April 4, 1944
Songwriter Bob McDill brought a literary sensibility, a tireless work ethic, and a deep appreciation of southern heritage to country music when he arrived in Nashville in 1970. Over the next three decades, he wrote numerous #1 country hits, including “Amanda,” “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “Song of the South,” “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” and “Gone Country.”
The Songwriting Sailor
Born April 4, 1944, Robert Lee McDill was raised near Beaumont, Texas, and spent his youth fishing, hunting, and saving up nickels to play Johnny Cash on the local jukebox. McDill received a guitar for his fourteenth birthday, and within a couple of years, he was writing his first songs.
By the time he attended Lamar College in Beaumont, McDill was caught up in the folk music revival sweeping the nation. He traded his Fender Stratocaster electric guitar for a five-string banjo and formed a skiffle trio called the Newcomers. They would perform regularly at a taproom inside Beaumont’s King Edward Hotel—which coincidentally sat right next to Gulf Coast Recording Studio, owned by producer-publishers Jack Clement and Bill Hall.
The Newcomers played several of McDill’s songs during their shows, which caught the ears of songwriter-producer Allen Reynolds and singer-songwriter Dickey Lee, who were working at the studio. They signed McDill to a publishing deal shortly before he joined the Navy. In fact, his first cuts—pop singles for Perry Como and Sam the Sham—were released while he was still serving.
Within a week of completing his service, McDill moved to Memphis to work with Reynolds and Lee, and in 1970 followed them to Nashville, where Clement and Hall had shifted their operations. Soon McDill was signed to Hall and Clement’s publishing company and trying his hand at country songwriting for the first time.
A Country Conversion
That didn’t come easy at first for McDill, then a self-described “folkie” who counted Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon among his biggest influences. He can pinpoint the moment his ears were opened to country music’s depth and beauty: riding around late one night in a friend’s Cadillac, George Jones’s “A Good Year for the Roses” came on the radio. McDill was “overwhelmed.”
“There was a rage in that song, right under the surface, that I had never heard before,” he told filmmaker Ken Burns for his 2019 documentary series, Country Music. “And I thought, ‘I want to do some of that, too.’”
Reynolds helped McDill finish a song called “Catfish John,” about a former enslaved person McDill’s father befriended as a boy. Recorded by Johnny Russell, it became McDill’s first country success, peaking at #12 in 1973.
At the same time, McDill was forging a partnership with a fellow fledgling songwriter-artist in Jack Clement’s fold, Don Williams. McDill recorded McDill’s “Amanda”—an ode to the wife of a struggling country musician, which the songwriter had tried and failed to get to Waylon Jennings. McDill wrote the song in just thirty minutes, which was “probably the last gift I ever got,” he told Burns. “After that, it was blood, sweat, and tears.”
“Amanda” became one of many McDill songs Williams would cut throughout his career, including chart-toppers “It Must Be Love,” “Say It Again,” and “(Turn Out the Light and) Love Me Tonight.” The latter became McDill’s first #1 hit, in 1975, and soon other artists were following Williams’s lead. Crystal Gayle, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Mickey Gilley all cut his compositions in the mid-’70s, and friend Bobby Bare recorded an entire album of his songs (1977’s Me and McDill).
Then, in 1979, a new recording of “Amanda” reached #1—made by Jennings, who fell in love with the song from the moment he heard the Don Williams version. With its three-week reign at the top of the country charts, it was one of McDill’s biggest successes yet. But he’d reach greater heights in the 1980s—and the decade would start with a song often pointed to as his masterpiece.
A Song for the “Real South”
A voracious reader, McDill had been given Robert Penn Warren’s novel A Place to Come To by a friend. Its story—about a renowned scholar running from his rural past—struck a chord with the small-town Texan who had made it big in Music City. He was inspired to write a song about the “real South” he remembered.
The result was “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” which paired a gorgeous melody with memories of a southern childhood, marked by cultural touchstones that were part of McDill’s own upbringing: Uncle Remus stories, WLAC disc jockey John R., and novelist Thomas Wolfe.
Not long after finishing the song, McDill sang it for college students at the end of a guest lecture. “They all said, ‘Wow, that’s a great song, Bob, [but] it could never be a hit. It’s too literary.’”
Kenny Rogers had similar reasons for turning down “Good Ole Boys.” It had been offered to him by Don Williams, who felt the song needed to be recorded by a “bigger” artist than him. Eventually, Williams agreed to record it himself, and his version reached #2 on the country charts in the spring of 1980.
McDill’s takeaway: “Never underestimate the public.”
Bob McDill, Incorporated
At one point, four of his songs landed simultaneously in the Top Twenty of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. Soon, the joke on Music Row was that BMI stood for “Bob McDill, Incorporated.”
It was as much a testament to his craft as to his straightforward work ethic.
He kept a 9-to-5 schedule at his office on Music Row—if he hit a snag on one song, he’d move on to another, and another, until quitting time.
McDill’s songs weren’t always as serious as his approach—take Mel McDaniel’s “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On,” for example—but his best work was often his deepest.
On Alabama’s 1988 chart-topper “Song of the South,” McDill painted a vivid portrait of a family losing the farm during the Great Depression and starting fresh under Roosevelt’s New Deal.
He also provided Keith Whitley with one of his most revered hits—the tender 1988 ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes”—before the singer’s death the following year.
One of McDill’s final hits, “Gone Country,” took aim at musical carpetbaggers trying to fake their way through a career in country music. That spoke straight to the purist heart of Alan Jackson, who took the song to the top of the country charts in 1995.
McDill retired from songwriting in 2000 and has since authored two books. In 2017, he made a staggering donation to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Along with his trusted guitar, demo tapes, and awards, he left 217 legal pads of lyrics and notes—stretching all the way back to his very first cut.
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“Good Ole Boys Like Me” paired a gorgeous melody with memories of a southern childhood, marked by cultural touchstones that were part of McDill’s own upbringing.