Jim Chesnut’s Take on His Second Waltz ‘Round in Life and Music
Most traditional country music fans have heard of country singer Charley Pride. If you’ve ever heard Pride sing Oklahoma Morning then you’ve also experienced the songwriting of Jim Chesnut.
In the mid-1970s, Jim Chesnut was a singer-songwriter whose song Oklahoma Morning was recorded by Charley Pride. Several months later, Chesnut headed for Nashville, where Acuff-Rose Music signed him as a staff writer.
At that time Acuff-Rose Music had a distribution deal with MGM Records that was limited to five artists, which included the first King of Country Music, Roy Acuff. Chesnut’s first single, A Country Love Song (one of his originals) was released as part of the MGM deal. Acuff made that happen for Chesnut by removing himself from the five-artist group and allowing Chesnut to take his place. “Let’s give this young man a chance. I’ve made enough records in my life,” Acuff reportedly said.
During his five years with the country music publishing giant, Chesnut recorded two albums, Let Me Love You Now (ABC/Hickory Records), and Show Me a Sign (MCA/Hickory Records), the title song of which was a Grammy nomination.
In all he released 13 singles, 10 of which charted in the Billboard Top 100 Country Chart, including three that he wrote.
1977: Let Me Love You Now (his first Billboard record)
1978: Show Me a Sign (a Top 60 record)
1979: Let’s Take the Time to Fall In Love Again (a Top 30 record)
Chesnut’s contract with Acuff-Rose Music should have been the beginning of a bright future in Nashville for the talented songwriter.
But, Chesnut being young at the time and confident in his best work, chose the more challenging road of wanting to record his own music, as opposed to having the big names in country music cut his songs. Who could blame him? He was (and still is) a very talented songwriter. Even Charley Pride believed in Chesnut’s potential, publicly endorsing his first album Let Me Love You Now.
Despite all of that, Chesnut inherently, or subconsciously, knew better for himself, and after giving it his best shot, chose to walk away in 1982, leaving behind Nashville for San Antonio, Texas, where he has spent the years since pursuing a more fulfilling life.
Chesnut took a twenty-six-year break from songwriting to rebuild his life as a divorced, recovering alcoholic. It was not long after he came to San Antonio in the 1980s that he found new love, marriage and stability as a marketing communications specialist. He returned to his lifelong passion for songwriting in 2007, but upon his return, he faced new challenges that came with the advent of new technology, big changes in the music business, and the downturn in the global economy.
Regardless of those challenges, Chesnut faced his new future head-on and recently has begun to enjoy recognition for the new songs he has written and recorded. For example, in December 2013, his single, Get Aboard a Catamaran, reached #12 in the New Music Weekly indie and country charts. In 2014, Chesnut’s CD, Troubadours and Dreamers, was listed as a Top 30 album for the year in the Roots Music Report (RMR) True Country Album Chart, with the single, Oklahoma Morning, reaching #6 in RMR’s True Country Singles Chart and #10 in the New Music Weekly Country Singles Chart. In 2015, his Another Day in the Life of a Fool debuted at #1 in RMR’s True Country Singles Chart and remained in the top five for several weeks.
Currently, Chesnut is enjoying seeing his newest songs from his latest album This Guy Sings! gaining airplay support. His first single from the album, Lost and Found Love, became the #1 indie country record in the nation for the week ending May 27, 2016, according to IndieWorld Country Record Report. His next single, True Love Is a Dance in Three-Quarter Time, is set for release in early June 2016.
Video: Chesnut performing his song True Love Is a Dance in Three-Quarter Time at Williams Creek Depot, Tarpley, Texas:
There is a wonderful article and interview by Sam Kindrick, publisher of Action Magazine, San Antonio in the March 2016 edition:
“Jim Chesnut of San Antonio may be the best country music songwriter alive who is virtually unknown to the world around him,” writes Kindrick. “I was floored after listening to his CD This Guy Sings! this guy can sing, but his writing is as good or maybe even better than his vocals. In the fashion of Willie, Tom T., Steinbeck, and Mark Twain, Chesnut has something to say, and in this context there isn’t too great a void between Grapes of Wrath and a Bloody Mary Morning.”
