If you want to pick someone’s brain about songwriting, Odie Blackmon’s is a great place to start.
The singer/songwriter has penned hits for a bevy of country’s best, including George Strait (“She’ll Leave You With a Smile”), Gary Allan (“Nothing On But the Radio”), and Lee Ann Womack (“I May Hate Myself in the Morning”), among others.
In addition to still putting pen to paper, Odie is teaching his craft to a future generation of songwriters as the Commercial Songwriting Coordinator at Middle Tennessee State University, as well as an Adjunct Professor at Vanderbilt University. Odie also authored Music Theory and The Nashville Number System, and he released the instructional video, The Craft of Writing Hit Songs.
The man knows his stuff. So we’re picking Odie’s brain today to find out the 5 Songs That Shaped the Songwriter. Odie did not disappoint.
1. ‘In the Ghetto’ – Elvis Presley (Mac Davis)
Odie Blackmon: When I was 7, I got a hand-me-down record player for Christmas from my step-mother, and her grandmother gave me a brand-new Elvis Pure Gold album. I was mesmerized by the cover photo of the “King” in his rhinestone jumpsuit. It was a compilation, and I loved rocking out to “Jailhouse Rock” and “All Shook Up,” but “In the Ghetto” was a song that drew me in. I’d never heard a story song, I guess, and it was about a little boy like me, but from another world and life.
Hearing about how his mama cried touched me because I loved my mama. Lyrics like “As a crowd gathers ’round an angry young man face down on the street with a gun in his hand” played out like a movie or TV show in my mind. I could see it all. I also thought it was cool how the song ended with another baby being born, the way it had opened up.
Years later, I would become friends and write songs with Mac Davis. He told me he wrote the song about a little boy he played with in Lubbock. Mac also told me he drove to Vegas from L.A. to play it for Sammie Davis Jr., who had Jessie Jackson and other Black leaders with him. He said he was nervous to play it for them, but when he was finished, they all were in tears. Probably, my all-time favorite song.
2. ‘Long White Cadillac’ – Dwight Yoakam (Dave Alvin)
Odie Blackmon: When I first heard this track, I almost lost my mind. It showed me that country music could be all roots styles that I loved rolled into one. Pete Anderson’s blues/rock-a-billy, over-driven guitar that starts out the track, then Dwight’s hillbilly, nasal twang with Elvis-style phrasing moans long notes over the guitar rhythm. Lyrics with images of a long white Cadillac, a train whistle crying, and a woman who is obviously to blame for all these lonesome feelings. The track never gets any bigger than adding a bass, drums with a cracking snare, and Dwight’s acoustic guitar. California Cool. Dwight and Pete made the music coming out of Nashville look weak.
3. ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’ – Charlie Rich (Rory Bourke, Billy Sherrill, Norro Wilson)
Odie Blackmon: My favorite song when I was around 5 years old. It came on the radio all the time. I would sing it with my Papaw riding around in his station wagon, him smoking a Salem cigarette and sipping on a glass of a whiskey. Me, just happy to be along for the ride with the coolest guy I knew.
The first line of the chorus was just so catchy with the “Hey” hanging out there before finishing “did you happen to see the most beautiful girl.” The way Charlie sang “tell her I’m sorry, tell her I need my baby.” So soulful, so smooth. Looking back I can see how palatable the production would be for a little kid’s ear. The Nashville Sound had been polished even more by Billy Sherrill, post Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley. Also, listening back I realized it’s the country lyric from this era of country music that really made an impact on me. You don’t get any better than “I woke up this morning, realized what I had done. I stood alone in the cold, grey dawn and knew I’d lost my morning sun.” Timeless.
4. ‘What a Crying Shame’ – The Mavericks (Kostas, Raul Malo)
Odie Blackmon: I had been in Nashville about a year when “Crying Shame” came out. It was another landmark song for me because it showed me that all of my influences could be country. I heard Roy Orbison, the Beatles, the Byrds, and Tom Petty. I heard some California Country, even some Patsy Cline in the verse melody. The modulation at the 12-string guitar solo was a cool surprise. What I didn’t know at the time was the genius behind this melody was a guy named Kostas who had written hits for Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, and more. If you know Kostas’ songs, you know this is his melody. Raul is a great singer, but he never had songs as great as the ones he wrote with Kostas. Kostas along with Jim Lauderdale and Dwight Yoakam kept country songwriting cool in the ’90s.
5. ‘The King of Broken Hearts’ – Jim Lauderdale
Odie Blackmon: I walked into a little club called the Village Saloon in Burbank, California, when I was 21 years old. I played there regularly and stopped in with my buddy Tara to see Dale Watson play. Dale had a friend on stage that night. When his friend Jim started singing, it stopped me in my tracks. That was the night I first heard Jim Lauderdale sing. And I thought to myself this guy is like Buck Owens on acid.
I loved everything about his songs and singing. I would see Jim play at the Palomino Club a lot and learned of Gram Parsons from an interview he did with the L.A. Times. His album, Planet of Love, was released and lauded in the L.A. country scene that year.
I loved the whole album, but recognized that “The King of Broken Hearts” was a master class in country melody writing, lyric writing, and singing. In the same article, I learned of Gram. Jim said he wrote “King” with George Jones and Gram in mind. I could listen to it over and over again and not understand how he came up with such a unique melody.
Jim really took country music forward in ways it hadn’t been explored, while still holding on to its traditions. Something that very few have accomplished. Many artists have cut “The King of Broken Hearts,” because it’s a timeless classic. I’m proud to say that Jim and I later became great friends in Nashville and wrote almost 60 songs the first year we knew each other. We still write to this day, and I’ve never taken for granted that I get to sit in a room and listen to him sing while we write.