The Tennessee Pulleybone: A Forgotten Piece of Country Music History
Country Music's Forgotten First Band Signed to Major Label Deal
I met Big Ken Smith, one of Country Music’s many hidden treasures, while attending the 3rd Annual Americana Music Conference in Nashville this Fall. We met through a mutual friend, Gary Talley (lead guitarist of the Box Tops fame) and had breakfast together one morning before the conference started. Over breakfast and coffee, our conversations took the normal twists and turns until we ended up talking about one of Big Ken’s bands, the Tennessee Pulleybone. Intrigued by the name – a “pulleybone” is another name for a wishbone – I asked Big Ken to tell me about it. It turns out the Tennessee Pulleybone was the first Country band signed to a major label record deal! However, you won’t find Tennesee Pulleybone or Big Ken Smith listed in any “Who’s Who in Country Music,” so I’m happy to present this forgotten piece of Country Music’s rich history:
[The Aspiring Songwriter] Ken, you started playing bass at 15. How did you get involved in the music business in the first place?
Big Ken Smith A friend a mine, Richard Frazier, was a guitar player. He picked up a bass one day and he said, “Here, put this on. I want to see how it looks.” He said, “You look like a bass player.” (Laughter!) The first bass I ever learned on, or even picked up, was owned by Bill Carlisle, Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle’s son, who was going up to Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, TN. My friend, Harry Bennett, had it there at his house. That was the very first bass I learned on.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] Where were you born?
Big Ken Smith Cookeville, TN. It’s a college town. It was a good little town to be from and to get away from, but now I think I might like to move back there one day ala "Hometown Homesick Blues" (Cold Wind Records).
[The Aspiring Songwriter] You went from being a bass player at 15 to forming the very first Country band signed to a major label. Tell us how that happened.
Big Ken Smith Well, I pulled time in the Army. I played in a little band, a Soul band, called The Mystic Five. It was all Black guys, except me. When I came back from the Army, I was in another group called the Soul Crusaders. It was a horn band fashioned after the Jazz Crusaders. Then I went to work with Jerry Tuttle in Nashville. We worked military bases for a good while. We had different players along the way. The last version we had was Jerry, me, John Wolters on drums and Biff Watson on guitar. After John left us, he went to go work with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Also, Biff later went to work playing keyboards with Don Williams. He worked for Don for many years and now he is one of the top session players in Nashville. John has since passed on, I’m sorry to say. And Jerry, I think he ended up playing around with bar bands for a long time. I think he finally ended up going back to Missouri to run his daddy’s farm, after his dad died. That’s the last I’d heard from him. That was the version of the Tennessee Pulleybone that got the record deal with JMI Records.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] How were you signed?
Big Ken Smith We were playing in a bar down on West End in Nashville called Bandy’s. We played there for a good while. It was a hangout for the Music Row bunch. This fellow walked up to me one night and said, “Hey, you boys wanna make a record?” And there is Chuck Neese. I said, “Yea.” So, he got Jack Clements to give us use of his studio for the option of picking up the record himself. Jack had just started a new record label, Jack Music International, or JMI. We went in and did a three-song session, and Jack liked it. He wanted to put them out himself. The first single was written by Jerry Tuttle. It was a truck driving song called “I Ain’t In A Long, Long Time.” It was kind of a fast Country Rock tune. It made a little wave, here and there. But, at the time, nobody had signed a band as an act, so nobody really took it seriously.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] And that was because bands only backed up stars back then?
Big Ken Smith Bands were happening all over the place in Rock music, of course. But for a band to be an act in Nashville at that time was unheard of.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] What time frame was this, Ken?
Big Ken Smith Early 1970s. Around 1970.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] What compelled Jack Clements to release a single from Tennessee Pulleybone at that time, if it had never been done before?
Big Ken Smith Jack is an innovator. He was always an innovator. Jack was at Sun Records back in the good ol’ days. Right now, some of his best friends are Bono and people like that. They think Jack hung the moon. He’s been around and he’s gained a lot of respect. He’s always got great ideas, except for The Tennessee Pulleybone! (Laughter!)
[The Aspiring Songwriter] His signing you kind of paved the way for other bands, Ken.
