His musical life certainly has plenty of chapters. As a Nashville teen in the late 1950s, he was a member of the city's first rock & roll band, The Casuals. In 1960, he recorded a dreamy version of the song "Look For A Star" under the name Gary Miles to take advantage of the song's popularity in the movie Circus Of Horrors and it's not being released in America. He toured in Brenda Lee's backing band and with Buddy Holly's former band, The Crickets. He moved to Los Angeles and had songs recorded by Jan & Dean. He started his own publishing company with "Little Green Apples" songwriter Bobby Russell. He opened a recording studio called the Creative Workshop back in his home state and along the way published hits by Alabama, Kenny Rogers and Jimmy Buffett. He even voiced Alvin when the Chipmunks recorded the music of The Beatles.
Buzz recently took us on a tour through his musical history.
Buzz Cason: I'm going to ride it out as far as I can [Laughs]. I started at 16 with Nashville's first rock & roll band, The Casuals. We went all over the country, all 50 states, and I got my education on the road. When I was in town, in Nashville, I would fool around with songwriting. And I say fooled around because I wish I had been a little bit more serious about it. But I fell into some pretty good situations and met the great songwriter Bobby Russell, who took me to another level because he was such an inspiration and such a great writer.
Songfacts: When did lyrics become important to you?
Cason: Well, rock & roll was just a thrown-together emotional thing and we didn't worry too much about whether the lyrics told a story or whether they were that important or that provocative. But when I met Bobby Russell, he was such a lyricist. He went on to write "Honey" in 1968 and "Little Green Apples," which was a Song of the Year Grammy winner. He wrote "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia," "Sure Gonna Miss Her" by Gary Lewis, and a ton of songs, and he was such a lyricist that he inspired me and kind of set the bar higher, you know.
Then in the '70s, I associated with Bill Justis, a great arranger. He had a hit with an instrumental called "Raunchy" back in the '50s. He had formed a publishing company with Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin and I met Kris and started listening to guys like John Prine and Guy Clark and I got inspired there on more of the progressive kind of country. I don't know if that's the right term but it's what is now called Americana. But it was edgy country songs and more of the singer-songwriter kind of thing that was coming in and just beginning.
I never was successful at that type of writing, but when I started doing these Americana records, I got kind of relaxed and soaked up what was on Americana radio and started listening to people like James McMurtry and John Prine and these kind of guys. I started going to Texas and playing and a lot of those guys were playing out there. I was hoping that some of that would rub off on me and I guess maybe it did [Laughs].
I was a big reader and my father would bring home magazines that came to the office. My parents were on a strict budget and they didn't want to take the paper and when I was about 12 I started paying for the paper to be delivered. I just read and read. I started getting into books and taking time and disciplining myself to just read more and it always just stuck with me 'cause you can pick up something that maybe you can use in your writings, you know.
Songfacts: How do songs usually begin for you?
Cason: I'd say about 90% of the time you have a hook. Sometimes I would start out just with a verse or some lines and it would lead up to a chorus but usually you have an idea. My song "Soldier Of Love" that I wrote with Tony Moon, I'm pretty sure that Tony had that idea of "lay down your arms and surrender to me." Then that was the title of it, but "soldier of love" was just kind of mentioned in there one time. But he had that idea and then we used military terms in it to make it commercial, make it fit.
Songfacts: When did you first hear that The Beatles were doing that song?
Cason: They recorded it on Live At The BBC back in 1963 on a radio show and the kids were bootlegging it. I did not find out, oddly enough, until 1980, and that was the year, if I'm not mistaken, that John Lennon was shot, and it really, really hit me hard when I heard him singing my song.
Tony Moon, my co-writer, called me and said, "Listen to this" and he played me a piece of Arthur Alexander, the original artist that recorded it and had a big hit on "You Better Move On." And he played it and I said, "Well, that's just Arthur singing that song. What's the deal?" And he said, "Yeah, but listen to this." And he started playing [singing] "Lay down your arms." And I said, "Can that possibly be who I think it is?" And he said, "It sure the hell is." [Laughs]
I think it was about 1990 when Live At The BBC first came out and had like 60 cuts on it or something like that. Actually, in South America it got played a whole lot and was a big radio record and it was one of the more together cuts. Most of the stuff they had on the show was kind of sloppy.
Songfacts: Do you still get a thrill when artists of today record your songs?
Cason: Oh yes. We still don't know why U2 did "Everlasting Love." It was a very big song in England. A bigger song in England than it was in the States. It was a #1 record by a band called the Love Affair in England, so everybody knew it. So I kind of assumed that it was the same in Ireland where Bono and all those guys were and they just decided one night, "Hey, let's throw this thing together."
Songfacts: Your songs have touched on so many different genres of music and not many people can say that. Is it easy to jump mindsets or does your brain create in one genre and then you adapt it to fit another?
