Singer-songwriter-comedian Jim Stafford is living proof that downright intensity and passion are tantamount to sustaining a hard-earned 56-year career in the carnival mirror-laden business of show. In his most definitive interview to date, the accomplished guitar picker, who greets every new morning by diligently following his creative muse, relinquishes a tendency to avoid the past.
Born and raised in the little bitty citrus-producing town of Eloise, Florida, Stafford is best known for scaling the pop charts in the mid-1970s with the riff fueled rocker “Spiders and Snakes,” the gentle proclamation of “My Girl, Bill,” and the unabashedly country, pot endorsing “Wildwood Weed.”
The extremely intelligent if uncharacteristically shy raconteur supplemented his brief Billboard hit streak by singing “Cow Patti” in Clint Eastwood’s crowd pleasing comedy romp Any Which Way You Can, penning Disney’s animated The Fox and the Hound soundtrack, writing incisive jokes for the Smothers Brothers, palling around in Nashville with guitar mentor Chet Atkins, principally establishing Branson, Missouri, as a leading contender for family entertainment capitol of the world, and marrying Bobbie “Ode to Billie Joe” Gentry for a New York minute [to catch up with the conversation thus far, check out Part One [i.e. “The Spirit-Filled Childhood of ‘Spiders and Snakes’ Song Architect Jim Stafford”].
The Jim Stafford Interview, Part Two
How did your dad, Woody Stafford, contribute to your early musical appreciation?
Well, he played guitar but he was too shy to play out in public. He would sit on the front porch and play his guitar, and people would gather in the yard sometimes.
I was a little bitty kid when this was going on. I’d see him out there playing his guitar, and there weren’t too many people that would. See, we had one of those roads that was just down the main road. All you could do was go down that main road and come back out. It didn’t go anywhere. People would often walk up the street to the grocery store up at the corner of the street. There was a fairly good little walking traffic there going back and forth to the grocery store. My dad would play his guitar when he had a little bit of time. He’d sit down on the porch swing. We had a screen porch. And he would play his guitar. I don’t think he thought he was collecting enough people. He did that for awhile.
I remember the day he came home with a pickup. And used to in the old days you could get a pickup, like he had an old Gibson, and a pickup you could just practically screw it on there. It was removable and really cool. They were shiny and had a little bar so you could move up and down if you wanted it to be up towards the neck it was a warmer sound, and down toward the bridge it had a brighter sound. It had a little rod you could move it up and down. It was a little portable pickup system. I don’t even know if they make them anymore.
He put the pickup on there and got him a little amplifier. Matter of fact, I’m sure he was trying to attract a few more people [laughs]. He never went out and actually did a gig to my knowledge. He knew everybody that did though, so I was around music a lot. I worked in his dry cleaners store as a kid. It’s a combination of having a work ethic and an interest in the guitar.
It’s helped me to wind up with a real passion for it. I get up every day and I look forward to sitting down with that guitar—whether I’m writing a song or working out an instrumental. Whatever I’m doing, I still have the same love for it that I had back then. I started playing when I was 12. By the time I was 16 I started paying my own way, and continued until today to do that with a guitar.
Can you recall any of the songs that your dad used to play on his beat-up Gibson acoustic guitar?
Yeah, he used to play a couple of things including “Down Yonder,” a huge crossover hit for female artist Del Wood [No. 4 Pop, No. 5 C&W, September 1951]. You ever heard that song? [Stafford faintly sings the melody: “Da da dam, da da dum”) Like that.
My mom’s favorite song was “Hang out the Front Door Key” by the Shelton Brothers [i.e. Bob and Joe, B-side of “Deep Elem Blues,” Decca Records, May 1935]. I think that hang out the front door key meant it’s okay to come in [laughs]. The song goes like, “Hang out the front door key love, hang out the front door key.”
Have you ever played any of those songs on stage?
No, I never have. I do have one song that my dad bought as a record when I was a kid. I’m thinking after all these years about putting that song in the show. I remember as a little boy…it might have shaped the type songs that I wound up writing.
It goes like this: “Everybody’s got something that they are just scared of, like snakes or dogs or ferris wheels or swimming. I’m no different from the rest, I have a fear I must confess. I’m scared of women. They scare me half to death when they look at me. I just can’t get my breath, I’m so blinded, I can’t see. I guess I must be odd somehow my brother’s got six children now. I love to fish, I love to plow, but Lord I’m scared of women.” That’s kinda cute isn’t it?
I like this little verse here: “It started at a party when I was 17, a timid lad in my first long pants [laughs]. I walked in, they played a game. Post office was the name, I never had a chance. He said a little girl dressed in blue, come up to me and said you’ll do, she took me out and when she got through, that’s why I’m scared of women” [laughs]. I’ve never done that live, but I’ve been thinking about it.
What is your relationship with the Florida Folk Festival, an annual Memorial Day Weekend event held at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida?
The Florida Folk Festival is something to behold. I’ve played it in and out one year. Last year I got to hang around a little bit. This year I’m going to hang out a little bit and not have to play and run back to Branson.
I’m a big fan of the Florida Folk Festival. There’s a whole dynamic of people sitting around with their guitars and making music. All these different types and different sizes of venues. All the way from the amphitheater type big stage all the way to literally smaller stages at a gazebo and all places between where people gather and make music including the museum.
Elaine McGrath and her whole bunch up there just do the most wonderful job of coordinating and dealing with all of the stuff that you have to do to make this festival such a wonderful event. It is amazing to me.
Last year on the last day of the festival there was quite a big rainstorm. It cleared out, but it had been enough lightning and hard rain to bend things out a little bit on the last day. They set up a situation where everybody sat on the stage of the amphitheater.
