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Putman a great songwriter, good man, humble soul

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Lebanon songwriter Curly Putman strums his guitar while sitting in the music room of the house he lived in for 40 years. He wrote or co-wrote more than 50 Top-40 country hits. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
Curly Putman and Paul McCartney in the summer of 1974 when the ex-Beatle and his band Wings rented Putman's farm for six weeks. Submitted
Curly Putman, right, hobnobs with Dolly Parton and Porter Wagner at a Nashville shindig in the 1970s. Parton had her first chart single with the tunesmith's "Dumb Blonde" in 1967, and Wagner had a No. 4 country hit with "Green Green Grass of Home" in 1965. Submitted

With the passing of Curly Putman, who died in his sleep Sunday, Lebanon lost a good man and the world lost a great storyteller.

Curly told his best tales with words and music and did it in three minutes.

Curly was country when country wasn't cool. When he came to Nashville in the early 1960s, country music radio was the poor stepchild to pop radio, both of them on the AM dial.

His biggest hit, "Green Grass of Home," a hit for both Porter Wagoner and Tom Jones may have been one of the first country tunes that made the big leap over to the pop side.

Like every fourth person living in the Nashville area, I once aspired to become a country songwriter. Sometime in the mid-1980s, I shared that dream with the late Jack Hendrickson, owner of local radio station WCOR.

Curly Putman No. 1 hits

"My Elusive Dreams" (co-written with Billy Sherrill), Tammy Wynette & David Houston

"D-I-V-O-R-C-E" (co-written with Bobby Braddock), Tammy Wynette

"He Stopped Loving Her Today" (co-written with Bobby Braddock), George Jones

"Blood Red and Goin' Down," Tanya Tucker

"Baby, I'll Be Coming Back for More," "Do You Want to Go to Heaven?" "War Is Hell on the Homefront Too," T.G. Sheppard

Top 10 hits

"Green Green Grass of Home," Tom Jones, Porter Wagoner

"Smooth Sailing," T.G. Sheppard

"It Don't Feel Like Sinnin' to Me," the Kendalls

"I Meant Every Word He Said," Ricky Van Shelton

"I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way," T. Graham Brown

"It's a Cheatin' Situation," Moe Bandy

"Just for You," Ferlin Husky

"You Can Have Your Kate and Edith Too," the Statler Brothers

"When Can We Do This Again?" Doug Stone

"Older the Violin, the Sweeter the Music," Hank Thompson

"Let's Keep It That Way," Mac Davis

"I Think I Know," Marion Worth

"Little Black Book," Jimmy Dean

"Whisper," Lacy J. Dalton

Jack told me, "Well, let me take you on over to meet my friend Curly Putman and maybe he can help you out."

The kind offer left me flabbergasted and stunned. "Whoa," I thought, "take my feeble efforts to one of Music City's top tunesmiths?"

I graciously thanked Hendrickson but told him I was not quite ready for such heady company.

That was a mistake on my part. Not because I think I blew a shot at learning how to write a good song, but because I missed the opportunity to know Curly sooner.

It was somewhere in the mid-1990s that I met my Wilson County neighbor, introduced to him by his son Troy, with whom I played church league basketball. His father was a delight to know.

He was a kind and gentle soul and always in a contented state of mind when I visited with him.

I interviewed Curly a couple of times about his career as I had been a fan of his songs since the 1960s.

While I haven't heard all of his 800 or so songs, my favorite remains "My Elusive Dreams." The melody is lovely and the lyrics are sweet and sad as a man reveals his ambition of chasing for the right opportunities -- "fleeting things" -- while dragging his devoted wife with him from place to place. The kick in the gut comes when they have a baby that dies, and the lyric goes "but this time, only two of us moves on."

Curly's greatest songs were like that, emotional blows near the end of the story that smacked you right between the ears. How this good-natured, sweetheart of a fellow came up with such melancholy scenarios, I don't know. I wish I had asked.

He did tell me this.

"The idea is so important. There is a fine line of being tuned in to what is happening to the trend of music. The best songs have to be when you're inspired to write. Whatever I write is gonna lean to the traditional country side."

Curly was so right, and he was so true to who he was and what he did. Practically every major country singer of the 1960s and 1970s recorded one of his songs. It would be easier to list the names of those who did not than those who did.

Dolly Parton shared these thoughts with The Wilson Post via an email a few days ago, writing, "Curly Putnam was one of my favorite people in the world, one of the great writers in the business and he wrote my first chart record, 'Dumb Blonde.' I always was thought of him as a good friend and person who helped me get started in this business. He will be loved and missed."