Cason: Being born in 1939 like I was, and I'm 75 now, I've gone through the whole gamut of genres. I loved radio and that's where we got our music from. I would listen to R&B, my father liked Big Band music. I had cousins that had come back from WWII and one of them gave me a crystal radio. A crystal radio you didn't have to have any power, and I could pick up three stations. I could pick up an R&B station, which I loved, WLAC 1510, a 2000 watt station that was playing people like Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. Then they would work in some of the rockabilly, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley. Then it would pick up WSM and I would go over and listen to country. Back then it was Hank Williams and guys like that, Faron Young and Webb Pierce, real early country people. Then I loved pop music: Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. So I grew up with all these genres so my mind can just go there without thinking. If an idea comes to me and I think it's worth finishing, it doesn't matter which genre it's in.
Cason: Actually, it was sort of a political situation because her producer, the great Owen Bradley, had a son who was kind of drifting and he had wrecked a bunch of cars and he said, "I got to get this kid something to do." It was Jerry Bradley, and he started a publishing company called Forest Hills, and they asked me to write some songs for them.
I actually went to Muscle Shoals and did the demo on that song and pitched it to him for Brenda Lee. He said Yeah, and they did it as a B-side. I don't think it was even on an album but it was on the backside of "Think," a big ballad. I didn't pitch it directly to her because I was out of the band at that time. I left the band in 1962 to go to work for Liberty Records in California and I wasn't on the session. But it was real good to have one of my idols record a song because I dearly loved Brenda.
Songfacts: "Look For A Star" was a semi-hit for you but it wasn't a song you actually wrote.
Cason: No, I was signed to Liberty Records in a group called The Statues Of Liberty. We were a vocal group: Hugh Harriet, Richard Williams, who was my partner in The Casuals, and the great songwriter Marijohn Wilkin. There was a movie out called Circus Of Horrors and the song that was playing in the movie was "Look For A Star." The kids were going into the record stores and asking for this song. Well, it wasn't available. The original version was by Garry Mills out of England and they had not put the record out over here. So Liberty rushed in and sent me this song and I didn't even like it. I thought, Gosh, that's a hokey little song. But I'll do it for the $65 session money, or whatever it was.
So I did it and it was recorded with all the A-team - Hank Garland, Bob Moore, Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer on piano and Buddy Harman on drums - there at the Quonset Hut, the famous studio in Nashville. We recorded it on Saturday, they flew back with the tapes and pressed records on Sunday. They'd got the plant to stay open, and it hit the street to radio on Monday. Si Waronker, the chairman of the board, was there at the session with Snuff Garrett, the producer, and they said, "What are we going to call Buzz? We can't call it The Statues cause this is a solo record. What's this other kid's name? Garry Mills." They said, "Well, we'll call him Garry Miles." It was a plagiaristic thing that you would never get away with in today's world, but they certainly did and it did fairly well for us. I wrote the B-side, "Wishing Well," a little ole song I had.
Songfacts: Jan & Dean recorded a couple of your songs.
Cason: We had done "Tennessee" with Jan & Dean and it was the first song Bobby Russell and I wrote. Then we thought we may get lucky with "Popsicle." I was a popsicle boy when I was a kid. I pushed a little wagon, a pushcart. They say write about what you know, so we wrote about Tennessee, our home state, and then we wrote about popsicles [Laughs].
But it was just a flukey thing and we actually recorded both songs on a little label called Todd, but they didn't do anything. But they recorded "Popsicle" and it actually did pretty well, in the Top 20, I think [almost: #21], and it got us into the charts for the first time. Well, "Tennessee" got into the charts barely. But I was great friends with those guys later on when I moved to California.
Songfacts: Tell me about "Another Woman" by TG Sheppard.
Cason: Well, the great thing about that is that it was co-written with Dan Penn and it's the only country song we've had that was a hit. He wrote "Do Right Woman," "Cry Like A Baby," "I'm Your Puppet," all these great songs. But we were kind of wanting to get in on the country thing and TG Sheppard recorded it first and had a pretty good little hit on it. Billy Crash Craddock had a version of it later on but it didn't do much.
I was breaking up with a girl at the time and I came down to the office and I said, "Well, there's only one thing to get over a woman and that's another woman." I think we wrote it in one night, I believe, one sitting.
Songfacts: Martina McBride had a big hit with "Love's The Only House."
Cason: I wrote that with Tom Douglas. We had started a song with that kind of a groove and melody and now neither one of us can think what it was. But he was sort of sitting at the piano and fooling around with this idea of a woman coming into a supermarket, "I was standing in the checkout line, the one they marked Express, woman came in with about twenty-five things, don't you know that more is less." [Laughs] Just random stuff.
I said I loved that, let's write that, and he said, "I don't know what it means" and we actually kind of finished it and didn't really know exactly what it meant. It was a #2 country record for her. The video went #1 and it was a beautiful video that RCA did. And she's actually my next door neighbor. Her studio is next to mine. They bought Creative Recording, which I'd originally built, and they now have Blackbird Recording.