Everybody was getting cozy on that big ol’ stage. It was quite a few of us there, too. Yet acoustically the place was so good that there was no mics and no amplifiers. Everybody got up, everybody took their turn, and everybody could hear them. That may be as close to a magical evening that I have ever seen.
Of course a lot of my stories, songs, and jokes tend to be big and broad. I hate to use the word ridiculous—comical hopefully. It’s like if you imagine I’m afraid of women. The reason I’m saying that is because we had ladies there who were just wonderful at signing for people with hearing issues.
Whatever the person was singing or talking about. Well the ladies who did that for me were better showmen than I was [laughs]. They were really spelling the stuff that I was doing. Most of the people were watching them. It was just a hoot.
I had the best time! I think everybody did. I believe anybody will really have a good time should they decide to attend. I hope I’ll run across you. When I’m not playing, I’m hanging. I should be around.
How many sets do you typically play at the Florida Folk Festival?
I do a Sunday evening show and then I have another show that is a combination show-workshop. A lot of people do that. For instance, country singer-songwriter Billy Dean of “Somewhere in My Broken Heart” fame does a songwriting workshop there.
My workshop is about presentation and how to think a little bit about how a person would set up a song or create a certain atmosphere by telling stories. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to be effective on stage. Apparently I’m not terribly effective about how to express how to be effective [laughs].
You’re way more effective at expressing your effectiveness than I am!
[laughs] Well, I have a lot of fun. I’m grateful for the fun I do have. I’m enjoying myself up here, and I’m looking forward to going back to Florida, too.
Do you still battle stage fright?
Yes. Everybody goes through that. I still have a certain amount of anxiety anytime I play a show. I’ve played in Branson for so long that I don’t even think about it. But when I go out on the road, I have other considerations.
Are the lights right? Is the sound right? You have all of these things that you’re not as sure of as you are in your own venue. You know where everything is, you know how it’s all gonna go, and it’s very comfortable.
That’s one of the reasons so many people like to come to Branson because all of the sudden they’re living in the same place that they’re working, and they don’t have to deal every day with luggage carousels, checking into hotels, and so forth.
Sound checks, rehearsals, and all those kinds of things can be extremely time consuming. That takes up your day when you’re out on the road. Now, a certain amount of road work is a lot of fun. By the same token, I still enjoy it.
Is your Branson theatre show any different compared to your road dates?
In 2016 I’ll do three or four shows a week in Branson from May through December. That’s a set deal as opposed to when I do something in Florida like an auditorium, concert hall, retirement village, listening room, or an occasional comedy club.
In Branson you just go play the season in the same place, and the people come through. In Florida you more often go to the people, rather than the people coming to you like they do in Branson. That’s really the difference.
The Florida Folk Festival features quite a few people who are like a troubadour-type. There are guitar entertainers who can tell stories and do songs. I approach the folk festivals in that same way. There have been times in my performing career that I’ve had different size bands, I’ve been by myself, or I’ve done various combinations.
When it comes to the show, I’m like the other people. I’m a guy and his guitar. That’s always a lot of fun to work that way. Even in my show in Branson, a number of times in the show I just close the curtain and sit there with my guitar.
That makes the whole concert experience much more intimate and interactive between the performer and audience.
I agree. When I see somebody doing that, I feel almost like they’re in my living room. There’s an awful lot of that going on at the Florida Folk Festival. That’s really what a folk artist does.
Not that they don’t have combinations. There were great combinations—Peter, Paul and Mary, the Brothers Four, the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters. Those are some traditional groups. There are different numbers.
I’m just one of those people, I enjoy just myself and my guitar. I like that. It’s cozy for me.
What was the first guitar that you owned?
Oh, it was just some little guitar that I bought back in Eloise from somebody used. I’ve never been too big on brand name guitars. Because I had little expensive ones early on, I still have a place in my heart for just a simple little guitar with a nice neck and a decent sound.
Of course with the technology they really build—even the inexpensive guitars now are built so well you can buy a pretty daggone good instrument for less than a couple hundred bucks. That’s nice to know that somebody can get themselves started in the music business. Paying small monthly payments on a decent guitar that doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg is pretty neat.
With the Internet you have a gazillion ways to learn how to play. You could become a very proficient guitar player without ever leaving YouTube. There’s probably more than 100,000 lessons on YouTube. Goodness knows, maybe there’s a million.
There’s piles of lessons in every area—bluegrass, folk, blues, country, rock, shred, metal. You name it. All there for whoever wants to take the time to learn it. Usually when they do a lesson they just talk you through the whole darn thing. Do you know what I mean?
They say, “Put your first finger on the first fret of the first string. Hit that.” Bing. “Now go to the second string.” They literally talk you through every little thing you have to do. Next thing you know you go, “Good gracious, I’m playing a song.”
That gives me confidence that maybe I can finally learn how to play my acoustic Yamaha guitar. It’s difficult to sit down and remain focused.
The first thing you ever want to do with the guitar is buy a decent tuner. They’re inexpensive. As a matter of fact, if you have an iPhone or if you have an android phone, you can get an app for either of those phones that’ll tune your guitar. You literally type in “guitar tuner” in your app section, and the app will be downloaded. They usually cost about a dollar.
You hit a note and a little thing goes across that tells you when you’re sharp or flat. You just make the adjustment accordingly. Anybody can do that. Because you can’t do well on a guitar unless it’s in tune.
Do you retain a large guitar collection?
Not really. They tend to come and go. I’ve actually sold a few of my guitars lately. Inadvertently, I’m not a collector, but you just wind up with too many.
