Has it really been 40 years since I started down this music highway? My first real gig was at a Holiday Inn in Downtown Charleston, South Carolina, for two weeks in February 1968. I was two years out of high school, had been playing guitar for a little over two years and I knew about 40 Bob Dylan songs – no one wanted to hire a one-man Dylan cover band, so I set out to learn some popular songs of the day. I didn’t care much about songs other than Dylan songs, but I wanted to work, so I learned. I could do “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “This Guy’s In Love With You” and I can’t remember what all else but I learned. The summer before I had hitchhiked to Newport, Rhode Island to the Newport Folk Festival and saw Arlo Guthrie sing “Alice’s Restaurant.” In the fall of that year I got a copy of the album and learned that whole song. That was how I got my gig in Charleston. I auditioned for the Holiday Inn singing “Alice’s Restaurant.” They gave me a roundtrip airline ticket and room and board at the hotel plus $150 weekly salary.
I was in high cotton.
By August I had grown tired of playing for businessmen who weren’t really listening and I was thinking about another way to do this music thing. I had been writing songs in earnest and had picked up quite a bit of performing technique over the months with Holiday Inn. I was in Buffalo, New York when I met Mark Goldfarb. Mark played bass and knew about the Coffee House Circuit out of New York City. We teamed up and went to New York to audition for the Circuit at the Bitter End on Bleeker Street. I was too nervous to hang around at the club to see if we got the job, so Mark found me down the street somewhere and told me we got picked to go on tour. I was 19 at the time, and I remember thinking I could do my own songs for an audience of mature college people who really knew their way around.
I recorded two albums for the Vanguard label during that time, Keith Sykes and 1-2-3, and I played the Coffee House Circuit for the next five years. I moved to New York and met a lot of people who are still my friends to this day: Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmy Lou Harris, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Gary White, Loudon Wainwright III and many more.
Before I moved to New York I had already gotten a couple of songs recorded. The Lonesome Rhodes did “I’m Missing You” and The Gentrys did “Silky.” I can’t remember which one was first. After moving to New York, Jerry Jeff recorded a song of mine called “About Her Eyes.” Also during that time McKendree Spring recorded some five songs, including “Oh What A Feeling,” which was recorded by Rodney Crowell a little later on.
By the middle of 1973, I was ready for a change so I tried Austin, Texas. Again I met a whole new group of singer-songwriters, many of whom I am proud to still call my friends. Gary P Nunn, Bob Livingston, Willis Allen Ramsey and John Inmon are just a few. I didn’t stay in Austin very long. The girl I was living with, Mary Lou David, had fallen in love with a great songwriter named Walter Hyatt and I was quite heartbroken. I went to Key West to regroup and lay low.
A couple of years before, I was on a tour with Jerry Jeff Walker and he was telling me about a cat named Jimmy Buffett. Apparently, Jerry Jeff had told Buffett about me while they were on a tour. So, the second time I went to Key West (the first time I drove down, drove around and drove back to Coconut Grove) I called up Jerry Jeff to ask him who I might get in touch with down there. Jerry Jeff’s girlfriend, Murphy, answered the phone and told me to look up a girl named Ashley Simmons. Murphy gave me her address and said “if you find her you’ll be in like Flynn with some very cool people.” So I went to the house on Caroline Street. A guy was sweeping up the courtyard and I asked him if Ashley Simmons lived there. The guy asked me “who wants to know?” I said “I’m Keith Sykes and a friend of Jerry Jeff Walker’s.” They guy said he was Jimmy Buffett, and after that I had a whole new family in Key West. Tom Corcoran, Ben “Dink” Benjamin, Phil Tinney, Pat Tinney – so many cool people, most of whom are still there and still very close to me. I stayed in Key West for most of that summer writing songs. “Train To Dixie” was recorded by Marcia Ball and McKendree Spring, and even Buffett, though he’s never released it. “Take Me, Take Me,” “Only Human” and “Raining In My Soul” were all recorded by Rosanne Cash. “Just Wanna Dance” was recorded by Rodney Crowell and Johnny Halladay. Several more would wind up on records over the years. All in all, a good songwriting trip.
I stayed till around Christmas and then took off for Nashville to see Guy and Susanna Clark. They were my friends in Nashville who I could go see no matter what was going on in my life, with my heart, or anything else. I remember drinking a lot of Palomino Whiskey and singing even more songs. There was a guitar pull every night and it was like – to lean on The Lovin’ Spoonful a little bit – “anyone who unpacked his guitar would play a song twice as better than the last one.” It was amazing!
