BILLY YATES: Interview "Bill's Barber Shop"

Billy Yates first cut as a songwriter was the George Jones' smash, "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair", but that initial success was the culmination of years of hard work and thin times, as well as an uncompromising commitment to the power of country music.

Having had the experience of traveling all over the country performing at various venues in nearly every state, including more than twenty appearances on the world-famous Grand Ole Opry, Yates is now taking his music across the water where he will perform at nearly 50 festivals and events in Europe this year. "The country music fans of Europe are so passionate and love the music so much that it's an absolute thrill to perform in front of them", says Yates who's foreign single release, "Better Every Beer" is currently burning up the European country music charts.

Billy and I took a breather during a very busy week this summer to visit about his songs, his travels and some of his special memories.

Bev: Billy, we have known each other for some time and I am always so amazed with your new songs and your ability to really relate to your fans and give such a personal touch to your music. What do you have that you are working on right now?

Billy: Bill’s Barbershop is the latest CD I have been working on which comes out on August 25th. What is so cool about this is that it is the fact that my dad was a barber for forty years and I grew up in that barbershop. The picture on the cover is of him in his barbershop, Bill’s Barbershop and the sign was his actual sign as well. This is a tribute to those days. There are so many stories that were told and also about things that happened in that shop that influence what I do as a song writer. It was a surprise for him when he saw that we did a CD about his shop. I had the artwork all done before I showed it to him.

Bev: What was his reaction?

Billy: Oh, he was really thrilled! My mom was jealous.

Bev: So now you have to come up with something for her, like Betty’s Kitchen or something? (laughs)

Billy: The last CD I did was called “That’s Why I Run” which was a little more modern country. This one is more traditional. Especially for the European market which I really cater to. They really like that. And the next one will be even more traditional.

Bev: What is your favorite song on this new CD?

Billy: Well, “Bill’s Barber Shop” obviously is pretty special. “Famous For Being A Fool” is another track on that album that I am partial to. It has done really well. It is a single over in Europe. A song called “Margarita Meltdown” got a lot of airplay in Europe. The singles go a lot faster over there. I do a new one about every year.

Bev: How do you keep up the pace with being in Europe so much ,doing so much traveling and continuing to perform here?

Billy: Well, I write a lot on the plane. Coming home from Europe I wrote three songs on the plane. I try to make good use of my time. Like when I am alone in a motel.

Bev: And how long is the flight?

Billy: Eight hours. I can write a song every two hours. (laugh).

Bev: Do you ever feel like there are people looking over your shoulder? Making you nervous?

Billy: Well, on this flight there was a girl who was sitting next to me who thought I was writing a dumb poem or something. All she could see were the words, you know?

Bev: Did you do all the writing for this project yourself since it is so personal?

Billy: Yes, I wrote and co-wrote all the songs on it. Of course, co-writing is something I have always done a lot of. I have been very fortunate to have had a lot of songs recorded by a lot of people. Co-writing is so much fun because you get to hang out with your buddies. Lately, the last few months, I have been writing a lot by myself. So probably the next record that I put out there will be more songs that I have written alone. I have never done that before. I have written a lot of songs about myself, but when you are co-writing you get into a room with someone and you are not coming up with anything, you add a word here or change a word there, sometimes improving and sometimes making it worse. There are so many ways to do that. But pretty soon you have co-written a song.

Bev: What is your worst co-writing experience? Is there one that sticks out in your mind?

Billy: Well, there is this one guy, of course I will not say who it is, and we have been friends for a long time now, but when I got to his house and he was sitting on his couch with his eyes closed. I tapped on the door and he says to come in. So I walked in the door and he is sitting right in front of me on the couch with his guitar in his lap. I eased over and found me a spot on the couch, got my guitar out, and he said “I need you to be quiet”. So I sat there trying to be quiet. He started to work on his song kind of lost in his own world. So I thought I should contribute something or else leave, you know? So I started throwing out some ideas, some lines, and he said “I really need you to just be quiet”. He is sitting there in this trance. After about an hour or an hour and a half I thought “this is crazy”. And so I quietly got my stuff and I put my guitar back in the case and he heard me going out the door. He said “Where are you going?” I answered “I think you have this covered, you do not really need me”. And I excused myself.

Bev: An hour and a half is a long time---ten minutes is a long time! So, was that song ever a hit?

Billy: No.

Bev: Too bad. You could have at least had a good story. Like, I was there when he wrote it! I did not contribute a darn thing but I was there. How about live shows; Any funny stories there?

