News like that would incapacitate most regular folks. Jimbeau Hinson, though, is anything but regular.
A self-taught pianist with a ridiculously gritty determination, Jimbeau weaseled his way into the heart of Loretta Lynn, whose friend Doyle Wilburn signed Jimbeau to his publishing company by the time he hit 16. He went on to write hits for the Oak Ridge Boys, David Lee Murphy, Brenda Lee, and Patty Loveless, among others, and has been feted as the best lyricist in the business, all while championing people in the midst of personal crises, always willing to put in a helping hand.
And, if you've already realized it, we'll tell you anyway: Jimbeau is one tenacious individual. In 2013 - 27 years after being handed his expiration notice - he is still a marvel of determination. At times he's been a mess of gauntness and protruding bones, at times he's been a triumph of health and fortitude. Through it all, there has been honesty, pain, and a lot of fear mixed into a life replete with laughter. His just-released album, Strong Medicine, tells the tale of his tumultuous journey in a way that is uniquely Jimbeau, with a message that could apply to anyone, anywhere, any moment.
Jimbeau Hinson: I don't live with regret. As long as there's forgiveness, I don't have to worry about regrets.
Songfacts: Well, I found something about you that nobody warned me about. Talk to me about Star Search.
Jimbeau: Oh. That was one of the most neurotic moments of my entire career. [Laughing] I saw those numbers popping up under my face for at least six months after that show was over. I had no idea it was a talent show when I agreed to go on it. I was just oblivious. A friend of mine was doing Nashville segments for Entertainment Tonight, he was the producer of those segments. My wife and I did a three-camera video shoot at the last gig of mine in Nashville to showcase - I believe that was in '86 or so - and he took a clipping out of that and sent it to Star Search as an audition tape without me even knowing about it.
So I got a phone call from Star Search that they wanted me on the show, and I'm going, "What show?" [Laughs] And so [wife] Brenda and I sat in front of the TV one evening and watched it. And first I said, "What's in it for me?" And they said, "The winner wins $100,000." I went, "Where do I show up?" The viewership was, like, millions.
I had also just found out that I was HIV positive, been told I had six months to two years to live. So it was like here's God saying, "I'll give you one chance to get out there on the airwaves and let people see you. And maybe this is your last shot at it." And so I went into that with all that neurosis funneled into it.
I just bit the bullet and we flew out to L.A. and got to a hotel, one of those ballroom kind of places where people show up and there's tables and you're in line and register and all that stuff. And I walked in and found out this is going to be one of those singing contests. And I'm a songwriter. I'm a singer, but I'm a songwriter before I'm a singer. And I lived in L.A. and I know there are incredible voices. And I thought, God, I'm going to be up here with the best singers in the world.
The first person I ran into was a dear friend of mine, big old Texas boy named Billy Dean, who I'm sure you're aware of. And we walked into the room and we both looked at each other and we both screamed, "Oh, no, I've got to go up against you?! I thought if it's a beauty contest, I'm not going to win. [Laughing] So we got to the filming and for some reason I won. I sang a song called "Everybody Wins." I had a little section of beautiful little black ladies in the front row, the soul sister section, cheering me on. And it was sort of a gospel tinged peace, love, everybody wins kind of song.
A month or so goes by. Nobody else won twice that year, so I got a call back to semifinals and had to go back through the whole thing again. The guy I was up against at the semifinals was just amazing. He just sang like an angel. I had no problem losing to him because he deserved it. And that was just the end of that. I was on TV four times and probably 8 or 12, counting reruns. It was an experience, but I'm a Star Search semifinalist! [Laughs]
Songfacts: I know it's a while ago, but can you remember writing the song you performed on the show, "Everybody Wins"?
Jimbeau: Oh, yeah. There's a great story about that. Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys was one of the cowriters, the lead singer, another one of my dear mentors. And Jack Williams was a young writer who had just come onto the scene. And the Oaks were in the process of reorganizing. William Lee Golden was leaving the group, and he was in great turmoil. The publishing company we had spent 14 years building was in the process of getting put on the market and being sold. So not only was I given six months to two years to live, my publishing company was being sold.