Chesnut was very generous and forthcoming in telling me his story via online correspondence and at one of his gigs at Williams Creek Depot in Tarpley, Texas, in late May 2016. After my initial research into his songwriting career, I had some questions that the singer-songwriter took the time to answer at length. This is his take on his “second waltz ’round” in life and music…
Question: I’ve come across your bio at different online sources, and from what I’ve read, you made the decision a couple decades ago to settle in San Antonio, Texas, away from the Nashville music scene and focus on your quality of life, before eventually returning to writing and recording your own music and gigging in Texas. What is it about San Antonio that kept you there all of this time?
(Chesnut): Short answer. After leaving Nashville, I lived in Austin for a while and loved it. Actually, I loved it too much . . . had way too many drinking buddies. I didn’t have any drinking buddies in San Antonio, and I needed a change. I had met a young woman in San Antonio several months before moving here, and we seemed compatible. In one of our earliest conversations, I explained that I was (and am) a recovering alcoholic with less than a year in sobriety at the time. For some reason, she believed in me, and within six months of my move, we were married. In August 2016, we will have been married 34 years, and I still don’t drink alcohol.
San Antonio has always appealed to me. During my Nashville years I thought about moving to either San Francisco or San Antonio. Both appealed to me because of their multi-cultural character. I grew up in West Texas and was never comfortable with the separateness that existed there. The two saint cities seemed to have a functioning level of ethnic integration that appeals to me. I am an acculturated, theocentric Christian, a social egalitarian and a fiscal conservative. I cannot stand systems that discriminate against people who don’t fit in the normative distribution of Darwinian selection.
Question: You have a very impressive and extensive experience in the country music business that dates back to the 1970’s, culminating in writing hit songs that you and other notable artists such as Charley Pride have recorded, for example your song Oklahoma Morning. As a result, you’ve probably witnessed how much things have changed in the music industry, both technologically and business-wise… what has been your experience when you decided to return to music after taking some time to settle in Texas?
(Chesnut): Here’s the scoop. I had been playing hotel lounges for about five years, honing my skills as a performer, writer and, much to my regret, consumer of distilled spirits. One of those venues refused to honor the terms of a written contract I had with them, and I filed a lawsuit, which was settled before going to court. I was awarded the full amount of the contract, took the money and went into a studio in Garland, Texas. I recorded several songs—including Oklahoma Morning—in a demo session. It was the same studio (Autumn Sound) that Willie Nelson used to record his Redheaded Stranger album.
In the middle 1970s, Nashville was a lot different than it is today. Most music offices were located in houses rather than office buildings. It was more or less an open-door community of music professionals. I left a reel-to-reel tape copy of the demo session at Charley Pride’s office. Within a short time, I was sent a single-song publishing agreement and was told that Pride wished to record the song. At first I was hesitant, because I wanted the song for myself in hopes it would get me a recording contract.
I consulted a song-plugging friend of mine associated with Glen Campbell in Los Angeles who said, “Are you crazy? Do you know how hard it is to get a major star to record a song?”
Truth is I didn’t know, but I signed and returned the contract. As it turned out, the fact that Charley Pride recorded that song enhanced my appeal to Acuff-Rose Music. If Acuff-Rose is not a familiar name to your readers, think Hank Williams, The Everly Brothers, Don Gibson, Carl Smith and Mickey Newbury. It was the company that was responsible for developing those music industry giants.
In those days—with a few notable exceptions—writers wrote, singers sang, publishers published and record companies manufactured, promoted and sold records. I think of it as a horizontal business model with each company being owned by separate entities. Today it is really different.
Perhaps the biggest change agent in the music business is the emergence of personal computers. Now for less than five thousand dollars it is possible for writers and performers to produce their own comparable recordings at a fraction of the cost of using a studio by utilizing the power of computing in a personal studio. Although I don’t know the exact numbers, I am told that many of Nashville’s studios have been forced to close because writers and singers are using their own private facilities.
The growth and development of the Internet has democratized music and everything has become more vertical; more operations are performed within the same operating unit. Writers write, sing, produce, publish, record and promote their own stuff. Record labels now get a piece of all of that plus a piece of the merchandising and performance revenue earned by the artists signed to them in many cases.
Another factor that has changed the music landscape is the expansion of municipal venues that includes huge arenas such as the Alamo Dome and AT&T Center in San Antonio. Major record companies are interested only in artists who can fill those venues, because they often get a cut of those ticket sales.
