Working With Chet Atkins – An Interview With Randy Goodrum

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Randy Goodrum is a keyboardist, producer and songwriter who has written (or co-written) numerous popular songs, including Anne Murray’s #1 hit “You Needed Me” (1978) and “Broken Hearted Me” (1979), Michael Johnson’s “Bluer Than Blue” (1978), England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “It’s Sad To Belong” (1977), Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” (1984), DeBarge’s “Who’s Holding Donna Now”, cowritten with David Foster and Jay Graydon, Toto’s “I’ll Be Over You” (1986) and Chicago’s “If She Would Have Been Faithful…” (1987). He also co-wrote with Brent Maher some of Dottie West’s hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including her No. 1 Country hit in 1980, “A Lesson in Leavin'”.

He performed as a keyboardist on recordings by countless artists in a variety of genres of music including Chet Atkins, Roy Orbison, Dionne Warwick, Steve Perry, Earl Klugh, DeBarge, Al Jarreau, Steve Wariner, and George Benson.

Randy toured extensively with Chet Atkins and performed and produced cuts on many of Chet’s albums. As a co-writer with Chet Atkins, Randy wrote “To B or not to B” and “Waltz for the Lonely” among others. Randy’s song “So Soft Your Goodbye” won a Grammy award for Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler in 1991.

Randy Goodrum was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000.

Randy divides his time between projects in the Los Angeles area and also in Nashville. His most current CD “JaR” is a collaboration with songwriter Jay Graydon.

TR: How did you get started with Chet?

RG: I played briefly on the road with Roy Orbison and I was playing on a Roy Orbison session with a guy named Steve Schaefer, and I told Steve that I had heard the piano player gig for Lynn Anderson was coming open. So I mentioned that and Steve told me, “You ought to go try out to play with Jerry Reed, I think he’d really like what you do.” So I went out there and Jerry was working on “Lightning Rod” while I was there. So I auditioned for Jerry learning how to play that song.

TR: How do you play Lightning Rod on the piano?

RG: I was just comping him. But I ended up writing and playing the bridge solo on the finished recording. They had the track cut, and I went over to this little studio with Jerry and Paul Yandell and I told them I had an idea for a solo in one spot, and they liked it and so I demoed it. Well, then they played it for Chet. After that they called me into the studio and I went in and sat down and played the piano part. And one thing I’ll never forget was the doubling.

TR: The doubling?

RG: In those days they would play a part in the studio, then play the exact solo over top of it on a different track to get a chorused effect. So I played the solo through and then when it was done Chet said, “Well that’s good, now why don’t you double it” and so I did and when they played both tracks back and they said “Something is wrong, we didn’t get the second one”. They saw the signal moving but they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t hear the doubling on the play back. Well it turns out it was an exact, virtually phase-locked double.

TR: You played it exactly the same when you were doubling the solo on a new track? I guess they were astounded at that.

RG: I don’t know if they were astounded but I could say impressed. Let’s put it this way, it wasn’t a bad day for me. But anyway that’s how I met Chet. Jerry had told him that I was a jazz player and Chet liked that and of course in those days Jerry was all over the place musically himself.

TR: Do you remember what year it was?

RG: 1974 or 75 maybe, I don’t know. After that I got a phone call from Chet’s secretary one day and she said “Are you booked at 2 o’clock on the 21st? Chet wants you over at Studio A at Columbia.”

And I was like “Oh my God, I am going to play a session for Chet Atkins!” I remember telling my wife that I thought this was way too much too soon.

So I went over there to studio A at Columbia at 2PM and nobody was there. So I thought I was in the wrong studio. I started thinking “Oh my God, I have had my shot and blown it all in the same day”.

Pretty soon Chet walks in. He was by himself and he sat down and took his guitar out of the case and had me sit down at the piano and I said “Are we going to do a session?” and he said, “No, I just want you to show me some things. I want to learn some new alternate chords, and new things I can play.”

So we sat down for about 2 hours and I showed him some voicings, alternate chords and some different scales; modal, diminished, etc.

I’ll never forget that after the session Chet and I got in an elevator and then in steps Porter Wagoner and Chet says, “Hey, I want you to meet my friend Randy – actually he’s my teacher!” and I called my Dad who was a guitar player later that day and said “Chet Atkins just called me his teacher!” I think my Dad dropped the phone. (laughing)

I had such a good rapport with him and also Jerry. We really saw eye to eye musically I think. They understood complex chord progressions and jazz. I don’t play jazz just because it’s flashy, but to me it touches the soul. The colorations if done carefully can make any song better. I felt like Chet and I just connected that way.

