This is the grave of Billy Sherrill.
Born in Phil Campbell, Alabama in 1936, Sherrill’s father was a preacher. But it didn’t stick to young Billy. Instead, he found the glorious sin of music. He started off on the piano and then learned the sax, playing in lots of bands as a teenager. He toured the South with his bands, had a little record deal that didn’t do anything, and was a marginal player in the southern music scene.
In 1962, Sun Records’ Sam Phillips hired Sherrill to manage his new studio in Nashville. Phillips sold Sun the next year and Sherrill moved to Epic. It would be in the world of production that he would become famous. Sherrill really wasn’t a country music guy. His bands were more of the blues, pop, and R&B variety. So even though his paychecks were coming from country music, he was by no means committed to the styles of Hank and Lefty. He liked the big string sections that dominated a lot of pop music. So he brought that to country, or rather added to its already existing pop movement brought on by people such as Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins. Sherrill was a good songwriter too, so he could write and then find the singers for his vision. That first happened in 1965, when his co-written “Livin’ in a House Full of Love,” sung by David Houston, hit #3 on the country charts and then with “Almost Persuaded,” also sung by Houston, that topped the charts for nine weeks in 1966. That song won Sherrill his first Grammy.
In 1966 as well, a new and unknown performer auditioned for Sherrill. Her name was Tammy Wynette. He recognized what a great talent he had and how perfect she was for his big production style. They wrote well together as well and co-wrote many of his biggest hits, including “Stand By Your Man,” “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” and “I Don’t Want to Play House.” Having made Wynette a big star, Sherrill was Nashville’s top producer. And George Jones wanted to work with him. He produced “The Grand Tour,” “These Days I Barely Get By,” and most importantly, perhaps the greatest song in the history of country music, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Now, some people downplay Sherrill in all of this. They note, correctly, that Jones is one of the greatest singers in the history of American popular music and that Wynette is not too far behind him. Both are true. Jones had a whole great career before Sherrill after all. However, I think what is really going on here is that producers are always downplayed in the success of musicians and that the big production he specialized in became very out of style. Plus, there’s the fetish of A Man And His Guitar, something that comes out of the folk movement and can be very annoying. For example, a lot of people hate Cowboy Jack Clement’s production of the early Townes Van Zandt albums. But why not put Townes with strings and woodwinds? The thing about Townes is that he was a terrible guitar player with a limited voice. Why should country music sound only one way? Why should it be bound by certain traditions? Why shouldn’t it be allowed to experiment too instead of being a victim of authenticity politics? That’s different than saying all innovations are good. I hate much of mainstream Nashville country music. But that’s not because it’s not stripped down enough. It’s because it is terrible. Billy Sherrill’s production could at times be over the top, yes, but it also added a great deal to a lot of the best songs in country music history. Not to mention that he wrote or co-wrote so many of those songs.
Sherrill had lots of success with others as well, especially Charlie Rich. “Behind Closed Doors” was another Sherrill-produced smash hit. By the 80s, country music was changing and Sherrill moved into more executive positions than producing. He became vice-president at CBS in Nashvlle in 1980 and did that on and off through the decade, retiring sometime around 1989 or 1990.
In 2008, Sherrill was inducted Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville. Then, in 2010, he got the call from the Country Music Hall of Fame. Well-deserved. He died in 2015, at the age of 78.
Let’s listen to some of Sherrill’s most important productions:
Billy Sherrill is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park, Nashville, Tennessee, across from George Jones. If you would like this series to visit more country music greats, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ferlin Husky is in Hendersonville, Tennessee and Jimmy Dean is in Varina, Virginia. Both were part of the same HOF class as Sherrill. Previous posts in this series are archived here.