Thom Schuyler: I Still Love to Play

Thom Schuler’s written big hits for others, had some of his own and is thoroughly enjoying his comfortable life as one of America’s greatest performing songwriters.

Thom Schuyler’s a songwriter, a performer, a husband, a father, a church youth director and a golfer, among other things. Recently, this writer of some of America’s most beloved songs stopped by CW to chat Senior Editor David Scarlett about his excellent new Prayer of a Desperate Man CD (available at thomschuyler.com) and what he’s up to these days. Here’s some of what Thom had to say.

For more from Thom, check out the April 6 issue of Country Weekly.

CW
What you’re doing now?
TS
I’m very independent and flexible. I detached myself from the rigors of Music Row. It’s been a long time. It’s been about a decade since I worked for RCA, which was a non-stop situation. And I continued to write for another 4 or 5 years and helped some publishing companies out. But I’m basically independent. I work part-time at my church. I’m the youth director at the age of 56. But I love it. And I continue to write songs, continue to perform. I do speak. I’ve gotten some nice opportunities with the Chamber and other organizations. I do a lot of stuff with the tourism department.
CW
Are you writing with more freedom now that you’re not actively chasing cuts on Music Row. Are you less worried about hooks, structure, etc?
TS
Honestly, Dave, the way I write now really isn’t markedly different from the way I wrote my whole life. I think the market changed on me. And I was almost incapable of chasing it. When I was in my brief heyday back in the 1980s, the marketplace allowed for the kinds of things I was writing, and welcomed them. “16th Avenue,” “My Old Yellow Car,” “Years After You,” “Long Line of Love.” They were kinda folky, kinda sweet. With some substance. But, if at that point in my life . . . somebody put a gun at my head and said, “Write a number one song for Crystal Gayle or Dolly Parton,” I was like, “Uhhhh, I can’t do that.” I think there’s a little more freedom now, because I’m not trying to get Brad Paisley or Kenny Chesney to cut my songs every day. I’d love it if they would.
CW
On your site you talk about aging on Music Row and use the phrase “quietly dismissed.” That sentiment sort of parallels Vince Gill’s “Young Man’s Town,” although he’s not going quietly. He’s still putting out great music.
TS
And he’s done well. That’s to be laid at the feet of his tremendous talent. He’s a powerful writer and singer. I remember when I came to town. I was 25 years old. I was really fortunate, too. Early on I met some guys who became my dear, dear friends but they were really mentors in the beginning. And they were all about 7-10 years older than me. Guys like Lang Martine and Waylon Holyfield and Bob McDill and Harlan Howard who was, gosh, probably 25 years older than I was. And I looked at those guys at the age of 25 and I thought, “They don’t have much time left!” [chuckles] ‘Cause they were around 40 years old.
But if we’re fortunate enough to have some success and the monetary blessing that come with that and you live a reasonably normal life, you can sustain. And I still love to play live. That’s really fun.
CW
Do you think it’s a commentary on American culture specifically or just in general . . . I know there are cultures that revere people of our age group who have life experience and finely tuned skills more than America typically does. It seems a shame that those who have the experience and the very honed craft get to that point and then it’s, “Okay . . . we’re ready to move on to something new now.”
TS
It’s very unusual. And it’s perplexing to me. But I’m not saying that I or those of my peers . . . you know a lot of my peers are still up to their eyeballs in Music Row, and they have great experience and wisdom and so forth. And I’m not suggesting that if I went out to pursue some form of employment or position somewhere that something wouldn’t happen. I’m just not interested. And that’s the other probably big part of this, is that I lost my dust for it.
CW
Was there a specific time or event that told you, “Yeah, I can stand my stuff up against everybody else’s and make a living at this”?
TS
Yeah, there was. Probably several moments where I felt like I was getting closer to getting into the circle. I was fortunate to have arrived here in ’78 and in 1980, two years later, I got my first official contract with a small company called DebDay Briarpatch, which was funded basically by Eddie Rabbitt. Jim and David Malloy and Even Stevens were all involved in it. I got that job because I actually built their recording studio for them.
CW
How did that work . . . just happen to leave one of your tapes around?
TS
That’s exactly what happened, but it didn’t happen purposefully. I used to take my lunch, brown bag it. I actually had an appointment with another company at lunch time. This woman saw me sing at an open mic writers’ night. And she said, “I’d love to hear some more of your songs.” And I got my reel-to-reel tape of about three demos I’d done and I was gonna go see her on the lunch hour. It was a woman at Peer Music. So I had my lunch on the table and my little box. And I was out there puttin’ up dry wall or whatever. And this secretary at Debday came out and said, “Thom, can I talk to you for a minute?” I said, “Sure.” She said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I just listened to your tape and I want to play it for the guys here, ‘cause I think it’s great.” And that’s how I got my deal. It was Kenny Wareman, who I just adore to this day. That’s how it happened. It wasn’t Eddie, it wasn’t Jim, it wasn’t Even . . . it was the secretary, a woman I adore to this day. I don’t know what possessed her to pick up the tape and listen to it. But she did.
Of course, I went and had the other meeting. And by the time I got back, Jim Malloy called me in his office and said, “We’d like you to consider signing a deal with us.”
CW
Were the songs tunes we would’ve heard later on?
TS
Yeah, Eddie Rabbitt had a [big] hit with one of ‘em. Actually, “16th Avenue” came along early in my career, but there were three other songs that preceded it that went to No. 1 on the charts. So the third song that I had written that was a hit was a song called “I Don’t Know Where to Start,” which was a very unusual song for Eddie to do . . . kinda like a folky ballad. It went to the top in 1982, and that was on that tape. It was a fairy tale in some ways. However, I always tell people, “You know why it happened? Because I was workin’ my butt off buildin’ this studio just to put food on the table for my wife and me. I wasn’t sittin’ at my house whining about why nothing was happening.” [chuckles] In fact I worked for another month on that job while my contract was getting done.
CW
Another favorite on your new record is “Talk to My Old Man.” When I heard that, I sort of flashed back to Field of Dreams and the chance to have one more catch. I would imagine, being the baseball fan I know you are, that particular scene really got to you.
TS
Oh . . . it killed me. I just tears me up whenever I see it. You know it’s funny, I just realized. Actually, you talk about a long time going bye, my dad died [forty years ago]. So I’ve been without him a long time. I was only 16 when he died. There’s a fellow down at a newspaper in Arkansas, his name is Rod Harrington. He’s a columnist at a smaller paper. He got the CD from Lance and sent me an email. His father had just died this past year, and it choked him up.
CW
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a lot of humor . . . and even on your site . . . the story about “Walk Proudly!” I just laughed out loud.