Cason: You know, I don't know that I've had a #1 song, to tell you the truth, as a writer. I had several as publisher. Well, "Everlasting Love" in 1968 was #1 in England if that counts. I tell everybody when I do my writer shows, I say, "All my friends have number ones. I'm going to play you a couple of my number fives." [Laughs] I had a couple of #5 records, "A Million Old Goodbyes" with Mel Tillis, and "Timeless & True Love" with the Carter Sisters.
Songfacts: "Garage Band" is a fun song off your first record.
Cason: Oh gosh, I hadn't thought about that in years. But I just figured there were so many garage bands I might as well come up with one about that. I have a band called the Love Notes, and we work up the songs when the album's out and then we kind of forget about them and play the new ones that are on the new album. We go back and pick up some of the old stuff. But it's a fun song.
Songfacts: The title track of your new record, your son helped you write that.
Cason: Yes, Parker. He came up with this little lick and I kind of had the idea and I said, "You think this is worth finishing?" He liked it and what kind of pushed it over the edge is when we recorded it, I said, "Let's try it out with some younger musicians than the guys I've been using." So he contacted Steelism, Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum. And it went so well, we actually used the guys on two more tracks on the record: "She Thinks I Still Care" and "Wait On Your Love," which is the last track.
I just thought "Record Machine" will probably strike a nerve with older people but a lot of folks even younger, they had record players around the house. It's kind of a vinyl tribute and I'm interested to see if anybody in radio will click on to that track and play it. It's pretty old-school in the way it's done. It's not an uptempo song, it's kind of a swampy feeling thing.
Songfacts: You're also dropping names in the song, as you also do on "Woe Is Me."
Cason: Oh yeah. Dylan, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark. I think "Woe Is Me" has a chance at Americana radio as well as anything on there. I recorded that down in Loxley, Alabama, with Anthony Crawford and it came out pretty well. I took it back up to Nashville and put the organ on it and then put some background vocals on it. So it was kind of a hybrid of two different studios.
Songfacts: When you choose to record someone else's song, like you do "She Thinks I Still Care" on your latest record, what draws you to a particular song to make you want to record it?
Cason: I just had that idea of doing a reggae version of that song and I just had it on my mind and played it around. I never played it out live but it was in my head and when we finally did the track I visualized my son Taylor singing it - he's more of an R&B-sounding singer, but we never got together. He's not as enthusiastic about being in music as Parker is. He actually did a great version of "Soldier Of Love" himself. But when I put the vocal on it everybody seemed to like it so I said, well, let's put it on the record.
I've never been too much on covers, not that I wouldn't mind doing them, but I write so much, and I'm sitting here right now with my writing book and it's got about 80 ideas and songs that I started over the last year, 18 months, something like that. I want to try to get them down in some form but you only have so much time to get this stuff done [Laughs]. But it's unusual for me to do a cover.
Songfacts: Do you think today's song lyrics have gone too far?
Cason: As far as going over the line? Like in rap and hip hop? I'm pretty conservative and I'm a Christian guy and I don't approve of all the stuff that they do. It's spun out of control. There is so much greed.
They used to call it Shock Rock or something like that, but I don't know how necessary it is. I mean, I've been associated with songs and some lyrics that probably weren't the cleanest things in the world but nothing like what goes on now in rap and hip-hop and all of that. The kids don't really realize what they're singing. They don't know how damaging it is. Several years back, I was in one of the shopping centers and there was a beat playing. I walked by and there was a kid in there and he couldn't have been over 12. There was a rap thing playing and it was just the F-bomb over and over and over, and he's sitting there nodding his head. And I thought, This is crazy. It's sad.
Songfacts: Who are your Three Wise Men of songwriting – the three songwriters who inspire you the most?
Cason: I'll name three of my favorites to listen to. I can't even begin to get up to their level of talent but they inspire me. I was listening to James McMurtry coming down here and he's got some crazy lyrics because his are very literal but he's just amazing to hear.
And I would probably say Bob Dylan would be. I got to see him a couple of times this year. I'm amazed with his catalog of work. He's got songs that anybody can sing and then he's got the real complicated songs he does. And probably Guy Clark.
Then I was mostly inspired by my partner Bobby Russell, who like I say, he was a perfectionist in lyrics. He would bring something to me and I'd say, "Man, that is good" and he'd say, "Yeah, but it's not there yet. Got to get it right." He inspired me to take it to another level.
Songfacts: What do you have coming up for the rest of the year?
Cason: We'll be out in support of Record Machine. The record will be released on the 21st of August and then we're playing a special show on the 23rd in Nashville. We play Grimey's in Nashville on the 25th of August. They are honoring my buddy Dickey Lee, who wrote "She Thinks I Still Care," on September 5th at the Country Music Hall Of Fame. I'll be there but I'll just be watching. Then we play the Michael Hearne's Barn Dance Festival in Taos, New Mexico on September 11th. That's always a fun event every year. Then there's another festival that comes up on September 19th in Texas called the Brush Stock Music Festival and the legendary Bobby Bare is going to be there and Dickey Lee is actually going to be on that too. It's going to be busy [Laughs].
August 19, 2015
Get more at buzzcason.com
Top photo by Alan Messer
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