Gerry House – “Country Music Broke My Brain”
While the memoirs of high-profile artists like Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Neil Young, Kim Gordon, and Sheila E grab readers’ and fans’ attention, there are songwriters and music industry insiders who’ve told their stories and whose stories deserve to be better and more widely known; Gerry House is one of them.
For 25 years, House spent every weekday morning in people’s living rooms. As the host of the much-loved and much-acclaimed morning show Gerry House and the House Foundation, House reigned on the airwaves on Nashville’s WSIX-FM from 1983 to 2010, taking a brief hiatus to work for WSM-AM in Nashville and for KLAC in Los Angeles. As a DJ, he’s won numerous awards for his radio work from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. During his years as a radio host, House interviewed many of country music’s most visible artists; at the same time, he was writing or co-writing songs for folks like Reba McEntire (“Little Rock”), LeAnn Rimes (“On the Side of Angels”), George Strait (“The Big One”), Pam Tillis (“The River and the Highway”), and Randy Travis (“Thirteen Mile Goodbye”), among others.
In 2003, House awoke one morning with a severe headache; he was diagnosed with a bleeding artery and had surgery for it, from which he is now fully recovered enough to joke about it in the title of his recent book, Country Music Broke My Brain.
Since his retirement from radio on December 15, 2010, House has continued writing songs, writing jokes for others to perform on awards shows, and speaking about his career and the music business. He brings an insider’s perspective of the music business to his talks, and recently he released his often gut-busting, “let-me-sit-down-and-tell-you-the-one-about…” collection of stories and anecdotes from his long career.
There’s never a dull moment in this book, as House regales us with tales of Johnny Cash’s confessing to be the father of Madonna’s child – a joke the very funny Cash played on House. Or Tanya Tucker’s admission to the difficulties of coming down from the adrenaline high of performing and having to turn to other things to keep the high going, or his times on the road with Reba, or his observations of Don Williams’ slow-moving nature: “When Don talks, he’s hilarious; unfortunately, by the time his answer oozes out, everybody is home asleep.”
House’s “glossary of terms” is so laugh-out-loud funny that you shouldn’t read it on the quiet car of your commuter train. A fitness trainer, for example, is “how a woman wearing nothing but panties and boots is introduced when she wanders off the bus in the parking lot at Denny’s.” The Mother Church of Country Music is “the name of Garth Brooks’ estate in Oklahoma.” And, Americana is “folk music for geeks. Usually performed by artists who don’t have a record deal anymore or never had one.”
I caught up with Gerry House by phone at his house in Nashville for a wide-ranging and entertaining conversation about his new book and the country music business.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted this book now? How long did it take to write it?
Gerry House: I started it right after I went off the air, and Duane Ward worked to book me on speaking engagements. Folks would listen to me tell my stories, and they’d come up and ask me where they could buy the book. I finished the book in about six months because I had discovered that having it would add cachet to my speaking engagements. I didn’t want to write just a memoir where I’d tell the story of my life in chronological order, but I knew I wanted it to be a book about my years in radio, so that became the way I organized it.
Can you share the process of writing it?
Well, you know, I’m always writing, whether it’s jokes for people to use on awards shows or writing or co-writing songs. On the radio you get immediate feedback when you tell a joke you’ve written; people will pick up their phones and just call in to tell you what’s on their mind. Radio is the last stop on the entertainment highway. Writing the book, though, was like writing in a vacuum. This was a very freeing experience because I could write what I wanted to write.
How did you come up with this title?
My original title was “Country Music Causes Brain Damage,” but my publishers thought that might be offensive to people who had suffered brain damage. I agreed with them, especially since I had gone through my own brain crisis, and it wasn’t funny at all. We eventually settled on this title, which still expresses a great deal of humor about this business of which I’m a part.
Do you remember the first time you came to Nashville and what you did your first night here?
Yes. I drove down from Ithaca, New York, in 1975. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency downtown, and I looked out the window, and I remember wondering how people made it as writers in this town. But I had come to take a job in radio, and I joined WSIX-AM that year, and I got an immediate raise in pay since there was no income tax in Tennessee. [laughs]
When did you decide to become a DJ?
I tell the story in the book about going on vacation with my parents and hearing Hank Snow on the radio. I was ten, and I decided at the time that country music was not my preference, largely thanks to some other musical influences – my piano teacher, Mrs. Riggs; the jukebox sound system at Pleasure Isle, a kind of swimming pool, where I heard Elvis and the Everly Brothers; and my playing piano at church every Sunday. However, not long after this trip, I got a transistor radio, and as I say in the book, I was hooked. I started to notice that in addition to the music there were these guys with golden voices who seemed to be talking directly to me. I knew then that I loved it.
You’re also a songwriter. When did you start writing songs?
I bought a Yamaha guitar on the day my daughter was born in Ithaca. I still write on that guitar. I wrote songs for her. When you write songs, you don’t know why or how to get them recorded; you’re just writing.
Tell me a little about your approach to songwriting.
Well, I either have a musical idea or a musical hook and I follow that. I used to co-write a lot, but I don’t co-write as much as I once did. I write about half by myself and about half I co-write. The thing about co-writing is that sometimes you get dragged into a hit.
Nashville is such a funny cyclical town. The first five songs that Gary Burr [wrote] – he and I co-wrote LeAnn Rimes’ “On the Side of Angels” – became hits, and we thought, “This is easy.” But then the hits stopped coming for us. Like I said, when I first started writing, I didn’t know why I was writing and that, or even how, I could get these songs recorded. You know, I’m a painter, too, and I think every songwriter should paint. It teaches you that you can cover things up and fix things. You can redo it, just like you can re-write a song. I revisit my songs a lot.
Who are some of your songwriting influences?
Way too many to mention, but here are a few: Hal David, Cole Porter, Hugh Prestwood, Daryl Hall, Michael MacDonald, Barry Gibb.
Who was your most challenging interview?
There are two kinds of people who show up, and I’ve interviewed both kinds, though I don’t think I’ll name names.
One kind of artist comes in and just sits there and it’s like pulling teeth to get him or her to talk. I had one artist come in one time – a pretty big name you’d recognize – who just answered my questions with a simple yes or no, and sometimes with a nod of the head. I mean, this is radio, and the audience couldn’t hear his nods. At a break, I said, “Look, you don’t have to do this, you know.” He got more talkative after the break.
The other kind of artist always shows up on time and answers your questions thoughtfully or with a sense of humor; they’re great. I’ve found that the more famous the artist is, the more you can count on him or her to show up on time and to be open. I’ve found that artists who might just be getting started are not as considerate and conscientious. I think it’s because they think that’s how stars are supposed to act.
What lessons or insights would you like readers to take from your book?
Not to take things too seriously, especially with songwriting. A lot of these younger songwriters sit around all day working on their music and treat the entire process with such gravity. I say, “Don’t be so damn serious.” Have fun with it. You have to learn to sort of roll with it. What I’ve learned is that if you’re a professional, you’ll just show up, whether you’re being interviewed or giving an interview or if you’re a songwriter.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m writing jokes for Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton to use when they host the ACM Awards Show [in April 2015]. I’ve always got some songs going. I’m in discussion about writing a syndicated column. I always liked what Lewis Grizzard [humorist and long-time columnist for the Atlanta Constitution] did, and I’d like to do something like his columns. I have two books that I’ve started – one novel and one nonfiction – and I’m thinking about those and working some on those now. I just finished doing an intensive PR swing for this book, and I’m glad that’s finished – it was pretty exhausting.