Editor's Note: Article & photos compliments of www.wilsonlivingmagazine.com
In a hillside mansion somewhere between Lebanon and Gladeville tunesmith Curly Putman bends an ear toward a speaker in his music room listening to one of his babies.
It’s not one of the 250 songs that he has had recorded by country music’s greatest singers over the past 45 years. It’s a new song, “To Get the Job Done,” with snappy lyrics and a catchy beat that he would love to add to his cradle of hits. He thinks it would sound right nicely if Montgomery-Gentry were to record it on their next album. Putman, 78, knows all about hits. This den practically serves as a museum to his prodigious output of music. Photographs, awards, album covers, sheet music and gold records adorn the walls. The glossy pictures feature such celebrities as Paul McCartney, Tammy Wynette, Jack Palance and George Lindsey. But much of the space is reserved for mementos from his two biggest hits, which came up the pipes of the Jones boys, George and Tom. Those would be “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “Green Green Grass of Home.”
Of the latter he says, “I wrote the best song I ever wrote and didn’t know what I was doing. I do know I was touched deeply when I was singing it. I almost cried. I was struggling, trying to come up with something different.” Different. And how. And wow. “Green Grass” revived the career of Brit popster Tom Jones and wound up being recorded by more than 700 artists.
Now, some 44 years later in their den where Paul McCartney and his band Wings once practiced, Putman and his wife Bernice reflect on their 53 years of marriage and the adventures that a career in Nashville’s music world brought their way. The couple moved to their Wilson County farm from Donelson in 1972. “Johnny Carver (a country singer) told me this house had come up for sale,” said Curly. “We came out and looked at it,” recalled Bernice. “The beauty of the place hit me, and we liked the house,” said Curly. “(Realtor) Carl Hobbs told me, ‘If you can make an offer before the auction, you can probably get it.’”
The couple made that offer and bought the farm. It’s a decision they have never regretted, although Bernice confesses, “I was raised in the country and didn’t want any part of it at first. Now I can’t imagine being anyplace else.” The Putmans raised sons Greg and Troy here, and now enjoy having their grandchildren frequent house and farm. The life mates grew up near the state line, Bernice on the Tennessee side in tiny Huntland and Curly in Alabama. “I was born on Putman Mountain where my family settled about five miles from Princeton, Ala. (near Huntsville). My dad was in the timber business,” said Claude “Curly” Putman Jr., who played basketball at Paint Rock Valley High School, and, at 6-foot-4, helped his team finish second in the state tournament. He tried higher education for six months at Southern Union College before joining the Navy for four years, which led to two trips to war-torn Korea on the USS Valley Forge in 1950-51. Upon his discharge he headed back to Bama where he met the love of his life. “I was playing hooky from high school one day and went to Princeton where I just took up a conversation with him and that was that,” said Bernice. She was 16, and he was 24. They married a year later.
Fresh out of the Navy, Curly began coaching basketball and teaching physical education at his alma mater and played steel guitar in a band for local country singer Slim Lay. Lay, who owned a record shop in Huntsville, gave Curly a job there until he began selling Thom McCann Shoes. “They shipped me to a store in Madison, Tenn.,” said the song man. “Then they made me assistant manager of a shoe store in Memphis and that moving from one place to another inspired me to write ‘My Elusive Dreams’ (a No. 1 hit for Tammy Wynette and David Houston in 1967). But I got tired of the shoe business and went back to Huntsville and the record store.”
Curly then met a singer-songwriter named Roger Miller, who had yet to splash in the big time with such hits as “King of the Road“ and “Dang Me,” and Miller introduced Putman in 1961 to Tree Music president Buddy Killen, the Nashville publisher of Elvis’s first big hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” “Buddy asked me if I wanted to come up and pitch songs and listen to tapes. He paid me $100 a week. I jumped at the chance,” said Putman, who moved with his wife to Nashville in 1963. “I was coming mainly for myself and trying to learn how to write. I learned by pitching what producers and artists would cut. It helped me develop as a writer.”
One Sunday afternoon Putman went into the Tree office and composed “Green Grass of Home.” The next day it was demoed in Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut studio on Music Row. Later, it was recorded and released by Johnny Darrell and then covered by Porter Wagoner and Jerry Lee Lewis. Next, Tom Jones, a big fan of Lewis, heard the song and flipped over it. “Green Green Grass of Home” then entered pop and country music history. “That song revived my career. It was a life saver for me,” Jones told Putman, as the tune became a No. 1 pop hit across Europe and entered the Top 10 in the U.S. Wagoner had a hit of the song in the country charts.
Putman’s career exploded as he earned more than 35 BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) Awards for such hits as “My Elusive Dreams” for Tammy Wynette and David Houston, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” for Wynette, “Blood Red and Going Down” for Tanya Tucker and a bucketful of tunes for T.G. Sheppard that include “It‘s a Cheatin’ Situation,” “Do You Want To Go to Heaven,” “War Is Hell on the Homefront Too” and “Smooth Sailing.”
Putman estimates he has written more than 800 songs, and Sony/ Tree, his music publisher, has presented him with 60 compact discs that hold 20 songs apiece, proof of his Babe Ruthian output. Of course, Curly points out that on many of the tunes he collaborated with some equally talented cowriters. And there’s one more little Putman tune, co-written with Bobby Braddock, that bears a mention.
The duo wrote “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a tune that won the Country Music Association’s song of the year award in 1980 and 1981 for George Jones. A letter from the country music king, known to some as “the Possum,” hangs in the Putman den.
The letter reads:
“There is no doubt that my favorite Curly Putman song has to be ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ I will always be grateful to you and Bobby Braddock for adding the rendition for me after a year or more of my trying to record that song and thinking it needed that little something extra to make it complete. ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ was the song I always wished I would have written. It became a monster hit, won lots of awards and is my signature song. Thank you for that.” While his honors include membership in the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, he admits it was a thrill last October to have a 40-mile stretch of Highway 65 from his hometown of Princeton to the Tennessee line be named the Curly Putman Highway. And a rest stop along the way was dubbed Curly Putman Park.
Putman understands the credit goes to the music, and it’s a craft he continues to practice two to three days a week. “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,” he says. “Whatever I write is gonna lean to the traditional country side.” The songwriter has recently turned his hand to another project titled Faces in the Clouds: Songs, Stories & Musings. “I’ve written a little book of poems, song lyrics and stories from Putman Mountain which will help with the Sean Putman Memorial Scholarship Fund,” said Putman, referring to his grandson who died in 2005 at age 8 from ancer.
“Dr. Harvill Eaton at Cumberland has wanted to start a college press, and this book may be the first they publish, hopefully in several months. We like what Cumberland is doing for the community and what they are doing with the scholarship fund.” Cumberland, likewise, feels honor is due Wilson County’s most famous song man. At their May 2 commencement ceremonies, the university will bestow the writer with an honorary doctorate, thus he will become, he jokes, either Dr. Curly or Professor Putman. “It has been a long time since I wore one of those gowns and a cap with tassels on the side. When I was teaching and coaching at Paint Rock Valley High, some of them called me ‘Professor,’” said Putman, positively one of the deans of the University of Country Music.
Wilson Living Magazine's purpose is to keep the citizens of Wilson County connected to each other. We hope to bring you stories about your neighbors that you may not have known. We intend to keep you informed on local businesses, politics and government that affect your daily lives. We will share inspiring stories of those in Wilson County who are giving back to the community. And we will provide you all the Wilson Happenings on restaurants, sports, schools and events that can be found in the area.