And as a last ditch effort, I took Jack Williams to Tahoe where the Oaks were working. I thought, I'm going to save this publishing company. I'm going to get Duane to write this song with us, and it's going to be a single by them, it's going to save the publishing company and everything's going to be all right.
So I flew out to Tahoe with Jack and we wrote "Everybody Wins" in Tahoe with Duane Allen. We were sitting there in one of those high rise beautiful hotels, and Duane's looking out, he's just completely discombobulated because he thinks his group's fixing to break up. He thinks he's going to have to sell his publishing company. He's sitting there watching the steam come up off of the air conditioners on the roof, and the snow covered hills off in the distance. And he goes, "Just look how that steam just keeps rising, it just never stops." I went, "Okay. Never stops, steam keeps rising." And that's when I scribbled down, "Bombs fly, angels cry, tears that fall from the children's eyes, rain that waters the bitter weed of hate, choking out the tender hearts, strong survive, but they bear the scars of another generation where the smoke never clears away. Why can't we all get along with each other, be a brother, be a friend, and everybody wins."
Songfacts: Just like that, you just sat down and wrote that and boom, it was there?
Jimbeau: Yes. I'm a quick writer. I'm a lyricist. And I saw the message, I tried to figure out what to say, and I was trying to bring peace to the Oak Ridge Boys and save the publishing company. And so we made it a worldwide view thing on top of it. But that's how that song came to be.
Songfacts: You took a lot of weight on your shoulders right then. That's amazing.
Jimbeau: It was going to be the single, but they put it on the B side of "Bobbie Sue" and released that as the single, a little bubblegum song. It's a song that's been recorded three or four times and it'll come back around again. I think we're about to reach a point where we're war weary and somebody'll grab that song and put it out again one day, hopefully.
Songfacts: And if that happens, you probably still get royalties from it.
Jimbeau: Yeah, they trickle in, nickel or penny at a time. [Laughing] Mailbox money.
Songfacts: Do you ever follow today's American Idol, and if so, can you do a comparison for me to its granddaddy, Star Search?
Jimbeau: Well, today they do so much more for the people that are on there. Back on Star Search, you just sang and you won it and they forgot about you. Now they tie you up contractually and they get you record deals and they get you on tours. They do so much more for the contestants. Star Search didn't have that, but just gave me some exposure. It's ramped up to be career building now for a lot of people. So it grew.
Songfacts: Did it propel you anywhere, the exposure?
Jimbeau: I can't say that it did other than it made me recognized when I went to Disney World in Florida right after that. So it gave me a momentary taste of celebrity.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about writing the Oak Ridge Boys' "Fancy Free"?
Jimbeau: Well, that's a really great story. It was my first #1 country song. I wrote that song back when I was about 18 or 19. I was managing the Oak Ridge Boys' publishing company and they were at the #1 Southern Gospel Quartet at the time. And I knew nothing about gospel music. I just sort of fell into that job by fluke.
But when I first moved to Nashville, I signed my first deal at 16. Loretta Lynn was instrumental in bringing me to town. I signed with her publishing company, and they threw me in the room with this one guy who was about 20 years old. His name was Roy August Horstmeyer. He was a big Bob Dylan fan, and I was in love with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. We wrote the most disjointed songs you've never heard.
I was living at the Y, so I'd walk down to my publishing company and write with this guy at least two or three times a week for a few months. Time goes by and I'm like 19, and I've gone through another publishing company, another record label, and I'm managing a gospel publishing company. Roy calls me and says, "Can I bring some songs by?"
He brought me a stack of typed lyrics, I had just come back from visiting my father in Mississippi. My daddy was a mechanic and my mother was a truck stop waitress. She had just left him and he was very upset about it and didn't know why she left him. Of course, I did, and I just did not want to talk about it.
But I was looking through this stack of lyrics Roy had brought me, trying to find something I could help him out with. And I saw a title, "I'm Setting Fancy Free." My Mother's name is Frances. Right then I saw the story through my daddy's eyes. About 15 or 20 minutes later we had the song just basically as it went to record. It was eight years before the Oak Ridge Boys actually recorded. They went on to be country stars within that period of time, and they cut it on the same album they cut "Elvira" on; it was the follow up to "Elvira," which was the biggest record of the year in 1981, I believe.
Every good thing that's ever happened to me came from me trying to reach out and help somebody else, and our first #1 came from trying to help old Roy do something when he came to see me.