I have my favorites. I have one my dad left me that means a lot—a beautiful little 1961 or 1962 ES-335 in perfect condition. It’s probably worth maybe $20,000 or $30,000 because those were valuable guitars. I have a lot of simple little guitars. I have a guitar that Chet Atkins gave me, and that’s a big deal to me.
I’m a tremendous admirer of Chet Atkins and his apprentice, Jerry Reed.
Me too. I knew Chet way better than I knew Jerry. Chet was a great man [1924-2001]. One of the most miraculous things about that guy isn’t even about guitar playing—it’s about the number of friends he had.
It seemed like everybody in the world knew Chet, and he seemed to have time for everybody. He had a way of doing that so that everybody felt like they were a good friend of his. He had so many friends. You just say, “How did he do that?”
He would have just been corresponding all day. How did he do it? Well, he had it figured out and he did it. That’s pretty cool. He still managed, from what I heard, even in his old age to do two and a half hours on his guitar in the morning and another two and a half hours in the evening—five hours a day picking guitar. He fell asleep almost every night in a chair at his house and had to be led sleepwalking into his room and laid down.
He did that. I’ve seen pictures of him sitting there sound asleep with his guitar. This guy was inspirational because he loved the instrument. I can tell any of the people that are following what we’re saying that somebody said this. I heard him say this just today as a matter of fact. I read it someplace. They said, “If you learn to play guitar, you will always have a friend.” It is the truth.
How did you meet “Mister Guitar” aka Chet Atkins?
I’m not sure I even remember the first time I met Chet. I used to go see him when I was doing a show in or near Nashville. We’d go grab a bite to eat or hang out. Then I lived in Nashville for a while. We would see each other fairly often—probably once or twice a week we’d eat together. It was great fun knowing Chet.
I’ll tell you something he told me that I found to be real interesting. Chet played guitar on sessions for Hank Williams. One of Hank’s last recordings—it seems appropriate when you think about it—was the song “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” [No. 1 C&W, the final single released during the artist’s lifetime in November 1952].
Chet said Hank was in such bad shape that they had to stand a person beside him when he sang “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” because each take that he did on the song was so taxing on his system that he would collapse. The attendant had to catch him.
There was no way the producer could do very many takes with Hank. They had to get the song finished pretty quickly because he was in such bad shape. Hank was only 29 years old when he died.
I don’t know if Hank could still play guitar at that point, but I know this much. If you poke around you can find a collection of demos that I couldn’t recommend more to anybody who loves Hank Williams [Rare Demos: First to Last [originally released by the Country Music Foundation in 1990].
A demo is when you first write the song and record it with just yourself singing and playing guitar. Hank would write a song, record the little demo, and probably take it to his main guy, songwriting publisher-producer Fred Rose [i.e. Acuff-Rose Music].
It’s pretty neat to hear “Jambalaya” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” before they were tracked in the studio with a full band. It’s what Hank sounded like when he first wrote and played a song on his guitar. He even had a couple start-and-stoppers—those are a lot of fun [laughs]. There’s just no way to explain all of Hank Williams’ gifts.
Jerry Reed’s final single on a major record label [i.e. Capitol] was the non-charting “You Can’t Get the Hell Out of Texas,” a Western Swing ditty released on the Lookin’ at You album in August 1986.
I’ll be darned. I didn’t know that. That’s fun to hear. Co-written with John Hadley, “You Can’t Get the Hell Out of Texas” was floating around out there. Jerry liked it and cut it. I didn’t pitch that song to anybody. The few people that cut it just cut it. My favorite recording of it by far is George Jones. George Jones just sang the living fire out of it on his Still the Same Ole Me album [produced by Billy Sherrill in 1981].
Did you submit songs for other artists to record?
No. I have never tried to write a song for somebody and cut it. But record labels and song pitchers try to get people to record songs all day.
How many years did you call Nashville home?
I was in and out of Nashville. I lived there actually three different times. One time when I was just a young fella about maybe 20 or 21 years old, I got to play as a backup musician on the Grand Ole Opry with Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle.
Bill had several hits years and years and years ago. One of ’em was called “Too Old to Cut the Mustard” [No.6 C&W, December 1951, featuring Bill’s brother Cliff Carlisle…the tune was later covered by Buck Owens]. Bill also recorded a thing called “I Was Looking Back to See If You Were Looking Back to See If I Was Looking Back to See If You Were Looking Back at Me.” He had some success with comedy records.
I did get to host a show in Nashville for three years called Nashville on the Road [1981-1983]. I went back again sometime after the Nashville Network [TNN] came about in 1983 and did some work for them.
But I always had a little bit better luck in Los Angeles. I had my own summer series there [i.e. The Jim Stafford Show, a six-week summer variety series broadcast on ABC in 1975]. I have no idea if any video survives.
I also had a high profile show called Those Amazing Animals for a couple of years with fellow hosts Burgess Meredith and Priscilla Presley [1980-1981]. I was the writing supervisor and a regular on the new Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour [1988-1989]. I ultimately came to Branson in 1990.
When did you realize that you were funny?
The way that that works is that there hardly isn’t any difference at all in learning to be a talker and learning to be a picker. In other words, when you’re a picker you’re looking for a hot lick you could play. If you’re a talker, you’re looking for a hot lick you could say.
What happens is you look for these things, you try to ride ’em, you try to develop ’em, you try to put ’em together in some sort of order, and you learn how to say these things. You work on ’em and you practice.
You practice the comedy, and all the talking is pretty much exactly the same as learning an instrument—you have to work at it. You have to work it out, think it out, try it and tape it, listen to it. If it ain’t working, fix it.