When we wrote “Waltz for the Lonely” it was like that. Chet could make you so much better and Chet and I wrote a lot of stuff together.

TR: I was going to ask what it was like to collaborate with him as a songwriter.

RG: He and I shared one thing in common – we worshipped the melody. I was in a car with him one day and on radio there was a commercial and part of the music in it was the song “Take me out to the ballgame” and Chet made a comment about what a great melody it was and I thought maybe he was kidding. In my mind that song was kind of hokey and old fashioned, but then as I mentally stepped back and thought about it, it really is a good song, really, it is a good melody – a remarkable, unforgettable and perfectly designed melody. And Chet opened my eyes to that.

He used to say things or do things that would make you walk away smarter. You would leave a little bit better than when you got there.

TR: You wrote “Sunrise” which Chet did with George Benson on the Stay Tuned album and also “To B or not to B”. What is the story behind “To B or not to B?”

RG: He wanted to write something in the key of B. I’ll never forget that because I hated playing in the key of B. We came up with this cool little melody then tried to find little subtle things we could weave in to make it more interesting. We wrote a lot of songs together and a lot of them didn’t get recorded.

TR: What was your relationship with Chet like?

RG: I would get calls out of the blue from him and he would invite me over to hang out with him.

One time my wife Gail and I were sitting at home, I think we were doing something out on the porch when Chet drove up. This was a few years before his death when he had started using a cane.

He got out of his car and walked over and had a cassette player with him and he put a cassette in and played this beautiful song and I thought it was great and asked him what he wanted me to do with it and he said, “Nothing, I just wanted to share it with you – I thought this was something Randy and Gail Goodrum would like.” Then he got back in his car and drove off.

TR: He just wanted to share it with you because he thought you would like it.

RG: Precisely.

You know it really kind of affected me when he was let go at RCA. I saw a sea change in Nashville back then. I felt like that they were saying they did not want to get too innovative. That’s just my perspective because ever since then it has got so organized.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with organization and I don’t have a fight with Nashville. I certainly have made my way through the business but guys like Chet were real renaissance men. They had no fear in producing. They wanted Nashville to truly be a Music City.

Chet was the kind of person that made an impact because he was a southern man making real music. He wasn’t the guy trying to stamp out cookie cutter records that would be called “country”. He had the vision that he could cut anything and it would be a Nashville record, it would have that flavoring. He was willing to try anything; he just wanted to do good stuff.

Chet did “Chester and Lester” with Les Paul and produced so many diverse things – comedian Brother Dave Gardner, Roger Whitaker, Perry Como, Jerry Reed and all kinds of different people he thought were good. He did so much and they were all so good. I wish I knew what was happening in his mind when he left RCA as director of A&R. To me that was a real turning point for Nashville.

There were a bunch of folks who moved to Nashville that were hoping it would become the music center of America, not to make New York or LA go away but to make it a completely multifunctional city in the south so that you didn’t have to pick up and move your whole family. I have to say, after looking back at that era, that after Chet was fired from RCA, Nashville became a less-interesting city.

TR: Ray Stevens said that one quality Chet had as a producer was that he could take a stack of records a foot high and pick the hit out of it. Was he that good?

RG: I don’t know what his batting average was but sometimes he would bring songs to a session and at first you would scratch you head but then after a bit you’d say, “Oh yeah, I get it!”

TR: Tell me about the Nashville “A Team”. Can you tell the folks who don’t know what the Nashville A Team is?

RG: Not sure if they still use that term, but there used to be a smaller scene in the sixties and early seventies. The A team was a group of studio musicians who were used to play on practically everything. They were 2 deep in each category and they would get the call for a lot of sessions.

TR: You have said you liked jazz but how would you categorize yourself musically? I know that on the web they categorize you as an adult contemporary artist.

RG: Well I have written an awful lot of those kinds of songs and they are some of my biggest hits. As a songwriter you could categorize me there. But also I’m also in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and I’ve written a bunch of country hits. I’ve had rock hits. I try all kind of different things. I’m doing a project now with my friend songwriter Jay Graydon called JaR, which is more like a Steely Dan kind of group.

So I can function in a lot of different genres.

Part of the reason I am so diverse I think is because of where I grew up. I’m from Arkansas and that area is really the birthplace of lots of American music. I mean if you think about it you have got blues, rock n roll, jazz, country, rhythm and blues and all of this stuff which basically started in that region and when you were in a band you had to play it all. You couldn’t say “Oh I’m just going to play acid rock tonight”. You had to be able to play it all. So that was kind of a blessing for me. When I played on the road with Chet he played everything. I mean he could play old standards, jazz, appalachian things and all kinds of stuff. You just had to be able to play all of it, and do it authentically.

