Writing The Tough Topics Featuring Sandy Knox

Allison Asks

Writing The Tough Topics

A Blog Series By: Allison Barrett



[ALLISON] This is Sandy Knox and I am super excited to have her here today because we're going to talk about writing the tough topics.  That's a question a lot of you guys have.  She wrote a song called “She Thinks His Name Was John” and that's one of the toughest topics I've ever heard.  When I called you, you seem surprised that I wanted to talk about this song.


[SANDY] Really?


[ALLISON] A little bit. I was so interested because I thought this is one that people would always ask questions about. So, how did this happen?


[SANDY] Well, you know, since it is a tough topic, I can understand why you would want to talk about it. Most people want to talk to me about “Does He Love You?” The big duet that keeps giving me new life all the time. But how did John come about? Um. Well, back. First off, just let me tell you, my brother, Billy, died of AIDS that he got through a blood transfusion. He got the transfusion in 1979 when AIDS was not even on the on the radar. It was called Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). So, he got the transfusion in ’79 and he died in, uh, ‘84. And as HIV and AIDS got more news, it was getting more press, we were finding out more and more about it, we were losing more and more people to it.  I started putting myself in his shoes. He was two weeks before his 30th birthday when he died. And like I said, he got the virus from a blood transfusion while he was battling testicular cancer.  So, I put myself in his shoes. What if I had gotten that news at not even 30 years old?  I also was hearing a lot of conversations from a lot of my friends who were still very sexually active and did not think that the whole HIV threat or danger pertained to them or would affect them because they're straight.  You know, and so that that little window, that right there, kind of got me thinking about the idea for this song. I always had the title, I'm a hook girl. I start from my hook and my title and then I start developing, you know, figuring out if it's up tempo, mid-tempo or whatever. So, that was the seed.


[ALLISON] Okay! And then how did you bring this into a co-write?


[SANDY] Okay. Well that was tough, because a lot of my regular co-writers were not interested in writing this topic. They just weren't. They said there won't be a happy ending. Nobody will cut it, you know, but I don't write to get a cut.  I just try to write a good song and hopefully it will find its home and I've been lucky. But, John, I was determined to write it. And like I said, a lot of co-writers were not interested in it. And then a new co-writer of mine who also played in my band, I had a ten-piece band and played around town. And Steve, his name is Steve Rosen, and he was fairly new to town and not yet jaded by this business. He was not like, no, I can't write that because it won't get cut. He was like, yeah. He said, ’yes’ and that's what I needed. And he was an amazing musician.  I believe he graduated from Berklee and came down- keyboard player, producer.  He doesn't live here any longer, but he was a brilliant music guy. And he said ‘yes.’


So, we started, and I told him I'll need music, that I don't play an instrument, but I'm a singer, so I know music very well. So, I know how to convey to my co-writers this is what I'm going to need for the lyrics. So that's where we started. I had I had 17 pages of lyrics.


[ALLISON] Oh, wow. Okay.


[SANDY] On this song.  This song, I had the, the singer, excuse me, the subject, the girl in the song who I talk about. I had her in all different kinds of scenarios. At first I was going to have her sitting in the doctor's office looking at the doctor's diplomas on the wall, and that was how I was going to set up the thing.  Then the more I listened to some of my girlfriends who had pretty open lifestyles, then I changed the direction and I had it just be the woman. But I will tell you, I had the target. I visualized this song as a big, like if you were shooting an arrow at a big bullseye, a big target. The target was the topic of AIDS and HIV. And all around it.  I had to write about that topic, but I never wanted to say death, dying, sick, ill, medicine, medical, doctors.  There were words I was particularly going to stay away from that would change the power of the lyric and so I purposely stayed away from those words and I had to convey what was going on in this woman's life, in her story, without ever saying those words.  That was tough.


[ALLISON] Especially with 17 pages of lyrics.


