(Dallas Frazier with Marty Stuart and Connie Smith)
Long before he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame at the young age of 36, Dallas Frazier was a late depression era child who made the migration to California like many of his fellow Oklahomans.
Like a real life enactment out of The Grapes of Wrath, his family strapped their belongings to the top of their car and slept on the side of the road on their way to the golden land of picking cotton and fruit. What became known as the “Bakersfield Sound ” grew out of what Frazier once described as Okies, Arkies and Texans who moved to California to work as laborers and brought their music with them. “It just turned into a hotspot for country music,” he later remembered.
Frazier, who passed away last month at the age of 83, wrote the largely autobiographical song “California Cotton Fields” that Merle Haggard sang on the album Someday We’ll Look Back. For the listener, the song is almost cinematic in its narrative and imagery. Frazier is also best known for writing “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys, “Timber I’m Falling” by Elvis Presley, “If My Heart Had Windows” for George Jones and Patty Loveless, “There Goes My True Love” by Jack Greene, “Mohair Sam” by Charlie Rich and “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” made famous by Tanya Tucker. Such was his versatile appeal that Johnny Cash once held a party at his Nashville home in Bob Dylan’s honor and invited his favorite songwriters. Dylan asked that Frazier attend and told Frazier that “Baby Ain’t That Fine” was his personal favorite. (The song appears on Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series -Vols. 1-3.)
If Frazier was at the creation of the Bakersfield Sound, it came with it a memorable story. As Scott Bomar recounted in the liner notes of The Bakersfield Sound 1940-1974 (Bear Family Records), Frazier was taken under the wing of the colorful country singer Ferlin Husky who had twenty country hit singles including “A Dear John Letter” sung with Jean Shepherd. Bomar recounts Bill Woods meeting Husky in a Salinas bar where he was crying over his beer. Husky’s old lady had run off with a trapeze artist when a carnival came to town two weeks earlier.
Frazier was just 12 when he moved in with Husky who helped him with his singing and introduced him to Ken Nelson at Capitol Records. Frazier’s audition a year later took place in front of Nelson who was reading a newspaper. On a vintage episode of the Buddy & Jim Show now streaming on SiriusXM Outlaw Country, Frazier remembered the record executive telling him not to worry about the newspaper—if he heard something, he wouldn’t miss it. And so Nelson told the youngster to come back in a year. Frazier continued to write, a gift that had been coming to him since a very early age.
Frazier was living as a young adult in Portland, Oregon when Husky came traveling though, inviting Frazier to work for him in Nashville. Frazier took an old train and got off at a depot in downtown Nashville in 1963 and began his songwriting career. Husky called up the head of Mercury Records and said he had a boy who wanted to make records. Frazier recorded a string of solo albums over the years for Capitol and RCA but became renowned as a songwriter for country’s legends.
Frazier was a self-described country boy who took up the trumpet in fifth grade. It exposed him to a world of songs and arrangements and influenced his writing for a slew of rhythm and blues songs that were later recorded by Percy Sledge, Charley Pride, O.C. Smith and Elvis Presley.
Frazier’s writing blurred the line between country and r & b and the writer reveals he loved Dixieland, blues and black music. “I didn’t lock myself in to be faithful to one genre,” he told Miller and Lauderdale “Before I learned it was political not to love one more than one genre, I was spoiled.”
Frazier described a hilarious first meeting with singer Charley Pride. “He sounded so country. People had no idea he was black. It was kind of a joke but when I saw him, I said ‘Charley, I always thought you were one of us.’ He laughed and said, “Dallas, I thought you were one of us.’”
In 2011, Frazier got the bug for writing and the itch to sing again. He put out his own album “Writing and Singing Again” which combines country, blues and rhythm and blues. His re-make of his own Dixieland-styled “Big Mable Murphy” was once covered by Diana Ross.
Looking back over his career, the song “There Goes My Everything” by Jack Greene remains his biggest song, the song he wrote during his first winter in Nashville. Frazier talked of his songs in terms of cuts and admitted that he didn’t always know all of the versions that are out there. Tina Turner once recorded “If This Is The Last Time” and Nick Lowe did a gorgeous reading of “True Love Travels On a Gravel Road.”
“You know how the sessions worked?” Frazier volunteered when prompted by Lauderdale to discuss his interactions with Jones. Frazier described sessions where Jones and others in his day would come into a studio and there would be a pile of demos to choose from. The demos were often large acetate pressings that resembled platters and the ones that landed on top would have the best chance of getting cut. Sometimes they’d learn the song right in the session.
“George had never heard the song in his life,” he remembered. “They put it on and played it a few times and said, ‘Are you ready George?’”
Over the years, Bear Family Records has released compilations by both George Jones and Connie Smith exclusively of Dallas Frazier songs. Frazier’s relationship with Jones began with an introduction through legendary producer Pappy Daly who always had a big cigar in his mouth and if he liked a take, was known to say “That’s it kids.” Jones first covered “I’m a People,” a comical little ditty for which Jones mastered Frazier’s catchy phrasing.
“I don’t remember when that one fell out of the air,” he said to Miller and Lauderdale “but I knew it was funny. I was really pleased with George’s cut because he learned it.”
When Frazier was pitched to Smith, it wasn’t too long before he started writing songs almost exclusively for her. They were great friends over six decades and when Smith released her album The Cry of The Heart, it fit with tradition and included a Dallas Frazier song “I Just Don’t Believe In Me Anymore.” It was the 72nd Dallas Frazier song she recorded, only eclipsed by George Jones who sang more Frazier songs.
As news broke of Frazier’s passing, Smith was scheduled to appear at the Grand Ole Opry. When she took the stage, she made last minute changes to her three-song setlist to perform Frazier’s “I Love Charley Brown,” “If it Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave it Alone),” and “Where is My Castle?”
On her Facebook page, Smith described Frazier as a wonderful Christian man and recounted the origins of their relationship going back to 1966 when she recorded two of his songs for her album Miss Smith Goes to Nashville. When I first met Jim Lauderdale in 2014, I had been so taken with Frazier’s appearance on the Buddy and Jim Show that I gave him my copy of If It Ain’t Love and Other Great Dallas Frazier Songs as a thank you.
For Frazier, it wasn’t so much about the numbers of songs he wrote and how many artists covered him. It was more about the magic of inspiration that led to the ideas behind them.
One morning Frazier awoke to look out of the big picture frame window overlooking the Cumberland River in Madison, Tennessee. It came to Frazier how peaceful the river looked under the fog covering its surface. But Frazier remembered something a friend had said about the undertows and the idea came to him about how treacherous the water can be under that surface. That’s love, he thought to himself. It looks good on the top but underneath it’s falling apart.
The idea became the song “Beneath Still Waters” and one of the biggest he ever wrote, covered by George Jones, Emmylou Harris and more recently by Rhonda Vincent.
You could say that Dallas Frazier wrote the songs that made the world sing.