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Interview With Ken Mellons
Honky-Tonk Turnaround
By Doak Turner
(more articles from this author)
2004-03-24
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With two major label deals behind him, Epic and Curb, singer/songwrter/honky-tonker Ken Mellons is ready to break free from the constraints of "records by committee" to make the honky-tonk music he loves. With a brand new CD on indie label Home Records, the man with a ASCAP "Million AirPlay Award for his signature song, "Jukebox Junkie," Ken Mellons is ready to go:

[Doak Turner] What is happening good with Ken Mellons these days?

Ken Mellons Right now, we have this brand new single, "Paint Me A Birmingham." It has been out to radio about eight weeks and is the debut single on my soon to be released CD titled Sweet. The success that we are having early on at radio is great and, of course, there is the controversy about the song. DreamWorks just released a version of the same song on Tracy Lawrence. He does a great job on the song, and I think they cut this song a couple years ago when Tracy was on Warner Brothers. Tracy was dropped from the label and the CD and all the songs were just sittin' there on the shelf. Buck Moore, who co-wrote the song with Gary Duffey, pitched me the song back in July when we were cuttin' the CD. I thought it was a great song so we went into the studio with it. After we cut several sides of the CD in late July, we wanted to get a single to radio and picked the song to be our first release. We shipped it out to the radio stations and I guess that Tracy must have been in negotiations to sign with DreamWorks. Who could've guess that they were planning on signing him and releasing the same single in a matter of months after mine? They released "Paint Me A Birmingham" on top of our song. If I would have known they were going to release that song, we could have released another song from my CD as the first single. I had no knowledge what so ever about their plans.

We are in the middle of controversy with radio. Stations are playin' both versions back to back and letting the listeners in their market pick the one that they want to hear. If we win, that is great. If Tracy wins, my hat is off to him. I think that is the fair way of doing it. I am a fan of Tracy's music, have been since "Sticks and Stones," and of course, "Time Marches On," which is a great song. This controversy is nothing personal against Tracy, James Stroud or anyone at DreamWorks. The fact is, we were pitched the song, obtained the license, and cut the song. I got Vince Gill to come in and sing harmony with me on the song. Vince is one of the most remarkably talented people in this industry. To have Vince believe in my talent really flatters me, and I appreciate him singing on the song.

[Doak Turner] How did you get Vince Gill to sing on your song?

Ken Mellons Vince and I had sung together at his basketball tournament that he used to do several years ago at Belmont University here in Nashville. I thought that we sounded good together, so a couple years later we sittin' together and talking in the dugout at a softball tournament and I asked him, "Man, would you be interested in ever coming in the studio and singin' with me sometime?" Vince said, "I would love it Do you know why?" I said, "No, I don't," and Vince said, "Cause you sing right." (Laughter) When we were tracking for this CD, there were two songs, in particular that I thought Vince would sound good on with me, and "Paint Me A Birmingham" was one of them.

The other song is one that I wrote with John Northrup called "All I Need Is A Bridge." Rebecca Lynn Howard, a very talented artist, was nice enough to come in and sing the high part on that song. I am just really excited about this CD; it just really turned out great. I feel like in the early '90s I made some pretty good records that I'm very proud of, but I truly believe this is the best CD that I have ever done in my career. I have been in the music business for eleven years, and this is definitely my career record. I feel like the singin' is so much stronger. As a singer I have matured a lot vocally since the '90s. I am thirty-eight years old now and not a kid. Since I had a hand in co-producing this one, I am particular to it in that sense, song wise, and I am proud of the people like Vince Gill, Rebecca Lynn Howard, and George Jones, who believed in the project and came in and sang with me on it. Larry Cordell, who is a great bluegrass artist in his own right along with Terry Eldridge, who plays in Larry's band, were kind enough to come in and sing with me on the CD.

[Doak Turner] George sang on your second CD, He'll Never Be A Lawyer (Cause He Can't Pass A Bar).

Ken Mellons Yea, he and John Anderson came in and sang that song with me on the CD Where Forever Begins, that I cut with Sony in the '90s.

[Doak Turner] What is it about the song, "Paint Me A Birmingham," that you just had to cut it on your CD?

Ken Mellons Lyrically, the song blew me away. It is such a well-written song. The melody is haunting. When I first heard the song, I could relate to it because I had just went through a divorce a year ago last October, and I have a three-year-old little boy. I wouldn't wish a divorce on anyone; it is one of the hardest things I have ever had to go through in my life. My wife and I were married for seven years. It is really tougher when there are children involved, and I really did not want the divorce. I guess sometimes things happen and they don't work out so you have to go your separate ways. We still have a good relationship, as you have to when you have children. I still love her and have feelings for her, so when I heard this song, it really hit home. I am a songwriter myself and it is one of those songs that when you hear it you say, "I wish I would have written that song."