Billy: I did a show in California with Merle Haggard. I had a record out called “Flowers” and it was like in the top twenty or something like that. Haggard had heard the song and loved it. He invited me to come to California to do the show with him and Buck Owens. Well, they decided not to do the show together and I showed up and Merle wanted me to come on his bus and hang out with him. He is one of my heroes; It was just a perfect day for me, everything went great. Well, he started to do the show. It was one of those times that anything that could go wrong did go wrong! The first thing was a time in the show when I put the guitar down and took the mike in hand, to just sing. Well, the mike was stuck! I was trying not to be obvious while I was gently tugging on the mike. Suddenly it came loose and I chipped a tooth! Then, during the same show, I got tangled in the guitar cord and fell down on the stage.

Bev: How many hit recordings have you had?

Billy: I have never counted them actually. I have had probably fifty some odd songs recorded by other artists, and I have had several singles of my own. I have had those with George Jones that will probably go down as classics, such as” Choices“ and “The Rocking Chair”, those are top twenty records. I have never had a number one. I have never had a top ten. I have never won a BMI award.

Bev: “Rocking Chair” never went to number one?

Billy: Most people think it did. The video is out and you see it a lot. And they still play it on the radio. And that is the great thing about writing and kind of catering to that kind of artist, which is something I have done a lot of. Jones has cut six of my songs. And they continue to get played where I think if you have a number one on someone who is more current, it is up the chart, down the chart and then it is over. With an artist like Jones it becomes a top twenty record, from a financial viewpoint, it probably pays about as well if not better than a number one over time.

Bev: Do you have someone in mind that you would like to record a certain song when you are writing?

Billy: Oh yes. Many times. Sometimes I will be writing something and it kind of hits me that it would be so good for someone especially like Brooks and Dunn. And then I start channeling Ronnie Dunn and I hear his voice in my head and start phrasing for him. Then of course they do not do it, someone else does. For example, “Choices” was not written for George Jones. In fact I was probably channeling it for someone else! But it still ended up being a big record for him. But yes, during the whole writing process, I do hear “voices in my head” so to speak.

Bev: Have you ever written a song for a female or have a female in mind to record it?

Billy: Actually I have. It is a whole different perspective though. Being as how I am married to one, I sort of know how they think.

Bev: Who is your favorite person to co-write with?

Billy: That is a dangerous question you know, because you could offend someone. I love them all for different reasons. I have had great experiences with people who are no longer with us like Harlan Howard. We never wrote a thing together, but we tried to. You can learn a lot from the legendary writers. I used to write a lot with Frank Dycus who was Dean Dillon’s mentor. They wrote “Marina Del Rey”, and a lot of George Strait songs. Frank Dycus taught me a lot. He is one of my all time favorite co-writers and we have written probably close to two hundred songs together. Now today I write with a lot of artists. And writing with a lot of different people, I get something from each of them.

Bev: You did not grow up in Nashville; what was the deciding factor for you to come here?

Billy: No, I grew up in Missouri. My parents and my whole family, on both sides, are very musical. I have an uncle who lives in Nashville who used to be a song writer. He does not write much any more, he is pushing ninety. He wrote stuff for people like the Wilburn Brothers. For George and Tammy he wrote “God’s Gonna Get Ya For That”. Therefore, once I decided this is what I wanted to do, he made it seem attainable. Like, I can do that because he did it. Also, when you are younger, you have no fear. Right out of high school I started making trips here, and I ended up with a development deal with RCA . Mary Martin with RCA was the A & R person and she took an interest in me and told me it was time to move to Nashville. When I was just a kid growing up on this little farm in Missouri, we lived a very simple life. My dad is a barber, mom is a house wife, I am twelve and thirteen years old and coming home to some kind of good snack everyday, she was waiting there. We had a regular Sunday morning radio show, and when I would sing there or in church, with my mom and dad, I do not know at what point I realized that this is what I wanted to do. At one point, I went through a very shy stage and I kind of got away from it. Then again in high school it kind of came back. Out of high school I got really serious about it. I started working in little theaters, because Branson of course was just down the road. There were spin offs of that kind of thing locally where I lived. I was kind of lucky in that I did not have to perform in bars. It gave me a whole different perspective about entertaining. So I did know early on that this is what I wanted to do, but I never dreamed that I would get to do the Grand Ole Opry. Every few weeks I get to play there which is really great. For example if somebody gets sick, they call me. I love it when somebody gets sick! Also, the trips to Europe. Sometimes when I am on stage over there, at some big festival, there are bunches and bunches of people out there singing along to my songs. They do not speak English, but when they do that, I tear up. I have flash backs to when I was a kid. My big dream was to come here and end up on a major record label. You want to be a star. There is that part of it. But once the reality sets in and you realize it was never really about that. It was more about the music anyway. Then when you are doing your music in front of people who love it, you have succeeded.