I went to Memphis to see my mother and sister for Christmas and then back to Austin to pack up my stuff and head back to NYC. In April, I was passing through Memphis and stopped off to see some old friends, most notably Phillip Rauls. Phillip had been working for Atlantic Records for some years, and he was another guy I could depend on if I needed or wanted to spend a few days. It was at this time I ran into Jerene Rowe, a girl from my high school who was somehow always in the back of my mind, no matter where I went or who I was with. When I saw her she looked even prettier than I remembered and I told her that I had always had a crush on her, even from when I was in the fourth grade. We started seeing each other soon after. One thing led to another and we have been together ever since.
With the help of Phillip Rauls and Larry Raspberry, the latter being the driving force behind The Gentrys when they recorded “Silky,” and now the leader of the biggest band around, Larry Raspberry and the High Steppers, I was eased into the Memphis music landscape. I seemed to fit in musically with all the other mavericks in town. It had, and still has, one of the most eclectic music scenes anywhere. I had left eight years before because there weren’t enough folk music opportunities happening. By the time I came back in ’74, it really didn’t matter. Folk music had all but vanished all across the country, and Memphis was as good as anywhere to set up shop and start a band and see what might happen.
After some fits and starts, it slowly began to come together for me in Memphis. Changing from folk singer to dance band leader wasn’t as far-fetched as you might think – I still had to find a way to connect with the audience. The difference was I could let the music do the talking a little more than before, although I still held on to the singer-songwriter aspect of my approach. I admit, however, some of my lyrics went to subjects and styles that I wouldn’t have done when I was playing solo. Things like “BIGTIME” would have never occurred to me when I was writing for my solo thing.
The first album I did after moving back to Memphis was named The Way That I Feel. Buffett recorded “The Coast of Marseilles” and “The Last Line” from it on his million-selling Son of a Son of a Sailor album, and I have to say my songwriting life entered a whole new phase from that point forward.
I worked the clubs in Memphis, playing with a host of good players such as Ray Barrickman and Tom Janzen. Larry Raspberry hired me for a year to play in the High Steppers and I learned a lot about being a sideman in a band. He’s also a master showman and I picked up a lot just watching him every night. By 1978 I was picking up steam in the places I was playing. I would always have a packed house in Memphis and Mobile, through Mississippi and Arkansas. It was also around that time Jerry Jeff Walker recorded “I’m Not Strange, I’m Just Like You.”
In January of 1979 Kris Kristofferson asked Jerene and me if we would like to come to New York City to an event he and Rita Coolidge were doing called “The Year of the Child” for UNICEF. It seemed every big recording star of the day was there and we had a wonderful time just being a couple of flies on the wall. It was when we were there that Buffett called and asked if I’d like to join the Coral Reefer Band. It was one of those “let me see if I can find time in my busy schedule” kind of moments. Of course, I couldn’t have been more flattered, so in February we met up in Coconut Grove, Florida and began rehearsals for the first tour of that year – talk about a wild time. Everywhere we went, we went first class, and every night we had a packed house. Jimmy was the best person in the world to work for and was always very caring when it came to the band and crew. That summer he took us all to Montserrat to record what would become the Volcano album. We had recorded all the songs by the time Jimmy and I went to see the volcano on the island. We went back to the studio and wrote the song “Volcano” and recorded it the next day. It of course became the title song of the record and has gone on to become one of his most lasting anthems, and a nice calling card for me. It seems everywhere I go people know that song and love to sing the chorus with me.
As soon as we returned to Memphis from Montserrat, I went into Ardent Studios in Memphis and recorded the album I’m Not Strange, I’m Just Like You for a little record company we started called Memphis Records. From the start, primarily from the support of the local rock station WEGR, it became an instant hit in the Memphis area. Tom Owens, the General Manager, and Redbeard, the air personality from 6 to 10 at night, gave the album a chance. Now that’s something you don’t see these days – but back then, if you had something they thought would work, a local station would put your music on the air and let it compete with the records that were in their rotation. If it got the response, you were in.
It took about a year, but we got enough attention locally that the majors came courting. And through the help of Jon Scott, record promoter extraordinaire, we got a deal with MCA on Tom Petty’s label, Backstreet. After a lot of touring and a break here and there, I was invited to do Saturday Night Live. To this day I consider it one of the highlights of my career. That same week I did the King Biscuit Flour Hour with Robert Kline hosting. What a week that was!