There are other songs on the CD that are special to me that I wrote during the time when I was goin' through my divorce. There is one song that I wrote with Dean Dillon and John Northrup called "You Can't Make My Heart Believe That You Have Made Up Your Mind To Leave." It sounds like a song that the great Vern Gosdin would've sang on the Chiseled Stone album. There is another song called "All I Need Is A Bridge" with Vince Gill and Rebecca Lynn Howard singin' with me that was written by me and John Northrup, that is also kind of autobiographical with my experience of going through a divorce. It is hard to sing songs like that . . . songs that you are so close to. It's easy to sing the songs with so much feelin' and emotion because I am living them right now. I think that is what makes "Paint Me a Birmingham" so special to me. I can relate to the song, and I think there are a lot of people who can, too. When we went into the studio to cut the song, there was a lot of emotion as I am singin' because I am living the song at the same time.

[Doak Turner] It really sound like you are living the song when you sing it. When you are putting together a CD, what are you looking for in songs that will convince Ken Mellons to sing that song on his album?

Ken Mellons We cut fifteen sides (songs) and I think five or six of those I co-wrote. I really felt like we found some great outside songs this time and were very fortunate with John Northrup's great ear in finding those songs. He found a song that is the title track, "Sweet," when Terry Wakefield pitched him the song over at Sony. Walt Aldridge and Greg Barnhill wrote the song. It is one of those songs that when I first heard it, I liked it, but it had some odd chord changes in it, as George Jones would say "off chords." It's a positive song and I liked the groove of it. At first I told John Northrup, my manager, that I did not want to record the song. He said, "Ken I am telling you this is a hit song." He suggested we go in the studio to cut it and see what happens. I had some ideas, musically and productive wise, that I wanted to do with the song. Harmony wise, I wanted it to be country. When I sing a song, it has to be country. I got Larry Cordell and Rebecca Lynn Howard to sing the harmony. The song really turned out great. Another great outside song that we found is called "Single Again." It is a great honky-tonk song. Anyone that knows me and my songs knows that I love and have a passion for traditional honky-tonk music. It is another song that I asked myself, "Why did I not think of that song?!" I look for songs that I relate to and sing well with melodies I can pull off; songs that let the listener feel what I'm feelin', as you said about me singin' "Paint Me a Birmingham."

[Doak Turner] When does the CD hit the stores?

Ken Mellons I believe it is due out the end of October. Right now, as we are doin' the interview, George Jones is scheduled to come in and sing harmony with me on a song that I wrote called "Institute Of Honky-Tonks" and another song that John Northrup wrote called "If I Were You." I talked to Nancy (George Jones's wife) a couple of weeks ago, and George is excited to come in to the studio. It's just a matter of gettin' one's schedules together.

[Doak Turner] Is there a Ken Mellons tour scheduled with the release of the CD?

Ken Mellons We hope so, but right now we are letting the single heat up on radio and see what happens with the song. If it takes off and we are fortunate enough to have a hit with the song, it will open up the door for fall and winter dates.

[Doak Turner] How do you promote your songs to radio?

Ken Mellons When you cut a record, choose a single and ship it to radio, you hope they take the time to listen to it, hope they like it. You hope they will have the opportunity, whether through consultants, program director, or music director, to add the song to their play list. A lot of times they test it on their audience to see if it works. From my end of it, I call radio station program and music directors. If I can't talk to them one on one, I leave them a voice mail with my cell number so they can call me back on my cell phone or at the office. We have someone that works for our label, Home Records, on radio promotion. His name is David Vaughn; he does the promotion to radio, calls the station, and tries to get them to listen and play the song. Even at the big companies, for instance, my good friend that I went all through school with, Rob Dalton, is at Curb Records, and he does the same process. They will have regional promotion directors that talk to the radio stations to try to get them to play the songs.

[Doak Turner] Is there a radio tour planned for the CD?

Ken Mellons If they want me to do one, I guess I will. I have done three radio tours in my career. The first was on a bus, traveling to radio stations across the country. The second was on airplanes, visiting the major radio stations to promote a CD. My last one is what I call the "Loretta Lynn tour," visiting ninety-four radio stations in twenty eight days with John Northrup and MC Potts (my manager and his wife). We would just go to stations in Texas, give them the CD, and hope they like it. Then, we would get back in the car, eat our bologna sandwiches, and go to the next town. It helped a song that was called "Mr. DJ" go to and stay in the "Texas Radio Charts" top ten for over 50 weeks. I enjoy it; I am a people person, and I know it is not every day that a lot of the smaller markets have an artist stop by and see them at the stations.

