November 5, 1936
August 4, 2015
Phil Campbell, Alabama
One of country’s most influential producers, Billy Sherrill helped to shape the music’s evolution in the 1970s and beyond.
He was also a highly successful songwriter, elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984.
Born Billy Norris Sherrill in Phil Campbell, Alabama, on November 5, 1936, he came to country with a broad musical background that informed his production approach. In his youth, he often accompanied his evangelist father on piano at revivals. Sherrill also worked in Alabama R&B and rock bands and made a few records of his own, including a 1960 Mercury single and the 1967 album Classic Country on Epic Records. He gained studio experience in the early 1960s as a producer-engineer for Sam Phillips’s downtown Nashville studio. As a producer, though, Sherrill blossomed after Epic hired him for a staff position in 1963. At first he handled acts that others preferred not to produce, including the R&B group the Staple Singers and the rock band Barry & the Remains. Soon, however, he began making his mark with country artists such as David Houston, whose #1 hit “Almost Persuaded” Sherrill wrote with Glenn Sutton. The recording won Houston two 1966 Grammy awards, for Best Country & Western Recording and Best Country & Western Vocal Performance, Male. Sherrill and Sutton received Grammy honors for Best Country & Western Song.
Producers including Decca’s Owen Bradley—whom Sherrill greatly admired—had already introduced strings and background vocals to country records, but Sherrill took the process noticeably further with lush, layered productions that sometimes approximated those of rock producer Phil Spector. Although purists criticized Sherrill’s efforts, the independent-minded producer let strong record sales speak for themselves. “His productions were always first class,” said famed producer Jerry Kennedy, “and as the charts indicated, he had a pretty good idea about what record buyers wanted.”
To a large degree, Sherrill’s genius lay in applying this approach to a wide range of singers, including those who were unmistakably country. He found a willing student in Tammy Wynette, whose career he guided more closely than that of any other artist. Wynette first charted at #44 on Epic with “Apartment #9” in 1966-67, but it was 1967’s #3 record “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” (co-written by Sherrill and Sutton) that launched her long string of Sherrill-produced hits. Thirty-nine of these made the country Top Ten, with twenty reaching #1. Working solo or with Wynette and other co-writers, Sherrill penned many of Wynette’s best known songs and intensified her emotional delivery with dramatic studio arrangements. With compositions such as “I Don’t Wanna Play House” (for which Wynette won a Grammy), “Take Me to Your World,” “Stand By Your Man” (another Grammy winner for Wynette), “Singing My Song,” “I’ll See Him Through,” “Another Lonely Song,” and “‘Til I Can Make It on My Own,” he molded her persona as the Queen of Heartbreak, a woman who perseveres despite the pangs of romantic turmoil. Sherrill also produced classic duet hits by Wynette and third husband George Jones: “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring,” and “Two Story House” among them.
By 1972, Sherrill was producing Jones’s solo records as well. Unlike Wynette, Jones was already a seasoned artist when his work with Sherrill began. Even so, he made some of his best recordings under Sherrill’s direction, including the hits “We Can Make It” (another Sherrill-Sutton co-write), “A Picture of Me (Without You),” “The Grand Tour,” and “The Door,” all of which embodied traditional honky-tonk sensibilities. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980) took a great deal of persuasion on Sherrill’s part. “Mark my words,” Jones told him, “nobody’s going to buy that morbid [thing].” But after the song topped the charts and reinvigorated Jones’s career, the singer changed his mind, and came to regard Sherrill as “a genius.” In 2007, the recording was named to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
With Charlie Rich, Sherrill took an artist who had tried jazz, R&B, and pop—all without sustained success—and steered him to country-pop stardom with 1970s crossover smashes such as “Behind Closed Doors” (a double Grammy winner), “The Most Beautiful Girl” (penned by Sherrill, Rory Bourke, and Norro Wilson), and “A Very Special Love Song,” which won a Grammy for Sherrill and Wilson as 1974’s Best Country Song. Hits like these secured Sherrill’s place as Vice President–Executive Producer for Columbia-Epic’s Nashville office, a position he assumed in 1980.
Through the years Sherrill produced and wrote songs for artists including Johnny Cash, Janie Fricke, Marty Robbins, and Joe Stampley. And although Sherrill did not immediately embrace Willie Nelson’s minimalist 1975 album Red Headed Stranger—a milestone of the Outlaw movement—he produced hits with some of country music’s most free-spirited personalities. In addition to Jones, he worked with David Allan Coe (“Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile”), Johnny Paycheck (“Take This Job and Shove It”), and Tanya Tucker (“Delta Dawn”). Occasionally he also recorded artists outside country music’s mainstream, such as R&B icon Ray Charles and British rocker Elvis Costello.
Sherrill left Columbia in 1985 to become an independent producer. As such, he continued to work with George Jones and other artists, and sometimes developed new acts such as Shelby Lynne. By the early 1990s he was virtually retired, but he could look back on a record of achievement that continues to influence the country music world. Sherrill was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
Billy Sherrill died in Nashville on August 4, 2015. –Bob Allen
-Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.