One of the surprises I found waiting for me when I was drawn to Durham, North Carolina twenty five years ago was learning that it was the hometown of Don Schlitz.
I’ve always been drawn to to singer-songwriters but came to know Schlitz for his lyrics, a form of creativity that practiced as he does, is one of my favorite forms.
Country legend Kenny Rogers once said that Don Schlitz “doesn’t just write songs, he writes careers.” He certainly did that for Rogers when he wrote “The Gambler,” the songwriter’s first hit recorded in 1978 a few months after I began the decade of my career in Alaska.
But I didn’t learn of Don Schlitz until his hit “When You Say Nothing At All” sung by Keith Whitely topped the charts a few months before I interviewed in Durham. By the time I moved here, Whitely had tragically died.
A version by Allison Krause done as a tribute to Whitely reached #3 on the charts six years later and was included on her first double-platinum album. As one reviewer recently quipped, “…there are millions of people out there who know Don Schlitz…but have never heard of him.”
That song was co-written by Schlitz with Paul Overstreet as were many others. I learned from an interview with Overstreet recently that the two would meet twice each week at the same time and start by just talking about what was going on in their lives.
The conversations would often spur song ideas as the two friends talked and strummed guitars. I’ve found this regularity is true of many creative endeavors including the essays I post on this blog.
Listening to the work ethic of these two famous songwriters reminded me that Overstreet sang back up on a favorite song the pair of songwriters wrote for Tammy Wynette in 1987 entitled “There’s No Heart So Strong,” one of two on that album.
Now in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Schlitz alone has written over 400 songs and a hundred or so have been hits. I suspect many others were as well but they just didn’t get to the right people. I’d love to hear some of them and decide for myself.
I believe from producer notes that both are singing back up to Tanya Tucker on a song they co-wrote, “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love.” Both also tried to be singers as well as songwriters. That’s Overstreet singing lead.
Here is Schlitz singing his rendition of their first big hit writing as a duo. As with many of us, they lived their dream, just maybe not the one they anticipated.
Each also wrote songs with other partners such as Schlitz did with Stephanie Davis on “Learning To Live Again” for Garth Brooks a few years after the singer had broken through with “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” a personal favorite that came out the summer I arrived in Durham.
Don Schlitz also co-wrote several songs with prolific singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter including the iconic “Not Too Much To Ask” sung with Joe Diffie.
Released three years after I landed in Durham to create my final community start up, the “b-side” of that song, “I Am A Town” eloquently captured my life’s work and passion in preserving sense of place.
Many of Schlitz’s songs seem to use Durham’s legendary sense of place as a backdrop. My favorite example is “Oscar Was An Angel” recorded by a fellow North Carolinian, Randy Travis.
People still spoke of Oscar when I arrived here, though the Rialto, the former Orpheum, had been imploded during Durham’s brief but ruinous flirtation with urban renewal.
The song captures the unpretentiousness of Durham.
Don Schlitz grew up here a childhood friend of another famous songwriter John D. Loudermilk, in a “mill” house on Ninth Street (anchor of an organic district by that name,) across from the historic West Durham Fidelity Bank adaptively reused as a Bruegger’s Bagels just before I arrived in Durham.
My favorite rendition of Loudermilk’s famous “Tobacco Road” is a blues version I heard in 1966 by The Animals in a dual concert with The Rolling Stones. This song also captures a part of Durham’s personality.
As he does with the hit “Turn Me On” by Nora Jones, Loudermilk still carries his hometown’s blues tradition.
Schlitz briefly attended Duke University here while working as a manager for Rose’s, a general merchandise and variety store prevalent then throughout the southeast and founded just north of Durham.
He soon headed to Nashville in his early 20s and worked as a computer programmer at Vanderbilt University in the “punch card” era. His writing partner arrived a few years later and found work in a water heater factory to get by.
Schlitz’ break through a few years after he arrived with the song that made Rodgers was the beginning of a string of hits through four decades. Asked if he’d recommend songwriting he famously said:
“If I had a kid. I’d take a load of bricks and keep throwing them at him one at a time and ask him after each one if he wanted to be in the music business. If he went through all of that, I’d say ‘OK, maybe you are hard-headed enough.’”
During my nearly four-decade career in community destination marketing, most as a CEO, I was often credited with creativity and innovation (as well as being hard-headed) but of a different kind.
Management, even when it does not directly involve marketing, is creative but involves problem-solving, strategy-making and communication as the outcomes rather than songs and lyrics.
But a wide range of aspirations may flow through my genes. As the eldest of my two grandsons, a fourth grader, expressed recently to my only offspring who is in healthcare legal compliance management:
“Mom, if I am playing for Duke and the Heat recruit me before I graduate, I can finish my law degree online.”