The hidden hand behind country hits

Hugh Prestwood

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 2, 2003) – Chances are you’ve never heard of Hugh Prestwood. But the chances are almost as likely that you have heard one of his songs, especially if you ever listen to country music radio, in which case you definitely have heard his music, as Prestwood has penned number-one country hits for Randy Travis (“Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart”), Trisha Yearwood (“The Song Remembers When”), Michael Johnson (“The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder”) and Shenandoah (“Ghost in This House”), among others.

But unlike in rock and folk music, country music still maintains a divide between singers and songwriters. So Prestwood works mostly out of the spotlight. In fact, this quintessential, Grammy-nominated Nashville songwriter, who has also written hits for Kathy Mattea, Highway 101, Anne Murray, Conway Twitty, Lee Greenwood, Tanya Tucker, Crystal Gayle, lives about as far from the Nashville spotlight as one could get – on the East End of Long Island.

“I really have come to the realization that I don’t like to have the music business in my face when I’m writing,” said Prestwood in a phone interview last week from his home in Greenport, N.Y. “I like to visit down there, a week at a time, and then I come back juiced up and go back into my cave.”

In the company of fellow country music songwriters Angela Kaset and Rivers Rutherford, Prestwood will crawl out of his cave on Wednesday in order to be at Club Helsinki at 8, where he will take part in Nashville Underground, a showcase of songwriters performing their hit songs the way they conceived them, as well as singing harmony with each other and telling stories out of songwriting school.

Kaset’s hits include “Something in Red” for Lorrie Morgan, “From the Inside Out” for Linda Davis and “That’s What Happens When I Hold You” for Aaron Tippin. Her songs have also been recorded by Suzy Bogguss, Doug Stone, Stephanie Bentley and Jessica Andrews. Rutherford, a native of Memphis, has contributed songs to the Highwaymen, Brooks and Dunn, Clay Davidson, Gary Allan, and Keith Harling.

Prestwood says the experience of sitting back and watching a song you have written climb its way up to the top of the country charts is “totally amazing.”

The first time it happens it’s mind boggling,” said Prestwood, a native of El Paso. “The first time was with a Crystal Gayle thing I wrote back in the Eighties. It just went up the charts, much to my utter amazement. A lot of the little flaws I thought I saw in the song sort of disappeared the higher it got. It’s thrilling to be in the car and hear your song on the radio. It’s one of the ultimate best things that can happen.”

It’s an experience that Prestwood has grown somewhat accustomed to over the years, since 1978 when he was first discovered by Judy Collins, who recorded his “Hard Times for Lovers.” But in spite of the increasing frequency with which his songs meet success on the charts, he still doesn’t think he has figured out the secret to what makes a hit song.

“If you really knew that, you wouldn’t have so many failures,” said Prestwood.

Still, he has some theories about what makes some songs hit bigger than others. “People often talk about lyrics, but I still think the music is the key element in initially attracting the listener,” said Prestwood, who writes both music and lyrics.

“Next comes bringing a fresh approach in saying the same thing that’s been said a million times. To go right down these main roads are very difficult roads to go down. They’re so well trod in a way. The tendency of young writers is to avoid them, but those are the roads you must go down and try to find some new way.

“When human beings hear that thing they know already expressed in a fresh way, they really respond to it.”

It helps, of course, to have a great singer to deliver your song. And over the years, Prestwood has accumulated his favorites. Trisha Yearwood and Collin Raye are the singers he thinks are the best interpreters of his work.

“Most of the artists in country music are real good singers these days, but not necessarily good interpreters of songs,” he said. “Trisha is one of the few who really brings more to the thing than just a good delivery. In a funny way, I feel like the women are more willing to go into the realms that are a little more subtle or sensitive -- the men are being pushed into a more macho place in terms of the persona they want to present.”

Along the way, there have been a few versions of his songs that have rubbed him the wrong way. He won’t say which ones they were, but he does say what he didn’t like about them.

“You can immediately sense that nobody really learned the song,” he said of the ones he didn’t like. “If they’ve learned it, then they can interpret it in their own way and it still works. But there are some people who just crank out stuff. They’re not necessarily the majority, but a few do. And the subtleties get lost.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 4, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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