My daddy passed in '76 at the early age of 58, and my Mother moved up here with my sister and her family. Now Mama's in a nursing home with Alzheimer's. She's sliding down the mountain of forgetfulness. I know one of these days I'm going to have to walk in there and she's not going to know who I am. I will eventually have to set my Frances free.
Songfacts: What is your relationship with Loretta Lynn like?
Jimbeau: It's been decades since I've even laid eyes on Loretta Lynn. We live in the same town, but it's a real cliqueish town. You sort of get in your own bunch and I've gone from one to another since those days.
But I've been singing professionally since I was 10 - in clubs, radio and TV in Mississippi, where I'm from. I was a little local celeb down there. Loretta Lynn was my first idol. Loretta brought her rodeo to Meridian when I was 14, and my daddy took me to see her and we went backstage. I wormed my way back there and finally got up to her and asked her if she'd hear me sing. And she was polite enough and nice enough to. Her eyes got big and wide and she put me on her show the next Saturday and gave me her numbers. So we went honky tonkin' with her at the clubs after the rodeo that night and we became really, really good friends.
Within about six or seven months after that, I hit puberty and my voice went haywire. I lost the pitch, it would go away and I'd be completely hoarse when it come back, I didn't know what was up.
Songfacts: You were Peter Brady.
Jimbeau: [Laughing] Exactly, I was Peter Brady.
Puberty is hard enough on its own, but it almost killed me. I had three major label deals in Nashville that had wanted to sign me, I had club gigs. I lost everything at 15 and didn't know what to do.
So I had a little girlfriend that was moving off to Arkansas. She had a piano I was even more crazy about, and her daddy said he would sell that piano for $50 and help us move it in the house. I went to my father who was very upset that my whole career had just gone haywire, but he had decided that it was a probably a good thing that it happened and I just need to figure out what else to do with my life. Of course, I was not going to give it up.
So I came to him, I said, "Daddy, I've got an idea. I want you to buy me Linda's piano. I've decided I'm going to be a songwriter." He goes, "I can't afford to buy the piano and the lessons at the same time." I said, "I'll teach myself. Just get the piano in the house and I'll do it."
So we did. And for the next six months I sat there day in and day out and figured out how to make backwards chords and learned all the songs I already knew how to sing. They're just basically three or four chords, wasn't that complicated. And inside of six months I had written 30 songs.
Loretta Lynn came back through Jackson with the Wilburn Brothers who were her managers and her publishers at the time, Opry stars. So Mama took me to Jackson and we wormed our way backstage and got to see Loretta. She was so glad to see me, and Mama told her I'd been writing songs. So she introduced me to Doyle Wilburn and said, "He's been writing songs, I want you to hear some of his songs after the show tonight."
So we went back to the hotel and he listened to my songs and said, "Okay. Get your rear end to Nashville and I'll cut the demo session on you using all of the musicians that Loretta uses on her records."
Me and Mama are jumping around like white trash, going, "Yay!" And after not too much time I was standing in Bradley's Barn, in the same place Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn stood, and singing my little heart out to six or seven of my original songs. I signed my first publishing deal at 16.
Songfacts: The song "Now" sounds a little gospel to me. I read about how you talk about how you woke up after almost dying, and you came back from the "all of everything." How spiritual are you and can you describe a life after death sort of experience, what that was like?
Jimbeau: I can give you my two or three seconds of it. I'm extremely spiritual. I'm not religious by any sense of the name. I think religion has done more harm than good. I'm spiritual more than ever in my entire life, but I've always felt the connection with a higher power, I've always felt it was on my side. I've never felt disconnected with my spirit. I always felt troubled with the church from the get go. I know it's there, I know some people need it, but I just carry mine around with me. I've lived it, I try to be it, just try to do the right thing.
Before I went in and out of coma in 1996, I had already wasted away to skin and bones once before the first meds came out that brought me back around. When I was legally declared disabled, I was skin and bones. When I went to court I had to take a pillow because my butt bones were sticking out so far I couldn't sit on those benches.
