An American Girl: Alice Randall's Journey as a Black Female Country Songwriter
By Kenyon Glenn-Nelson • February 28, 2019
ASCAP member Alice Randall is one of the first black females to write a #1 country song (“XXX’s and OOO’s,” recorded by Trisha Yearwood in 1994). She would eventually parlay her songwriting career into success as a New York Times bestselling author with her first novel The Wind Done Gone, followed by two more acclaimed novels and an award-winning cookbook, Soul Food Love. Randall is also a professor at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches courses on the intersection of African-American culture with literature, film, food and country music.
While at Vanderbilt, I was able to take one of Professor's Randall's courses, Country Lyric in American Culture. To celebrate both Black History Month and the 25th anniversary of "XXX's and OOO's," I'm honored to have her share her own unique history, and offer insights into the African-American experience as it relates to country music.
You grew up in Michigan and DC and studied literature at Harvard. What inspired you to move to Nashville and write country songs?
When I was at Harvard in the ‘70s, back before word processors, Boston got a country station. I was an English major and started listening to that country station as background music while I typed out long essays patched up with white out. I took a course on John Donne and the metaphysical poets and the professor insisted that metaphysical poetry was dead – but I heard songs like “Coca-Cola Cowboy” and I knew metaphysical poetry was alive and well and hiding in country music.
What I started to listen to as non-distracting background music became an obsession. It wasn’t just the metaphysical poetry I heard hidden in country, it was the blues, it was blackness. Someone gave me the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music as a joke gift because I was cranking the country up loud – and I came up with a crazy plan worthy of a country music song plot. I would be a novelist, and I would write country songs to support my novel writing. Because I was from Detroit and had grown up around the Gordy family and Motown, the plan made sense to me. I had met Smokey Robinson – he wouldn’t remember me but I remembered him – so I knew great songwriters could make a living while a lot of great fiction writers starved.
What do you remember about writing “XXX’s and OOO’s”? Where were you in your songwriting career at that point, and how did the song end up with Trisha Yearwood?
I was a staff writer at Sony/Tree and had already co-written a top 40 song (“Many Mansions”) for Moe Bandy and a top 5 for Judy Rodman, “Girls Ride Horses Too.” I had a few other cuts for big artists including Glen Campbell and Marie Osmond, and first generation country feminists who were never recognized as such, including The Forester Sisters and Holly Dunn, but I hadn’t gotten anything big happening steadily – except identifying Mark Sanders as a writer that the fledgling ASCAP publishing company I formed with a friend should sign. That was big. Mark’s in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame now, but his first top 5 was a song we wrote together. But I was no Mark or Garth – I knew my way forward, because I didn’t sing or play an instrument, would be to combine my other writing with my songwriting.
I left the tiny publishing house I had helped build to sign with powerhouse Sony/Tree, so I could actively pursue writing television series and movies that could be built around country songs – songs I wrote and songs other folks wrote. The first deal that came through was a chance to co-write a movie of the week for CBS (XXX’s and OOO’s) and write the theme song. My co-writer and I sat down several times and came up with two songs, neither of which was very good. Filming was about to start. We needed a song. I decided to use a country classic. I called my publisher to tell her the bad news. That was a Sunday night.
Monday morning I got up and drove my daughter to elementary school in my pajamas with a coat thrown on top, I was that depressed. I had barely gotten back in the house when the phone rang. It was the school calling saying I had forgotten to pack something my little girl needed. I wasn’t going into the school building in my PJs and they weren’t sending a six year out to the curb, so I jumped in the shower and started trying to talk some sense into myself. “You’ve got a picture of your mama in heels and pearls / And you’re trying to make it in your daddy’s world” – I was so upset I said that right out loud. There and then I knew that was a song. Knew that was the song.
I threw on some clothes and drove straight over to Matraca Berg’s house and started banging on her door. The moment the door opened the line tumbled out, and she tumbled one back to me right at the door. We moved into the house and she pulled out her guitar and the words didn’t stop. It was her truth and my truth and it needed to be told, until the song celebrating the new American Girl who was part Mama and part Daddy, and all herself, was finished – just in time for me to get to my daughter’s school with what she needed. We were fast.
