John D. Loudermilk–An appreciation

Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee John D. Loudermilk, whose compositions included such pop classics as “Tobacco Road” (a British Invasion hit in 1964 for the Nashville Teens), The Casinos’ “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” (1967), and Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation” (1971), died Sept. 21 at 82.

“So, so sad to hear of the death of great songwriter John D. Loudermilk,” tweeted Rosanne Cash. “’Then you can tell me goodbye…’”

By email, she added: “He was just a teddy bear. The sweetest guy in the world. Hard to conceive that the guy who wrote ‘Tobacco Road’ was the same guy who wrote ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’, but he contained multitudes.”

Loudermilk, who also sang, also penned such classic pop and country hits as Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” (1959), Johnny Tillotson’s “Talk Back Trembling Lips” (1963), Dick & Dee Dee’s “Thou Shalt Not Steal” (1964), George Hamilton IV’s “Abilene” (1963) and “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” (1956) and Sue Thompson’s “Norman” (1961), “Paper Tiger” (1964) and “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” (1961).

“John D. Loudermilk was deserving of wider public recognition,” says veteran performing rights executive Jim Steinblatt. “He was a craftsman with range: He created memorable ‘fluff’ like ‘A Rose and a Baby Ruth’ and ‘Norman’ and searing songs of social significance like ‘Tobacco Road’ and ‘Indian Reservation.’ While the average music lover never knew his name, performers knew he was a source of great material–Lou Rawls, Marianne Faithfull, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Linda Ronstadt, to name just a few. Loudermilk was a stalwart American tunesmith–a vanishing breed.”

“John D. Loudermilk had the songwriting market cornered,” says music historian John Alexander, singling out Johnny Cash’s version of Loudermilk’s “Bad News.”

“He could write a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad just as easily as he could a clever novelty gem. Johnny Cash’s rendition of Loudermilk’s ‘Bad News’ is certainly one of Cash’s most animated performances. He takes on the part of the ornery outlaw with a full-throated laugh and no apologies for all the horrible things he’s done.”

Loudermilk, adds Alexander, “could then turn around and write the visually stunning ‘Abilene’ for George Hamilton IV, and one of the Everly Brothers’ greatest songs of all, the haunting and tragic ‘Ebony Eyes.’ That song alone would rank Loudermilk among the finest of songwriters of his generation, not to mention dozens of other classic compositions that crossed all genres from pop to folk to country to the blues.”

Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow cited in a statement Loudermilk’s “uncanny ability to create songs that crossed genres and to draw fans in with captivating stories.”

“’Tobacco Road,’ one of his best-known tunes, has been covered nearly 200 times and remains a testament to John’s ability to connect with audiences through authentic lyrics,” noted Portnow. “John came from humble beginnings. The first instrument he learned to play was a ukulele made from a cigar box, but it proved to be the start of a career that included a Grammy win and many hits. He is a reminder that talent can come from anywhere and music must be nurtured.”

Ren Grevatt

I hadn’t seen him in several years, and I knew he was way older than he looked, and sure enough Ren Grevatt was 94 when he died Saturday—though I didn’t find out until yesterday, and no one else seemed to know either. Ren was an ironically soft-spoken, quiet guy even when he was in his prime as a music publicist, but when word of his death finally did come out, he made a lot of noise among the many writers, clients and staffers whose lives he touched, personally and professionally, in his many years in the biz.

It was mainly because of the kind of guy he was, in addition to the job he did.

“The man behind the scenes sometimes made the scenes happen—and got the word out when they did,” wrote Nitty Gritty Dirt Bander John McEuen via email. “Cordially, smoothly, always the pro, Ren–or as Steve Martin called him, Reverend Grevell–brought the press to many acts that would have been ignored otherwise, and to many they might not have otherwise reached. You always felt like you were his most important client, and he was excited about things that got done. A fine skier, cordial host, friendly guy everyone liked and proud loving father, music lover Ren was always good to see, whether working for you or just coming to hang out.”

Ren handled the Dirt Band and many, many other acts and companies over the years, notably including the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Alice Cooper and Irving Plaza—and I’m forever grateful that he got me a VIP card that enabled me instant entrance there any time. I also felt a kinship with him in that we both worked for Billboard, though he was there long before me—whether or not he looked it.

Bob Merlis, himself a music business publicity legend, at Warner Bros. Records and independently, recalls: “He was one of the first indie publicists I got to know. Very kind, even-tempered guy who made me realize you don’t have to look or act ‘hip’ or be like the artists you rep to be effective. One’s credibility might, in fact, be proportional to how different your affect is from that of your client’s. He was on retainer from Warner Bros. Records before they established their own New York-based publicity department and, as such, handled the Grateful Dead and invited me to a reception for the band at Max’s Kansas City where I got to spend some quality time with Jerry Garcia. He was a dignified guy in an undignified business.”

Indeed, Ren was a good, decent person, qualities that were reflected in his staff, many of whom went on to great things in and out of the business. A role model, for sure.