I was ready to check out. I thought, okay, I've seen enough of my friends go and it's my time and it's going to happen any time now. I was preparing to do that when the first meds came out. And they brought me back around in a matter of months, I was putting weight back on, first protease inhibitors. They were experimental, so we had to pay for them. They were extremely expensive, but it saved me. It made me healthy enough, but they were so caustic they weren't sure how much to give you back then. I think they were so caustic it caused my system to eventually crash. I got pneumonia and it went into my organs. They shut down, my blood stopped clotting and I picked up a fatal heart infection in the hospital in one of my heart valves. So everything was going against me in the hospital.
In the period of time that I was in the hospital room in and out of coma in 1996, the people that I knew and loved were gone already, from childhood on to recently. I remember my niece was there with me once, and I said, "Can't you see So-and-so? He's right there." "No, Uncle Jimbeau. I can't see him." "Well, they want me to come with them, and I'm just not ready to go yet." "No, you tell them you're not ready to go yet." And I'm getting very upset because nobody could hear them or see them but me. I was frustrated because they couldn't see them, but I wasn't frustrated with the people in the room. It was very loving and very warm and very welcoming. They were like a welcoming committee.
We didn't really speak to one another. It was like we thought to one another. I could hear what they were thinking and they could hear what I was thinking, and it was all reassuring tones. That's all I remember of that.
Then I remember being in the company of my deceased father and crossing over into this all encompassing place. It's hard to even put a physical description on it. "The all of everything" is about all I can use to describe it. It's like going back to being one with God again, where life just relinquishes and you become one with all that ever was and all that ever is and all that ever will be. It's an energy kind of thing. It's not a physical place. It was the most peaceful, inclusive, comfortable, place. Like, "I really fit in here!" Because my entire life I could fit in anywhere with any group from the hippies and the rednecks during the '60s to the gay and the straights in the '80s. I'm like a chameleon. I could turn just about any color of a room and still be the first one you spot.
It was the first time I felt like I really, absolutely fit in completely, anywhere for just seconds. Just moments. And then I woke up tied to an ICU bed and weighed 110 pounds and had to learn how to do everything: walk, sleep, eat, poop, the whole deal. It came back to me fairly quickly. That was in July, and by November I could just barely stand up. I performed all 10 days at the Frank Brown Songwriter Festival and I was able to do two or three songs each day and go back to the room and go to sleep. But I was determined not to miss that songwriter festival. And I didn't.
Songfacts: During that experience, did you feel that you had any choice to either go or stay if you wanted to?
Jimbeau: I didn't feel it was my choice. I felt that it happened the way it's supposed to. It was just all of a sudden bang, bang, you're here, you're not, then you're back. I just felt there must be something else for me to do. That's why I'm still here.
Songfacts: And that's probably why you're doing the work that you're doing.
Jimbeau: Exactly. This is exactly what I'm supposed to do. My doctor is my good friend, Dr. Stanley Bodner. Last year he got a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in HIV/AIDS. He invited us to be his guests and we went. My wife and I just sat there amazed when one 20-year-old after another got up and spoke about their recent HIV infection. Brenda has continued to test negative for the 30-something years we've been together. It's an avoidable infection. We were just amazed that people weren't being more careful or more protective of themselves and the people they love.
I felt like all of a sudden I was part of the problem, and I wanted to be part of the solution. So I'm talking about what people aren't talking about. Nobody's talking about HIV anymore. Nobody's talking about how it's out there and spreading like wildfire. Do you realize there's a new infection in this country every 9 1/2 minutes? A woman is infected in this country every 35 minutes, and that's a survey from two years ago. An infant worldwide is born HIV positive every minute. You don't hear that on the news. You don't hear anything about it.
I felt driven to stand up and go, "Wait a minute. It's still out there, gang. It's still out there. Time to regroup." So that was my impetus to do this whole project. I started writing a book about my life, and I'm still working on the last few pages of it, I just keep living. [Laughing] But I read it to Sandy Knox, who is a dear friend of mine. One night my wife and I spent the night over at her place, and I got up and Sandy asked what I've been doing. I said, "I've been working on this book, just therapy." And I read it to her. She called me a few months later and she goes, "I'm going to start a record label. Your story needs to be told." And that's how this whole thing came about.
Songfacts: So the book hasn't been released?
Jimbeau: I'm down to the last 75 pages. Just trying to tighten up the end. But I've been working on it.