TR: I think his audience really appreciated that diversity too.

RG: One time he called me after I had moved out to California. He was coming out to the west coast and he asked me to play piano for a showcase he was doing for “Stay Tuned”. And he hired a bunch of LA guys, he had Harvey Mason, Abe Laboriel, me and Darryl Dybka, and I said “Chet you have Darryl on piano, what do you need me for?” Any he said “Just come, I want you to come to the gig.”

Chet is one of a few people who would call me to do a gig and I wouldn’t know exactly why I was supposed to be there, but I’d go anyway. So I go to the Hollywood Palace and about half way into show he stops and says “We have a very special guest in the audience tonight – Ms. Sarah Vaughan! – Sarah come on up and sing a song”.

So he looks around at me and says “You stay!” Then he told the rest of the band to leave. So Sarah comes up on the stage and she was in a questionable state, well let’s just say she was tired. And so she comes up and turns to me and says: “I Got it Bad and that Ain’t Good”.

Then I suddenly realized why he called me to be there, it was because I knew that song. So I played the intro and Sarah sang and after she was done, Chet’s manager at the time, Fred Kewley came up to me and says “That was just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen”. And I said “For a jazzer it’s a day-at-the-beach!”

Having me do that was like going up to a banjo player and saying do you know “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”? (laughing)

Another time, when I was in Nashville Chet called me one morning at about 7AM as I was just about to leave the house for a workout and said “Hey let’s meet for breakfast at the Loveless Café”. And I said “well I still have my work out clothes on, what time you want to meet?” and he said “Come at 8 o’clock and don’t worry about what you have on.”

So I head out there and when I arrive he’s sitting there with Mark Knopfler. He wanted me to meet Mark but he didn’t want me to get all tweaked up and it was funny I was literally there in workout shorts and a t-shirt. I had breakfast with them and Mark was totally cool. You always worry about those kind of people but Mark was great, he was one of the delightful ones.

TR: Of course you wrote “So Soft Your Goodbye” which Chet and Mark did together and it won a Grammy. Why do you think Chet wanted you to meet Mark?

RG: He just wanted me to meet Mark; there was no business or anything.

TR: Maybe he thought you guys were compatible or he thought there was something similar about the two of you.

RG: There were no expectations or assumptions that it would lead to something, I think he just knew it would work. It was a Chet thing to do something like that. He was a free, unencumbered spirit.

TR: I saw a video of where you were at the Bluebird Café talking about your days as a young songwriter shopping your songs around and being turned away, etc. What was that process like?

RG: I used to do a lot of songwriting seminars and once at a seminar in San Francisco I asked the crowd “How many of you have been writing for a year or less?”, and a majority of hands went up. Then I asked how many had been writing 5 years and finally how many had been writing 10 years.

By then only 3 hands were up and I told them, “That’s how long I had been at it before I had anything cut. A lot of you folks are going to get your feelings hurt, get discouraged and give up, and that’s okay.”

What you have to develop is a sense of deciding whether a person rejected your song because it wasn’t good or because it is not the right day to play for them, or if they just have bad taste, whatever. It’s like a golfer who hits a bad shot and you just don’t know why it went bad. If you figure out your body was shifted the wrong way and that’s why the shot went bad then you can adjust.

I CAN take no for an answer. It’s like when I took them “You Needed Me” and they told me it wouldn’t work, that it needed a chorus. And I said “No it doesn’t.” I had been writing a really long time at that point and I knew there were a lot of songs that were hits that did not have a chorus, like “When Sunny Gets Blue” for example. Now a less experienced writer might go back home and write a chorus and end up with a seven minute piece of garbage.

But there is no easy one sentence answer to shopping a song, it’s kind of like democracy, it’s always evolving.

TR: Is there something about Chet that folks may not know?

RG: I think he was a very generous, loyal, sensitive man, and as I said a renaissance man. A great guitar player no doubt about it but he was always looking at the bigger picture, the whole universe.

He was my boss, but I would also say we were good friends. I was always welcome to come over and his wife Leona would sometimes call me and ask me to come fix the TV or something. I felt like extended family.

But one time in particular sticks in my mind. In 1976 when my dad died I was sitting at home a few weeks later and I heard a knock at the door, and Chet was standing there and he said “Hey Randy, you like video games don’t you?” and I said yeah and he said “let’s go play some” and so we went to this place he had found and I played a couple of games and he was just watching and finally I asked him, “What are you gonna play?” And he said, “Nothing – I just thought you might like to do this and get your mind off of things.”

And that’s the kind of person he was.

TR: Well thank you for talking with me today Randy.

RG: My pleasure.

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