Climbing the charts: West Forsyth alum Byron Hill to be inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame
Published 12:10 am Thursday, September 6, 2018
By Lynn Hall
For the Clemmons Courier
From his first guitar at the age of 10, purchased from the Sears and Roebuck on 4th street in Winston-Salem … to the introduction to woodwinds by Richard Conklin, music teacher at Southwest Middle School … to the marching, jazz and concert bands at West Forsyth High School under the direction of John Foreman … to writing and co-writing songs for some of the biggest names in country music and a successful career that now spans some 40 years … to his upcoming induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Byron Hill has had quite a journey.
His is a story of determination, hard-work and talent that began when his father taught him the only three guitar chords he knew. “When I learned a fourth chord, I realized my father wasn’t very good and I needed a better teacher, but he and my mother both loved music and I was introduced to a broad spectrum — from Glenn Campbell, Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford to songs from Broadway musicals like “My Fair Lady” that my mother loved,” Hill said. “The band rooms at Southwest and West Forsyth were two of my favorite places.”
While he had been writing on and off for a while, Hill said at one point his father sat him down and told him he wanted him to listen to a song. “It was Kris Kristofferson singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and it completely altered my perspective on song writing.”
Hill graduated from West in 1971 and headed off to college at Appalachian State University. “I was only 17 and very immature. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it was there I started getting involved with other musicians, performing at coffeehouses, and even playing rhythm guitar and singing backup harmony with a bluegrass band.”
He was also writing and performing his own songs, and at that time imagined a career as both an artist and songwriter. He returned to Winston-Salem in 1974 and began teaching guitar at the Dixie Music Company in order to save enough money to make the move to Nashville.
“I was teaching in the afternoons and evenings since that’s when young people were available, and I worked other jobs in my free time.”
During this period, Hill began studying the music industry and making exploratory trips to Nashville. “There was a music scene in North Carolina, but I knew I wanted to be where there was a music business. Back then we didn’t have internet and I had to do my research on music publishing and publishers in magazines. There would be stories on publishers and what they were looking for in the way of songs.”
He was also contacting those publishers through letters and phone calls. “It was a lot longer process with mailing in materials and then waiting to hear. But the effort paid off and when I made my first trip, there were already a few doors open,” he said. It was a learning experience, and not always positive. “I had publisher tell me I wasn’t ready. He said he wouldn’t play any of my songs for anyone and I should go home and get a job.”
But not everyone was quite so negative. “A publisher at ATV Music loved my songs and said I had a lot of promise.” They remained in contact and in 1977, the publisher called him and said he thought he was going to have a job opening. In 1978, Hill was offered a job as a tape copy boy at ATV. “This was the lowest spot on the totem pole, but I was very grateful to get it. I moved to Nashville to start that job in May of 1978 and in September they offered me a songwriting contract.”
Hill said the benefit of moving to Nashville was the opportunity to work with more experienced writers. “I turned a page when I made that move. I knew the 150 or so songs I brought with me weren’t that great and I needed to up my game if I was going to be successful. This early period was like an apprenticeship. Nashville was very much a co-writing environment. When I moved here, I connected with a few successful writers who were kind enough to let me in. Songwriting is a craft and you benefit from sitting down with people who are better than you are. But I also never stopped writing on my own.”
The rest is history so to speak. Since then he has continued to be under contract with one publishing company or another, and the hits and opportunities to write for big names continue. “Things started happening pretty quickly for me once I got to Nashville. The money wasn’t great and I realized my focus needed to be on writing songs since that was working pretty well.”
In 1979, he had a hit with Joe Sun’s “Out of Your Mind,” and in 1981, with a song recorded by Johnny Lee called “Picking up Strangers.”
“In that instance, I was assigned to read a movie script, “Coast To Coast” and to come up with something for the soundtrack. I didn’t know at the time that Johnny Lee would be the singer. That song ended up being bigger than the movie.”
In 1982, he had his first No. 1 hit. The song was “Fool Hearted Memory,” recorded by George Strait. The song put a very young Strait in the No. 1 spot for the first time as well.
Anne Murray was a major recording artist in those early days and Hill said he wrote many songs hoping to have her record one of his. “I met Kathy Mattea in 1981 and she often sang the demos we recorded for Anne Murray. Murray did record one of Hill’s songs, “Over You.”
He also worked with Kenny Rogers, who he said was very kind and gracious. “He would sit and listen to your songs and was always careful about what he said in terms of critique. Anne Murray was the same.”
The song “Born Country” written by Hill and John Schweer and recorded by country music band, Alabama, was released in 1991. The song went to No. 1 on the Radio & Records chart in March of 1992, also peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
While his list of musical associations is notable, Hill said there is still one person he would love to have record one of his songs. “Willie Nelson would be a dream come true.”
In addition to songwriting, Hill has also produced. He did a country album for Kathy Mattea and three for Gary Allan. He’s won CCMA Producer of the Year awards in 2008, 2010 and 2012. In 2012, he won CCMA Songwriter of the Year for his work with Australian-born Canadian artist Gord Bamford. The following year, he won CCMA Producer of the Year for his work with Canadian group, The Boom Chucka Boys.
Over the last 40 years, Hill said he’s written more than 4,700 songs. “I’ve kept careful record of all of the songs I’ve written, their creation date and who I may have been co-writing with. In a year, I probably write anywhere from 80 to 120 new songs. It’s a pace I still keep, and over a period of 40 years that makes for a lot of songs.”
Hill said in all of that time, his writing process hasn’t really changed. “I’m a title kind of guy. I keep notebooks filled with ideas for titles. My desk right now is covered in little pieces of paper where I’ve written down a title idea or chorus. Sometimes I start writing the first verse, already knowing pretty much how the chorus will go.”
The business, Hill noted, has changed over the years and breaking into it as a songwriter is more difficult now. “There were people like Johnny Cash, who wrote their own songs, but most artists were hungry for material. They needed songs and we provided them. Every recording artist was looking for that next hit and songs for an album. Now there are many artists who are also songwriters. You need to come to Nashville as more than just a songwriter.”
Today when he writes, Hill said it depends on who he is writing for, but he looks for ways to keep a song gender neutral so that it can be recorded by either a male or female. He also said in a radio-driven market, up-tempo songs are more likely to be appealing. “I know for a fact that if you write a ballad, it has to be a killer — a ‘Wing Beneath Your Wings’ type of a song.”
When he traveled to Nashville for the first time on one of his exploration trips, Hill said he checked into his hotel and grabbed the Yellow Pages to check out music publishers. That page had been torn out of the book. “I went looking for a pay phone and when I found one, that page had been torn out of that one as well,” he said. “It was obvious there were a lot of people trying to do exactly what I was.”
There have been thousands of young songwriting hopefuls who came to Nashville only to be told “you’re not ready, so go home and get a job.” Considering the competitiveness of the business and often times the need to be in the right place at the right time are tough obstacles to overcome, even for the talented, which makes Hill’s success all the more notable. He was a smart enough young man to know that it would take more than just talent. It would take significant effort to learn the business and how to get your foot in the door. Hill studied his career choice and then with real determination and a strong work-ethic set out to pursue his dreams. On Oct. 28, evidence of his overwhelming achievements and success will go down in history as he is inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
(Byron Hill is currently signed as a staff songwriter to Dan Hodges Music, LLC.)