Billy Yates is a gentleman in country music (though he should not to be confused with one namesake from bluegrass band Country Gentlemen) who has been through the major label wringer and emerged stronger to run his independent record company M.O.D. - My Own Damn Label. Through which channel he has released eight albums. Just Be You being the latest. He has toured in Europe and the UK and has now made the decision to tour and promote his work in Ireland. Billy did a series of gigs including one where he opened for Robert Mizzell and used his Country Kings band to back him up. Yates declared that he was "too country and proud of it" and his easy manner won him new fans. His set mixed his own material that included Flowers and songs that had a strong element of humour in titles like Daddy Had A Cardiac And Mama's Got A Cadillac as well as his song of tolerance American Voices and his George Jones co-write I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair along side well received covers of songs from Merle Haggard, Gene Watson and George Strait. The audience immediately related to these choices and made sure his live set hit home. Yates will hopefully bring his own band on future gigs that will add an additional layer of energy and authenticity that comes from the experience of playing together over a period of time. On his gig and promotional tour Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to have a conversation with Billy.
There was a five year gap between your debut album on ALMO and your next release what has happening with your career during that time?
I was wasting my time trying to get another record deal (laughs). But actually when I was leaving ALMO Flowers was doing well. They were having a lot of problems with the label at the time as they had struggled for a long time to get the label off the ground in the Nashville division. I think that there was a lot of frustration in the promotion department. They were about to close their doors but they didn't really know it. But I knew it. I saw it coming. I had a call from Alan Butler, who was running Sony, and he had said "Billy can you get out of that deal?". I said I didn't know if I could get out of the deal or not but he told me "If you can get out of the deal I'll sign you here at Sony". So basically the time spent after leaving ALMO was the time spent trying to make something happen at Sony. That happens a lot of times, it's so not uncommon. A lot of people spend time with a label that doesn't work out. I have a lot of records in the can. I have one at RCA, one at Curb, one at Sony. So that's what I was doing at that time.
Is any of the unreleased material available to you?
I can re-record stuff of course, but as regards to those actual tracks I have no rights. But in all honesty I have evolved some and there were a lot of compromises forced upon me. So some of those works are things that I'm not that excited about. They're good. It's real country stuff because I fought for that. It's music I believed in but it was also a little watered down simply because you had committees that chose the material.
When had you decided that being a singer and songwriter was your career path?
I grew up on a small farm in Missouri and I knew early on it was something I wanted to do. I didn't know how to dream as big as it actually got, even though it's not been hugh, I still didn't know how to dream that big being in a small town. I knew that the sky was the limit. But I was oblivious as to what was beyond the clouds. As a kid I knew it was something I wanted to do. I thought that that meant singing in some band locally.
Was country your music of choice growing up or where there other influences?
That's kinda interesting as before I was born my parents house had burned down and they had loved country music and they had played it. So they had been given a gift from the radio station of a whole stack of records. It was Buck Owens, it was Jim Reeves, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell. So you are what you eat so as kids we ate a lot of traditional country music. I always loved that. As I got older even when I was in high school country music was not cool. Not the think to do, you know, but I still loved it. I never lost my appetite for it. When I had my buddies in the car and I was driving round I would be listening to the local pop station just to keep everyone happy, but that didn't mean I liked it. When they weren't in the car I'd go to the highest point in the city and from there I could pick up the Grand Ole Opry. I would sit alone and listen to it a lot of nights and weekends when my friends were out partying. I had such a strong desire to hear that music and that never left. It's still there. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music but there's still only one type of music that gives me goosebumps.
You wrote some songs with some great traditionally orientated writers including Paul Overstreet, Irene Kelley, Melba Montgomery, Shannon Lawson and Leslie Shatcher. Many of whom seemed to have fallen off the radar now, is it hard to find your self out of favour?
Yeah, one thing that Nashville is a little bit guilty of is that sometimes you're 'flavour of the month' and your lucky if you get to be that guy for awhile. For those guys, and obviously I'm not speaking for them, but I would guess that they would love to be back there. I'm sure they're still writing songs. I was recently at a songwriter's festival in Key West because I like to know what's going on and there were a lot of people there who have had a lot of success and I would love to be able to write with them. I've gone through a phase for the last two or three years were I've not been co-writing at all but have been writing by myself. Now I'm going back to a phase were I'm starting to co-write again. So I went to that Key West songwriters festival because I want to see who's happening. If you're going to co-write you might as well see if you can write with people who are having hits.
Do you do that to learn something from their process?
I do, If you want to stay current you have to know what's going on. I don't want to live in a bubble. I try to do what I do best and as a artist I'm always going to be country. But I'm also a lyricist and when you write lyrics the way I do I love to hear a big pop melody and I consider how it would sound under one of my lyrics. I'm really broadminded that way. That's one thing that maybe sets me apart a little bit from most of the more traditional people that I know. Again, I know that it gives me goosebumps when I hear great music, 'cause I know it when I do hear it. So I really try to keep an open mind.
