She has been a songwriter on “Lie to Me” (an R&B hit for Brook Benton), “She Understands Me” (a pop hit for Johnny Tillotson) and “Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got)” (a country hit by Leon Ashley). She has performed as a backup vocalist on hundreds of recording sessions, starred on The Louisiana Hayride, sung on the Grand Ole Opry and appeared in the movie Road to Nashville. At age 85, she has reignited her recording career with her new EP, Never Mind, and her single, “Lie To Me”.
Growing up in Coushatta, Louisiana, what blues and gospel music songs were your favorites to listen to?
I used to listen to Etta James, Ray Charles, and Tina Turner, as well as, John R’s (Richbourg) Show onWLAC Nashville. And, of course, I listened to the local radio station, KWKH, which broadcast the Hayride, and WSMin Nashville to get my fill of country. Of course the gospel shows were on both of those stations, like the Stamps Quartet and the Jordanaires.
You wrote your first single, “One Step (Nearer to You),” in 1957. What inspired the write?
“One Step (Nearer to You)” was about staying close to the one you love. Being apart, for young love, was being lonely. Many songs I wrote were not based on my life, but sometimes a song is inspired by the realities of life. I wrote the song as a young girl in love with my husband. I didn’t like to be away from him, so while he was gone, I had a blue feeling and while he was home with me, I was happy. I loved the togetherness.
Following your first major hit (“Eyes of Love”) was your duet, “Did I Ever Tell You,” with George Jones. Together you also charted with “Waltz of the Angels.” Can you describe your memories of recording with Jones?
I remember the thrill of recording with George. Of course, he wasn’t the legend he became in later years. I loved it. I loved his music and our harmonies blended well. He said later that he was so happy with the album that he took it home to play for his mom. She loved the album, but was concerned about the song “Not Even Friends,” because the lyrics were “imagine we’re married and we’re not even friends.” She was sad that someone who was married didn’t like each other. It was about a couple who loved each other in the beginning, but their marriage failed and they were just living together out of habit.
Back then it was easier to get a song to a fellow artist, because things were much looser and people knew each other. There wasn’t as much competition and there was camaraderie. You could walk into an office and visit with an artist, and you didn’t have to beg for an appointment that you never got. The artists were always willing to hear a song, because they were always looking for a song. I wrote “Enough of a Woman” for Tammy Wynetteand I made a demo for her to hear it. Billy Sherrill, her producer, liked it so he gave it to Tammy to hear and she liked it and recorded it. Sometimes it came down to connections. Billy’s office was next door to our office, Ashley Records, so we saw him daily. I think it was easier for women song writers to succeed, more so than women singers. That was a row that had never been hoed, so we had to hoe it and it was a rocky row for women.
1964, top 5, your biggest hit, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” with Faron Young. Songwriter Justin Tubb tells the story of the family that did everything their neighbor did — from falling in love to ending up in court when the marriage and everything else fell apart. A song with a storyline that stands the test of time. Would you say the popularity of country music can be attributed to the raw honesty of its’ songwriters?
Yes, I would say the popularity of country music can be attributed to the raw honesty of its songwriters, and a lot of performing artists have depended on the heartfelt songs written by the writers. I wrote “Your Conscience Sends Me Flowers” from my heart and it was true to my life, because my first husband cheated on me and it was inspired by our troubled marriage. Two other songs inspired by my divorce were “Only Your Shadow Knows” and “You Shake My Hand and Kiss Me on the Cheek.”
Now you’ve just released “Never Mind,” which tells the story of your life. You left home at 13, got married, and had a child, all before you started to play guitar and write music. What advice can you offer women today who want to pursue a career, no matter what stage of life they are currently in?
The career life expectancy of a female entertainer is comparable to a woman’s biological clock. There is pressure for women to reach their prime in the industry while young. It’s almost impossible to break in as an older woman, but it shouldn’t be that way. An older woman entering the industry should not feel they are inferior due to age or appearance. If you have the talent and you believe in yourself, keep knocking on doors until you find that door that’s open to you.
Recording “Lie To Me,” a song you wrote with Brook Benton. His recording charted on the Billboard Top 20 in 1962. You recorded it now for the new EP. What changed for you to feel that now was the right time to release your version?
I’ve always used “Lie to Me” for my sets in my shows, but I have held true to my thoughts that after you’ve had the best, the rest will never do. Brook Benton’s record was perfect. He was so soulful. I recorded it now, after all these years, because I wanted to, not because I thought I could improve on Brook’s record.
Your son Stephen wrote “Missing You,” co-wrote three other songs with you, and co-produced the EP with Derrick Dexter Mathis. What was it like working with your son on the new music?
You know, my son Stephen and I are so much alike. It’s amazing how genes work. I have a split fingernail on my left hand and so does he on the same finger. I’m 14 years older than he and sometimes it seems like we’re siblings. Everything that we dislike about each other, we can look within and find the same fault in ourselves. My son, Stephen, and I have walked different paths in our music careers. He has been a producer/writer, and has worn many other hats. I, on the other hand, have been a singer/songwriter. Working together for the first time, I think we have both gained a lot of respect for each other’s abilities. I am amazed at his knowledge and how meticulous he is. He and my godson, Dexter Mathis, are phenomenal together, even across the miles. Dexter is in Shreveport, Louisiana and Stephen is in Nashville, Tennessee, but they connect in mind through Skype and make great music together. Working on Never Mind throughout the Corona lockdown has kept us sane, though at times we could have gladly killed each other, but our mother/son love kept us from doing that. I’m grateful to have created a bond other than parent/child. We have created a major bond musically and that is such a joy.
“It’s awesome to look back at all the music I’ve been a part of, but it’s also a great feeling to look ahead.” What’s ahead for you in 2021?
I used to be able, in my younger days, to look out 1, 5, 10, 15, 20 years. At this age I live one day at a time, grateful to God to wake up each morning. I plan on doing, God willing, just what we’re doing now — writing and producing the music that we both love and can’t do without.