Dennis Knutson: A Blue Collared Songwriter
“He’s got a heart like Mt. Rainier and a soul like a four bolt main. He writes songs like a deer would run or a fish would swim.”–Roger Alan Wade
Dennis Knutson is an old fashion blue collared songwriter who writes songs for all the right reasons. Over the years Dennis has put together quite a resume of genuine craft from cutting his teeth writing for Buck Owens with an exclusive writing deal to loading up the truck to head to Nashville penning a thread of hits for George Jones. Never a lost for a great story “Uncle Den’s “excursion is something a lot of the honest lyrics he has bared his soul on paper for scores of the all time great country music singers.
The year was 1951 Dennis Knutson was around the age of seven years old when a moment of faith would articulate what would become his calling in this life. A father/son drive in a 1939 Buick Century with the radio playing a Lefty Frizzel song a fresh young youngster would take notice to the resonance in Lefty’s tone of voice that made the chrome grill buzz. It was a moment in time that would plant a seed for a fruitful labor of love in song writing. Around the same time a friend of the family had brought over a 45 single record of Hank Williams Sr. Dennis holds these two Icons as the focal two that would start it all musically for him.
After a gift of an upright piano and taking lessons for a year it was all becoming a gravy train with biscuit wheels for the soon to be renowned songwriter.
By the age of 16 years old things begin to just fall in place. “I was in a five piece band and we would rent local dance halls and pack em out” said the guy who would later put pen to paper the George Jones classic “Wine Colored Roses”. The Berlin Crisis of 1961 was grounds of the building of the Berlin Wall causing a country to be divided. Culture was promptly altering and Dennis Knutson now 18 years old was posted in Hanna Germany and begun to experience the loneliness that are the basic structure for many country songs. The loneliness is raw emotion that everyone in some way or form can convey. Back home in the United States of America The Beatles had played the Carven Club for the first time, “Stand by Me” was number one on the charts, and Patsy Cline had a crossover hit with “I fall to pieces” while she was in the hospital due to a car accident.
Back in frigid lonely Germany temperatures would reach 20 below while soldiers were on constant alert and that meant the weekend passes were taken from them all the time. Dennis established a little salivation on the radio and begins to write melodies from the songs that would inspire him to create his very own. “I could type over a hundred words a minute so I was changed from an artillery grunt to a court recorder in the Battalion headquarters…it made my stay a little easier but still lonesome for home.” This would be a statement that would honestly harsh reality that describes the young folks who enlisted for the promise of a better life. “We had to get up at five AM every single morning of the week and no matter how drunk we were the night before and take head count in the freezing cold for a head count” It was like prison for the lower ranks while the gung-ho lifers was mostly non commissioned officers. They just had to swallow pride and go along with what was asked from Uncle Sam.
“It was so nice to get out of the service on the troop ship back across the Atlantic… I would go to the bow of the ship to rip the ranks and patches off my fatigue shirts….That tell you how much I hated it!”Chuckled the now released Solider. Meanwhile, across the pond Conway Twitty had made the transition from rock to country. Dennis Knutson was making the transition from solider to civilian.
“I guess my attempt to start writing songs was around late 1964…Man I was dumb as bag of rocks…but I stayed with it” Civilian life had brought him back to where he was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington where the beer joints he would hang out in would begin some serious take on writing songs. Writing songs for his friends in the Washington state Dennis was getting notoriety by his musician friends he had met. Bonnie Guitar was the stage name for Bonnie Buckingham who lived in Seattle Washington took Dennis under her wing.
The lady whom had was most know for being the first to have a crossover country song to pop radio with her hit “Dark moon” would be second to only legendary Patsy Cline with a crossover hit. “I learned allot from Bonnie Guitar” quoted Dennis.
“My one and only time as a artist was on a indie label…it was a duo called Jerry and Denny that sounded in the same vein as The Everly Brothers…it was shipped to five states in the northwest and go a small amount of air play but that was the end of that.” Dennis says he has a mint condition of the 45 record but in today’s modern society he has no way to play it. The first major cut was on Dot records the label which Bonnie Guitar was signed and helped him get the cut. The song was called “Dawn holds another Day” became a hit for the 11 year Browning Bryant. The teen heart throb was a fixture in 16 magazines and played the song on the variety show called The Kraft music hall by the side of Johnny and June Cash. “That was a huge thrill to see my song being played on television” One of his songs got in the hands of a female singer who asked could she use some of his songs to use for a voice try out for Buck Owens. Dennis arranged a few songs together for her to present to Buck. “The next thing I know I received a call from Buck who told me he was not going to sign her but he wanted to sign me to an exclusive writing deal!”
