Local songwriter recalls ‘glory days’ on Music Row

Local songwriter recalls ‘glory days’ on Music Row

When local singer/songwriter Dale Stumbo was 23-years-old, he left his small Florida hometown and arrived in Nashville with a singular dream shared by thousands who came before him and thousands who have come after: getting a record deal.

When local singer/songwriter Dale Stumbo was 23-years-old, he left his small Florida hometown and arrived in Nashville with a singular dream shared by thousands who came before him and thousands who have come after: getting a record deal.

And like so many before him and so many after who come to Music City with that purest and most unattainable goal, the caliber of the competition and the scope of the talent pool was quickly proven to him.

It was about 1984 and Stumbo was walking down Music Row. With an acoustic guitar in hand, on his way to meet with some industry bigwig or another, he ran into a 13-year-old kid sitting on a stoop.

“Hey, mister, can I see that guitar for a second?” the boy said.

Stumbo handed over the instrument, and the kid started “ripping it like Vince Gill.”

Thirty years later, Stumbo has found the sort of quiet, under-the-radar success so many Nashville songwriters have achieved through many years of steady plodding.

Stumbo came from Wildwood, a tiny Florida town known for “rednecks, watermelon and cattle,” where he was revered as a music god. He’s always had the fascination.

“I really think songs and music bring back so many memories and replenish so much love,” he said.

“When you hear a song you heard when you were 15 and got your first French kiss – don’t tell me you don’t think of that.”

At the encouragement of practically the entire town, Stumbo moved to Nashville, where his high hopes were promptly grounded.

“I thought the second I walked into town, they’d say, ‘We’ve found the new Elvis. Here’s a contract; sign it,'” Stumbo said, laughing from his seat at a bar not too far from the Corner Pub in Franklin, where he still plays monthly.

It was a chance encounter with an industry rep one night in a Green Hills restaurant that led the artist to a one-song audition at Merit Music – at the time one of the biggest publishing companies in Nashville.

Stumbo went down to the Music Row office walking on air.

Five minutes later, he was kicked out.

“I hit a G, then a B minor 7,” Stumbo said.

“I was told, ‘James Taylor doesn’t live here. Go write a ‘G, C, D’ song.'”

But Stumbo took the advice, and eventually through hanging around 16th Avenue and Hillsboro Village, he had built up a repertoire with local songwriters and began to play gigs of his own, pushing a hybrid brand of songwriting that marries the sounds of his swampy southern roots with pop overtones, soul and R&B.

While working the Nashville writers’ round circuit, including the Bluebird Caf and Douglas Corner, Stumbo also came under the wing of the late Rick Blackburn, who headed the Nashville division of Atlantic Records.

Eventually, Stumbo scored a songwriting contract with producer James Stroud at Stroudavarious Records, which led to co-writes with some prominent names.

Stumbo has penned songs and worked with writers and players like Tony Martin (Tim McGraw), Reese Wilson (Hank Williams Jr., Shania Twain, Neil Diamond), Jimmy Carter (John Mellancamp), Johnny Neel and George Marinelli (Bonnie Raitt).

Some of them worked on Stumbo’s most recent project – an LP entitled Umbrella Man, released in 2011.

Stumbo says the album’s title track was the result of one of his most inspirational pastimes – driving.

“Driving motivates me. Driving on Natchez Trace, driving to Florida. It releases my thoughts,” he said.

It was on one such rainy trip to Florida, when Stumbo didn’t have an umbrella in the car, that “Umbrella Man” manifested.

“I thought there are so many things you can do with an umbrella. If a girl is walking down the street in the rain, you can offer her an umbrella. If she’s lying out in the sun and it’s getting a little too hot, you can give her an umbrella. Like, how many ways can you protect your girl?”

With the exception of the record’s final track, “Coup De Ville,” which he co-wrote with son Dewey, Stumbo wrote all the songs on Umbrella Man, which at one point in time would have intimidated him.

He commented that there was a time he preferred the ego struggle of co-writing than the daunting thought of being a song’s sole writer.

But that’s changed, just like the timbre of collaboration in Nashville.

“In the ’80s, you didn’t make appointments,” Stumbo said.

“You called and said, ‘Hey, I’m on my way.’ Thursdays and Fridays were a blast. You didn’t move your car, and you’d sit for hours playing.”

Stumbo moved to Nashville “on the tail-end of the glory days,” before the ’90s, when large corporations began buying up small labels and publishing companies.

“It lost the intimacy,” Stumbo said. “You had to make appointments.”

Since he first came to call Music City home, the industry has undoubtedly become more exclusive and less familiar, but Stumbo won’t say a songwriter fresh on the scene can’t make it happen anymore. That comes from an unshakable belief in a song; he still believes a song – even if it takes years to surface – ultimately speaks the loudest.

As for his own work, Stumbo’s modest.

“I’ve just gotten to a stage,” he said. “I’m old enough now where if you like my music, great. If you don’t, I don’t give a shit.”

Jessica Pace covers Williamson County, Williamson County Schools and the Town of Nolensville for Home Page Media Group. Contact her at jess@brentwoodhomepage.com or follow her on Twitter @Jess_NHP.

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