By Chuck Stinnett, Special to The Gleaner
HENDERSON – It’s almost surprising that Kerry Kurt Phillips had read the email notification before people started calling his house with congratulations.
“I don’t even check emails very often; I go a couple of weeks” without doing so, the former Hendersonian and longtime country songwriter said Sunday. “I didn’t want to be owned by it. That’s why I moved out to the middle of nowhere. I can’t even get a cell signal” on the farm where he lives with his wife, an hour or so outside Nashville.
But sure enough, a week or so ago he did open the electronic message that informed him that he had been nominated for the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honor extended to the legends of country song craft.
“At first I thought it was one of my idiot friends, playing a stupid joke,” Phillips said. “Then the phone started ringing.”
The email had instructed Phillips to keep the news quiet until a news release went out last Thursday. But while Nashville is a bustling metropolis, it’s also a small town when it comes to the country music industry; word was quickly out about Kerry Kurt’s nomination to one of the nation’s highest songwriting honors.
Phillips, 57, is one of eight nominees in the songwriter category along with four nominees — including Brad Paisley and Toby Keith — in the songwriter/artist category. Inductees will be announced in August, prior to the induction ceremony this fall.
Phillips expressed awe to even be considered to join the ranks of hall of fame members — “I was singing their songs before I ever moved to Nashville.
“It’s cause for a lot of reflection,” he said. “It’s hard to know where to put it. I’m trying to keep it in perspective. I don’t lack humility at all; I just think so much of those guys. I was just always ahead of schedule. It just seems a little premature. Some things you have an inkling about; this is just totally out of left field.”
Much of his perspective comes being a self-described “musicologist” with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Nashville’s famed songwriters, past and present, who are in the Hall of Fame — Hank Williams and Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers and Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Carl Perkins and John Prine, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, and on and on.
“I’m still not in the Hall of Fame and probably never will be,” Phillips said. “My goodness, those guys are legends that are in there and are voting and nominating.”
His own nomination isn’t the result of him jockeying for fame.
“I was always a guy who just kept his head down and wrote another song,” Phillips said. “I avoided politics and P.R. and back-slapping at the bar at night.”
But there was no shortage of friends, many from Henderson, sending congratulations via social media to the man known to his pals as “Kerry Kurt.”
“Ya’ll are killin’ me,” he wrote in a Facebook posting Saturday. “I feel all warm & fuzzy … like the Shetland pony who got a shot to run in the derby!” His message was posted beneath a boyhood photo of himself holding, what else? A guitar.
Born in Washington, Indiana, Phillips was just 30 days old when his family moved to Henderson as his father began a job at Henderson Community College. He did a lot of his growing up here.
“So many of my songs I’ve built around the slices of life I devoured in that town,” Phillips said. “I had an idyllic childhood there, right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I love it and the people there, always will.”
His family moved away about midway through his freshman year in high school when his father took a job at Vincennes University. But he maintained ties with friends here.
He moved to Nashville in 1988 to pursue a songwriting career; just two weeks later, he was signed as a staff writer for the Larry Gatlin-owned publishing company Texas Wedge Music.
Despite that audacious beginning, Phillips has said that the challenge to get a song heard by an artist in Nashville, let alone recorded and released, is spectacularly difficult.
It took him 2½ years to get his first song cut, when George Jones recorded “Where the Tall Grass Grows,” which Phillips co-wrote with two others.
Over his 30-year career, Phillips became one of Nashville’s most successful songwriters, compiling a catalog of more than 1,000 songs including six Billboard No. 1 singles.
He has been awarded 75 gold records and 36 platinum albums accounting for certified sales of more than 45 million records, according to his website.
One of Phillips’ greatest achievements came in 1998 when his song “It’s All The Same To Me” won the TNN/Music City News Song Of The Year Award for Billy Ray Cyrus.
Among his most popular songs have been “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” (performed by George Jones), “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox If I Die” (Joe Diffie), “Maybe We Should Just Sleep On It” (Tim McGraw), “She Let Herself Go” (George Strait) and “Almost Home” (Craig Morgan), which was Music Row Magazine’s 2003 Song of the Year.
Diffie’s recording of “Pickup Man,” which Phillips co-wrote with Howard Perdew, spent four consecutive weeks at No. 1 in 1994.
Phillips’ songs have been featured in the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta as well as in national ad campaigns for Ford Trucks, General Motors, Pepsi Corporation, Applebee’s, the PGA and the NFL.
He began slowing his songwriting efforts a few years ago to “maybe a tiny trickle. My wife and I are trying to decide what to do with next chapter of our lives. She’s thinking about retiring.
“People have been pulling me to start writing again,” Phillips said. “But I’m kind of retired. I did it every day for 30 years. My creative flame is kind of flickering. Every song has been written; every song has been written another time. They’re all about love – new love or old love or lost love or looking for love — or a pickup truck. It’s about finding a new way to find a way to say something that’s already been written 10 million times.”
Those who do collaborate with Phillips these days are obliged to visit him out on his farm — and they have to be prepared to interrupt their work to hop in the pickup when he needs to go out and check on his cattle.
He does continue to perform periodically, including an already sold-out appearance this Thursday night at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café.
Phillips was also vital in the creation in Henderson nine years ago of what is now called the Sandy Lee Watkins Songwriters Festival, encouraging songwriter friends to participate and performing himself in the event for several years.
The Sandy Lee Songfest returns to three venues in Downtown Henderson this Wednesday through Saturday nights; information and tickets are available at SandyLeeSongfest.com.
This story was posted on The Gleaner website. You can view it here.