Did you have comedy in your show when you were 16 years old?
Oh no. Back then I just wanted to be a picker, and I just wanted to be a guitar player in a band. What happened was as I got into my early 20s I was already playing places where they were saying, “Hey, you gotta say something. You gotta make some announcements here. You gotta welcome. You could tell the people hello or something.”
I realized I had to be able to talk. I was playing at a place where they expected me to talk. I had to work out these things I wanted to say and say ’em. It all takes a lot of time for you to start looking like you know what you’re doing. It takes a little work, just like it is, well, you can’t just pick a guitar up and start playing it. It’s a craft that you have to learn.
I started off with simple things, and I built my way out into whole pieces that I could do. I could probably go out and leave my guitar at home and do a show without it if I had to.
I have enough material that I’ve developed and worked on and written already that I probably would be able to do a complete show without any music. I’m 72 years old, and I’ve been doing it since I was about 16. I’ve been doing the talking since I was about 20, so that’s 52 years of talking. I oughta have something [laughs].
What was the name of the band that you had as a teenager circa 1961 featuring future Byrd Gram Parsons and “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” troubadour Lobo?
That was called the Legends. We did material from the period. That was so long ago that Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Duane Eddy, the Ventures, and all those people were fairly new acts. We did a lot of old rock and roll.
Gram Parsons would write some ballad about every girl he knew. He’d say, “I got a song this week called ‘Pam.’” So that week we’d learn “Pam” [laughs].
Lobo, whose name is actually Kent LaVoie, wasn’t writing at all then. Kent later worked hard on his writing until he found a guy that was a good producer named Phil Gernhard. Kent stayed with it until he hit big with “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” [March 1971, Big Tree Records].
Kent is the guy that produced me and the person that got me in the recording business. Nice guy. I’ve always thought he was a talented man with a very commercial voice. There’s certain people that have that commercial voice like Kent.
Rick Nelson was a good clean, commercial voice. Bobby Vinton with a simple, clean, commercial voice. If they found the right song people would listen to it because they have a pleasant voice.
Were you writing songs when you were in the Legends?
No, I just played the guitar. I didn’t talk, I didn’t sing, I just played. When you’re a kid like that, a lot of times you don’t think too much about intensity and passion. They make such a big difference. A person can practice for however long their music teacher says—a half hour or just 15 minutes per day. Or you can develop a passion for your instrument and play for hours and hours.
I know some bands that play all day. I know country bands that have their buses rigged up with amps and stuff so they can sit on the couch and just plug in their guitar. They just play all the time trying to get better.
A pretty good example of that in the old days was the Charlie Daniels Band. The reason I say that because if you look at “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” a lot of his band members are named as writers on that thing because they all got together and figured it out. That’s one of the reasons he always had an exciting band. I don’t think you just have that.
Charlie was also a studio-musician before he really popped. Not only is he a guy that has good ideas, he’s a guy that plays well, correctly, and with fire. He’s an exciting performer, and that’s a killer combination. I heard that Jerry Reed’s bus was rigged as well for practically being able to plug into your chair and just start playing.
Do you remember some of the first songs that you ever wrote?
Yeah. I tried to write some songs when I was a teenager, and they’re awful.
Why do you say that?
I don’t know about everybody, but I have to be careful these days because it’s not difficult to write an awful one. Do you know who really said a wonderful thing? Oscar Hammerstein [1895—1960].
He was a craftsman from Rodgers and Hammerstein. They were responsible for such iconic musicals as The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Oklahoma!, and The King and I. He also wrote before Richard Rodgers with Jerome Kern [1885—1945] including the lyrics to Show Boat. That musical contains the fabulous “Ol’ Man River” song.
Hammerstein said in this little book that I read that people had sent him hundreds of songs over the years to look at—sometimes just melodies. He said that just about every one of ’em sounded unfinished. The reason they sounded unfinished is because they were unfinished. It’s because people have a tendency to feel like a song is good because they completed it. That’s an important statement right there, even if I made it, still, I’m gonna say that that’s an important statement.
Because over and over and over in the songwriting business people will say, “God, I gotta great song, and I just finished it last night.” That happens even with me. What they’re really excited about is that they finished, but they didn’t finish it. They finished the first draft of it. If they want to step it up and take it to the next level, they oughta step it up and take it to the next level because Oscar Hammerstein said, “They never send me anything that looks finished.” It always looks like a first draft.
He wrote a song one time called “This Is a List of the Things That I Like.” If he hadn’t written and rewritten it over and over until he just nailed it, it would never have become “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music [Stafford sings, “Da-da-da da-da da da-da-da da-da da, these are a few of my favorite things”]. It’s a beautiful song. What if he had put that out and it was called “This Is a List of the Things That I Like”?
Even though it was terrific, it wasn’t finished. You have to ask yourself, “How am I supposed to know when it’s finished?” He said, “That is the question.” That’s the thing that separates a fine songwriter from somebody who’s just happy that they got to what they thought was the end of it.
That’s the difference. The difference between the two is simply in knowing the difference between whether you have something that’s good there, or that you’re just proud that you’ve got something. That’s all it’s about.
Can you remember the moment where you finally summoned the nerve to sing in public?
Yeah. I was in Atlanta, Georgia and crossed over because I was playing in a little lounge that had lots of conventioneers coming through. We’d do a turnover almost every hour, so I could try all sorts of things. That was when I learned to talk, and that’s when I started writing songs.
How did you get your first record deal?
