November 5, 1936 - August 4, 2015
As one of Music City’s most innovative and influential producers, Phil Campbell native Billy Sherrill pioneered the lush, layered “countrypolitan” sound that brought Nashville’s country music industry into the mainstream of popular culture.
Growing up in Franklin County, Sherrill played piano during evangelical tent-meeting revivals preached by his evangelical father. After learning to play saxophone, he teamed up with fellow musician and songwriter Rick Hall to form a rock ’n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues band called The Fairlanes. Sherrill and Hall co-wrote “Sweet and Innocent” for Roy Orbison before moving to the Muscle Shoals area to form a publishing partnership – Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) – with music enthusiast Tom Stafford above the City Drug Store in downtown Florence.
Sherrill relocated to Nashville in 1960, when he accepted an offer to serve as in-house engineer at the new studio owned by Florence native Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records. He went to work a producer for the Epic Records label in 1963. With a background in pop, rock and R&B rather than country, Sherrill became known as the “Toscanini of Twang” as he added more of a modern, sophisticated musical sensibility to the co-called “Nashville Sound.” Eventually his unconventional country production techniques would include lavish string sections and background vocals. As his success and stature soared, Sherrill often wrote or co-wrote songs for his artists that would suit his particular style of studio production.
For Epic, Sherrill produced David Houston’s Grammy Award-winning No. 1 smash “Almost Persuaded” (which he co-wrote with Glenn Sutton) before signing a fellow Alabama native, former waitress and hairdresser Tammy Wynette. Sherrill produced and co-wrote Wynette’s classic hits “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “I Don’t Wanna Play House” before teaming Houston and Wynette for the smash duet “My Elusive Dreams” (co-written by Sherrill and fellow Alabamian Curly Putman). He also produced Wynette’s signature tunes, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand By Your Man” (which he also co-wrote).
Sherrill later signed Barbara Mandrell, George Jones and former Sun artist Charlie Rich to Epic, producing Mandrell’s first Top 40 single, “Playin’ Around With Love,” Jones’ “The Grand Tour,” “A Picture of Me (Without You)” and “The Door” and the two breakthrough hits that would finally establish Rich as a star, “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl” (which Sherrill co-wrote). He also teamed real-life husband-and-wife Jones and Wynette for a series of chart-topping duets – “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “We Loved It Away,” “Golden Ring,” “Southern California,” “Near You” and “Two-Story House” – that reflected the topsy-turvy nature of the singing duo’s marriage during the early to mid-1970s.
Sherrill also produced and co-wrote hits for Tanya Tucker, Joe Stampley, Johnny Paycheck, Marty Robbins, Ronnie Milsap, Johnny Cash, Moe Bandy, Johnny Rodriguez, Janie Fricke, David Allan Coe, Bob Luman and Kenny Rogers and Dottie West. In the early 1980s, he reunited with Jones for the comeback hits “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “I’m Not Ready Yet,” “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” and “Same Ole Me.” He also produced Elvis Costello’s 1981 Nashville album, “Almost Blue,” and Ray Charles’ 1984 duets album Friendship, which also featured Jones, Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard, the Oak Ridge Boys, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. The album climbed to No. 1 on the country albums charts.
Sherrill won his second Grammy Award for Charlie Rich’s No. 1 country hit “A Very Special Love Song” in 1974. With a track record of 26 No. 1 country hits and 50 more Top 10 hits, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter Association International’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984. Sherrill won the Alabama Music Hall of Fame’s Music Creator’s Award in 1985, and the Nashville Entertainment Association awarded him its Master Award the following year. He was inducted into the Nashville-based Musicians Hall of Fame in 2008.