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Don Henry: Wild In the Backyard

| November 24, 2010 | 3 Comments

Don Henry’s 28-year songwriting career is like a double A-side single. He’s the creative mind behind hits like “Whole Lotta Holes” and 1991’s Grammy-winning country song-of-the-year, the heart-wrenching “Where’ve You Been” (co-written with Jon Vezner), both recorded by Kathy Mattea. His tunes have also been cut by artists like Ray Charles, Blake Shelton and Conway Twitty.

Spin the other side of his career and you have a consummate solo acoustic performer who’s been mesmerizing audiences with his sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious slice-of-life pop songs.

Currently Don is touring with hit writers Tom Kimmel and Sally Barris as the Waymores, and they’re finishing up an album. Here are excerpts from a 1993 interview with Don by Bill DeMain after Sony released his critically acclaimed Wild In the Backyard.

What first inspired you to take up music?

There were always instruments around the house because my dad (multi instrumentalist Hoyet Henry) was a musician. He played around the Bay area in local clubs and did session work.

I didn’t seriously pick up the guitar until I was about 13 years old. I was really into poetry and lyrics more than I was into the singing part of it. I remember hearing Jim Croce records, Elton John and Paul Simon. I thought, I don’t know how to play guitar, but I can write some of these words. So I would write lyrics to their songs. I would take Jim Croce melodies and write my own words. After awhile, I thought, I better pick up the guitar. So I got one of those Mel Bay guitar chord books, just so I could write my lyrics to some kind of music.

Are you a disciplined writer?

Yeah. Even as a kid, I wrote everyday. It was the only thing I was ever disciplined in. And I never thought of it as a job or a chore. I thought of it as fun. I couldn’t wait to get in my room by myself to write. By the time I moved to Nashville, I was in the frame of mind for it. I just didn’t know what I was doing (laughs).

What were your early years in Nashville like?

My coolest story happened the first night I drove into to town with my dad. It was late, like 11 or 12. My dad was good friends with Pete Drake, who was a studio musician/producer in Nashville for years. We walked into his studio, and there in the control room, Marshall Chapman, Pam Rose, MaryAnn Kennedy and Willie Nelson were all sitting around having a guitar pull, trading songs. It was pretty memorable.

Then I worked at Tree as the tape copy guy for a lot of years and the education I got there, I could never have gotten at any school anywhere. Everyday I would hear songs by Don Cook, Bobby Braddock, Sonny Throckmorton and John Hiatt, and their stuff would be just years and eons beyond anything I’d ever written. I went home holding the guitar and thought, God, where do you start? But after awhile, the stuff just absorbed through my skin and into my soul. I would sing in the tones of those great writers. I was saying to myself, “How would Hiatt or Throckmorton say this?” After awhile, it became second nature to me.

A lot of your songs deal with characters, rather than a first person “I” account. Is this something you consciously go for?

It’s weird that those have been the ones that have gotten cut or that I’ve recorded, because I’ve written so many of the others. For some reason those third person songs seem to surface and get through to people. You know, it’s tricky to put any character development into a three minute pop song, but I try. I’m a big movie fan and I like books and tend to write that way.

Do you usually have several songs going at once?

Oh yeah, it’s the only way to write. If I could give anyone advice, it would be that. I had friends here when I first moved to town and they would work on a song and it was their whole life, that one song. When they finally finished it, they would work it around town, and if nothing happened to it, they were destroyed. So I’d say, don’t get so attached to your songs, and keep a lot of them going. That way, not any one them will drive you crazy and when somebody says, “I don’t like that one,” you can say, “Fine, I’ve got all these other ones I’m working on.”

I have nothing but half-written songs all over my life (laughs). It’s the only way to do it. It’s also a good way to keep from getting writer’s block. I think if you’re a real songwriter, you’ve got a ton of songs and ideas all over the place.

Tell me about your song “Harley.”

There were some friends who had friends who rode Harleys and were really into it. Their firstborn they named Harley. I thought, maybe I could make up what would happen to somebody stuck with a name like that. “There was a motorcycle momma and her man, with a windburnt tan and a Harley. Riding through Bakersfield when her water broke, They pulled into a hospital and for a little joke, they named him Harley.”

“Into a Mall”?

I was in Monterey Bay, going to the new Aquarium, right on Cannery Row. I parked quite a ways away, got there, and realized I’d forgotten something. While I ran back to the car, I was laughing at people with their Bermuda shorts, black socks, pasty legs and cameras wrapped around their necks. Then I caught my own reflection in a cafe window and I looked just like everyone else. It was pretty humorous. Here was this area that used to be a mecca for the oddball people of the world overrun by tourists. On the way back to the car, I conceived the whole song, which is a rare thing for me. It’s one of my favorites.

How about “Beautiful Fool” the tribute to Martin Luther King?

The ultimate example of finding inspiration after you’ve found a title. I got the title from an Eddie Murphy movie, when he said, “So you’d have me marry a beautiful fool,” meaning a good-looking lady with no brains. I thought it was interesting term. It sounded kind of endearing, it sounded like a dreamer, but as we all know, dreamers don’t seem to last very long. They usually get put in insane asylums, or they become songwriters, one or the other (laughs). I always wanted to write about King. And the title was perfect. It just clicked. It was like, you’re beautiful, but you’re foolish to think that your ideas could work in our kind of society. Yet we can’t give up and he didn’t. I hope the song makes people look at problems and say, “I think we can do something about this.”

You’ve been in the business for a good amount of years. What words of advice can you give to the aspiring songwriter?

Ultimately, the whole thing about songwriting is not who cuts the songs or if you’re going to get a record deal. It’s doing it. Writing it, getting it done, putting it on tape, listening back and being proud of it. It’s the process that’s important. If you don’t dig that, you might as well quit, because the chance of getting a song cut is small. You can’t give up that hope, of course, but you’ve got to understand what’s important. And that’s enjoying the moment you’re writing the song.

—By Bill DeMain

From Performing Songwriter Issue 2, Sept/Oct 1993

Category: Be Heard Jukebox Archive

Comments (3)

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  1. rjlund says:

    Hi Don. Do you remember me. I remember you in my Geometry class. I think that you wrote your first song as a project in my class. You were also on the baseball team, and a neighbor. I was the JV coach and substituted for coach Friebel and we beat Pioneer, the first ever time for Live Oak. Anyway I really enjoyed having you and others like you in class. We now live in Oregon. Come see us sometime.

  2. Bill King says:

    Don, I grew up with your dad in SJ. We were in several bands together (I’m drummer). Had phone conversations over the years. When Willian call, I was really cracked up.

    Hoyet was one of the good guys and always made people laugh.
    Lost track of Herman.

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