Memory of Gary Gilmore haunts history of Russ Marsh’s classic country ballad
Singer/songwriter Russ Marsh could have never imagined the impact of his 1976 single, “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind,” when it started acquiring spins on Salt Lake City country radio station KSOP. Among its fans was none other than convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who was executed by firing squad a year later. Gilmore’s affection for the track was noted in Norman Mailer’s legendary biography The Executioner’s Song; it was also the last piece of music that Gilmore heard before he was killed. With the 30th anniversary of Mailer’s book, Marsh decided to reissue the track on a full-length CD of the same name. Marsh discusses the song’s haunting history in this interview.
Q: When did you first hear that Gary Gilmore was a fan of your song, “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind”?
A: It was the later part of December 1976 that I learnt from KSOP radio that Gary Gilmore heard the song, really liked it and frequently requested for it to be played on the radio. Henry Hilton, founder of KSOP, Inc., had called me in for an interview because they were getting a lot of requests. During my interview at KSOP radio, I also took calls from The London Times, the United Press, and other publications. Gary Gilmore had also written to KSOP on January 5, 1977, requesting for the song to be sent to a Cherie Austin. Larry Hunter, Program Director of KSOP, called me in so that he could give me a copy of the letter. This was when I knew for sure that Gary Gilmore liked my song and was a fan.
Q: Did you ever hear from Gilmore directly?
Q: What was the inspiration behind the track, and when did you record it?
A: It was a cold pre-dawn morning that January 17, 1975 when I looked up from my work to check the time – 3:10 am. I had struggled for hours to complete the new song I was writing, “Don’t Ever Say Goodbye.” An eerie feeling had pursued me through the night; my thoughts kept turning to death – and to the beginnings of yet another song. Finally, I gave into the new inspiration and began to write “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind.” It came quickly and turned out to be one of my most moving songs. When I wrote the song, I had no idea that it would have such an impact on Gary Gilmore and that it would be exactly two years to the date that he was executed. I had the song along with other songs that I had written recorded on reel-to-reel in mid-1976 in Sound Column Studios. After the recording, I had the songs mastered at Kendun Recorders, Inc., Burbank, California.
Q: When was the song released and how did radio get a hold of it?
A: Sometime in October-November 1976, I took my reel-to reel to KSOP and talked to Larry Hunter. Larry Hunter liked “Good Morning Mr. Sun” but I wanted to release “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind.” Larry Hunter had Henry Hilton listen to it. Uncannily, Henry Hilton said that it sounded like it was written for Gray Gilmore and Nicole. When they were playing it, Gary Gilmore heard it on KSOP, liked the song, started calling the radio station and requesting the song frequently. According to the prison chaplain, Chaplain Campbell, Gary Gilmore told him that he liked the song “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind” because it was so much like his and Nicole’s story and that if they could not be together now, then they would go where no one could stop them from being together.
“Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind” made it to the Top 30 list of Salt Lake’s Most Wanted Hit Singles on KSOP’s American Survey on Feb 13th, 1977 and was also Pick of the Week in Cashbox.
Q: The tune was mentioned in Norman Mailer’s book about Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song. Was it the last piece of music that Gilmore heard before his execution?
A: Yes. I was told that it was Gilmore’s last request and was the last song heard by Gilmore before his execution. In the Jan 17th, 1977 letter from KSOP’s Henry Hilton and Larry Hunter, they wrote, “At 8.15 pm on Sunday night, with the countdown to the firing squad only hours away, Gary Gilmore asked the staff at the prison to call KSOP and have them play two of his favorite songs, “Valley of Tears” and your great new song, “I’m Walking In The Footsteps of Your Mind.” So it looks like one of Gary Gilmore’s last requests was to listen to your song “I’m Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind”. This could be the theme of the movie they will do on his life.” It was my understanding that “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind” was the last song Gilmore listened to after “Valley of Tears.” I was also told by KSOP that they also played the song five minutes before the execution.
Q: Why wasn’t the track used in the TV mini-series based on The Executioner’s Song?
A: My then-lawyer who was negotiating the deal with Larry (Lawrence) Schiller for the song to be used in the movie had asked for too much upfront money and killed the deal. By the time I found out about it, it was too late. I would have just wanted the song played as the score or Gilmore listening to a few bars of the song since this was his and Nicole’s favorite song. That would have been good enough for me because I knew having the song just played in the movie would have done a lot for me.
Q: Did you continue to record after the tune received such attention?
A: I went and recorded a new version of the song in Nashville but listeners still preferred the original version heard by Gilmore. This is why I decided to remix and re-master the original version that Gilmore had heard for my new album Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind. When I first released the song on vinyl in January 1977 on Starway Records label, the distributor was late in distributing the record to the record stores and many listeners did not get a chance to buy the song. When I found out that Amazon.com had re-released the book The Executioner’s Song in May 2012, I felt this would be a good time to reintroduce “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind” to the listeners and give them a chance to have the song.
I was requested to write a song for the bicentennial celebration in 1976 but I could not seem to come up with a song. Three months later, I wrote the song “America Forever” and was invited to the White House to perform the song in 1977. Later, I was so appalled with the burning and desecration of the American flag all over the country that I expressed my indignation with my song “Don’t Tread on Old Glory.” I performed the song at a town meeting in Nephi, Utah before Senator Orrin Hatch who was so impressed with it that he himself read it into the Congressional Record Sep 12th, 1989, the first song to ever to have that honor of being read into the Congressional Record. In 2011, I released an album of patriotic songs, A-M-E-R-I-C-A, to include “America Forever” and “Don’t Tread on Old Glory” and some new songs that I had written.
I still continue composing songs and I have enough tunes written for another three albums yet to be recorded.
Q: Your new album, also called Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind, consists of a number of other excellent country rock songs. Are all these compositions new or older tunes that were never recorded previously?
A: In this new album, “I Wanna Be Your Love Song” and “I Never Knew Love Until I Met You” are new compositions. I had the melody of “I Never Knew Love Until I Met You” in my mind for about eight months but somehow was just unable to pen the lyrics no matter how much I tried. Then in the summer of 2011, I met Cathy (who became my wife) and that inspired the title of the song. I wrote “Don’t Ever Say Goodbye” that same lonely dark night that I wrote “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind” but did not record the song until now. The other songs on the album were previously recorded but I decided to remix, add fresh instrumentations and re-mastered them to reintroduce them to the listeners. I wrote all the music and lyrics of the songs with the exception of “Golden Rocket,” which is a good old Hank Snow song. My goal is to come up with another album in 2013 with all new tunes that I think you and the listeners will really like.