Few songwriters in Nashville have reached the dizzying heights of Don Schlitz. His mantle full of awards and his prominence on the charts for the better part of three decades has made Schlitz an integral part of country music’s rich heritage of storytelling songs.
Don Schlitz was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. He briefly attended Duke University before moving to Nashville in 1973. After his arrival, Schlitz served as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University, but continued to write songs for five years before his big break. With “The Gambler”, Schlitz’ career finally moved forward. The classic tale of a man learning how to “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em” enraptured country music audiences upon its release in 1978. The story of a young man and a train-traveling sage earned the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1979 and received the CMA honor for Single of the Year later that year.
The pairing of Don Schlitz with fellow writer Paul Overstreet produced many classic songs of the late 1980s, with the two lyrical masterminds writing “On the Other Hand” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” for Randy Travis, and “When You Say Nothing at All” for Keith Whitley (later a hit for Alison Krauss & Union Station). At first, the two men were disappointed that then-newcomer Travis would be the recipient of “On the Other Hand”, intending the song to be recorded by a legend like Haggard or Jones, but Travis’ version impressed them greatly. Travis would soon become a constant source of success in their careers. Both the CMA and the ACM named “On the Other Hand” as Song of the Year in 1986, and “Forever and Ever, Amen” took the trophy at the CMAs in 1987. Schlitz was granted the award of ASCAP Songwriter of the Year an unprecedented four consecutive years from 1988-1991.
Written by Don Schlitz
Although responsible for one of country music’s most famous lines (“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…”), Don Schlitz’s premier story song, “The Gambler” is far deeper than what first appears. The game of poker is disguised as a metaphor for life and shows that it’s not what cards one is dealt, but how the player handles those cards, that is truly the secret of life. Kenny Rogers’ gruff and gritty vocal tells the story of two travelers, one barely living and one barely alive. It’s a strong connection between a couple of strangers, and shows that we may not be so different at all.
They travel on through the darkness, passengers at a crossroads, and the old man gives his secrets to survival because he’s “made a living reading other people’s faces.” The two men are heading to an unknown destination on an evening when the sage, aware of the distant sadness in the young man’s eyes, offers him some sound advice for some strong whiskey and a lit-up cigarette. He implores him to take charge of his fate, but to live presently in each moment because “there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealin’s done.” By the end, one man’s final moments may have led to another’s finest, as the narrator finds an “ace that he can keep” in the last words of his fellow voyager. The old man lives out his last wishes of dying in his sleep.
“The Gambler” resided at No. 1 for two weeks in December 1978, and earned Schlitz a victory for Best Country Song at the 1979 Grammys. The tune also proved victorious in the same category at the 1979 CMAs. A 1979 made-for-TV movie called The Gambler, which was inspired by this song, became the highest-rated TV film of the year. For Rogers, it’s the highlight of a considerable song catalog, and for Schlitz, it represented the start of a songwriting career filled with masterful storytelling.
“The Gambler” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.
100 Greatest Women
She emerged from poverty in the Smoky Mountains, the first of her family to graduate high school. She dreamed of being a country music singer, but it was her songwriting that got her in the door. Over the course of more than forty years, she has successfully navigated countless styles of country music, ranging from bluegrass to Hollywood pop-country, remaining a popular and relevant recording artist through the countless sea changes that occurred in the industry around her.
Dolly Parton’s story begins in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, where she was the fourth of twelve children. She began writing songs before she had begun formal schooling, and would physically force her younger siblings to watch her performances. Her mother taught her the old mountain songs, with a penchant for those with tragic undertones. This was a big influence on Parton’s writing, particularly in the first decade of her recording career.
Her uncle, Bill Owens, was an early believer in her talent, and took ten year old Dolly to Knoxville to meet Cas Walker, owner a successful chain of grocery stores. He had a radio and television show that promoted the stores, and he had Parton sing jingles and entertain. She earned twenty dollars a week, and kept the gig while finishing her education.
When she was thirteen, Owens finagled studio time for Dolly in Louisiana, where she cut some sides for Goldband Records. She traveled with Owens to Nashville, with her recording of “Puppy Love” in tow, and hung around the back door of the Opry until she could meet Johnny Cash. She begged him to let her on the Opry, and he explained that to do so, another performer would have to give up their spot. Jimmy C. Newman graciously volunteered, and Cash introduced the teenager. She was only supposed to do one song, but she earned three encores.
100 Greatest Women
She started out as a heartache singer who could wail a lonesome tune with the best of them. She developed into a sultry, showy stage performer. For more than two decades, her presence was felt on the country charts, but her presence was felt even more by the young new artists that she took under her wing.
Dottie West grew up in rural Tennessee, the oldest of ten children. Her family was poor when she was young, so much so that they went without electricity and plumbing, and made their own soap. Her childhood would not be an easy one, as she dealt with a father who was both physically and sexually abusive to her. When she was seventeen, she reported him to the police, and he was sentenced to forty years for his crimes against her.
Music had been a comfort for her while growing up, and in the aftermath of her abuse, she poured herself into music. She joined her high school band and began writing songs. Her talent earned her a college scholarship to study music, and it was there that she met her first husband, musician Bill West. After they had two children, they moved to Ohio. She formed a duo with friend Kathy Dee, and they appeared on a regional television show as the Kay-Dots. Encouraged by their early success, they attempted to secure a record deal in Nashville. In 1959, Starday signed them, but their early singles were not successful.