Curly's fellow songwriting great, Bobby Braddock, with whom he co-wrote "He Stopped Loving Her Today" for George Jones, and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," for Tammy Wynette, not only knew him as a writing partner but as a friend to many young writers. Braddock wrote earlier this week on his Facebook page: "I can't think of anyone who has mentored more songwriters, and this is the short list: Sonny Throckmorton, Red Lane, Rafe Van Hoy, Don Cook, Jamie O'Hara, Michael Kosser, Ron Hellard, Steve Pippin, Sterling Whipple and myself."

Kosser, also a friend and co-writer with Curly, and who served as "professor of songwriting" at Cumberland University for several years, said, "Songwriters tend to be a self-involved lot. Curly was different. There are some great hit songwriters who would not have had a career, if Curly had not taken time from HIS career to help them early in their career, when they needed it most. I saw it first, with me, 45 years ago, and I've seen it at least a half dozen times since. He was a generous man with his time, and a generous man with his admiration and approval. For a creative artist, that is incredible generosity."

I also asked Peter Cooper, senior director, producer and writer at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with whom I worked with at The Tennessean a decade ago, to share his thoughts on Curly's creative gifts.

Cooper sent this note on Wednesday:

"Every country music songwriter dreams of writing an enduring classic for the ages.

"Curly Putman attained that goal early in his career, with 'Green Green Grass of Home.' Then he went on to do so much more. Without him, George Jones would not have had a signature song in 'He Stopped Loving Her Today,' and Dolly Parton would not have had a career-starting single in 'Dumb Blonde.' Without Curly, we would not have the heart-tugging Tammy Wynette hit, 'D-I-V-O-R-C-E.'

"Those songs are works of creative fiction, grounded in emotional truth. Curly Putman was the embodiment of a songwriter's greatest asset: empathy. He understood the turmoils that roil within the seemingly calm, and he articulated our elusive dreams. In a competitive business, he was kind and helpful. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum deemed him a 'Poet and Prophet,' and he came to the museum in 2009 to share his stories and his insights.

George Jones couldn't be there for Curly's 'Poets and Prophets' program, but he sent a letter pronouncing Curly 'one of the greatest songwriters to ever hit this town.'
"Nashville is the lesser for his passing, and the better for his having been here to show us the way to grace and poetry," stated Cooper.
A few days ago, I spoke with Curly's son, Troy, and asked him what was the most the important lesson he learned from his father.

He answered, "The Golden Rule. Treating people the way you want to be treated, and I think he did that. He was one guy everybody loved on Music Row.

"I've been amazed at the outpouring of so many wonderful things, but I knew them about my dad. He was unique, almost painfully humble. He never understood how he could be so lucky. He felt like he never measured up," said Troy.

"I wanted to tell him, 'Your songs are gonna outlive us all.' He was a humble dude. He befriended so many folks. Buddy Killen, Roger Miller, Tom Jones, George Jones. They listened to him when he called. They picked up the phone. They knew when he was calling, he had something worthwhile to listen to.

"He was a gentle soul, genuine and real. He came from nothing, the whole sawmill thing and Putman Mountain. Kind of like the Waltons only with a moonshine twist. Not as refined as John-Boy Walton. It was a little more rustic than that, but they all loved each other," Troy said of the Putman clan.

"Dad, for the most part, didn't like to be around large groups of people. I don't think he was meant for the stage even though he had a great voice, very soulful. A lot of his co-writers wanted him to sing the demos of their songs.

"He wrote a lot of sad songs. Heck, everybody gets killed off in all his songs," said Troy, referring to such titles as "Green Green Grass of Home," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "Blood Red and Goin' Down" and "My Elusive Dreams," where death is a main plot line.

As for his father's hobbies, Troy said, "He loved to fish. I've been thinking about him and Sean [Troy's son who died at the age of 8 in 2005] and them fishing together on the pond on Franklin Road. They were good fishing buddies.

"My earliest memories of running with him are going to Sligo [at Center Hill Lake] to fish at night under black lights. It might be with Porter Wagoner and Harlan Howard or Jerry Reed and Ray Stevens. That's the people I got to fish with, sitting in back of the boat with my dad. He was a country boy. He also liked to belly up and hang out and drink a beer with folks."

Winding down with optimism, Troy said, "The 'Green Green Grass of Home.' It all relates to getting back to home. By George, he made it back home."

Curly Putman leaves a legacy of incredible songs that have touched millions around the world. As long as there is country music, his stories will continue to be sung. There was nothing "fleeting" about the dreams he followed and fulfilled.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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