I wrote “Swamp Witch.” I reached Kent LaVoie somehow and asked him to drop by the place where I was working. It was so long ago that I can’t even remember if I invited him or he invited himself. He may have wanted to see if I had written any good songs.
Anyway, Kent came by one day, and I played “Swamp Witch” for him. He loved it. We recorded it on MGM Records, it was a hit, and that was that [No. 39 Pop, debuted May 12, 1973 on Billboard].
The liner notes for both of your MGM albums list Lobo as a producer, although two gentlemen named Phil Gernhard and Tony Scotti are also mentioned. Were Gernhard and Scotti actually producers in the studio, or is that just a token credit they were given?
Tony Scotti was a credit. Phil Gernhard was a fine producer…yet a troubled man. Not necessarily a happy guy, but a great producer. Before he ever produced me, Phil’s first hit song was “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs [Stafford sings the chorus “Stay just a little bit longer”]. That was a big record in 1960.
Phil co-wrote and produced “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” for Ocala, Florida-based pop rock band the Royal Guardsmen  and “Abraham, Martin and John” for Dion . His next act was Lobo and then me.
Did Lobo and Phil Gernhard both produce tracks on those albums?
Yeah. They worked together, and we just built out the tracks on each song.
Were you an uncredited producer during your MGM tenure?
Yeah. I had ideas. But we were collaborative and all worked together. It worked out nice. Everything was fine.
Who played on the sessions for your first album, the self-titled Jim Stafford [No. 55 Pop, No. 6 C&W, debuted March 16, 1974 on Billboard].
As a matter of fact, I can’t name all the guys on it. I do know that Dennis St. John was the drummer. Emory Gordy, who played with Elvis on “Burning Love” roughly a year before we worked together, was the bass player. Both had tenures in Neil Diamond’s rhythm section. They’re an excellent rhythm section, and I’m happy we used them [Alan Lindgren contributed keyboards and synthesizers].
Did you play any electric guitar on those album sessions, or did you mainly stick to acoustic?
I didn’t actually play hardly anything on those albums. I wasn’t really a recording person. That’s a whole ‘nother world—people that record all those things. They’re a lot more accurate than I was.
[Author’s Note: The original LP jacket of Stafford’s self-titled 1974 album credits him with acoustic guitar, banjo, and harmonica. Richard Bennett is further listed on acoustic and electric guitars. On Not Just Another Pretty Foot, Stafford is given acknowledgement for guitar duties only. Larry Carlton, Ben Benay, Lee Ritenour, and Bennett also supplied six-string pickin’ on Pretty Foot].
I love the opening songs on both of those records — “L.A. Mamma” and “Making Love with the Headphones On,” respectively. I don’t know if that was your decision to sequence those rockers as the kick-off points but they worked perfectly.
Thank you very much. I appreciate that, Jeremy. I wrote “L.A. Mamma,” the B-side of “My Girl Bill,” for a girl that I was real impressed with. I would have to believe she realized the song was about her [laughs].
I wrote the Moog-driven “Making Love with the Headphones On” with David Bellamy who was my co-writer on “Spiders and Snakes.” Dave’s brother Howard was my roadie for a few years. They had a very nice career as the Bellamy Brothers.
In the beginning, Dave was writing for me. What’s interesting is the biggest song they ever had wasn’t written or sung by Dave. I think he sang harmony on it. His brother sang the lead on “Let Your Love Flow” [No. 1 Pop, No. 21 C&W, February 1976, Warner Bros.]. It was a song that was handed to them by Neil Diamond’s former roadie, Larry E. Williams.
That’s a very nice gift, a song of that quality. Because that was really a good song and a great record—beautifully produced. The Bellamys are probably lucky he didn’t give it to Neil [laughs]. He could have sung that song. That was a real nice song. Howard and his brother did a great job on that. That song, even to this day, really holds up nice [Author’s Note: Incidentally, Gernhard and Scotti are credited as the producers of “Let Your Love Flow”].
I think Dave sang lead on all the rest of the songs. He probably wrote every one of them, too. It just so happened that the one that was the pop hit—the one that really broke big—the first one, that was his brother, Howard, who also has a wonderful voice. I’m a little surprised that…maybe he sings some on some of their albums. I haven’t really paid that much attention to see. I always thought Howard really had the great voice of those two.
Do you own the masters to any of your MGM recordings?
No. Back in those days, if you were a person working in the little lounges and somebody told you they wanted to seriously make a record and release it. These guys were people who already had big hits out. They knew what they were doing. If you’re in a situation like that, you’re just gonna sign on the dotted line, and that happened to almost everybody I know in the record business. They don’t have a whole lot of negotiating power.
If I had had a bunch of great songs under my belt and had gone into the meeting with a lawyer and all those kinds of things, it might have been a little different. Back then I was just thrilled just at the idea of actually recording a record.
Did you get paid fairly as far as your royalties over the years?
All I got was a writer’s royalty, which probably wasn’t all that fair. That’s about what 99% of the people get that go into the recording business unless they’re sitting on some really big songs that it’d be clear to everybody that they’re gonna be huge. I had no real negotiating power. I was a guy working in a lounge on Clearwater Beach. However, I got all the money off my concerts.
Do you play many of the songs from your two MGM albums in concert nowadays?
Not too many. I’ve thought about going back. I regularly do “Wildwood Weed,” “My Girl Bill,” “Spiders and Snakes,” and “Swamp Witch” from the first record. But not too much on the second album. Although I’ve thought about going back and giving it another listen to see if there’s anything I might wanna do because I’m kinda wanting to bring some things back I didn’t do before. I haven’t listened to either album in awhile. I have copies somewhere.
