Texas Heritage Songwriters
Sonny Curtis on songwriting, West Texas simplicity and Buddy Holly
The tale of Sonny Curtis unfolds as any great Texas songwriter’s should, with equal parts simplicity and the stuff of legends. Starting with West Texas sandstorms of mythic proportions and featuring the likes of Buddy Holly and The Clash, Sonny Curtis’ story has itself become a piece of Texas folklore.
But, like any good-hearted Texan, Curtis (who now resides in Tennessee) tells this tale with charm and light laughter, showing that even a legendary career of six decades can’t water down a poetic West Texas soul.
Sonny Curtis was born in Meadow, Texas — 25 miles southwest of Lubbock — in 1937. “Forever the sign, the city limits sign, said ‘Population 408.’ I always thought that was kind of overstating it,” he says with a laugh.
“I used to write songs on the tractor, you know, in my head,” Curtis says. “I got started that way.”
Growing up as the son of a farmer, what Curtis wanted to be most in life was a country singer — a “big star kind of country singer,” he says. Songwriting was not a path he chose but rather a craft he developed “out of necessity” to combat the lonely West Texas landscape.
“I used to write songs on the tractor, you know, in my head,” he says. “Nothing came much of those songs, but when you’re riding a tractor all day long, you have a chance to think some long thoughts, and I got started that way.”
For Curtis, songwriting became a way to pass the long hours, to find solace in the juxtaposition of a small town and the big Texas sky.
“When you live in a small town like that and the sand’s blowing outside, it creates some lonesome moments, and I used to use those moments up writing songs and picking my guitar,” he says.
It was Curtis’ Aunt Mary who taught him to play guitar as a child, and her brothers — The Mayfield Brothers — became large musical influences in his early years. Although they were all lovers of bluegrass music, brother Ed Mayfield played with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in the 1950s.
“Sadly, he died on the road with Bill Monroe," Curtis recalls. “But he was a big influence on me. And I had a personal relationship with him, which I think helped me an awful lot.”
“I think my biggest influence as a guitar player was, of course, Chet Atkins,” Curtis says. “I just picked like Chet every time I got a chance.”
Outside of family, influences for the young Curtis were vast and of legendary proportions, ranging from the aforementioned father of bluegrass to Hank Williams, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
“I think my biggest influence as a guitar player was, of course, Chet Atkins,” Curtis says. “He was just magnificent, and I used to listen to him on Saturday nights on the Grand Ole Opry. He always had a spot on the Prince Albert Show, which was syndicated, and I could get it real clear on my radio. And, of course, I listened to it religiously just to hear him play.
“I used to think there were two guitar players playing, and one day a friend of mine — he became a friend — he showed me what that lick was like, Chet Atkins’ lick. It kind of stemmed from Merle Travis. (They call it the Merle Travis style.) When I learned that lick, that’s all I did, man. I just picked like Chet every time I got a chance.”
In the 1950s, Curtis began picking with a little band now known as The Three Tunes, which metamorphosed into The Crickets, a rock and roll legend helmed by none other than Lubbock’s Buddy Holly.
“I played with Buddy Holly actually before The Crickets were formed, and we recorded in Nashville,” Curtis says. “The first records were recorded in 1956, and I was in the group — The Three Tunes it was called — it was Buddy and myself and another guy called Don Guess who played bass. I played lead guitar on those records.”
After a stint on the road with Slim Whitman, Curtis “joined back up with The Crickets three or four months before Buddy got killed. … That would have been in the last part of ’58,” he says. “So, I’ve been a Cricket ever since.
“You see a lot of bands that have changed a lot through the years, but we’re the same Crickets now as we were then,” Curtis says of the band that still tours occasionally. “Well, we’ve got the same name, we look a little different, but other than that we’re the same.”
“You see a lot of bands that have changed a lot through the years, but we’re the same Crickets now as we were then,” Curtis says of the band that still tours.
Curtis’ career as a songwriter is just as legendary as his lifelong membership of one of rock and roll’s most influential bands. During the course of nearly six decades, he has penned some of modern music’s most recognizable songs, across genres.
In 1989, he co-wrote Keith Whitley’s “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.” While living in LA, Curtis wrote the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song (“Love Is All Around”). And, in true, rebellious West Texas fashion, he’s also the voice behind 1958's “I Fought the Law,” first recorded by the Bobby Fuller Four, then transformed into a punk rock anthem by The Clash.
These days, Curtis has hung up his serious songwriting hat, proclaiming himself “semi-retired” for the past 15 years. “I’m not saying I don’t write,” he says. “I do pretty much what I want to these days, and I have some projects I’m interested in which include writing arrangements to my songs. I don’t know if I’ll ever complete them, but it keeps me busy.”
In March, Curtis will be inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, adding one more well-deserved accolade to an already legendary career.
“I was surprised, to tell you the truth,” he says of the award, “and it’s really an honor to be in such good company with, well this year, with Ronnie Dunn and posthumously Roger Miller, who, by the way, was a good old friend of mine.”
Curtis says he’s sharpening some old skills ahead of his return to the Lone Star State, which will include a rare live solo performance at the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame Awards Show. “Other than playing with The Crickets, I don’t do this sort of thing too much, and all of a sudden I realized I’ve gotta get those songs out and dust them off and try to rehearse them and relearn them and all that.”
Though he hasn't called Texas home since 1960, Sonny Curtis still embodies all of the charm from his poetic West Texas upbringing — something he'll surely bring to the stage this March as he pays homage to his humble — but strong — roots.
“It’s funny, when you write a song and it sort of fades into history, you don’t find yourself singing it all that much,” he says. “But this is gonna be something different, and I kind of want to be on my toes, put my best foot forward.”
The Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame Awards Show is March 3, 2013 at ACL Live.