Songfacts: You have a title for it yet?
Jimbeau: The All of Everything in the Life and Times of Jimbeau Hinson.
Songfacts: Let's swing this back around to music. Talk to me about "Party Crowd."
The first song we wrote together I got Reba McEntire to record: "Red Roses (Won't work Now)." It went gold, and he won his first gold record. His first cut was a Reba McEntire song. I introduced him to Tony Brown, this big MCA producer, and 10 years later, I moved out to the country to hide and die with HIV. David calls, and he goes, "Jimbeau, Tony Brown just signed me to MCA Records." I said, "Ten years later he just signed you?" "Yes. And you were the first person that ever paid any attention to me. I have to have a Jimbeau Hinson cowrite on my first MCA album."
He brought me out with the idea of the party crowd, and we wrote the verse and the chorus. And since I was wasting away to skin and bones, I was seriously looking for a party crowd. [Laughing]
Over the next two years it became the Airplay Record of 1995, right before I almost died. 1995 was the best and worst year of my life. I had the Airplay Record of the Year and I almost died.
Songfacts: Talk about your highs and lows.
Jimbeau: Well, they come that way. Every good thing that's ever happened to me always comes with a big wallop right along with it. Just to ground you and let you know, you're not that big shit after all.
Songfacts: Go take out the trash, boy. [Laughing] You mentioned Reba. Tell me about that song.
Jimbeau: I think she cut that song in 1984 when I was in England. When I got back from England, it had been cut. It was on her Have I Got A Deal For You album. It wasn't released as a single, but it played like a single. They were bringing her roses on stage, it was a very popular album. I got screwed out of that single by somebody at the label. Another one of those stories in the music business.
Songfacts: Reba, that would be like a Loretta Lynn kind of thing. "It's Reba, and she's cutting my song!"
Jimbeau: Oh, well, believe me, it's a great, great song. It's called "Red Roses (Won't Work Now)," it's one of my favorite, favorite hard country songs. It was a great cut.
Songfacts: Is there a story behind what inspired it?
Jimbeau: Well, David brought me that idea and was sitting down at the piano, and he said he had a song called "Red Roses Won't Work Now." And ideas just sort of send me into motion.
Songfacts: Do you have artists in mind when you write?
Jimbeau: Sometimes. If I'm writing with the artist, like when I'm writing with David Lee, of course, we're writing something for him. It just depends. Nowadays you basically have to write with the artist to even get on the record. But back in the day you didn't have to. Yes, no, and maybe. All depends on the situation.
Songfacts: And there's another good question. Since you've been around in the songwriting industry for as long as you have, and you obviously do a lot of cowrites, how have things changed? How has it changed in the cowriting as far as getting together with someone?
Jimbeau: It's not about the song anymore. It used to be all about the songs. But now it's about who has publishing on it. There are like 4 to 10 writers and 9 to 12 publishers and the artist is usually in on it, got a piece of it. It's just not the same business as it used to be.
When I first came to town it was old white guys with chick singers that they were fooling around with on the show with them. It's changed a lot since then. L.A. and New York came to town and brought their surface mentality and it became more about what you looked like than what you sounded like. They grinded out style and everybody sort of looks and sounds alike - that way they can replace them easily. It just doesn't have the substance and the soul and the style that it did back in the day. But it's a whole new world, and there's another generation out there that it's addressing. And things change. I've just been here long enough to watch it.
Songfacts: Does it take some of the joy out of it for you?
Jimbeau: You can jump in that river of bitterness and just drown. But what good does that do? I still enjoy when things happen for my friends, when they come to town and I see something happen for them. I find joy in the process; I love writing, I love singing, I love performing. When I sing live for people it reminds me of what I do music for. Because within the business it has a tendency to be jaded and bitter and possessive, but when you sing for real people, they give you back a real response. So singing live always reminds me what I do music for.
Songfacts: And now you have your own album out.
Jimbeau: It's getting ahead in the charts. It's phenomenal to be 61 years old with a record deal in a 20-year-old town.
Songfacts: What is the single off of this?
Jimbeau: "Not You Again."
Songfacts: And although I think I know what this song grew from, do you want to talk about that song at all?
