Jim Photoglo - The Nashville Cats
First Published in Country Music International – October 1998
Having written hits for the likes of Vince Gill, Alabama, Marty Robbins and Faith Hill, Jim Photoglo is one of Music Row’s top scribes. But unlike most Nashville writers, he started life as a Top 40 performer in the early 1980s.
For those who copiously check the writing credits of their favourite songs, Jim Photoglo’s name is quite familiar, having penned hits and album tracks for country and pop artists including Kenny Rogers, John Anderson, James Ingrams, the Everly Brothers, Pam Tillis and more recently Faith Hill.
Southern California-born Photoglo has distinguished himself as both a pop and country singer, session and road musician, as well as being a top songwriter regularly crossing musical boundaries. His route to songwriting in Nashville was quite different to the majority of aspiring country tunesmiths. There was no pounding of the pavements to get his songs heard. He arrived in Music City with a bona fide reputation as a writer with a track record as a successful pop singer.
“I started off as a performer,” he explains. “I had a record deal and it certainly happened backwards for me. After my records came out, years later, the songs on those records started getting re-recorded by some country artists.”
Inspired by soul singers Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and influenced by Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, The Beatles, Motown and the legendary Brill Building songwriting teams of Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King and Mann & Weill, Photoglo spent much of the early 1970s performing on the West Coast club scene.
Like the majority of club acts, he was initially performing covers of Top 40 hits, but gradually began working some of his own songs into his act. This led to him signing with a production company, who recorded his own songs and then shopped the masters to various record labels. Eventually they landed him a recording contract with 20th Century Records in 1980, and the following year he scored on the American pop charts with We Were Meant To Be Lovers and A Fool In Love With You.
The success of these songs led to an American tour as the opening act for the Beach Boys and two solo tours of the Orient, where his music had been readily accepted. Failing to score any further hits, he soon found his popularity waning and he went on the road for two years as a backup singer for Andy Gibb. Around this time his catalogue of songs was acquired by Warner-Chappell Music. They had offices in Nashville and started pitching his songs to country acts.
As a result, Photoglo had cuts by Kenny Rogers (20th Century Fool), Gary Morris (Faded Blue), Brenda Lee (Between Lovers), The Everly Brothers (I Know Love and Don’t Say Goodnight) and Marty Robbins (Angelina). The latter was one of the last songs Robbins recorded shortly before his death in December 1982, and Photoglo admits that, though not written for the legendary country singer, it had been inspired by him.
“I had always had an affinity for Marty Robbins songs like Devil Woman and El Paso,” he recalls. “I was living in Los Angeles at that time, and there is a huge Hispanic community there, so I’ve always felt the influence of that music. When I was making my records, my writing partner and I just started writing that song and we got it to a point and it needed some help. We called John Bettis, and he restructured the lyrics and story.”
Around 1984-1985 he was out on the road with Nicolette Larson and would often commute to Nashville as Larson had started recording in Music City and was having country chart success. Around this time he linked up with Vince Gill, who he had got to know really well out on the coast. “When Vince came to Nashville in the mid-1980s, I came out to stay with him for a while,” he recalls. “Shortly thereafter, he asked me to do some work with him on the road. I went from Nicolette’s band to Vince’s.”
He made the move from Los Angeles to Nashville in 1986, primarily to write songs, but he still maintained regularly roadwork, moving from Gill’s band to Dan Fogelberg’s. “When I came to Nashville, my records had been played here on the local radio stations, so they knew my name. It wasn’t like a stranger walking into town and knocking on doors, the way so many beginning songwriters do.”
He secured album cuts by Lee Roy Parnell, Lacy J Dalton, Pam Tillis, John Anderson and James House, while his country hits included the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Fishin’ In The Dark, Highway 101’s Honky Tonk Heart and Alabama’s Hometown Honeymoon. One of the songs he wrote at that time, which he is justifiably proud of was Hillbilly Hollywood.
“My friend Vince Melamed and I wrote that,” he explains. “We sat down to write something that we actually wanted to pitch to Alabama. I had this title, Hillbilly Hollywood. Vince and I both have a long history of spending time on the road as backup musicians, so in a sense we’ve lived that story. There's one line in the song—‘I pray before too long that they would hear my song’—and that’s as true today as it was then.”
As it happened the song didn’t get recorded by Alabama, but both the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Anderson cut versions. Though the song has a music-related lyric, and though the reference to singing at the Grand Ole Opry is instantly connected to country music, the story is quite universal and could be applied to any aspiring artist or writer’s life whether it be in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville. “You get out, you play the cheap bars and work real hard and you’re inspired at an early age by something. It’s very much autobiographical.”
Alongside his writing success, Photoglo has enjoyed further notoriety as a founding member of Run C&W, the rhythm and bluegrass band that recorded for MCA during the early 1990s. He also recorded two more albums for the Far Eastern market for Polystar Records in 1994 and has toured Japan and also played European concerts.
“I think the reason for the acceptance in Japan, originally, goes back to the early 1980s when my old records came out. Somehow the musicality of those records resonated to them. Now, what’s going on there is a resurgence in early 1980s pop, both in Asia and Europe. I've gone over twice to Paris and performed as part of what they called a West Coast Pop Festival. So it was the success that I had in the early 1980s that enabled me to go back to Japan and make records for them.”
Firmly entrenched in the Nashville songwriting scene, he often takes to the road as part of a Songwriter’s Group, playing small listening rooms in Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC, Toronto and Nashville. He firmly believes that Nashville has taken over the Brill Building songwriting tradition that influenced him when he was younger.
“Every April, here in Nashville, they have a weeklong celebration of the songwriter called Tin Pan South,” he explains. “Tin Pan Alley is what they referred to as the Brill Building area in the heyday of the New York songwriter. So our celebration here is called Tin Pan South, and they have one night when legendary songwriters like Lamont Dozier, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and Graham Gouldman came in this past year, and it was just wonderful. All over town they have shows that feature songwriters.”
Photoglo loves to get out on the road performing, but deep down, the greatest satisfaction still comes from the craft of songwriting. Having one of his songs becoming a success is only a small part of what he does. The thrill of just completing a good song sets him up for days.
“In the big picture, the real reward comes from writing and the recording that we do on our own,” he says. “I have a studio here, and at the end of the day, when I’ve written a good song and can listen back to it, that’s about as good as it gets. For the most part that is the reward. If somebody happens to record your song and it happens to be successful, that’s what we call the gravy.”
Like most songwriters, he refrains from discussing songs that are currently on hold waiting to be recorded, just in case it doesn’t happen, but did let slip that there are quite a few that have either just been cut or are waiting for artists to get in the studio and record them. “The superstitious side of me doesn’t like to talk about those until it happens,” he says, then adds, philosophically, “one of the things I strive for in songs is universality. I hope that whatever emotion I'm conveying in a song will resonate with other people. When I write a love song or any other kind of song that conveys emotion, the intent is that other people will hear it and understand it and know what I felt at that moment.”