Don Schlitz with Dr. Jocelyn Neal and students
2012 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Don Schlitz took students to songwriting school on Friday, October 16, for a third SHOF Master Session at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hosted by Dr. Jocelyn R. Neal, Professor of Music and Associate Chair of the Department of Music at and attended by her students, Schlitz charmed with stories of his life as a celebrated songwriter.
Schlitz songs have played major roles in the careers of Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, The Judds, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Keith Whitley, Alison Krauss, and many other singers.
Schlitz was the ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year for four consecutive years from 1988-91. He has won three CMA Song of the Year Awards, two ACM Song of the Year awards, two Grammy’s and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. His huge catalog of hits include such classics as “The Gambler,” “On the Other Hand,” “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “Deeper Than the Holler,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “When You Say Nothing at All,” “One Promise Too Late,” “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and many, many more.
“Our partnership with UNC has blossomed over the past few years thanks to Don’s dedication and passion for bringing his advice and wisdom to its students who are so fortunate to have the songwriter whose vast catalog includes 50 Top Ten’s, 24 Number One’s and a cross-over standard in “The Gambler,” share his wit, humor and experiences with them,” stated SHOF president & CEO Linda Moran.
He began by talking about his early days; “At the age of 20, I got on a bus and I came to Nashville, Tennessee. I had $80 and that's why I came to Nashville. I couldn't afford to get anywhere else. I got a job as the all-night computer operator at Vanderbilt University. They had an IBM Selectric typewriter and I would sit and type, and I would sit and rhyme.”
“’The Gambler’ was the very first song I had recorded,” he went on to say, “but was not the first song I'd written. I've been writing songs, since I was 16.”
“The Gambler” won the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1978, the Country Music Association’s Best Song Award in 1979, and was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2018.
“I changed some of the chords after a while. This was basically Kenny Roger’s signature song and was my entrance into having a real job in music. It's a story song.”
Schlitz then talked about the songwriting process and gave students an overview of the way he creates. “You take the idea and you make it smaller, until it’s small enough for you to walk around. As you walk around it, there are basically 360 windows that you can look through to see what's going on. You should look through as many of those you can, and in between those windows you form the verses and their choruses, a bridge, or maybe there are refrains there, and you will know all of this as you tell the story. And that's what I learned from listening to songs while typing back at Vanderbilt.”
Dr. Neal then fielded questions from some of her students, and Schlitz wound up the hour by imparting some important messages: “Rhymes are important and rhythm is important, but even more so is the truth. Get out there and woodshed and let the song tell your story. Write the song you want to hear and have fun with it!”
This was the third SHOF Master Session at UNC that Schlitz, who is also a member of the SHOF Board of Directors, participated in, and plans are in the works to continue his visits in the future.