The hard work was beginning to pay off and the journey was on going. Dusty Rhodes who was vice president of Blue Book music made a trip to Tacoma Washington at Knutson’s home with three copies of the Blue Book contract. The dream was becoming a reality as he quickly put his John Hancock on the paper and away he went. Three months later a phone call from Buck asking was he ready to move to Bakersfield California would instead send him to Reno NV first where Buck was playing a show. “Mike Owens (Buck’s son) set me up with an apartment one block away from the studio/office in Bakersfield” It was very convenient for him having no car and having to get around on foot.
This was a good thing for he had left his 1960 corvette back in Washington State with a blown motor. Receiving a check for 300 dollars even in 1973 was rough to say the least to make ends meet. Living in a tiny one bed room apartment with no heating or air but instead with a swamp cooler which today is more live a window unit air conditioner. Inside he was blessed with a squirrel cage type fan which in combination with water would blow somewhat cooler air in the extreme California air. “I remember one day in particular I stepped out the door to walk to the studio and it being so hot to even breath…115 degrees in the shade” said the Washington native who was used to much cooler temperatures.
After paying the one hundred seventy five dollars for rent and paying the utilities the money was hard to stretch. Living in a town where he were he knew of no one and help was not even in the vocabulary.”I would go sometimes weeks without” but being the Renaissance man he was took advantage of the apricot tree right outside of his apartment. “That was my saving grace…I would pick them fresh from the tree…baked, fried, boiled, you name it I ate an apricot that way” Flour was something that wasn’t strenuous on the pocket book and plenty was stocked in the apartment.
Buck had a quite a stable of artists/writers who were employed by him. David Frizzell (Lefty Frizzell younger brother) was one of those working by Buck and lived 45 minutes north from Bakersfield. “David and I became really great friends he was so talented and such a good help to me at that time…we wrote a lot and had allot of fun together”. Dennis also became friends with The Buckaroos spending a lot of time with them in the studio cutting demos on the songs he had wrote. Don Rich was a major contribution to the Bakersfield sound played guitar and fiddle for the Buckaroos. “He was the nicest guy and played the fiddle like nothing I had ever seen!” David Frizzell would invite Dennis out on the road with him to which he would always welcome whole hearted for he got to eat something besides apricots.
“Lefty Frizzell would come to town to vist his brother the three of us would go up to Kern River canyon and hang out with Merle Haggard…Lefty was so funny and such a great guy…hanging with those guys while passing the Guitar around between us all are some of my best memories of my time in Bakersfield” Tommy Collins another important member of the Bakersfield sound was writing songs for Haggard such as number one hits “Carolyn” and “Roots of my Rasing”. “Tommy and I would go fishing and did more bullshitting than fishing…Man Tommy came up with some hilarious stories!” One time they headed up on the road to Kern Canyon and up the ways a bit was a town called Lake Isabella. That’s where Dennis would meet the girl who would become his wife for the next 34 years. His new wife’s father was the sheriff and also owned a mortuary in the neighborhood. “One day Tommy says to me we should start our own mortuary…He says if the deceased was an angry kind of person we embalm them with red fluid, if they are envious we embalm them with green fluid and we have a special room where you can strike the body if your pissed off at them. In the viewing room we pipe in music like Satin sheets to lie on” and he would go on and on.
