His mom and dad wrote The Everly Brothers’ classics, but Del Bryant built his own legacy among songwriters at BMI.
This is an extended version of an article first published in the June 14th issue of Billboard Magazine.
It’s one thing to be born into the family business. But it’s another when your family business is the catalog of the legendary husband-and-wife songwriting team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, members of both the Songwriters and Country Music Halls of Fame, writers of more than 6,000 songs, who not only wrote nearly all of the Everly Brothers’ classics — “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do Its Dream”— but also “Love Hurts,” “Sleepless Nights,” and “Rocky Top,” which is one of Tennessee’s official state songs.
And while Del Bryant didn’t stay fulltime in the family business — he’s stepping down from his post as BMI’s CEO after some 42 years with the organization, and is receiving the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame’s Visionary Leadership Award — it’s hard to imagine a better education for the career he did take on. Songwriting has quite literally been his entire life’s work, from the writing his parents did at any and all hours of the day to the pitch sessions at their house, which was bursting with country legends coming by for a home-cooked meal and some home-brewed songs.
“When I was born my parents were in the middle of having their first hit: Jimmy Dickins’ ‘Country Boy’,” Bryant recalls, seated on a couch in his large but tastefully decorated corner office in BMI’s New York headquarters. “So my and my brother’s childhood — Dane and I are only 16 months apart — was a backstage existence, it was surrounded by songs being written, pitched, played. Some of the earliest faces I remember were Chet Atkins, who was my dad’s best friend; Eddy Arnold, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb — these people were around a lot, and we went to the Grand Ole Opry every weekend. We played a lot of with all of the other second-generation kids who were there, like Hank [Williams] Jr. running around behind the stage, causing havoc and bedlam every weekend. Everybody knew my brother and myself because we were kind of a fixture in the country-music life of Nashville.”
Those legends would often be charged with watching the Bryant boys backstage at the Opry while the parents got to work: Boudleaux pitching songs in the dressing rooms while Felice pumped up the crowd every time one of their songs was performed, which was just about every night.
“When she heard one of their songs, she would go into the auditorium and … she could do a scream that could be heard for miles around, and it would start an avalanche of applause [for] encores. And when she did that, my brother and I would be assigned to someone, it could be Kitty Wells or Minnie Pearl or String Bean. Just about everyone in country music at that time babysat us.”
As the years went by, Del’s involvement with the family business grew, as he graduated from the University of Miami; worked one summer as the office boy at family friend Roy Orbison’s label Monument; and did a stint in the Air Force. So when a call came from Frances Preston — the pioneering executive who founded BMI’s Nashville office in 1958 and steadily rose through the ranks before retiring as the company’s CEO in 2004 — asking which of the Bryant boys would like to work for her, the decision that would shape the next 42 years of Del’s life (and result in him taking over as CEO upon Preston’s retirement) took but a few minutes.
“My brother and I were at our folks’ home, and Frances Preston called and asked to get both of them on the phone. And in just a matter of minutes my mother comes down the stairs, sobbing — she said ‘Frances Preston wants to hire one of my boys and she doesn’t care which one!’ My mother was so proud that either of us came up to Frances’ standards. ‘Is anybody interested?’ And my brother said ‘I’m not’ — he had just gotten back from Vietnam and was just happy as could be to be home. And I had married very early and I had a young child and I had one on the way, as Loretta [Lynn] would say.
“So [taking the job at BMI] was primarily a monetary driver, but with my experiences and my training — I say training, it was just life: learning how to do demos and what they were; getting the house ready when somebody was coming over for a pitch session; I had been in charge of a lot of the royalties with [the Bryants’ publishing company], I was good with numbers, I understood how a writer was paid, I was the one in the family who could guestimate what was coming in. It could not have been better schooling to go and work in Nashville with BMI. It was so natural, so easy, so much fun.”
As far as he’s risen within BMI and the songwriting community, it’s clear that Del relished his early years with the company in Nashville. He worked with and/or signed established writers he knew through his family — “the Billy Sherrills [‘Stand by Your Man’], the Curly Putnams [‘Green, Green Grass of Home’], the John D. Loudermilks [‘Break My Mind’], the Everly Brothers, the Roy Orbisons” — and the unknown ones who would soon become pillar members of Nashville’s songwriting establishment — “Dennis Morgan and Kye Fleming and Paul Overstreet and Dean Dillon and Eddie Rabbit.”