[SANDY]  Yeah, well.  A lot of those got called away when I realized my solid direction.  You know, like I said, first, I had her sitting in a doctor's office waiting for the results, and then I had her at one point, I thought, you know, maybe I'll have this be somebody she just met at the fair or somewhere out and about. And then I just started thinking about, no, I got to make it more her of her personal situation and so I went from there.  So, I just started condensing and condensing, but again, had to stay away from all those words.  I always said I had to write totally around the bulls eye. My bulls eye was her story in AIDS and HIV and I could never say HIV or AIDS either. Yeah, that was the other two. I had to stay away from that.


[ALLISON] That’s a lot of rules. And so that was another question I had. I feel like the song has a very simple melody, and I mean that in the most complimentary way, because it really lets you focus on the lyrics. So, the lyrics came first. That was and that was obviously planned. Was anyone else interested in cutting this song, or did you have trouble getting the cut on it, because you had trouble getting a co-writer first? So how did it go? You finally got the song. Then what happened?


[SANDY]  Okay, I'll tell you the story on this. The publisher I was with, I was with Bluewater for about ten years writing for them. I was staff writer for them. And Reba had already cut a couple of my tunes. She cut a song called, “He Wants To Get Married.”  I don't know if you know that one. And then she cut “Does He Love You?” and “Why Haven't I Heard From You?” And my publisher had come to me and said, ‘Bonnie Raitt is looking for something that's very socially relevant.  She wants something that's got a little bit more meat to it.’  And my publisher knew I was working on this idea, and I said, ‘okay, well, we'll finish this up and we'll do a demo on it.’  So, I wrote it kind of thinking it was possibly going to get pitched to Bonnie first and then Reba came in looking.  And this is the story I've been told from the plugger, that Reba came in and that at that point, Reba would say ‘does Sandy, have any new stuff?’ Reba had liked my stuff and that plugger said, ‘you know, Sandy does have a couple of new things, and I'll play one for you, but you have to listen to the whole thing.’ 


Because there's no chorus. It's a tagline chorus.  I call it a tagline chorus. The same words end each verse. Three verses, a bridge, no chorus. It's not up tempo, it's not fun. It's not a happy ending.  And she said, ‘but you'll need to listen to the whole thing.’  And Reba said, ‘I can do that.’ And what my plugger told me was that a verse in Reba knew what it was, where it was going. She also knew that I liked trick endings, like “He Wants To Get Married.”  The last four words of the song are ‘but not to me.’  And that changes the entire song.


[ALLISON] Yes, I love those.


[SANDY] So, that's what I was told. And Reba said she wanted it on a hard hold. I was also told that at that point, I was performing with my band around town a lot, and my plugger said, Reba wants to know if you'll take it out of your show. No, no, no. That's incorrect. There was another song, it was, “He Wants To Get Married.”  She didn't want anybody to hear the ending and, like, write it or steal the end. So, she asked me to take “He Wants To Get Married” out of my live, which I happily did, and that was a big showstopper.  Then in my live show, I replaced “He Wants To Get Married” with John, because I had a place for a sad song in my ten song lineup. So, I put John in for a ballad.  So anyways, Reba heard it. She knew what it was about. She got it. She got it immediately. She knew where it was heading and she was very brave to do that song at that time.  No one had done a song or addressed it in country music at that time. She took a big risk.


[ALLISON] She did. And I feel like even still women have a harder time getting cuts, and so to take that kind of risk.  I feel like there like you said, you had a steady streak of cuts with her.


[SANDY] Three singles in a row.  I don't think many people had that happened at the time.


[ALLISON] So that’s awesome. Interesting to know that Bonnie Raitt was the other, because I love Reba's version of course, but Bonnie Raitt is also a great vocalist, so I would like to hear how that turned out.


[SANDY] We’ll never know.


[ALLISON] We'll never know! All right. So, Wrinkled records.  I was reading the story about that, but for our listeners. How did that happen?


[SANDY] Well, in 1998 I did a record, I did a CD and it was called Pushin’ 40, Never Married, No Kids and it was basically a lot of songs that kept getting put on hold, but then people would back away. I have a lot of songs that push the envelope a little bit, and I'm good with that.


[ALLISON] I can tell, and I like it.