Lots of people wanted to record that song because it was the theme for a TV show. The suits picked Wynona. We love Wy. But she collapsed on her way back to record overdubs. I knew Trisha. She was a friend who had sung some demos for me, and she was a friend of Matraca’s as well. The afternoon Wynona didn’t show up at the studio, I raced over to where Trisha was recording her album and literally blasted past the receptionist and into the control booth and told her I needed her to come there and then and save my song. She came. Trisha is a great singer and a good woman. A friend to other artists. She left her own session to come help me at mine. I will never forget that. And she had to sing on tracks that had been already set down in Wy’s key. And she nailed every syllable and sound of it. We knew before it was mixed – it was something amazing. Now it’s the theme song for her cooking show.
You were one of the first African-American women to write a #1 country song. What was it like to be not only a female songwriter, but a black female on Music Row in the ‘90s?
Being on Music Row in the ‘90s was a lot like being in Paris in the ‘20s. I was smart and wild and a good time was being had by many. Maude’s Courtyard was an important watering hole. I experienced far more discrimination as a woman, back in those days, then as a black person, but I never will forget the time I was in a club, having just met one of my idols, and I heard him say to someone else, “I can’t believe I’ve been around long enough that I’ve got to compete for cuts with colored girls from Harvard.” Only he didn’t say colored.
In the 25 years since, do you think country music (both listeners and the industry) has become more receptive to new songwriting voices/perspectives?
Quiet as it’s kept, country music, like hip-hop, has always contained songs that explore truths others genres don’t tell. When I came to town Bobbie Gentry was an ASCAP writer I admired. Her song “Fancy” is the tale of a mother who’s whoring out her daughter, and the daughter survives to thrive and assert her own agency. It’s built on close observations of poverty (“a cockroach crawled across the tip of my high heeled shoe”). Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” is the best anti-war song that has ever been written. “Independence Day” (written by Gretchen Peters) is part of a tradition of country songs that tell the stories of abused women with a kind of detail and agency that has long been characteristic of the best country. At its best, country is hard music for hard times. And it recognizes the contributions of black people, and class injustice, and misogyny – at its best.
You taught a class at Vanderbilt University called African-American Influences on Country Music. What sorts of parallels are there between how country music approaches stories/language, and how they’re approached in music rooted in the African-American experience? Does the influence go both ways?
Lil Hardin Armstrong is one of my favorite songwriters. She played on “Blue Yodel #9” with Jimmie Rodgers and she had a #1 hit after her death when Ringo recorded a version of her “Brown Gal” (titled “Bad Boy”). The year I was born Ray Charles had a hit with her “Just for a Thrill.” Yes, Lil took things from the black aesthetic into the world of country, and things from the world of country back into Armstrong’s band. I like to say country is an Afro-Celtic genre. At its height that Afro-Celtic hybrid gave us early rock ‘n’ roll.
You’re a bestselling author in a variety of genres, a screenwriter, a busy teacher...do you ever get the itch to return to songwriting?
Yes. Songwriting is the elemental art form: Mamas sing to their babies, lovers wail at their beloved’s grave. Prisoners chant to work in time; soldiers sing to soldier on. Be it a lullabye, wail or worksong, songwriting is taking an individual heartsong and weaving it into and with other croons and wails into something stronger, something reviving, something shared and universal. A great song helps an ordinary person step into the mind of God. Of course I still want to do that.
At this season in my life, I am interested in getting my best and very radical song cycle recorded. I think my daughter may be the artist. The project’s called Mother Dixie. I want to write some new songs for that project.
Are there any similarities in how you approach songwriting vs. the other strains of your writing career?
Song. Screenplay. Novel. I approach each of these with the same self-instructions: Tell a truth that needs to be told. Tell a truth that only I can tell. Tell what may save somebody’s life to hear.
What was your introduction to ASCAP, and how has it impacted your career?