[Author’s Note: Not Just Another Pretty Foot was released circa May 1975 and failed to find any chart action. It has never been issued digitally or on CD. Lead single “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne” is the only song from the 11-track album that is officially available on the 1997 PolyGram compilation The Best of Jim Stafford, although a YouTube search will result in fan-uploaded versions in non-remastered audio quality].
I bet folks would buy that if they were sold at your shows.
That’s a good point. They might. I really did like the first album. I thought my second album, Not Just Another Pretty Foot, was okay.
Why do you consider Not Just Another Pretty Foot only okay? Was it recorded before you had come up with enough quality material?
You’re just a big-eyed kid when you get out there to L.A. and all these guys are doing their thing. But if I’d been in charge of the whole thing, I might have rode the songs out a little bit. Because generally speaking, everybody’s first batch is gonna be their best batch. Not always, but it happens quite a bit.
I might have just spread them around a little bit. Some of the second album might have got on the first one and some of the first one might have gone on the second one. They could have supported each other a little better, possibly. I don’t know. Looking back on it, it’s one of those things that come and go.
[Author’s Note: Eleven songs constituted the tracklisting for both of Stafford’s MGM albums. For his self-titled 1974 debut, Stafford composed all material except for a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Don Bowman’s “Wildwood Weed,” released as the LP’s fourth and last single. David Bellamy co-wrote “Spiders and Snakes,” and Marty Cooper co-wrote “A Real Good Time.” On Not Just Another Pretty Foot, Stafford wrote all songs except Shel Silverstein’s “I Got Stoned and I Missed It,” which was released as the LP’s second single, peaking at No. 37 Pop. Bellamy co-wrote “Making Love with the Headphones On,” “Lady Greenfeet,” “You’ll Never Take Me Alive,” and “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne.” Cooper co-wrote “Midnight Snack”].
The strange thing about me is that my passion for what I do now is the thing I think the most about. I don’t think too much about what I’ve already done. One of the things that I am grateful for is when I get up in the morning, I am always either working on a new bit, a new piece, a new story, a new song, or a new idea.
I also like to think about venues and where I want to perform. I lean a little toward Florida because it’s my home state. I’ve done an awful lot of traveling in my day. Even in the state of Florida, the places that appeal to me the most are the ones that I can get to and perform and come back that evening and still sleep in my own bed.
Is there a song that you’ve written recently that comes to mind?
Yeah. I’ve got about five songs that I’ve written in the last year. I’m getting ready to cut some more. I’m real pleased with some of ’em.
Do you think they might wind up being released?
Oh yeah, they may be the things that I do in my shows that I make available. The nice thing is that we all have the Internet now. We all have YouTube to be able to put our songs out. There is a place for these things, and that’s nice.
I have one called “The Pet Song.” I’ve got one about a guy that lives in Eloise who was this interesting character that everybody called Booger Red. I’ve got a couple of other things I’m developing and working on. I’ve got one called “To the Moon and Back”—everybody likes that title.
Do the songs you write today tend to be more comedy or serious oriented?
It depends. “To the Moon and Back” is a love song. The “Booger Red” thing is one of those dark kind of talking songs. I think it says, “This town has got a darker side where danger lurks and fear resides, and from that place I’ve heard it said there came a man named Booger Red. He’s brawled in the bar rooms all night long. He’d cry if he heard a country song. And when the rooster crows through the morning light, he’d buy another round and start a fight.” It’s about this big bad strange guy.
Fans would love to hear that should you decide to release it officially.
Thank you very much.
Are you envisioning adding a full band to these songs when you record them in the studio?
When I’m in Branson I’m gonna go in with a rhythm section, and I’ll use a session conductor who plays a scratch piano track. My drummer and bassist have been playing together for about 20 years. When you marry up your bass and drums really well so they really sound good together, you can put almost anything you want to on top of ’em and build your track. That’s how I like to work.
Which Jim Stafford songs are you proudest of?
I have good ones and ones that are not so good. You always set out to write a good one, but it doesn’t always work. I’ve had songs that I’m not all that proud of, and then other songs that I am proud of. I’m proud of the “Swamp Witch.” That’s a well-constructed piece. “Spiders and Snakes,” for what it was, turned out pretty good.
I also thought that “My Girl Bill” was fun in its own way. Of course, all those songs sold a whole bunch of records, and they were all pop hits. I didn’t have any country hits. All of my songs were pop hits. Even “Wildwood Weed,” which was in the Top 10 national charts [No. 7 on Billboard to be precise]. Even though it sounded like—Stafford adopts a distinct country tone when he sings opening line, “Well, the wildwood flower grew wild”—it was a pop hit. Which is very unusual. It just worked out that way.
[Author’s Note: “Wildwood Weed,” incidentally written by Don Bowman, was Stafford’s highest charting Billboard country single at No. 57. Five further singles—i.e. “Spiders and Snakes,” “My Girl Bill,” “Cow Patti,” “What Mama Don’t Know,” and “Little Bits and Pieces”—received airplay on the country charts. Oddly, they all stalled between No. 61 and No. 67].
Even though you criminally received little country airplay in your heyday, you nevertheless sold a bunch of records. I have no doubt that you would be experiencing solid cross-over success today.
I don’t have a thing against country music. It’s just fine and dandy. In the old days you could sell 50,000 records, and you could have a country hit. On the pop charts you’re gonna have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to get in the Top 10 or the Top 5. There’s a huge difference in the numbers between the pop and country charts. I gotta tell you the truth: these days I’m kinda out-of-pocket. I have no idea if that’s still true.