[SANDY] And so I decided to do a CD. I didn't decide, actually. I kind of got talked into it by a couple of people in my life, and I said, because I never wanted to be an artist, I didn't want to be on the road, I didn't.  I'm a homebody, I like to stay at home. So, when I told my attorney at the time what that record was going to be called, Pushin’ 40, Never Married, No Kids, he said, ‘oh, you can't put your age in there.’ And I said, ‘why?’ And he said, ‘because you just you can't put your age out there for everyone.’ I went, ‘I've never lied about my age.’  So, to kind of push it a little further I said, ‘I'm going to release this under my own label. And I hate to tell you, but the label is going to be called Wrinkled Records because of what you said.’


[ALLISON] That's great!


[SANDY] So the label went, I moved back to Texas for a while when my father was declining and the label went dormant and I was the only release on it.  Then when I moved back here in 2006, I ran into a really dear friend of mine, Katie Gillan, who had been second in command at MCA records forever for 29 years, I think and I told her, I said, ‘you know, I've got this.’ She was retired from MCA and I said, ‘you know, I’ve got this label that's active, it's dormant.  We should resurrect it and do like do a bunch of artists who didn't get their chance and now they quote unquote in this town aged out.’ And so that's how Wrinkled, we kicked it into gear and we were aiming toward doing projects that would be critically acclaimed and almost every project we did was.  So, I did the label for about ten years.


[ALLISON] Did you always want to own a publishing company or label?


[SANDY] No! No! Are you kidding?  I don't want to run a business.


[ALLISON] It’s funny you say that because we tell songwriters they are their own business because you have to get out there.


[SANDY] That's true.  The terrain is different now.


[ALLISON] Oh for sure.


[SANDY] It's very different now. I mean, I had two staff deals. Staff deals are hard to come by now.  But no, I didn't. It was just something fun to do and I knew of a lot of artists in this town like Etta Britt and Jimbeau Hinson and a couple of others who they deserve to have a deal. They deserve to be heard, but they were considered too old, or not in the mainstream, or whatever. So, I wanted to take a chance on that and we did some good records.  We did a couple with B.J. Thomas, who had tons and tons. I don't know if you know B.J., but we did one on B.J., which was wonderful and a lot of guest artists on that record.  We did all of his big hits in acoustic version and we called it the Living Room Sessions. And it was very, very cool. Vince Gill was on it, Richard Marx, and Keb’ Mo’ and a lot of people came and showed up for B.J., so that was cool.


[ALLISON] That sounds like a good time.


[SANDY] It was a good time. So yeah.


[ALLISON] Awesome. Well, I did say we were going to talk about the tough topics. So, all of our members want to pitch their songs. They want to get them out there. They, like you said the staff deal is hard to get. That's what they want. So, did you have a song when you were signing people to Wrinkled Records that you were nervous about signing? And then also, did you have a song that you had trouble pitching?


[SANDY] We were signing them to the label. I wasn't a publisher. Wrinkled Records was not a publishing situation, so everybody had their own publishing situation, but we did discuss what songs were going to go on certain records and stuff. Yeah, for sure. A lot like Jimbeau Hinson. Jimbeau was, I don't know if you know Jimbeau, he passed away last year.  He wrote a lot of great songs and he was he was a mainstay in this town for years and he just died about a year, year and a half ago.  He was one of the first people that I met in this town and this guy could sing like nobody's business. And he was a brilliant writer, but he was a wild child. Jimbeau was a wild child, and he was one of my closest friends.  He had an open lifestyle, and he was HIV positive and I knew that he had written a whole bunch of songs about that situation, but nobody knew that's what the songs were about. So, he was one of the first people I talked to about doing a record on Wrinkled. And I said, ‘how would you feel about doing a song that's all about your situation?’  He was not really out at that time and he said, ‘let me think about it.’ And then he decided, ‘you know what? I'm going to do it.’  So, a lot of these songs that he had written that were about his struggle with HIV he put on the record. The record's called Strong Medicine.


[ALLISON] Oh, good title.