During the trial Buck mention to Dennis that “A very famous man once told me the quickest way to get famous is to get sued for a million dollars”. Puzzled by whom that could have been Dennis asked who that would have been and Buck proclaimed it was the most famous of all songwriters Hiram Hank Williams Sr. “Didn’t give me nothing but a headache” laughed Dennis. Things were going great for Dennis as his songs were getting out there in the music world until a song named “The Cheating Game” which was written for Susan Raye was climbing the national charts. A phone call from his attorney warning him he was to be sued for a seven digit number. Having no idea what was going on until speaking the matter with Buck later where the heartbreak would come to light. Buck showed him a contract with Bluebook music scratched out with a pencil with another company by the name of Artreeva music replaced by pencil. It was also witnessed by people never heard of with Knutson’s initials forged in all four corners of every page. Frustrated, he entered a jury trial in Van Nuys California where by faith won a unanimous jury decision with a 40,000 dollar judgment against Dusty Rhodes of BlueBook music. “Big Game Hunter” was written for Buck and the song had reached the Billboard top ten when a special show was booked for Palladium in Los Angeles for the Sons of the Pioneers. If you don’t know they were once associated with Roy Rodgers and American’s earliest western standards singing group. Glad he accompanied Buck and the Buckaroos for he got to meet Stuart Hamblen. Stuart was one of the first singing American cowboys who later on became a Christian songwriter and then ran for political office. “He told me an incredible story about the song “Its no secret what God can do” after the song was recorded Stuart said of an American POW was send to Germany and was in a POW camp during world war two….He said he was in the prison yard one night with hundreds of American POW’s…the moonlit night was so bright you could see everyone…when suddenly, they heard someone turn the microphone on while all heads turned to the front to a voice saying the war was over…so, here are in the midst of all these soldiers who started to sing his song accapello with tears pouring down their faces…I would like to see ANY songwriter on the face of this earth to top that one!”
Reminiscing in the years with Buck that ranged from 1973 to 1978 Dennis truly lived in poverty watching all the songs he poured his blood, sweat, tears and soul into climb the national Billboard charts. “Looking back knowing what I know now about the business it’s seems strange but I was doing what I loved the most…writing songs”. It wasn’t like anyone was holding a knife to his throat. He knew he could return back home to Washington to make a living doing something else but this is where he belonged. The life as a songwriter was what was God put in his DNA.
A move from the apartment to house was short lived for the house was condemned and bull dozed flat. Round a bought that time food was a major concern for him. One day a light bulb went off to get a few chickens. “So, I got the bright Idea to get a couple of chickens…I figure that’s free eggs…wrong! The chickens were too young to lay and forbidden in town limits” Luck would not warrant him all the time for some basic needs such as food. “One day I was waked up by a rooster crowing so loud that it rattled my window…turns out neither one of them was chickens!” But, thankfully California was littered with fruit trees that would keep him alive during these times.
Buck Owens kept his BMI royalties along with his mechanics from record sales so he could re-coup the 300 dollars a month advances he was being give. When it came time for the contract to be over a phone call was placed to Page Sober who worked at BMI in Los Angeles “Don’t send me anymore of my royalties to the Buck Owens organization because I am no longer under contract to them”. “Hallelujah!”Yelled Page who after the shout of joy she mentioned “Dennis…I am sitting here with a check for you for 3,500 dollars…where you want me to send it?” Amazingly it was a year’s worth of salary in one check.
Free from the Buck Owens organization with many more songs to be written he put a 4X4 Silverado Truck on the highway en route to Nashville. Music row would welcome him with open arms and this would be a piece of cake for a guy who just coming off of 43 Capitol record cuts along with 19 chart singles. Who wouldn’t want to hire him? It was the complete opposite of what he thought it would be. Music Row was much more difficult to land a job. He even had almost given up on trying landing a record deal until he met producer Tom Collins. Mr. Collins told him to write him “Five middle of the road hits” and come back to see him. Having no knowledge of “middle of the road hits” for he wrote and I quote “Dog ass country songs. Faith was always in the corner anytime he was about to throw in the towel on a career in songwriting. Shortly, after the meeting with Tom Collins was fortunate enough to meet the legendary Loretta Lynn with her husband Oliver “Mooney” Lynn. He was invited to the house they called home at Hurricane Mills where he and Mooney proceeded to get drunk on bootleg whiskey and went four-wheeling. After adventures with Mooney, Lorretta and Dennis sat down in the living room as she sang to him a new song she had just written. After singing she handed the guitar to the intoxicated Renaissance man and said “Sing me one Dennis.” He picked up the guitar while recalling in his mind the last song him his self had written. While, singing the song it hit him like a bolt of lightning that he was singing to and he had to put the guitar down. She like what she heard and said she was going to sign him to Coal Miners Music. “Now you go down to my publishing company and tell them how much money you want per month” said the Legendary Loretta Lynn. “God Bless Loretta Lynn! Without her I wouldn’t be telling this story” proclaimed a now grateful soul.
