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Billy Sherrill, the iconic record producer and executive whose style of production ushered in a sound described as “countrypolitan,” died Tuesday in Nashville following a short illness. He was 78.
Born Nov. 5, 1936, in Phil Campbell, Ala., Sherrill’s earliest musical influences were jazz and blues. He led a blues band in his teenage years, actually gaining a record contract of his own — but Sherrill didn’t leave his mark as an artist.
Moving to Nashville in 1962, his first job was working for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, managing the label’s recording studio in Music City. The next year, Phillips sold the studio, leaving Sherrill without a job. His unemployed status wouldn’t last long, as he was quickly hired as a producer for Epic Records, working with acts ranging from Jim and Jesse to the Staple Singers.
Not familiar with the country genre as much as some of the other producers in town, Sherrill’s style of production often drew comparisons to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” with his use of strings, eventually earning the “countrypolitan” moniker.
His first major success as a producer came in 1966 with David Houston’s “Almost Persuaded,” which spent nine weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in the summer of that year. Sherrill composed the song with frequent collaborator Glenn Sutton (the former husband of Lynn Anderson, who died last week).
With that success under his belt, Sherrill was given more freedom and responsibility at the label — signing many of Epic’s most legendary artists to the roster. He signed a fellow Alabama native by the name of Virginia Wynette Pugh. He was sold on her talent, but not her name. In meeting with her one day, he said, “You look like a ‘Tammy’ to me” (based on her resemblance to Debbie Reynolds, who starred in the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor) — and Tammy Wynette was born.
Sherrill not only produced her classic recordings, but also helped her write several of them, most notably “Stand by Your Man.”
It was through working with Wynette that Sherrill also struck up a relationship with her husband at the time, George Jones. Persuading him to move over to the Epic roster from Musicor in 1971, his recordings with Jones resulted in classic hits such as “Loving You Can Never Be Better,” “Her Name Is …” and “The Grand Tour.”
Jones would be the artist Sherrill would produce for the longest, working with “The Possum” through his 1991 album Friends in High Places. Sherrill reportedly bet Jones $100 that their recording of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” would be a hit, to which the singer quipped, “Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch.” Needless to say, Jones lost that bet, as the song not only topped the charts but won the CMA Awards for song of the year.
Sherrill also signed Tanya Tucker to the Columbia roster in the 1970s (producing her early hits) and served as producer on Charlie Rich’s hit recordings for the label in the 1970s — such as “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl.” Sherrill — along with Norro Wilson — won a Grammy in 1975 for composing Rich’s “A Very Special Love Song.”
Sherrill’s production credits read like a “who’s who” of music, including Shelby Lynne, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Barbara Mandrell and Andy Williams. He also produced Elvis Costello’s 1980 album Almost Blue.
After stepping down as Jones’ producer in the early 1990s, Sherrill kept a relatively low profile, resurfacing in 2003 to work with Jones one last time on the two-CD set The Gospel Collection. Last year, Out Among the Stars — a disc of unreleased recordings from Cash (produced originally by Sherrill in the mid-1980s) — topped the Top Country Albums chart.
Sherrill was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in 2010. He was also a member of the Musicians Hall of Fame.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
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