Curly Putman, the renowned writer and co-writer of such legendary country songs as “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” died early Sunday morning after a lengthy illness. He was 85, just three weeks short of his 86th birthday.
Claude Putman Jr. was born and raised in Princeton, Alabama, on a mountain bearing his family name. His father worked in a local sawmill and Putman also spent time employed there after school. Putman attended Southern University Junior College before a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Valley Forge.
Putman learned to play steel guitar and had been in several local bands. After leaving the Navy, he played with a band in Huntsville, Alabama, where he met his future wife, Bernice, whom he married in 1956. Moving around for several years, Putman had limited success as a songwriter before eventually settling in Huntsville and working in a shoe store. He had his first cuts from Marion Worth and Grand Ole Opry star Charlie Walker and was transferred to a Nashville store, but then moved to Memphis and back to Huntsville, playing in a band at night. In 1960, he recorded “The Prison Song,” which became a Top 30 single. During a 1963 visit to Nashville, coinciding with the annual DJ convention, he ran into acquaintance Buddy Killen, who worked with music-publishing powerhouse Tree International. In January 1964, Putman began work as a song plugger.
A year later, Putman would pen the international hit “Green, Green Grass of Home,” the poignant tune about a man fondly recalling his childhood home, only to awaken to the reality of his prison cell. First recorded by Johnny Darrell in 1965, the song failed to chart. But when Porter Wagoner cut it that same year, he scored a Top Five hit on the country chart. When Welsh pop star Tom Jones heard the song on an LP by Jerry Lee Lewis, he cut the tune and reached Number 11 on the pop charts in the U.S. In the U.K. the song topped the charts for seven weeks, eventually selling more than one million copies. Charley Pride, Dean Martin, the Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard were among the dozens of artists who also recorded “Green, Green Grass of Home.” A Swedish version was also cut by Björn Ulvaeus, who would later go on to form ABBA.
Another of Putman’s oft-recorded classics was “My Elusive Dreams,” a 1967 country chart-topper for Tammy Wynette and David Houston, which he co-wrote with Billy Sherrill. Putman’s own version landed just outside country’s Top 40. That same year, he penned Dolly Parton’s first hit, “Dumb Blonde,” which the singer performed at the Country Music Hall of Fame medallion ceremony earlier this month. One of Putman’s most frequent collaborators was fellow Tree (now Sony) songwriter Bobby Braddock, with whom he wrote Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” a country Number One that also topped the U.K. charts (in a re-written comic version) for Scottish comedian-actor Billy Connolly.
When Paul and Linda McCartney recorded in Nashville in 1974, the couple stayed at Putman’s farm in nearby Wilson County. The experience inspired McCartney to write his Top Five hit “Junior’s Farm.” Putman was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976.
In 1980, Putman and Braddock’s most celebrated collaboration, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” reignited the career of troubled star George Jones. Often cited as the greatest country song of all time, the song was Jones’ first Number One in six years and won CMA Song of the Year in 1980 and 1981, also earning a Grammy.
Other memorable hits penned by Putman included Tanya Tucker’s 1973 Number One “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” T.G. Sheppard’s “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven,” “I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way Again,” recorded by both Kenny Rogers and T. Graham Brown, and the Christmas tune “There’s a New Kid in Town.” In the late Sixties, Putman recorded a pair of LPs for ABC Records, followed by a pair of singles for RCA.
Putman also wrote the campaign song for Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Lamar Alexander’s first run for the office. He would eventually serve two terms as governor and is currently in the United States Senate. Upon Putman’s passing, Alexander (R.-Tenn.), told Nashville’s WSMV-TV, “In a city of great songwriters, Curly Putman was one of the finest. Curly was a great friend, and I will miss him.”
Putman is survived by his wife Bernice, son Troy and daughter-in-law Beth, two grandsons and a granddaughter. A son and grandson preceded him in death.