I would guess that country artists sell less records than pop artists. It’s pretty hard if you’re a country artist to outsell Justin Bieber, it’d be pretty hard to outsell Adele, and it’d be hard to outsell Beyoncé. It’d be hard to outsell Lady Gaga. Some of the country artists do sell really big. Carrie Underwood of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” fame is probably pretty darn close in sales to the big pop artists because she is so popular.
It’s also become a video market, which is strange. Do you know what Chet Atkins told me one time? He said, “I liked it better when ugly people sang pretty music, rather than the pretty people who are singing ugly music” [laughs].
If you look at the old country artists—I ain’t gonna say they were ugly as that’s probably pretty unkind—some of them were a little rough around the edges. Nobody had to do videos back then. It was all what you heard. It didn’t matter what the artist looked like.
Now in the world where it’s an audiovisual experience it’s smart of the record companies to go after these kids that not only can sing, but they’re just cute as a button. I’d do it, wouldn’t you? That’s the “who” I’d look for because it’s an audiovisual experience. In other words, it’s completely not surprising that they would do that. That’s just good business.
Why wouldn’t you want your artists to be good looking? It’s just like a complete package. One of the reasons that Carrie does so good is that she’s (a) a terrific singer, and (b) she looks terrific. There’s a combination.
I visited YouTube and discovered you appearing on Michael Nesmith in Television Parts, an NBC summer 1985 series created by the ex-Monkee which combined music and tongue-in-cheek comedy.
Yeah, I did a song called “Little Bits and Pieces.” I had fun doing that. That’s a John Hadley song. John’s original version of it was probably a better title than mine. It was called “Little Broken Pieces.” I remember that very clearly.
I don’t know how my guest appearance came together for sure. Out in L.A., you have everybody you could have. You have business people, you have management, you have an agency, and they’re working all the time to try and place things for you.
When you get to that level in a place like that, you don’t have a chance without it. You have to have the best people you can possibly find, and they need to be excited about you and what you do because there’s so many things going on at the same time that the artists could never represent themselves properly. It’s impossible.
When did you first play Branson, and were there many performers in the city at that time?
I’ve been coming to Branson since about 1983. I was working across the street at a place called the Roy Clark Celebrity Theater, and I finally moved to Branson. I got my own place in 1990.
There were about 50 or 60 shows when I got here, which is a lot of shows for a small town. Now there’s maybe 120 shows that basically come and go. For the size of the town, that’s a whole bunch of shows.
There’s a lot of people who want to fulfill their dreams of being performers. They come to Branson and try to get in a show. It might be a singer, dancer, guitar player, juggler, or magician. They just want to be able to perform in the same place that they live, so they come to Branson and try it. Some people do very well here, and some people don’t do so well.
Who convinced you to make the permanent move to Branson and build your theatre?
I was like a lot of people that are here—as soon as I saw the place—I wanted to move. There was no question about that. It was just a matter of trying to figure out how to do it because here’s an interesting thing that people don’t think too much about when it comes to entertainers.
The way it works is like this: If you’re an entertainer and you’ve been in the business a while—I was in my mid 40s when I got here—you probably have developed some nice connections over the years. I had those connections in the fair business, the corporate world, and in casinos. I had places I played regularly.
When you make a move to Branson you have to make these phone calls to certain people and say, “I’m not coming this year.” Generally, if you say, “I’m not coming this year,” they are thinking, ‘No, you’re just not coming, period.’
Therefore, you lose these relationships and you can’t blame them. They can’t depend on you, so they have to go find entertainers they can depend on. It was no big deal. I understood it. Say you’re gonna move to Branson. You’re shutting down all of these people that you’ve depended on all these years for your work.
Here you are, and you have no idea if what you do is necessarily gonna be exactly what these people want to hear. You just have to stick your chin out and hope for the best. While you’re hoping for the best, you’re losing all of your major contacts. It’s a little bit nerve-wracking.
You have to do that. The people that had the easiest successes in Branson are the ones that did that and just said, “I’m going for it.” As opposed to the people who said, “I’m gonna play a little in Branson, then I’ll go back and play at casinos, then I’ll play in Branson, then I’ll go back and play a state fair, and then I’ll play in Branson.”
So they don’t have a complete schedule. Nobody knows for sure when they’re gonna be in town and when they’re not and how that’s gonna work. It’s harder to establish yourself as a Branson performer if you keep trying to jump around and cover all your bases. Your best bet is to just give up to it and say, “We just gotta make this work.”
Did you hesitate about returning to Branson in the aftermath of losing the Jim Stafford Theatre to foreclosure in December 2013 compounded by a painful divorce from Ann Britt—your wife of 24 years and the original co-owner of the venue—or were you just happy to be invited back?
The folks at Maria’s Theater Group II are good people, and they made me a nice offer. So I did it. I’m not positive but I think they’ve asked me about next year as well. If all this works out, I believe I’ll be dividing my time between Branson and Winter Haven.
It will be pretty close to more or less half the year in one place and half the year in the other. The Branson winters aren’t so hot, but their summers are pretty good. Our summers can be a little bit warm [laughs]. I’m one of the few people that the humidity doesn’t seem to bother at all I guess because I was born there.
I’m the kind of person—I say to myself ‘Well you know I’ve done this entertainment business enough. Maybe I wanna have a more relaxed scheduled and this and that.’ But it just never works out like that because you start missing it. You realize that it is what you do, and you don’t wanna walk away from it.
One of the people that I admire the most is Victor Borge. He is probably my biggest hero as far as combining music and comedy. What I heard was that when he passed away at age 91 [Dec. 23, 2000], his family had to cancel over 100 concerts.