Nashville would be a whole different set of rules and standards where terminology such as “song factory” and “quota” were phrases that Uncle Den had never lend his ears to back in his days of California. When writing with Buck there was allot more emphasis on quality than quantity of the songs been written and produced. “I didn’t pay attention to quotas for I wrote more songs that were needed. I do however understand why they do it”. The publishers want to make sure they get “x” amount of songs for the draws that they pay. “That takes a lot of the heart out of the song to me…I refuse to write a song just for the sake of writing a song…there are plenty of songs on the shelves in Nashville and that’s where they will stay…if I write a song it has to be something worthy of writing”. Dennis prefers the low profile in a high profile business. He has had many opportunities of being on television and the radio but, has declined them all. The comfort zone for this songwriter is distant from the bright lights as possible. “Maybe, I should have been a carpenter” laughed a teasingly Knutson.
Nashville was begun to take note of the guy who penned for Mr. Buck Owens. The jobs were becoming much easier to come by. “I signed with Tammy Wynette’s company First Lady Songs after my contract was up with ATV…Tammy always treated me like she had known me all my life…she was a sweet person..I co-wrote her last top ten single “Another Chance”.”
In 1983 Seattle school superintending Don Steele, Tammy Wynette, Jerry Taylor and Dennis Knutson put together an album to raise money $100,000 dollars for a district scholarship. Ronald Regan who was the president of the united states of American at the time discovered the project and his praise was give to the album.
Welk Music Group (Lawrence Welk) was sold to PolyGram, then sold to Universal and Dennis wrote for them all adding to the already impressive resume. During this time George Jones cut 14 of Denny’s songs with four of them were singles. The singles were “Wine colored roses”, the right left hand”; “Somebody wants me out of the way” and “The Bird”. All were a string of hits for The Possum in the early eighties. The song “The Bird” was actually wrote in the mid-seventies for Buck Owens but it wasn’t the right time for it. Doodle Owens who co-wrote with Dennis together for all the George Jones singles plus many more over the 13 years of knowing him and also working with. Doodle and Dennis wrote “Fourteen Minutes Old” for Doug Stone. “It received a million airplays and the both of us won CMA number one awards for it. RIP Doodle.” After 3 or 4 years writing for ATV music became a learning experience because the vast amount of writers he was fortunate enough to meet while there. Byron Hill who went on to write to such greats as George Strait,Alabama,Toby Keith, The Whites and even Colt Ford.
“Eddie Burton or as we referred to him as Reverend Eddie was a great influence on me also was a great guitar picker and singer…Roger Alan Wade nicknamed him “soulful Eddie” and I both are still some of my best friends.”
Roger Bowling was also one the vast amount of writers at ATV music that was penning such classics as “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille”, “Blanket on the ground” and many more.
“Jonathan Stone was in an executive position there. I met his dad Cliffie Stone many years earlier in Los Angeles. He and his brothers along with my Dad had my highest respect…and always will.”
Dennis journey has not been an easy task but one that he tells me that he wouldn’t trade for anything. Writing songs for Buck Owens, George Jones, Vern Gosling, Roger Alan Wade, Tammy Wynette, Doug Stone, Lorreta Lynn, Browning Bryant, David Frizzel, Susan Raye, Reba McEntire, Trent Tomlinson and countless others. I have gotten to know Dennis on a personal level the past few months and feel like I have know him all my life in the short time we have talked. He is never a lost for great stories such ranging from babysitting Johnny and June Cash’s children to discussing the genius that was Don Rich. I would also like to note he is a man of many hats who loves the outdoors, horses, and to quote his pal Roger Alan Wade “He will dig a hole for the sake of digging a hole….and let him built you a shed…he will built you a shed”. I have enjoyed talking, learning and researching about a great man who calls himself “an old hillbilly”. I wrote this with intentions of getting some exposure to a great songwriter and human being who poured his soul into words. Happy to say that I love him as a songwriter and one of god’s own prototypes.
“Through the years from 1973-2012 I managed to accumulate close to 100 major cuts…never got rich but didn’t care about that because I never wrote a song for that purpose…I write because I love to…and will till the years diminish my ability to do anything but dream about the “old” days.”–Dennis Knutson–
Dennis Knutson currently writes for Jamie Creasy at http://melodyroundupmusic.com/
Thanks to Bryon Hill Music, Jamie Creasy, Cindy Knutson for photos and Roger Alan Wade for quote