“I am fourth generation growing up in Mobile. I did all of my music industry work here and never left.
My mother raised us on classical music and Broadway show tunes. When I started liking country music, she didn’t understand it. I woke up every morning to a country music show called ‘Johnny and Jack.’
My parents bought me my first instrument, a banjo ukulele. When I was a student at the University of Alabama, my fraternity brothers put together a little band that played country music. I bought my first guitar from a pawn shop for $10. I learned about bluegrass and started getting serious about writing folk and country songs.
They had a talent competition at Alabama between fraternities, sororities and other organizations. Our little country band was sailing along and felt we had it made. Then a young guy did a solo comedy act that blew everybody out of the water. The guy’s name was Jim Nabors and he did Gomer Pyle.
I was in ROTC at Alabama and was commissioned by the Army after college. Theoretically, I am a Korean War veteran. The war was over, but we were still occupying. My orders changed and I went to Germany. I was educated as a field medical assistant. I was a doctor’s assistant and ran the medical detachment while the doctor worked with patients. I learned wartime medicine and took care of enlisted men. If they brought in casualties, I was in charge of triage and assessing the urgency of injuries and who was going to live or who wasn’t going to make it. My sergeant taught me how to be a soldier. I needed him.
I majored in business at Alabama because my dad told me I was going to come back to Mobile and run the family business of textiles and making canvas bags. Something should have clicked that I was in the wrong place because every elective I took was in Arts and Sciences. Dad didn’t like me doing music. He wished I spent half as much time doing what I was supposed to do, instead of ‘writing those crazy songs that nobody is ever going to hear.’ He wasn’t being mean. He was just telling me I needed to spend my time in better ways.
I listened to folk music, but the great African American folk artists such as Odetta Holmes couldn’t play in the South. On the weekends, I took a cheap flight on Eastern Airlines from Mobile to Chicago to listen to them.
I played a folk song once a week on Alabama Jubilee, an early morning show on WKRG. My slot was on Wednesday mornings after Coffee with the Parson. I asked viewers to send me folk songs. The best part was going out to meet the people who sent songs in.
I am writing a book called Lyrics From Home to tell the stories of how I met interesting people with obscure folk songs. The lady who was head of the National Folk Festival was in Mobile. I played her a song I wrote called “Sunday School in Birmingham” about the KKK bombing the church and killing those four little black girls. I couldn’t play that song in Mobile, but she invited me to play it at the National Folk Festival. I wish I could find that song today.
I didn’t want to leave Mobile, but there were no significant music publishers in our area to help with my songwriting. I reached out to Lowery Music Company, a music publishing and recording company in Atlanta. They loved my lyrics but said my melodies were my weak link. They introduced me to a young guy with great melodies but weak lyrics. He was Steve Dorff and we have been writing together for years.
Steve moved to LA and we started writing for Snuff Garrett. Snuff wanted me to move to LA. I couldn’t because little Margaret had just been born and Mama Margaret couldn’t leave her family. Snuff told me that if I didn’t move out there I would always be his last choice. I couldn’t move to LA and break my wife’s heart. You play the cards you are dealt and make it work.
Steve is a genius and became like my little brother. I can work for days putting lyrics together and he just sits there and plays the melody in his head. We mailed things back and forth by snail mail because were writing songs before faxes and cell phones. Sometimes I called Mary Ann, Snuff’s assistant, and dictated lyrics to her over the phone. She wrote down my lyrics and gave them to Steve. We always started with the lyric.
Steve called me early one morning and asked if I was ready to write. We had a shot at writing a song for Clint Eastwood’s new movie but we needed to finish it that day. Clint was unhappy with the songs he had received. He asked us to write a song with the title ‘Every Which Way but Loose.’ It was a Southern expression and the lyrics flowed that day. Steve and I worked on it together over the phone and finished it that morning.
Steve called back that evening and said, ‘Want to hear about my day? We rode to the Warner lot. Clint came over, and I played the song twice for him. He said, ‘That’s it.’
That phone call gave me goosebumps. The song was recorded by Eddie Rabbit and entered the Billboard chart at number 18. For years it held the record as the highest debut, but it went up too high and too fast. It was number one for three weeks, but you want songs to ride the charts longer. Blake Shelton recently cut ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ because it influenced him growing up. Songs like that are rare, but it is fun when it happens. Steve and I also wrote ‘Barroom Buddies’ for the Eastwood film Bronco Billy.
Another exciting day was when Burt Reynolds called me in Mobile. He wanted a song for his movie, Cannonball Run 2. The name of the song was ‘I Don’t Think I’m Ready for You.’ Bert wanted Anne Murray to sing a song for one of his movies, but she kept refusing. Steve put his melody to my lyrics, then we went to Nashville to meet with Anne’s producer. We flew with him to Toronto to pitch the song to Anne and to be around if there was anything she wanted to change. She liked it just as it was. She recorded it and it went number one
My songs give me a chance to meet my heroes, including Roy Rogers who recorded ‘Hoppy, Gene and Me.’
I write songs that tell stories. Structure and flow mean a lot. I hear in my head how it will work with a melody. I look back at some of my lyrics and wish I could write them over. But you have to know when to let them go before you overwrite them. It can be hard to know when you are there. I want every song to be good enough to go to number one.
Sometimes I send a song to Steve and he doesn’t like anything about it. You learn early on how to respect the people you are collaborating with. Sometimes a song comes back totally different, but good.
I’m writing a book about my life to encourage the next generation of songwriters. If you can go to where the great musicians and writers are, you should go. If you can’t go, you can still be a songwriter. It’s harder to be commercial, but you can do it. There is always a way to follow your dream.”
(Milton Brown is a Grammy-nominated songwriter. He has written songs for Blake Shelton, Kenny Rogers, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Millsap, Randy Travis, and Merle Haggard)
Tomorrow is Part Two: Meeting Jimmy Buffett