In the 90s country seemed to have a way to particular edgy sound, a blend twang with the better aspects of rock. The way that artists like Dwight Yoakam and Bob Woodruff did for a time. Has that kind of innovation been purged from the mainstream?
That's was a really innovative time. It seems right now we're going through a phase where a lot of the writers are maybe trying too hard to get something on the radio. They're trying too much to get that rather than being innovators. I was writing at a big company and the president of the company came in and said "we have to talk about the songs we're writing and our direction. I'm talking to people at the record labels and they're saying that radio is want this and this and this". I raised my hand and I said "well this is a promotion guy whose talking to some guy at the radio station and our job is to innovate. We shouldn't worry about what just got cut as when your chasing something you're behind it. If you're going to be a songwriter you need to be ahead and to innovate. I have to write today what's going to hit a year from now.
In the way that Bill Anderson has been able to write songs that have worked through several decades. Country, but adapted to current trends.
Exactly. It's honest music. I think that's the key. What Jamey's doing is very honest. To me good music is honest. It doesn't matter what type it is if it has that quality. So I don't want to sit here and sound like I'm this big naysayer of what's happening in Nashville because it is what it is. You accept it if you're going to do business in that town. If I just sit and moan about it what good does that really do me?
The Industry is changing a lot, what has the effect of that been in Nashville?
I think that some of the major labels have to be nervous, if they're being truthful, because the way the world works today is so much smaller with the internet and they way some artists are thriving. Independent artists are kicking ass. I want to be one of those I don't want to be the guy who has to fit in some mould. I sometimes explain it this way -there are acts and there are artists. If you're an act you need those people to tell you how to dress, how to sing and what songs to sing. If your an artist you don't need that. So with the independent world the way it is an artist can thrive and they find their audience and that audience can find them and that makes it honest music. All of a sudden you have a lot of great music out there. But you have to go and find it.
Producing your music on your own label means that you are the one making those decisions. How does that effect you?
I haven't made any compromises. I don't have to apologize. If you don't like something then I take full responsibility. It was not something that was forced on me. As I get older (laughs), that's going to sound even older in print but I want to be doing this when I'm seventy and doing it my way - whatever that is. Whatever I feel compelled to do.
You have made several inroads to Europe. This is your first visit to Ireland isn't it?
Yes, I've never come to Ireland before. This is my first tour here so I'm excited to be here. I've tried to be strategic about touring in Europe and Ireland is different as there is a big following for country and if you're going to do it I think you need to try and do it right. There are full time country stations here, you don't have that anywhere else in Europe. I see the future for country music in Europe as something really bright in Ireland and I want to be a part of it if the people will accept me.
You have had covers from George Jones and George Strait but also by David Allen Coe and Dallas Wayne. Both ends of the scale, that must be satisfying?
You know the David Allen Coe thing is a funny story. He was in the studio working on this record and a buddy of mine was producing it, a guy named Danny Mayo. He called me as I knew Coe from the past as I used to promote shows and I had him on one, and that's another story, but he's a character and he can be very intimidating. So Danny had called and said can you come to the studio as I'm cutting this record on Coe. So I went to the studio and they had already cut the tracks and Coe was doing his vocals and Danny walked out of the studio and said to me "I'll be right back" but he went out and never came back. There had been some sort of row and so Danny had just left. Coe comes out of the vocal booth and says " where did Danny go" and I said "I don't know" and it was just me and the engineer and he was being real quiet so I didn't know what had happened earlier and Coe says "Hell, do you want to produce this record?" (laughs). I told him I could help home get vocals. So I ended up producing his vocals. He asked me then to sing harmony so I did all the background vocals. I love that fringe stuff. That outlaw thing. There's a little bit of that in me too. I am the nice guy but I'm a rebel at heart. When it comes to my music I'm very rebellious, sometimes to my own demise. Dallas Wayne, that's a cool guy.
At this point Ronnie had a couple of questions he wanted to ask Billy:
Ronnie: My world is more in bluegrass. Where is that in your world?
I said I grew up doing music with my family and bluegrass was our thing. I've always said I wasn't good enough to do bluegrass and started doing country. I was never that great on the guitar. I could never get that down. Bluegrass is another kind of music that gives me goosebumps. I've never had any bluegrass cover and I'd love to. There's starting to be more bluegrass people in Nashville now. Rhonda Vincent is an old friend of mine. That's been on my mind actually. I've even though about doing a bluegrass record myself. I love to sing it. There was a time when Ricky Scaggs took bluegrass into country and put the drums in there.
Ronnie: Have you ever interacted with the other Bill Yates (Country Gentlemen)?
No, I've never met him and it's funny as a lot of people get us mixed up. I've had e-mails saying "I'm a huge fan", but it's for him. I'm old but I'm not quite that old (laughs).
Interview by Stephen Rapid with Ronnie Norton. Photograph by Ronnie Norton