[SANDY] Yeah. Well, it was a great song that he wrote called “Strong Medicine.”  So, the whole point of that is that a lot of the artists that I dealt with when we were doing Wrinkled, they were singer-songwriters.  So, they came to the table with a lot of songs they wanted to do of their own so that's how that worked.


[ALLISON] And then the second part is, did you have trouble pitching any of your songs?


[SANDY] When I first got here?


[ALLISON] That or did you have a song that you wrote that your publisher was like, I don't feel like we should pitch that. I won't pitch that.


[SANDY] No, I never encountered that.  I came to town with “Does He Love You” in my holster and that was the first song I signed. I signed a single song contract on it and so I arrived in town with that one.  And that song was put on hold several times.  It was put on hold by Barbara Mandrell.




[SANDY] And she was trying to figure out who to do it with and Tom Collins was her producer at the time.  Then Barbara got in this really bad car accident and broke her back, and she was out of commission for a while so, the song lingered on hold, a hard hold, which is frustrating sometimes.  Then because she was not going to be able to perform herself it finally got taken off hold. My co-writer on the song is a guy named Billy Stritch, who I have known forever.  We were both from Houston and we wrote that song in his apartment in Houston, Texas, and Billy was performing a lot. He had a vocal group and he was performing it a lot with his vocal group all over the world. They were doing the cabaret, Cafe Society in Europe and New York. They were a high end, really great vocal group of two girls and Billy.  Billy did all the vocal arrangements and everything. We knew we had a hit, because every time they did that song in their show, it would bring the house down and Billy and I knew. So, when I moved here, he moved to New York and at one time Tony Bennett wanted to do a version of it with Sinatra. Does she love you? That never happened and then Liza Minnelli. He became friends with Liza. Liza wanted to do a version of it, and that didn't happen at that time.  Then Billy became Liza's Musical Director, and she did a record here in town after it had been a hit. But then Mike Sebastian, do you know Mike?


[ALLISON] I don't.


[SANDY] Okay. Mike is a song plugger here in town and he was working for Reba. So, the song basically had laid dormant for about 13 years and then, you know, people were interested and that happens all the hold, not hold on soft hold.  Reba made a comment to Mike, this is the story I have been told, that she would love to find a female duet and Mike had worked at the publishing company I had once been at because I was a plugger for a while. I didn't tell anybody I wrote, and I got in the back door and became a song plugger.  Mike literally said, ‘give me a minute’ And he walked across the street from Starstruck to the publisher and said and told the woman sitting on the front desk, whose name was Farren, and she was my neighbor, too, and said, ‘Farren, run off a copy of “Does He Love You.”’ He walked back over to Reba, handed it to her. She listened to it in the car on her way home, and it was on the radio six weeks later.




[SANDY] Yeah. So, it had laid dormant for all those years and then once Reba heard it, she knew what she was going to do with it, and it was on the radio six weeks later.


[ALLISON] If that's not a story of not giving up, I don't know what is.


[SANDY] Yeah, well, and thank God for Mike Sebastian because when Reba said, ‘I wish I could find a female duet.’ And he went, ‘I know where one is’ because he had been the plugger. He had pitched it a hundred times, probably and he went and got a cassette. That's when we pitched using the cassette.  So, he and I are Facebook friends and I tell him all the time, thank you, dude. You know.


[ALLISON] I feel like that also is, like, important about knowing, like, you know, they say find your tribe network well.  You gotta network and know what's going on in the business because that's exactly how that happens.


[SANDY] You've got to network. When I moved here in 1983, man it was so important to go out and about and be, you know, meet… Okay, I'm going to get back in, but there was a there was a place in Midtown called Maude's Courtyard. And somebody said, you got to go hang out at Maude's Courtyard because from like 3:00 until 7:00, every music person in the world is there. And so, I did, and I went and I would hang out there and meet people at the bar. And it was everybody in the music industry was there: songwriters, pluggers, musicians, artists, everybody came to Maude’s to have Happy Hour. It was crazy, but it was so good and so much fun. And that's where you met people.  Yeah, had many drinks with Harlan Howard sitting in that place.