And along the way, there were plenty of memorable moments. “I’d get to hang out with a lot of these artists on their buses: Tammy Wynette, Wille, Waylon, Alabama, David Allan Coe — that was a scarier bus!” he laughs. “We’d go to see Willie Nelson at Pedernales, his golf course/home. He’d have every famous golfer or golf pro in the world hanging out so you could be getting instruction from them and then you’d go play with Willie, and then talk about music with some of the other people there and go into the studio they had there and hear songs. And then we went down to Houston to hang out with ZZ Top. And on another great trip I went down to [Miami] with the Bee Gees, this was ’77 or ’78, just after ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ They were big fans of my parents, they did a little a capella ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream,’ and then Barry took me in the studio and sang ‘Rest Your Love on Me,’ which he’d recently had cut by Johnny Rodriguez. He was very, very excited that he had a country hit. I had a career full of those types of exciting situations.”
But amid the often-confusing specifics of what performing rights organizations like BMI actually do — primarily, they collect performing-rights royalties for songwriters — one of their most valuable roles is to act as a “conduit,” as Del describes it, for those songwriters.
“I’ve always looked at us as a conduit into other situations,” he explains. “You introduce [a songwriter] to somebody they might need to meet, whether it’s a publisher, or a cowriter, or a banker to help keep them in town, or someone who’s renting apartments to help get ’em a place to stay, a musician that would help get them ready for a showcase, artists looking for songs, or record labels. We’re introduction machines.”
ADVICE FOR ASPIRANTS
From those countless situations — from his perspectives as the CEO and president of BMI, as the manager of an extremely valuable catalog and a songwriter himself, as a “conduit” to many other aspects of the business, Bryant has accumulated more than 50 years of wisdom for songwriters. So what advice would he have for young songwriters?
His first and perhaps the most sage words comes from the experience of his parents, who managed to reclaim the copyrights to many of their songs after just 10 years. “After you’ve established yourself, I would strongly recommend having some sort of avenue open where you might reclaim your copyrights earlier than the 35-year reclamation,” he says. “I would also make sure that, to a certain extent, I was involved with my deals: Not turning everything over to an attorney or some business manager. Don’t give that strength to someone else so that when they disappear or close out you don’t have that relationship.
“I would also remember that the best publishers in the world are true partners that have good ideas and good music savvy and are a real entrée into opening up the full horizons that you’re interested in,” he continues, “whether it’s film, TV, theater, collaborating with any number of people. Don’t just look at the publishers as a bank, because so many people today make decisions based on dollars. I’ve always made decisions based on the people and their ability to open the horizons with me. And get involved with people who love what you do.”
And how can you tell if people genuinely love what you do?
“The way I did it,” he replies with a smile. “I could sing their songs back to them.”
Inevitably, when you’ve been in the business for as many years as Del has, certain things have come full circle. “Years ago, I signed a couple, Hugh Moffatt and his wife [Patricia “Pebe” Sebert], they had a hit in the ’70s with ‘Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You.’ Years go on, they have a baby, they separate, and about four or five years ago the mother calls me. ‘I have a daughter who’s just great, would you go and see her?’ We talked and I said it didn’t really sound right for my ears, but let me set her up with one of our people, Samantha Cox — she’s the one who found Lady Gaga. Samantha liked her, got one of her tapes to Dr. Luke, and you know who it was? Ke$ha. Same thing with Holly Williams — I love her dad [Hank Jr.], and I’d see her granddad, Hank Senior, at the Opry. You stay somewhere long enough and those types of things happen.”
And while he’s stepping down from BMI, Del is hardly retiring. He’s on the boards of two schools as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he’s got his family business to run with his brother, and he and his wife are renovating a house outside Nashville. Most of all — “one of the big catalysts to me saying the time is right [to step down] — is his 10-year-old son, Thaddeus. “I’ve got kids aged 44, 42, and 31 who I really don’t feel I raised. I’m ready.” He gestures to his son’s photo in his iPhone. “When you ask this gentlemen, what are you gonna do tomorrow and he says I dunno, I’m just as excited as can be to stand next to him and answer the same way.
“I’m ready for a little of that question mark in life from which every opportunity springs.”