The person who made the biggest difference in my career, in my life, was ASCAP managing director Gloria Messinger. She was a Yale law school graduate. Her daughter was my freshman roommate at Harvard. Gloria heard I wanted to be a country songwriter and had me introduced to Hal David, then the President of ASCAP. Hal David encouraged me to move to Nashville. Hal read aloud two of my lines and said the only thing wrong with those lines was that he hadn’t written them. He said I had what couldn’t be taught – I could come up with original ideas. He also said I had no craft, but that craft could be learned.
When I first came to town I would diagram every song on the Hot 100 like I was going to write a literary essay on it. I would study old songbooks and find great songs that were no longer on the radio that I loved. And then I would dissect them to figure out how they made me love them. Shepherding me through a lot of that was Bob Doyle. Bob was a songwriter liaison at ASCAP when I arrived. He picked me up at the airport. He is still one of my best friends.
The ASCAP building on the Row was a cross between a clubhouse, an open marketplace and a university. You would stop by for a cup of coffee or a cookie or to hear some great songs, or find a collaborator, or even to write – they had amazing writing rooms – and they would have seminars. That old ASCAP building was my anchor, was my shelter from the storm, was my songwriting college. Steve Earle is the person who sat down and taught me how to write, I got his phone number from Bob Doyle in the ASCAP building. But I also got some tips from folks like Jim Weatherly, who said “There’s no farm teams or minor leagues for songwriters.” That’s the way it was back then. You were getting cuts or you weren’t.
When I arrived in Nashville, ASCAP was my anchor. ASCAP introduced me to my original co-writers. ASCAP introduced me to big publishers. ASCAP gave me a place to hang out on the Row. ASCAP helped pitch my early songs. ASCAP emboldened me. ASCAP has been with me every step of the way. I found Ralph Murphy, (with whom) I wrote the songs for River Phoenix’s last feature film The Thing Called Love, through ASCAP. Working on that movie I met the great Ruth Brown. I met Charley Pride for the first time at a ASCAP dinner. Now I teach a course on Black Presence and Influence on Country Music and appeared in the new PBS documentary on Pride’s life, I’m Just Me, that’s part of the American Masters series. None of that happens for me without ASCAP.
Alice Randall is the author of novels The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Rebel Yell and Ada's Rules. Born in Detroit, she grew up in Washington, DC. As a Harvard undergraduate majoring in English she studied with Julia Child as well as Harry Levin, Alan Heimert and Nathan Huggins. After graduation Randall headed south to Music City where she founded Midsummer Music with the idea she would create a new way to fund novel writing and a community of powerful storytellers. On her way to The Wind Done Gone, she became the first black woman in history to write a #1 country song (“XXX's and OOO's”); wrote a video of the year (“Is There Life Out There,” which also features a brief cameo by Randall); worked on multiple Johnny Cash videos (e.g. “The Chicken in Black”) and wrote and produced the pilot for a primetime drama about ex-wives of country stars (XXX's and OOO's) that aired on CBS. She has written with or published some of the greatest songwriters of the era, including Steve Earle, Matraca Berg, Bobby Braddock and Mark Sanders. Four novels later, the award-winning songwriter with over 20 recorded songs to her credit is Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University. Her core courses include courses on Country Lyric in American Culture, and Soul Food As Text and in Text. Randall lives walking distance to the Ryman with her husband, David Ewing, a ninth generation Nashvillian who owns and runs a historical tour company, Nashville History on Tour. Her daughter Caroline Randall Williams graduated from Harvard in 2010 and from Ole Miss in 2015. In addition to being Randall's favorite co-writer, Randall Williams is Visiting Assistant Professor at both Sewanee and Vanderbilt. After 30 years hard at it Randall has come to the conclusion motherhood is the most creative calling of all and health disparity is the dominant civil rights issue of the first quarter of the 21st century. Visit Alice online at www.alicerandall.com.
Watch the brand new PBS documentary on ASCAP member Charley Pride, I’m Just Me. Randall is a featured interviewee.
Read an essay about Alice Randall excerpted from Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music