[ALLISON] I've always wanted to think back to the places like that and just, you know, what it was like.


[SANDY] It was fun. There was a lot of fun!  But, network.  That's how I started meeting people and then I got a job at MCA records as a receptionist. I wanted to get inside The Row. That was important to me to get on The Row, to get inside the inner circle. I needed to be inside of it. So, I applied for a job at MCA records.  I heard through the grapevine that they had an opening for a receptionist, and I made a beeline down there.


[ALLISON] Do you think that was helpful in getting yourself immersed, like in the business side, too? Obviously.


[SANDY] Yeah! Now, the job didn't last long. Let me clarify that.  Katie Gillen, who I started Wrinkled with. She was my boss.  She's the one who hired me and two or three weeks after I got hired they had a new label head come in and everybody got fired. So, all of a sudden, this gig that I was so happy to have, I lost. But I got severance pay, I got health insurance for like three months, and then I was eligible for unemployment. So, I was like, I was covered for like six months paying my rent. So, I got busy and I had met enough people and everything, I got busy and I thought, you’ve got six months to get a staff deal.


[ALLISON] That's motivation.


[SANDY] So I got out and I really hustled. Now I was I was on I was on the inside of the row and I got out there and I got busy and I got a staff deal. No, first I got a job as a song plugger and then that morphed into a staff deal. So yeah. So, but it was all about getting inside.


[ALLISON] Yeah!  No, that's a great tactic, as I like to say.


[SANDY] Because listen, I moved here in 1983, August 13th of 1983, because I was living in Houston. I had already been out to LA for a while. I went out to LA and I got accepted into the ASCAP Workshop West and so I moved out there to go to that. Then after that was over, after about a year or so I came back to Houston and I was having so much fun and going out and dancing. My friends and I, we were going out and partying, and I was working in a department store and at night we were going out to all the clubs and the discos and having a fine old time. And my father said to me, ‘you know, I think you probably might want to go to secretarial school and learn how to type or something.’ And I went, ‘what?’ I said, ‘what? Type? What do you mean? I'm a songwriter.’ And he said, ‘well, you're not being a songwriter. You're not applying yourself.’ I was so insulted and hurt, he had lost faith in me. He was saying, you got to go get a job. He said, ‘you got to go get skills’ and I lied in bed that night and I thought, six months from tonight I'm going to be unpacking my bags in Nashville, Tennessee. Wow. That's why I know the date was August 13th.




[SANDY] Because that was the date, the goal I set and that is the day I drove up with the U-Haul. I drove my car. My dad drove the U-Haul.




[SANDY] So that was an ’83 and I moved here with $1,500 in my pocket. And I did not know one soul in this town. When he got on a plane to fly back to Houston, I cried like a baby for three days. It was, what have I done? WHAT have I done?


[ALLISON] But that's amazing and had you had a plan and here we are.


[SANDY] I had a plan for sure and I was scared to death!


[ALLISON] I think we're all scared even when things are going well. I think that that gives you a new kind of scared. So, I think you're always going to be scared, no matter how good or not good the things are going.


[SANDY] But fear is good. It motivates you. It keeps you inquisitive. It makes you work harder. I was determined I was going to do this. Listen, here's what I always said. If I stayed in Houston and tried to be a songwriter from Houston, it never, ever would have happened and I was determined that if it was not going to happen, at least it was going to not happen in Nashville. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail among the big boys. Among trying while trying. I wasn't going to sit in Houston, going oh, well, it never worked. Well, yeah, because you didn't do anything.


[ALLISON] And it worked.


[SANDY] Yeah. It worked.


[ALLISON] So for writing the tough topics, what kind of advice would you give to our writers for if they want to write these songs and want to pitch them? Because we have people writing songs about divorce and mental health issues and, you know, social issues and all these other things. You know, the current ideas of “She Thinks His Name Was John.”  Like the current day ideas, what would you say to them? Should they write these ideas? Should they try to pitch, or do you think that'll hurt them?


