Retro Interview: Billy Ray Reynolds – Whole Lot of Memories

Billy Ray was one of my favorite TCB interviews.Full length Audio Clips

1. Saratoga
2. Number One Thrill
3. It’ll Be Her
4. Atlanta’s Burning Down

Whole Lot Of Memories

Billy Ray Reynolds is a consummate storyteller. Whether  the words are spoken, written or set to music, he’s able to recall and share life and it’s history in intricate detail. Life gives us all an infinite amount of experiences to turn into treasured memories, unfortunately the opportunities to do so are often overlooked. Billy Ray is a man who cherishes each one.

A renaissance man of sorts, Billy Ray has been mesmerized by history since a young age. “I grew up on a small farm in Mississippi pickin’ cotton and you have a lot of time to fantasize, working in that type of work. I love history, especially American history. You cannot be born in the south and not be interested in the civil war and early pioneer history. The first frontier was the south and loved the west, and cowboys. I was a typical southern boy who liked horses.” But there was a twist to this typical childhood fascination. “I used to love to watch movies where they’d circle the wagons, and try to figure where the cameras more than I did watching the stories.”

Most of Billy Ray’s life work is seemingly eclectic, but solidly connected. As an actor, a musician, a songwriter, a screenplay writer he used every means available to record and conserve a balance of historic, natural and personal history. When he looks back at everything he’s done, he clearly sees the simple connections. “I think it’s all one. I love to do film. You can’t do film without music and you can’t do music without seeing pictures. When I hear a song, I see a story. Every line shows you, tells you, almost like a script.”

A legendary songwriter, Billy Ray has had his work recorded by some of country music’s finest including Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Tanya Tucker, and John Conlee. His own songwriting resonates with the appreciation he has for the purpose and intent of a country song. “I  think that’s just what country music is. It’s about the heritage. It’s about the common man, the working man what built our countries. I was always intrigued by the people like Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash who’s music could always entertain me with a song, and at the same time teach me something. Like the Battle of New Orleans or North to Alaska or Ira Hayes by Johnny Cash. There’s something about it that makes the hair get up on the back of my neck. It’s engrained, I don’t know from when. I’m not a big proponent of reincarnation of any type of cult like things, but I just felt like it sometimes come from before you’re born. It’s not an acquired taste, just something that you’re born with. It kind of haunts me a little bit.”

While always fostering this passion, Billy Ray was unknowingly in the midst of many history making moments as a long time member of Waylon Jennings band. Depending on your perspective, they were either unlikely outlaws or the very definition of one. The outlaw movement seems to have come to mean something entirely different than what actually transpired. Somehow it ended up as a moniker for behavior seen as rebellious and un-wielding instead of defining a creativeness that was unleash-able and respectfully nurtured.

After talking to Billy Ray one of the most compelling things that you come away with is a first hand perspective of the outlaw movement, which actually is responsible for erasing more musical boundaries than it defined. The outlaws of the 70’s didn’t fight to exclude people from the designation of country, but rather worked hard to be included on their own merits, and not by someone else’s narrow, political or economic based definitions.

Being labeled an outlaw gives you a reputation to live up to or down depending on the circumstances, with the word conjuring up a montage of concrete and abstract images of a rebellious, defiant independent soul. Billy Ray’s debut album Whole Lot of Memories has been a lifetime in the making. Waiting for someone to call has taken years. “I’ve been trying to get into the music business for a long time. The whole time I was with Waylon, the reason I was working for him was to try and figure out where the door was and when I came back here, I don’t want to blame this on anybody, but it was almost like I was too loyal to Waylon. I must be an outlaw too.”

“I work in film a little bit, and the parts I usually get are bad guy parts, or some guy who does something really evil. People will say why don’t you ever get the good guy parts. Well, all the pretty boys get the good guy parts, I always get killed on page two. That’s what the film business is about. There’s an old saying in the business: ‘the greater the villain, the greater the hero.’ They just cast me in those parts because I grew up and had that look I guess.”

He instinctively knew that what he needed was someone to see past the outlaw/renegade image and all of it’s preconceptions and listen to his music and understand where it comes from. He found that person in Dan Tyler. “Dan’s probably as good a friend as I’ve ever had. He’s one of the people that saw through everything.” From there one door opened led to another.

Dan Tyler was also instrumental in finding a label that would fit perfectly with what they wanted to do. The small but mighty Compadre Records is that perfect fit. Up until a short while ago, under the ownership of young entrepreneur Brad Turcotte, it was the home of a couple of solid compilation discs of Texas music. The Texas based label has built itself a small but impressive roster. “Dan found Brad Turcotte. He’s just a firecracker. He’s the gentlest person in the world but he really loves the music. He’s his own person, and he’s an example of someone that’s out there wishing there was some decent roots, ground based music going on.”