Big Ken Smith When he signed our band, he gave us total freedom to do anything we wanted to do, whenever we wanted to do it. Our single, “The Door's Always Open,” did well. It was #1 in all the major markets, but never at the same time because JMI didn’t have the distribution. Our 3rd single got some airplay, but it didn’t get the airplay that “The Door's Always Open” did. Right after that, JMI folded because without distribution, it’s tough. Allen Reynolds, who was at JMI at the time, was going to go do a distribution deal with one of the big labels, but it never panned out. It was the demise of JMI Records. JMI had Don Williams signed at the time, too. We were the second act that JMI Records signed.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] It seems that there were a number of artists from that time period who started at Indie labels and then jumped over to the majors.
Big Ken Smith Well, the album that Don Williams cut for JMI, apparently Jack sold that to DOT records, which became MCA later. Anyway, that first album that Don Williams recorded at JMI, they just took the whole album and sold it to DOT. Every song on that album could have been a hit, it was that good an album. Just wonderful songs, great singing, great performances. When DOT got a hold of the album, right off the bat, they released a number one song.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] I guess having promotion and distribution makes the difference!
Big Ken Smith It’s all. It’s either the life or the death of a record.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] Ken, how many Tennessee Pulleybone songs were released on JMI?
Big Ken Smith The releases on JMI were: "I Ain't In A Long, Long Time," "The Door's Always Open," "Clean Your Own Tables," and we were getting ready to release a song called "Richard And The Cadillac Kings" when the label went out of business.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] What happened after JMI folded and before you were signed to RCA?
Big Ken Smith After the band broke up, I went to work in my brother’s Bluegrass band called the Boys From Shiloh. The band was around for 35-40 years. They were pretty well known in the Bluegrass Circuit. When my brother Bob died - he was the leader of the band - Dallas, my other brother, he took over and ran it for a while. Dallas just passed away this past February and several people, including Gary Talley, talked to me about picking up the band and doing Bluegrass. I don't know if I'm quite ready for another change in my changing career! It was a really hot band. That was fun while it lasted.
Bones Kalen, a drummer out of Bowling Green, called me and said, “Hey, man, why don’t we start up the Pulleybone again? I’ll play drums with you.” I had talked to him earlier about playing drums with us. I wasn’t sure about it, because I was kind of burned from the first time. But, we did start it up again. We got Dave Gillon, a really fine songwriter here in Nashville, to play guitar and standup piano. We got this fellow from New Jersey, Tom Hamilton, out of a musicians’ paper. He wanted to relocate to Tennessee. Bones called him and he came down and went to work with us. We worked the clubs, mainly in Bowling Green, because everybody knew Bones up there. Enter Chuck Neese again. Chuck heard us and got us signed to a deal with RCA.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] This was as Tennessee Pulleybone again?
Big Ken Smith Yes, the second coming of Tennessee Pulleybone! (Laughter!) RCA didn’t know what to do with us. They never signed a band before. They signed each one of us to a separate contract, because they didn’t know how to sign us as a group.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] Why was that?
Big Ken Smith Because, bands weren’t signed as acts. Bands backed up stars and the singer got signed to a deal. It was pretty much that way with the radio stations, too. They thought it was a joke, you know, Tennessee Pulleybone. They thought it was somebody going into the studio and doing a comedy thing. The songs were serious, but they thought that it was all a joke. We did a re-cut of an old Haggard tune, “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down.” We did kind of a tongue-and-cheek recitation in the last verse, and it got a real mild reception. We actually cut an album. The cover shot and everything was done.
In the meantime, while we were still with RCA, we needed work. Things were getting kind of tight. We used to going out to Vail and work for two weeks, and then take another club for a week or two. Work was getting kind of tight. One day, our manager Chuck walks into Jerry Bradley’s office, who was the president of RCA. He said, “Jerry, I want this album out, and if you can’t get this album out, I want their contract back.” Jerry opened the drawer, pulled out our contracts and handed them to Chuck. So ended the career of Tennessee Pulleybone!
[The Aspiring Songwriter] How many Tennessee Pulleybone singles were released on RCA before you lost your contract?
Big Ken Smith There was only one song released as a single on RCA and that was "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," even though we'd gone in and had the album finished and ready for release when we got, uh, released.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] What happened then?
Big Ken Smith Chuck took our poster over to Bobby Bare, because he knew Bobby was lookin’ for a band. Of course Bare, in his slow wisdom says, “Looks like pretty good ol’ boys to me. Let’s do it!” So, Bare paid us a flat rate to go out and do shows with him. That meant that we had to pay our way to the gig, furnish the P.A., and, it got to the point - and it wasn’t his fault, it’s just the way things are in show business - we would cancel a week of work to go do one show with Bobby, and then at the last minute, his show would cancel for one reason or another. Things just kind of kept getting worse and worse.
