.
“Nashville couldn’t stand still,” he says. “The museum wouldn’t be welcoming a million people a year if country music had been frozen in time — in some period in the past — like a lot of people thought it should.”
If “Gone Country” were recorded today, for example, McDill says it wouldn’t have steel guitar on top of an electric-guitar riff.
“I think that’s a sea change there,” he says. “At the time, I think they had to (include pedal steel), because (electric guitar) was edgy and almost rock and roll, and they had to say, ‘No, no, no! It’s country.’” McDill says today’s writers grew up listening to hip-hop and other genres, so he is unsurprised they are influenced by those musical styles.
McAnally, who has co-written hip-hop-inflected country music, like Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” leaves his lyrics on a computer instead of a notepad. He writes in a group setting more often than McDill would have. But he still finds it remarkable that the lyrics of “Gone Country” — pedal steel and all — remain so relevant today.
“Everyone’s still moving to Nashville trying to cash in,” he says. “But you don’t not like those characters in that song. You get it.”
He marvels again at McDill’s help in connecting us through his empathy and gentle touch — his concise and poetic way of telling lush stories.
“I find there’s no excess in his songs — nothing’s put in for a syllable. Most contemporary writers may throw in an ‘old,’” he says, to give a line an extra beat. “His songs do not do that, and he doesn’t compromise the melody in the process.”
And then McAnally turned back to “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” as he often does when talking and thinking about songwriting.
“I want to make people feel,” he says, “the way that song makes me feel.”