Jimbeau: Kim Tribble ~ my friend and producer ~ and I wrote that back in the '80s. I'd say 1986 maybe. I was losing a lot of friends right and left. We lost about 50 friends in the sight of two years in different cities around the world. It was a heartbreaking time. I was also thinking I'm in line for all of this at the same time. So every bump, bruise, cough, fever... everything could be like that first knock on the door when it comes to get me. So it was years of just feeling that. So that's where the idea of "Not You Again" came from, and we wrote it thinly disguised as a bad relationship that would not stop showing up on my doorstep.
Songfacts: Yeah, that was a seriously bad relationship. I was listening to that and thinking, Wow, if he really was talking to another person.
Jimbeau: Haven't we all had at least one of those? [Laughs]
Songfacts: Talk to me about "Positive." Was that meant to be a double entendre?
Jimbeau: Oh yeah. Wrote it just for this project. The only reason I survived being HIV positive was to be positive, look at life, what you've got today, let's go live it.
Songfacts: The line, "I can crawl in a hole where nobody cares, nobody knows I'm positive."
Jimbeau: I wanted to write all these songs that could apply for any situation, whether it's cancer or divorce or losing your house or whatever. I like to write songs that are universal in nature, that are applicable to different situations. And I wanted the song to be about more looking at life in a positive light, even in the most negative situations.
But personally for me, it was about being HIV positive. But I wanted to present it in a way where it could apply to other people, whatever troubles or causes. To me what makes a great song. A great song is a like a little mirror: if you hold it up and people see themselves in it, they get it. If all they see is you, then they go back to talking about themselves.
Songfacts: I like that.
by Jimbeau Hinson
I've learned to count my garden by the flowers
Never by the leaves that fall
I try and count my days not by hours
But by the way I live them all
To count my nights by stars, not shadows
To count my love with smiles, not tears
To count the blessings and not the sorrows
And count my age by friends, not years
I look to the old and I find wisdom
I look to the young... to see what they see (then)
I try to see with a distant vision
Not what's just in front of me
I stop and count each moment in all its splendor
For in every one a story's told
I know to count my rainbows by their colors
Never by the pot of gold
A man is rich who knows the value
Of his word and of his love
And I believe in the power
Of a distant vision watching over us
Look to the old and you'll find wisdom
Look to the young and you'll find truth
try to see with a distant vision
Not what's just in front of you
Why can't we...
Count our gardens by the flowers
Never by the leaves that fall
Count your days not by hours
But by the way we live them all
Songfacts: One more thing for you. On an album of incredibly personal songs, can you pick one that would be the most personal, that would have taken the most from you when you wrote it?
Jimbeau: They're all so close to me. I'd say "Distant Vision" because it was my first really close friend, Rik Fishel, who I witnessed two years of being eaten away before my eyes. I wrote that song for him. The first verse came from old Italian philosophy, "count your garden by the flowers, never by the leaves that fall." I wrote a chorus and another verse and wrote a song around that ancient verse. I brought him a Walkman - remember those? - and put it on his little lesion covered head, and said, "Rik, I wrote this song for you." Just trying to encourage him to continue the fight. And he just wept, "That's the most beautiful song I've ever heard, Jimbeau." I played it at his funeral, and many funerals. It's just been one of the sort of "Evergreen" things that pops up now and then. It's a special memory.
And then as for myself, I have to look past whatever's going on right now and try to see what I can do to get over to the next day. So I'd say that one, because it was so personal. It's for my friend Rik.
Songfacts: That's beautiful. Can you remember sitting down and actually writing it?
Jimbeau: Oh, yeah. I remember the verse from Italian philosophy just moved me. "Count your garden by the flowers, never by the leaves that fall, count your days not by hours, but by the way you live them all, count your nights by stars, not shadows, count your love with smiles, not tears, count your blessings, not your sorrows, county your age by friends, not years." It's just such a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing. It showed up on greeting cards and I liked it. So I thought, What can I add to that? So I added another verse. And when I re-recorded it for this project, I sort of turned it around. "I try to look, I try to see," instead of me trying to tell you what to do, I was directing it more to myself in the rewrite.
It's been a work that's been in progress that has evolved from the first time I recorded it to this record. It's a special song to me.
We talked to Jimbeau the morning of February 28, 2013
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