I see that as a goal [laughs]. You gotta love the guy for something like that. That’s how I feel. It’s pretty nice to have a little time for yourself here and there—like a week off. I really do enjoy performing. I think it would be pretty hard for me to just not do it.
Is it true that you own a house in Winter Haven?
Yes. I started going home and doing work down there. I’m getting ready to have more of a relaxed schedule. I’m 72 years old now, and I’m not just going to play a full schedule the rest of my life. I’ve got too many other things I want to do. I’m excited about a lot of other things. They all involve music, but they’re a little different than playing in a showroom.
Can you clarify exactly what you really wanna do?
The simplest way to put it is I’m really interested in what I’m calling the short-form video. In other words, I’m in love with a three to five-minute video. Whether it’s a music, dramatic, or comedy video, I love the idea of developing a short-form project without story-boarding and figuring out how to do it. Just doing it the very best you can do.
The very best example I can give you is my boy Shea has an arrangement on the piano that he plays of Phantom of the Opera. I’m telling you it’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s to die for. It’s thrilling, da da da da…that whole great feel. My boy has tattoos, he’s a big guy like 6’1.” He’s getting bigger all the time, and he’s just big in a dramatic, fun way. He has a great presence with his tattoos and his size.
I’m developing a video called Phantom of the Chop Shop where Shea goes into one of these places with a bunch of bikers sitting around and guys are welding. He picks a big old tarp and pulls it off of something. It’s a grand piano right in the middle of this chop shop. He sits down at the piano and just rips into that song. The bikers all of a sudden become a Broadway bunch.
It’ll be fun. We have to plan it out and shoot it and everything. We got to get the right attitude so that people know I’m not trying to do something that would make fun of the bikers, but I do love the idea of people who might ride a motorcycle might like Phantom of the Opera.
It’ll also have an ominous feel. It’s also going to feel dangerous. We got a door that rolls up like one of those garage doors. He’s out in the rain in a big hoodie, and he comes walking in like a big, dangerous guy. He’s got big broad shoulders.
You don’t know what happened—Big John just showed up. But when he sits at that piano—and trust me when I tell you—he just blows people away with a riveting, rock ‘n’ roll arrangement. It’s just absolutely thrilling.
I went back down to Florida. I was gonna try to get Shea to come and finish it down there, but then I got the call to come back to Branson. Now we are in a position to finish that up. We don’t have much left to do on it, and I think we can get it finished.
My daughter G.G. has a terrific boogie version of Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” considered by some to be the first rock ‘n’ record when released in 1951. It’s an old boogie shuffle that’s really red hot, so I’m developing a video piece for her as well. I like that medium a lot.
I’m having fun with those types of things, and I’m always going to do my performances. I’m ready now to do a little less performing and a little more of these things that I wanna do that are creative. I’ve done some of ‘em before, and I seem to have a knack for it. I’m really looking forward to it.
What is your official website?
JimStaffordLive.com is a divided site between my two interests which are basically Branson, Missouri, and Florida. I don’t have any interest in playing anywhere much more than Florida or Branson. I had a theatre in Branson for 24 years. The folks that purchased the theatre called me down in Florida and asked me to come back.
What is your perfect day?
My perfect day is doing things I wanna do. I have things I really enjoy. I love to play tennis for a couple of reasons: Number one: it’s fun. Two: it’s the only way I know how to exercise that isn’t boring.
I love to watch good movies. I enjoy 3D. The only movie that Alfred Hitchcock made in 3D is called Dial M for Murder . It was never shown in 3D because by the time they got the movie finished 3D was over and CinemaScope was in. Now they’ve remastered it in 3D, and I have a 3D system in my house.
I love technology. I did get a virtual reality headset the other day, and I’m leaning toward that because not only are they 3D, but they are also whatever direction you happen to look in. You’re placed inside a whole different world. Everywhere you look in that world there’s something to look at—up, down, right, left, wherever. The Samsung people make one of those headsets. I got mine at a Best Buy.
I love my children when I get a chance to do something with them. I love tennis. We have four dogs who are fun. I’m never far from a guitar. I usually can just reach over and grab one and pick a little something.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! “Some people just see Bobbie Gentry as this girl from the Mississippi backwoods or delta. She was brilliant when it came to writing and her creative self.” The mother of Jim Stafford’s first child, Gentry was astounded to learn that a fellow singer-songwriter could have such a nefarious recording and publishing contract that yielded paltry royalty checks to boot. In April 1978 the sophisticated siren debuted a fresh Las Vegas engagement entitled “Southern Nights” at the Aladdin Hotel. Gentry first laid eyes on her soon to be third husband, who was chosen to open each elaborately staged show, during rehearsals. You’ll have to click here for the finale of the heretofore untold story. And jump back to the top of this article to watch a video of Stafford’s swaggering “L.A. Mamma,” released as the lead cut on the singer-songwriter’s self-titled debut album. The funky, swamp rock jewel later surfaced as the B-side of the gender-skewering “My Girl, Bill.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…One of my proudest moments as a working journalist was getting to spend an hour conversing with the late American treasure Merle Haggard about his storied career. In “Still Holding His Mud: A Day in the Life of ‘Struggling’ Guitarist Merle Haggard,” the ink slinger waxes nostalgic about learning to play both the fiddle and guitar as a poor but blessed nine-year-old Bakersfield kid in the aftermath of World War II, if he still has those crucial instruments gathering dust in a closet somewhere, raising a Fender Telecaster maestro at the dawn of the 21st century, actually receiving inspiration for a song while sauntering towards a London concert stage, his patented songwriting formula, losing anonymity, and whether stage fright can be conquered.
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