“He’s a class act. That’s another thing that’s been missing. People like myself have sat around for years waiting for a major label to see us, and we just would go from day to day. I came here to be a singer, I never came here to be a writer. I had to be a writer in order to survive, and that in essence made me be an actor because I had to make a living. The real truth is that it’s always been wishing to be an artist. It’s not anything egotistical, it’s just what I think I need to be doing. I can’t tell my stories unless I have a record label and you can’t book or work unless you have a record label and I’d really wanted something with dignity to it. “

When Dan came to him with the suggestion of a co-producer, Billy couldn’t have been more pleased. “When he said Lou Bradley I was just thrilled because he worked with Billy Sherrill, George Jones and all those people.” With Lou on board things continued to fall smoothly into place. Pulling the band together was almost as easy as making a list — in fact that’s what Billy did. “I wrote the names on a piece of paper. If I was going to have a dream band this is who I’d want to be in it. Believe it or not, they went and put it together.”  

The band had an impressive background of credits, spanning many genres of music. Billy and the his producers had only one request when the band asked them how they’d like them to play. “I’m not qualified to tell you how to play,” he told them “but let me say this, when we walk out of here, please let me walk out of here with a country record.”

What they asked for is exactly what they got. Every nook and cranny, corner and crevice of this album is country.

If you’ve got the right connections, a casual mention of thinking Merle Haggard would do a great job on a verse in a song, can turn into a pretty impressive debut single. “Two Step Me Back To Texas” is a solid country/western swing ala Bob Wills tune that Billy Ray co-penned with a friend. “When we were in the studio I just kind of off-handedly made the comment I’d kill just to hear Merle Haggard sing that verse about Bob Wills.” he shares “I went on about my business. A couple of months later Lou called me and said I want you to come out to the studio to listen to something. What he had done is he had gone out to California and taken the tape and in the middle of the night had put Merle on that first side. When Merle Haggard came on the speaker I thought I was going to fall through the floor. A few days later Merle called Lou and said ‘Do they like the song?’ and Lou said ‘He cried.’ I told him he could have coughed it all and I would have still liked it. It’s Merle Haggard. I’ve got to tell you this, I could get out of the business right now and it wouldn’t hurt as much as it would have if I had never heard that. It was like one of the highlights of my life.”

Dan Tyler not only contributes his production skills to the project but also his songwriting talent. One of the most poignant songs on the album is The River, a song that speaks to the kind of history we all leave behind ecologically. It’s a song and an issue that means a lot to Billy Ray. “Since I work on the river I am very much into ecology and keeping the water clean. I have a story I tell on the boat: I was standing up looking off the edge of the boat, and looking how beautiful and pristine it is and looking at a miracle like it’s 200 years ago, no houses, no power lines or anything and he comes a milk jug floating by. It just destroys what we need to be. There’s no reason for a milk jug to be floating in the Mississippi River, and no telling where it came from.”

Dan also contributes a song that was originally planned as another duet, before fate intervened. “Waylon was going to do the song Old Pro just a few days before he passed. He said I meant to do that the last time I was in, but I just didn’t have the energy. If I get my energy back and I come back in I’m going to do it. I will always regret that he’s not on there but just the fact of knowing that he was going to do it means a lot. I was going to let him do the verse about the lady sitting in the corner.”

Billy Ray has a distinct conversational style to his songwriting and one of the outstanding tracks on the album showcases the style superbly. Whatever Turns You On, co-written with Dan Tyler got it’s humble beginnings from a simple question he asked Dan as they sat down in his apartment to begin a songwriting session. “Would you like some cream in your coffee or do you want it black?”

One of, if not the definitive song he’s written is Atlanta’s Burning Down. While on the on the road with The Allman Brothers Band, Billy Ray penned the song, which ended up as the title track on Dickey Betts’ third solo effort. The song while has it’s own place in country music history, but Billy hopes it does something else as well. “I didn’t start out doing this, but if the song could inspire one child to pick up a book…A lot of people were never interested in that history until they heard that song. Really it’s not a historic song, it’s a love song, a love ballad. It’s about a guy was ready to go AWOL, he’s ready to go home and not fight the war and even though our country is the greatest thing we have, there’s something more personal, somebody that he cares about more than anything. Just the tribulations of him having to travel across country to get to where she was, 6 or 700 miles to get back to this person he has a definite purpose in his mind.”

He continues to follow where his passions take him. He continues to write screenplays. He has completed one on the life of Jimmie Rodgers, and is currently working on another. The association with Compadre Records has him heading to Austin in mid-October to put together a band and do some touring of the Lone Star state with label mate, and songwriting legend himself, Billy Joe Shaver

We end the phone call making a promise that someday if the opportunity arises we’ll spend a few more hours over the stories. In the meantime, Billy Ray Reynolds has a whole lot of memories stored up and if we’re fortunate enough he’ll keep discovering creative ways to share them.

Not many artists make their debut album this late in the game but what Billy Ray Reynolds brings to the table after a lifetime of learning, making and living history, only enhances the lustre of this release. One listen may leave thinking that it should be a requirement of every artist to have lived a little of their songs before writing them. The effect of doing so definitely adds a golden hue.

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