Friday A/V Club: Billy Sherrill's Eclectic Country Sound

Billy Sherrill, 1936-2015


The countrypolitan hickster/hipster

There was a time when the critical cognoscenti didn't think highly of Billy Sherrill, the Nashville producer and composer who died Tuesday at age 78. Rock-era critical opinion tended to favor country music that feels "authentic," which in practice usually meant preferring spare arrangements to string overdubs and other lush affectations. And Sherrill loved to play with strings, choruses, and other elements borrowed from middle-of-the-road pop. At some point, people started calling his dense arrangements "countrypolitan," a word that evoked a clan of urban hillbillies hiding their straw hats in a closet and donning top hats and tuxedos.

But that wasn't what he was up to at all. Billy Sherrill stood the sugary Nashville Sound of the '50s on its head: Instead of using those pop tools to obscure his music's country core, he built something that wore its country identity on its sleeve. The vocalists most closely associated with his work—George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich—never hid their southern accents. His records may have been as heavily produced as anything Phil Spector created, but Sherrill's version of the Wall of Sound kept giving a starring role to the pedal steel guitar, an instrument affiliated with hard-edged honky-tonk. (If you amplified the sound of a single tear running down the cheek of a trucker on his third beer, it would probably sound like a pedal steel.) And Sherrill's lyrics…well, the guy co-wrote "Stand By Your Man," surely one of the countriest songs ever recorded:

Don't get me wrong: Sherrill had eclectic tastes, and he dipped freely into other genres. He was especially fond of rhythm & blues, having gotten his start playing saxophone in a Muscle Shoals R&B band. So he was happy to, say, write and produce a track where Tammy Wynnette sounded like she was singing a soul song:

When he worked with Charlie Rich, a man whose tastes may have been even more eclectic than his, Sherrill became very flexible indeed, letting the singer indulge his passion for soul and rock'n'roll and Sinatra-style pop and gospel. And speaking of gospel, one of Sherrill's most famous productions—Tanya Tucker's "Delta Dawn"—borrows its main melody directly from "Amazing Grace":

And yes, Sherrill could do bona fine middle-of-the-road material too, songs where the sentimentality seemed more syrupy than raw. As much as I love Charlie Rich, I'm not a huge fan of his smash hit "The Most Beautiful Girl." (Among other problems, I can't hear it without being reminded of George Costanza's attempt to sing it.) But if that's your sort of thing, the song is about as solid a specimen of the genre as you'll find; and it was Sherrill who produced and co-wrote it.

Still. When Elvis Costello bestowed some hipster cred on Sherrill by asking him to produce his Almost Blue LP, I'm pretty sure he was attracted by the producer's signature sound, not his versatility. He wasn't trying to yank Sherrill into some sort of Limey cowpunk project. (Aside from on the album's opening track, that is.) He wanted Sherrill because he wanted the Attractions to sound George Jones' backup band—and so help me, they did:

Jones was Sherrill's most celebrated collaborator. In this last clip, Jones joins Merle Haggard to sing one of Willie Nelson's songs, with Sherrill in the production booth. Back in the '60s, when the whole "countrypolitan" thing was starting to emerge, Haggard was associated with the so-called Bakersfield sound, a roughy and rootsy sort of C&W that seemed to be the opposite of the approach Sherrill was taking. But listen to how easily Haggard's voice joins with everything else on this record. He knows he's in good hands:

"Authenticity" is a tricky concept, and the sounds and images that seem to suggest it can change dramatically from one decade to another. But I think I can say, with as much objectivity as one can assign to a matter of taste, that Sherrill's work was authentically good.

(For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)