Bare came to me one day, and he was just signing with CBS. He came to me with an offer. He told me, “Ken, I want you to put together a band for me.” So, I put together a really, really fine band. I brought Tom Hamilton along with me. I got a guitarist guy name Dave Hargis, a Black drummer right from the Oak Ridge Boys band named Michael Saleem, and Walker Eiglehart on keyboard. Walker was the keyboard player for a short while. Through time, we had a lot of changes. Michael, the Black drummer, didn’t stay very long because we put him into some pretty bad situations back then, without meaning to. I mean, a lot of people would come out and say what they really felt back then. There wasn’t much we could do about it, so he left. It’s a shame, but that was the way it was. So, the band went through several transmutations. I got Gary Talley to play guitar with Bare for about four or five years, too.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] How long were you with Bobby Bare?
Big Ken Smith I worked with Bobby for about 15 years. My wife got an offer to work in France with the company that she was with, and since I knew her career was going to spawn a lot more money than I could ever do, unless I got really hot, we decided to follow her career. So, we moved to France for three years and lived outside of Paris. I decided that I was going to start a Blues band because Blues was always my first love, and I wanted to do it. So, I started my band over there. The third year I was there, my crowning achievement, we played the Nice Jazz Festival in the south of France. It was great! The Count Basie Orchestra, Stanley Clark, and The Ken Smith Band. (Laughter!)
After that, my wife was transferred back to Minneapolis. That’s where I met Tim Bradach, who signed me to a record deal as a Blues act. That’s what I’m doing now.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] What is the name of the Blues album?
Big Ken Smith “Hometown Homesick Blues.” It’s still in print and you can order it on Amazon, or you can order it from my website or Coldwind Records website for slightly less! We stayed in Minneapolis for about a year and a half, and then we moved to California, where we’ve been for the last five years. I kind of quit playing once we moved to California, because the playing scene is kind of, eh! They want to pay you $50/night. I was making more than that when I was just starting out! I had a great band out there for a while. I had this keyboard player who basically did the same thing with Albert King that I did with Bobby Bare. And we had this great drummer from New Orleans, Albert Trepanier. It was a great band, and I couldn’t book them for more than $50/man a night. I was standing there one night, this was about the second or third job we played – and we were rolling in thousands and thousands of dollars worth of equipment. I was thinking, we’re going to play four hours for $50/man tonight! So, I just quit playing.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] Ken, what are your feelings about having been the first band signed to a major Country label?
Big Ken Smith Chuck Neese started running Alabama’s publishing company when they hit. I met Teddy Gentry up there in the office one day. Teddy told me that while Alabama was working in Myrtle Beach (before they were signed), they were doing our song off of the radio, ‘The Door Is Always Open.’ That made me feel good, in a way.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] What advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter?
Big Ken Smith To get a leg up, a song has to move you. It has to make you feel something, whether it makes you mad, or sad, or feel good.
[The Aspiring Songwriter] What advice would you give to an aspiring artist today, given all of your experiences with the music industry?
Big Ken Smith For an artist or band just starting out - do it quick. Because the longer you’re in it, the more jaded you get. You have to be hungry. Once you lose that appetite, that innocence, when you absolutely don’t know what you’re up against, once you lose that, it’s pretty much all over unless you get real lucky. While you’re young and hungry, and you think you’ve got more of a chance than anybody else – do it!
[The Aspiring Songwriter] What plans do you have after the Conference, Ken?
Big Ken Smith Well, we’re celebrating the 25-year Tennessee Pulleybone Anniversary in Bowling Green KY, this weekend. We’ll take a walk down memory lane – or maybe a run down memory lane! It will be a lot of fun!
[The Aspiring Songwriter] Thanks, Big Ken Smith, for sharing a little bit of Country Music history today about the life and times of Tennessee Pulleybone, Country Music’s first band signed to a major label record deal!
You can buy Big Ken Smith’s “Hometown Homesick Blues” (Cold Wind Records) on www.coldwind.com. Music columnist Tom Surowicz writes ... "It's the right material ... a brand of blues that's fresh, funky, southern-fried and personal." Contact Big Ken at www.bigkensmith.com.
And maybe we’ll see Big Ken Smith and the Tennessee Pullybone, the first Country band signed to a major label, included in Country Music History one day…