[SANDY] I think that absolutely, they should write them. Yeah. Don't be afraid. Write. Write what you know. Write what you believe in. Write what you feel strongly about. I think that the songs of mine that have gotten cut, part of the reason is they were different and they stood on their own. I think that's very important to go for it. I don't think you… if you don't, you'll never know if it's going to work or not. So, I do.  I think that writers have a lot more freedom now also because let me tell you something, there was a time across the board. I was about to say in this town, but across the board you couldn't say damn or hell or there were a lot of things you couldn't say in a song. There were things… this is so weird, but I have a wonderful song called “Ropes Made of Sand” and there's a line in there, the line is “I would walk across the mouth of a volcano on ropes made of sand to get to you.” That's a powerful visual and I won't name the artist, but a really big artist and it's a big vocal. It's a big song and the really big artist heard it.  She loved it until she heard that word and she's like “I don't want to sing the word volcano.”




[SANDY] That's stupid. So yeah, I'm not going to change that song, you know? Never. Now, it also hasn't been cut yet, but.


[ALLISON] But, you’re not going to change that song.


[SANDY] I'm not going to change it.  So, I think artists, there are artists that won't sing about certain things. I know a really well-known artist who will not sing about being left. She doesn't want to be seen in that someone left her, unloved her, in other words.


[ALLISON] Interesting.


[SANDY] So I think, yeah. You got to write what you what you want to write as a writer. So I wouldn't stay away from scary topics no.


[ALLISON] And you don't think that if they go to pitch these songs that maybe they should shy away. If they if they get a meeting, should they be playing these songs in these meetings? Or should you think if it's your best song, play it no matter what it is.


[SANDY] I think you play your best song. I mean a lot of times pluggers will say, ‘what else you got that's a little different?’ Well, there's your entry right there to say, ‘well, I got this song.  It’s maybe a controversial topic’ or whatever.  But pluggers, I shouldn't say just pluggers, but artists, pluggers, they're looking for songs that are going to stand out and be different and be powerful. So yeah, I would definitely pitch the stuff that's more ear candy, more earwormy first, but if they ask if you got anything else that's different or you got anything else, take that shot.

And also it depends on if you know who they're what artists they're looking for.  If they’re listening to songs for a specific artist, that might tell you also what you might think about pitching. You know, I never did that, though. I never tried to write with an artist in mind.


[ALLISON] I think that works. I mean, if you're writing with an artist, of course, write what they want to write. But yeah, if you're just writing with other pure writers then write your best song for sure.


[SANDY] So do you think that when you write with an artist you should write what they want to write?


[ALLISON] That's what I've been told. Now, I'm not a songwriter, but I have been told if you're in the room with the artist write what they want so that they're more likely to go out and play it and pitch it. But now, I'm not a songwriter.


[SANDY] What if they want to write something that's absolutely asinine, stupid?


[ALLISON] That is a great question! I guess you see if you want to fight it in the room or not. Not me going downstairs after this to see what's happening in the writers rooms.


[SANDY] Yeah. That's funny.


[ALLISON] Awesome. Well, that's all the questions I had prepared. Do you have anything else you think our members need to know or that you want to add on?


[SANDY] Don't stop! Don't stop. I mean, I'm 65 years old and I am working on a huge project now and if anyone would have told me ten years ago that I'd be in the middle of this big monster I would have said ‘no. At 65? No.’ But yeah, I am. I think once you're a writer, you never stop.  I mean, I think of hooks all the time. You know, they're always there. So, I would just say, don't give up on yourself. My mother said to me one time ‘if you give up on your dream of being a songwriter, you have 100% chance of never making it.’


[ALLISON] That's great.


[SANDY] Yeah, but if I kept up, she said ‘at least you have a 50% chance.’


[ALLISON] That's good math. That's halfway there.


[SANDY] It was a math lesson, too.  Who knew?


[ALLISON] Awesome.  Well, I think that is the best thing to end on so thank you for coming and talking to me!


[SANDY] Thank you for inviting me!