Bev: How old were you when you actually moved here?

Billy: About twenty three.

Bev: When did you start doing the international shows?

Billy: About seven years ago. My first record deal was at Curb in ninety two; that was five years after I moved to Nashville. I had a developmental deal with RCA before I move here. Of course nothing happened with that. I ended up at Curb and I did a record with Ray Baker. Ray Baker had produced all the Mo Bandy, Mo and Jo stuff and the Right or Wrong album with George Strait, a lot of Merle Haggard stuff. He was a great country producer. We made a really cool record . It was kind of unfortunate, but the powers that be decided that it was really too country. And it may have been I guess. They wanted me to change my style. I decided that I am what I am and did not really want to change my style. I feel very fortunate, because I walked away from that to another deal, then another , then another. Eventually I ended up at Alamo Sounds which was owned by Albert J. Moss. And that was a really fun time. We had a song called “Flowers” that did really well. From there I went to Sony and was on Columbia for about three years. Did a record and a half there . I walked away from there with a great education, because I sat in on all those marketing meetings. I learned how the big label really ticks. When I graduated from that school in essence, I started my own label. Thus came MOD Record Label, (My Own Damn Record Label). And it has been a blast! I started trying to market one of these records in Europe. I saw where there was an audience for that kind of music, the kind of music that I loved, and it is a perfect fit with me and that whole kind of thing. They like the traditional kind of country music. It gave me the opportunity to do what I do without me trying to be someone I am not. I think if you are a real artist, it is not necessary to do that. It was easy for me to make that choice.

Bev: When you go to Europe, and they do not speak English, do you still do meet and greets after your performances?

Billy: Yes, I do do meet and greets. They know the words to my songs; but the thing is some of them do not speak English. Some of them understand it, but cannot speak it. Now in the schools, the younger people are able to speak English. So it is not a real problem. In France they are not as bilingual as in other countries, but I talk with my hands and really do not have too many problems. During the meet and greets sometime due to the fact that their names are so long and hard to spell, I just write “Love, Billy Yates“, or “Thanks, Billy Yates”. It is hard to communicate sometimes, but what is so cool is that they buy the CD’s and they have the music and you know they cannot speak the language. Yet they are singing along to it. It is a phonetic thing.

Bev: What are you doing for promotions for this CD?

Billy: As far as the promotions, I am doing the same thing I do every time. There is no serious infrastructure in Europe. I do not worry so much about distribution. It is not a real necessity, because there are specialty shops. There are great guys like John Lomax here in town that does a great export business. I do a lot of business with him and we get the CDs in all the specialty shops. We go to CD Baby, which is a great tool to make things available on I-Tunes for the European fan base , because they cannot go to the record store to find country records, they rely on the internet and these little specialty shops. It is really not that difficult . That is how I get the music out there. The key to it is to create the demand and the fans and consumers will find the product.

Bev: What about the CMA Festival. Other than your show the “Countriest of the Country”, and media interviews, did you participate in other events during the week?

Billy: In the past I have had a booth and again my fan base is primarily European, so they are here for the music. This year I decided to do special private shows for them rather than do a booth. For example, I had breakfast with a group of about fifty or sixty people from Switzerland at my hotel. I did a private show the one morning for a group of about that same size from England. I did that sort of thing all week. That way they are getting more out of it and so am I. And they seem to love that. Other years I had a booth, but it is a lot of work; and the problem with that was that a lot of European fans were trying to be at Riverfront to see a show and they knew I was at a booth and they didn’t want to let me down. So I decided not to keep them from enjoying the shows; as that is why they are here.. I did a lot of media and I was at the Grand Old Opry Booth

Bev: Now when you are over in Europe, do you find yourself more of a celebrity over there?

Billy: There are some places where people are camped out at the hotel. It definitely happens. You never know exactly where it is going to happen, because it is sort of in pockets. Maybe there is some guy who has a two hour radio program because there is no full time country radio in Europe. For the most part it is some guy who plays an hour or two of country music on Saturday morning. And those people tune in to that and they listen . So it is a whole different way of doing things.

Bev: Billy, it is good to see you again as always and I look forward to seeing you again soon. Thank you for sharing your day with me.

Billy: Anytime, and it is my pleasure. I know we will be seeing one another at a show again soon.

For more information on Billy Yates visit

Transcribed by Darlene McPherson for Digital Rodeo

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