[Doak Turner] Tell me about your songwriting process.

Ken Mellons I love and have been writin' songs for fifteen years or so. I don't know if I have a certain way of goin' about it; sometimes the hook comes first. Other times it's the melody, title, or the lyrics. I have to be inspired by something to co-write. I have been co-writing for years and the opportunity to co-write with some of the greatest co-writers in Nashville: Dean Dillon, Billy Lawson, Skip Ewing, Paul Overstreet, Gary Nicholson, Jamie Richardson, Keith Perry, Dale Watson, John Northrup, and John Scott Sherrill. I hope I am not leaving out anyone. So many have taken time out of their schedule to write songs with me.

I feel like you grow as a songwriter every year and every day that you write you learn something. Sometimes we can be in a co-write, just sitting around talking, and strike up an idea that way. For instance, one of the songs on this CD, "You Can't Make My Heart Believe," came about kind of that way. I was driving one Saturday to Anniston, Alabama, not a planned trip - just going along in my truck. I was on I-24 going over Mont Eagle Mountain and all of a sudden, this idea just came to me about you can't make my heart believe you've made up your mind to leave. I was going through the divorce and that line was all that I had, it became the title. I would write down everything that I could think of as I was driving. I knew I had a writing session with Dean Dillon and John Northrup that Monday morning. I came up with a melody and did not have a guitar with me as I was humming along and didn't even have a tape recorder with me. I was hoping that I wouldn't forget this melody. On Monday, I had the writin' session with the co-writers; we talked for thirty minutes, and they knew I was going through this divorce. They had given me advice, opinions, and told me just to hang in there and it would be OK. They asked if anyone had any ideas. I got my guitar out and I sang what I had: the chorus, melody, and a verse. They both liked it, so we jumped on it and wrote the song. Dean put in some odd chords, cause he is really good at all those different chords, and me being a hillbilly, I only know about three chords. He put some chord changes that really added to the song. The work tape kills me and the song just turned out better than I could have ever imagined.

[Doak Turner] Any advice for songwriters?

Ken Mellons I have always tried to give this advice to singers, songwriters or anyone. If you have a dream, never give up on it. Don't let someone tell you that you are not going to make it. The good Lord up above gives us all talents in different areas and if it is meant for you to be a songwriter or the President of the United States, it is goin' to happen. You have to have a positive attitude, persistence, and it will all pay off. Keep writing, the more you write, the better you will get, and try to get with some other writers to craft your skill. Songwriters that are as good or better than you are going to make you a better songwriter. Knock on as many doors as you can to have people listen to your songs. You just never know what might happen on the journey.

[Doak Turner] How did John Northrup end up managing you here at PLA Media?

Ken Mellons John started writin' with me at a period of time when I was at Curb Records as an artist. I was writin' for their publishing company at the time. My phone wasn't ringing off the hook for someone to write with me or sing demos for them. John and I were put together to co-write through a mutual friend of ours at Curb Records, Dale Dotson. We wrote together three times a week from the year 2000 to the beginning of this year. John would always ask me what was goin' on with my career, and he would give me ideas. After a month of that, I told him he needs to manage me. He believed in me, and I told him that I did not know what to do. He said he didn't want to manage anyone, then after a couple days, we talked about it again. He asked how I would feel if Pam Lewis and himself would co-manage me. I talked with Pam and felt like it would be a great team. Pam has a passion for what she does and has some great people that work at her office that are the backbone of PLA Media, people like John Clore, Heather and Kristyn. It's their determination, passion, love for me, and hard work that make it happen. It doesn't go unnoticed that they put a lot of hard work and effort in my career. With the combination of PLA Media, David Vaughan doing the promotions at Home Records, and David Vowell, who is the president of the record company, you have a great team.

MC Potts also does a lot of work at PLA Media and is a talented singer and songwriter; we have written some great songs together. David Vowell signed me to a record deal in May right after I got out of my deal at Curb Records. I appreciate him believing in my talents and givin' me the opportunity to have full control over production, songs, and musicians. His wife, Tanna, has been great with her efforts with the company. I had a couple major labels talking to me about a record deal. I have got to be honest with you, I did not want another deal with a major label, as I have been down that road twice before. I wanted the freedom for Ken Mellons to make the music that he has a passion for and that is traditional honky-tonk and not have to please twenty people. I just wanted to be able to please myself and the people that believed in me.

[Doak Turner] Best wishes Ken. I am sure you will have a great new CD and everyone that reads this interview should check it out. I heard both versions of "Paint Me A Birmingham" and your version is awesome! Continued success!

Note: Go to www.kenmellons.com for more information on Ken!


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