I did one more album for Backstreet called It Don’t Hurt To Flirt, followed by two more for Memphis Records, Play X Play and Fun Rockin’. I went everywhere and played almost constantly throughout this five-year period, including an appearance with Rodney Crowell on Austin City Limits. By 1986, I decided to turn a corner and go into full time writing, publishing and producing. By 1988, I had arranged a recording deal for my publishing company’s first writer, John Kilzer, on the Geffen label. Not long after in 1990 I signed a young writer named Todd Snider and in 1993 I got him a deal on Buffett’s Margaritaville Records label. I was also responsible for getting a few writers their first recording during that time and, to me that was as rewarding as anything there is in the music business. Among those were Waylon Jennings’ recording of Denny Lile’s “Falling Out,” Shelby Lynn’s beautiful take on Stephanie Smith’s “Thinking About You Again” and John Prine did a great version of Tim Carroll’s “If I Could, Then I Would.”
In 1992 I recorded It’s About Time on the Oh Boy label, performed on the TV show Nashville Now and played the radio show Mountain Stage. In 1993 I built The Woodshed recording studio to concentrate on demos for the publishing companies and to record albums for artists in genres as diverse as rock, country, blues and pop.
I began hosting songwriter shows on Beale Street in Memphis in ’93, and the guest list was an amazing roster of songwriters. I showcased Hall of Fame writers like Richard Leigh and Roger Cook, singer-songwriter superstars like Steve Earle and Guy Clark, and newcomers like Rivers Rutherford and Jimmy Davis. In 1997 I teamed up with Texas business man Kelcy Warren to expand the abilities of the studio and open new publishing companies and a new label called Syren Records. Our first release was an album I had recorded a few years before but never released named Advanced Medication for the Blues, and we were off and running.
Todd Snider asked me to join him on a tour in 2000, and after I returned home I realized how much I was missing that aspect of my life. I decided to turn yet another page and go back into performing as my main occupation. I spent most of 2001 putting together the Don’t Count Us Out, and when it was released in the fall I had come full circle. Touring became the norm again and it didn’t take too long until I was in the swing of write, record and tour. Since then I have released several albums. Thanks to Syren Records I released Advanced Medication for the Blues, the aforementioned Don’t Count Us Out and Retrospective, Vol 1. Madjack Records released All I Know and Fat Pete Records released Let It Roll. In the fall of 2008 I recorded a CD for Aimless Records called Country Morning Music that contains all solo acoustic versions of songs I’ve written throughout my whole career.
KSM Entertainment released an all blues CD, Bucksnort Blues, in August 2011, and 20 Most Requested, an expanded solo acoustic CD that consisted of my most requested songs from my tours in January of 2012. It’s been the best seller at my shows ever since.
Beginning in 2010, every January after the annual Larry Joe Taylor Songwriter Cruise, I’ve been traveling to tiny Port Aransas, Texas, to spend a month writing. I’ve been getting around 15 to 18 new songs each year, so it’s working out very well. Of course, not all the songs will become “keepers,” but just the fact that I’m taking time to write keeps me honed in on my craft, thinking about songwriting all year long, and fine tuning and re-working songs until I have something I can play on the road and eventually record.
One point of focus when I’m in “Port A” has been what I call “beach songs.” I’ve had a natural tie to a certain kind of music anyway, even before I was a Coral Reefer, because of my love of the islands, the little beach towns, and the people I meet when I’m in that environment. One case in point is the lyric to “Coast of Marseilles.” It was written when I was in Memphis, to a melody I wrote when I was in Mobile one afternoon looking out on the bay. As you can tell, this music’s been in my blood my whole life, no matter where I am. So, out of the almost 100 songs I’ve written during my Port A sabbaticals, I have what I consider to be a really fine “Island” or “Trop Rock” album, as the genre is being called these days. KSM Entertainment is releasing “Come As You Are Beach Bar,” the first single from the EP Songs From A Little Beach Town, in March 2016. The EP will be out later in the year.
In 2014 I produced an album of really fine songs for Matt Hoggatt, and I’m in the middle of producing Darwin and Dana, a super fine duo who have treasure trove of great songs. I expect that record will be out sometime in 2016.
Well, that’s the high points. I hope this lets the curious and the uninitiated in on my life so far.