One more factor that has negatively impacted the country music scene is the Communications Act of 1996. It lifted many earlier restrictions imposed on broadcast station ownership, and the result was catastrophic for emerging performers. Companies like iHeart Media, Cox Media and Cumulus Media now own a majority all of the radio stations in the top 200 markets. Each of these media giants makes programming decisions from a central point of authority that ignores the nuance of local musical tastes.
Bottom line. Today’s emerging performer has to be a music entrepreneur, able to do everything in order to advance her or his career. It is much more difficult today than it was when I went to Nashville in the middle 1970s.
Question: If you had to choose one song and one album as your favorite or most important to you, what would they be, and why?
(Chesnut): As I listen to my songs, I would have to say it depends on my mood at the time I listen. Maybe that’s the way all listeners choose favorites. One song, Another Day in the Life of a Fool, does seem to reoccur as my favorite. Maybe it’s because it’s a true story.
I’m actually very proud of all of them, despite feelings I have about doing things differently if I were to do them again. Come to think of it, I did redo Another Day in the Life of a Fool. It is included in my first self-produced CD entitled Reflections. I redid it for my third project entitled Troubadours and Dreamers, changing the arrangement and the vocal interpretation slightly. The new version debuted at #1 in Roots Music Report’s True Country Chart where it stayed in the top five for a few weeks in 2015.
I don’t know about other performers, but I don’t think I’m ever fully satisfied with something I record. I continue to be a work in progress.
Q: I’ve seen you perform live, your music is a pleasure to hear onstage, and I would recommend to anyone that they come to your live gigs…but I have to ask, since your bio describes your earlier years in music as being a writer, what is it that drives you when it comes to songwriting and performing? Is it the writing, is it the appeal of playing your songs to your audience, or is it a combination of both?
(Chesnut): All of the above, I think. As far as writing, I think I look forward to the next piece of the Universe that is revealed to me in the process. I don’t take credit for what I do. Someone once told me that a painting exists on a blank canvass, and the role of the artist is to strip away the layers that keep us from seeing it. I like to think of songwriting that way.
As far as performing, I thirst for affirmation. When an audience appreciates what I’m doing, it charges my batteries in unexplainable ways. I’m not one who puts it out there without caring how it is perceived. I want to make a difference and have a positive influence on the listener.
Q: In addition to writing and producing your own music, playing gigs in Texas, and sharing your songs with your fans, do you have additional projects in the works for the future you’d like to share?
(Chesnut): Currently I am in discussions with key individuals in San Antonio about how to improve the economic opportunities for performing musicians. It may be quixotic, but I hope to see a time when qualified performers can make a living by performing in San Antonio. When I first started in January 1970, my first wife and I, working as a duo in a circuit of hotel lounges like the Statler Hilton in Dallas, made the equivalent of $12,000 per month by the end of the first year when adjusted for inflation. It sure as Hell doesn’t happen that way now, as I’m sure you know.
I still chuckle when I think about an early conversation I had with an Acuff-Rose staff member when I was first signed in Nashville. She said, “Jim, what exactly do you do for a living?”
I replied, “I sing.”
She gave me a strange look. Little did I know that mine was an exception to the rule for most other performers at the time. As a matter of fact, in music, I haven’t made anywhere near that kind of money since 1970.
To conclude, if I can use any of my career experience to help facilitate a change for the positive, I think it would be my greatest achievement.
Q: Where can your fans buy your albums/singles?
(Chesnut): At all my performances and http://www.cdbaby.com, Amazon and iTunes, the usual DIY outlets.
It was a pleasure for me to meet Jim Chesnut, to hear his songs and to learn more about his history in songwriting; he’s great to see perform live, so go see Jim if you get the chance to catch the singer-songwriter at one of his gigs.
Video: COVER of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah performed by Chesnut at Williams Creek Depot, Tarpley, Texas:
Jim Chesnut’s official website and email:
Jim Chesnut’s Facebook music page:
Jim Chesnut’s YouTube channel:
This article was written by B. Skye.
SOURCES for this article:
Jim Chesnut official website:
Action Magazine, San Antonio (March 2016 edition, pp. 12-14)