[Here’s the story: The story is told that a Scotsman was attending his first professional baseball game with a few American pals who were doing their best to explain the game as it unfolded. A batter was ‘walked’ during his time at the plate and as he trotted down to first the Scottie asked, ‘He didn’t get a hit – why is he going to first base?’ A pal replied, ‘He has four balls so he gets a walk.’ The Scotsman said, ‘Four balls!’ and then stood and cheered, ‘Walk mate, walk with great pride!’]

TS
I love that story! (big laugh) I really like that story.
CW
And then the one about your mom . . . and how hard it was to stand there and watch her try to tie that bow.
TS
I don’t know if it’s clear on the web site, but my sister wrote that a number of years ago. It was in one of the Chicken Soup books . . . Chicken Soup for the Christian Woman or something like that. I can’t even read that. And very sadly and unexpectedly, my sister died of a heart attack this summer. I can’t even look at that. She was 67. I have three siblings and they’re all 10 years or more older than I. I’ve got two brothers . . . we have all been drinkers, carousers, smokers, bacon eaters . . . and we’re still walkin’ around. And my sister goes up to the Rocky Mountains with a few other couples and her husband of 45 years and went to bed, didn’t wake up. Back in July. So that one tears me up
CW
What do you want people to take away when they listen to either this CD or see you in person? You know “Whether you rush out and buy this or not, if there’s nothin’ else you take away from being exposed to my music, I’d like you to take” . . . what?
TS
Well, honestly, Dave, you nailed the emotions that I kinda put in there. I love to laugh. I love the joy of life and the hilarity of life. So I certainly did try to layer some of that into the CD, as I try to do it on the web site. But, at the same time, I’ve got a real spiritual thirst that I also tried to express in here on several of the tracks. And I guess the issue for me is . . . I try to merge all that stuff. Freedom to enjoy life and express yourself . . . I don’t want to get too heavy, but that’s really what it is. That we all share these same experiences and I think sometimes we get crippled inside by not being able to express it.
CW
Do you have three or four songs . . . either on this CD or generally . . . that if someone were totally unfamiliar with your work and wanted to get a handle on who you are musically and personally through your music, what would you recommend they listen to?
TS
On that record . . . “Prayer of a Desperate Man” would be in my top two or three. And I happen to love the first song on the record, which is called “Three Quarter Me,” about dyslexia and hard times and hittin’ the wall and all that stuff. And the whole last verse is basically about the frustration of religion, tryin’ to figure out . . . prayin’ and prayin’ and prayin’ . . . and thinking, “Is anybody up there? Are you hearing this?” And I like the humor stuff. “Who Needs a Hummer.” It’s a period piece. It’s for now, actually it was for five years ago, when I wrote it.
A song that I’ve always loved, the rare one, that was recorded by Dan Seals a long time ago. It was called “My Old Yellow Car,” which was an expression of life . . . I’ve always been proud of that. I think if you look at those three or four songs, sideways and up and down, they’re kinda all about the same thing. Just average Joe’s trying to make sense out of what’s going on.
CW
I also love “This Guitar.” Your mom gave you that?
TS
That’s a very real story. Matter of fact, I perform that song very regularly. I wrote that song back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. The story I tell before I sing that song is that on my 47th birthday, I just got completely overwhelmed by dread . . . just total dread. And I realized that my dad was 47 when he died. So this was sort of lurking back here for all those years . . . and then suddenly . . . and it was the worst stinking year of my life. I was workin’ at RCA and, I mean, it was like every day I was just ready to drop over. But I finally made it through. I got to my 48th birthday. [My mom and I] had a nice talk . . . and I finally confided in her about this whole deal and havin’ an awful year and feeling like my number was coming up, dad being 47. And she said, “Well, sweetie, Dad was 48 when he died.” [big laughs!]
That’s a very true story. She got me a guitar the Christmas after I lost my dad. I was 17. I played guitar . . . wasn’t very good. I had a junky old Sears guitar . . . a Stella or something I probably got when I was 12 or 13. So this was a huge step up. It was hand made. A steelworker in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, used to make classical gut string guitars and fiddles and cellos. He was rather renowned. She bought that thing from him for 100 bucks. I’ve had a couple of luthiers that have seen it that just drool and want to make a new guitar out of it. But I just want to keep it in tact. It’s a memento more than anything else.

For more from Thom, check out the April 6 issue of Country Weekly.

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