Even before he went to Nashville at age 20, Durham native Don Schlitz was already a songwriter. He began writing songs when he was 16, and remembers the man who pointed him toward Nashville.
Schlitz worked in the computer center at Duke University (he was a student at Duke for a time). His boss, Fred Crumpton, told him, “If I didn’t have any family or ties, I’d go to Nashville,” Schlitz said in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. “I think about him all the time and how he pushed me in this direction. There are people you meet in your life who have great influence on you,” Schlitz said.
His decision to go to Nashville eventually led to his song “The Gambler” being recorded by Kenny Rogers in 1978. Since then, Schlitz’s songs — recorded by Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Judds, Randy Travis and many other artists — have become part of American music. Schlitz wrote, or co-wrote “Point of Light,” “On the Other Hand,” “Learning to Live Again,” “Cheatin’,” “When You Say Nothing at All” and numerous other hits.
For his songwriting achievements, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville recently named Schlitz to its Hall of Fame Class of 2017. Schlitz was named along with singer Alan Jackson and the late singer/songwriter Jerry Reed. They will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame in a private ceremony in October.
Schlitz calls the honor “very overwhelming and very humbling.” He told the Crumpton story to underscore his philosophy about songwriting.
“From the time that I get an idea ... to when the song finds its life in the world and someone hears it, there are so many people involved in the process,” Schlitz said. “You cannot think about what’s going to happen. You just stay in the process and write. Staying in the process doesn’t allow one to consider for very long that you are doing anything for yourself. I haven’t done anything by myself,” he said.
Growing up in Durham (he graduated from Durham High School in 1970), Schlitz said he listened to WDNC, WKIX and other area radio stations, where he drew much of his inspiration for writing.
“I grew up listening in the golden age of radio,” he said. “I would hear everything from the Beatles to the Four Tops ... to Herb Alpert to Johnny Cash. It was all inspired,” he said.
He also mentions the music of Stax Records and Motown as inspirations, along with The Ed Sullivan Show which featured Broadway musical numbers.
“It was a great time to learn to be a songwriter,” he said.
When he arrived in Nashville, “I really had to study country music,” Schlitz remembered. “I was a bit of an anomaly. I had long hair.” While working in the computer center at Vanderbilt University, he began playing at songwriters’ nights at different venues. At first, no one wanted to record “The Gambler” because “it was too long [and] it had no love interest,” he said. After a producer sent a demo, Bobby Bare and Hugh Moffatt were among the singers to record it. Rogers’ recording was the fourth “and that was fortunately the one that worked,” Schlitz said. “He basically kicked the door down for me.” That recording “allowed me to become an everyday songwriter.”
His mentor during that period was Bob McDill (”Catfish John,” “Shot Full of Love”), who helped him get his songs to publishers and told him, after the success of “The Gambler” that “your job is to write 40 more that will get on the radio.” Dave Loggins (”Please Come to Boston”) also “took me under his wing.”
Before “The Gambler,” Schlitz was sharpening his craft. “I learned to rhyme in meter. I learned all the forms of conversation that could be taken into a song,” he said. “I learned to write from ideas [and from] listening and paying attention.”
He said he also learned a lot from studying the lyrics of the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.
Many musicians compare songwriting to telling a story, and Schlitz agreed.
“You find an idea. You make it smaller and smaller. You walk all the way around it. You have 360 windows to look through,” he said. “Between every two windows there’s an infinite number of cracks,” and as a songwriter “you give your unique perspective.”
Choruses, song forms and other aspects of songwriting can be taught, but the craft still has an intangible quality. “I believe you can learn form,” Schlitz said. “Are you willing to go farther than that? That’s only something you can learn yourself,” he said. “You have to love it so much you will go through the process of throwing yourself into a song.”
He continues to write and perform at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, which he calls “the gold standard for songwriters.”
He still has family ties to Durham. His father passed away in 1974, but his mother Betty Goodfellow still lives in the area, as does his brother Brad and sister Cathy Hinkley.
With the Hall of Fame designation, he said he is proud to represent all the people who have worked with him as a songwriter, and his hometown. “It’s humbling as all get-out.”