John D. Loudermilk, the writer of numerous pop and country hits, including “Tobacco Road,” “Indian Reservation,” “Abilene” and “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” died Wednesday, according to a Facebook post from his longtime friend and fellow songwriter Bobby Braddock. He was 82.
Born March 31st, 1934, Loudermilk grew up in Durham, North Carolina. His mother, Pauline, was a missionary, and his father, John D. Sr., a carpenter who assisted in the building of Duke University, as well as several tobacco factories and hosiery mills.
Perhaps his best-known composition, “Tobacco Road” has been covered nearly 200 times, with its greatest success coming in 1964, when the Nashville Teens, a British Invasion group, had a Number 11 pop hit with it. The hard-charging tune, most recently recorded by Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, painted a bleak picture of a poor, abandoned child yearning to break free from his surroundings, and although Loudermilk’s own family was poor, he said during a 2007 “Poets and Prophets” interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, “I didn’t even know my family didn’t have any money. I always had a place to play, had a camp under the house or a tree house to play in. And I had a bicycle, a pair of shorts and no shoes, and you could go all over Durham with that, but you had to be back by dark.”
When Loudermilk was 7, his mother taught him to play a ukulele his father had made with a cigar-box body. At 13, he performed on Durham radio station WTIK as Little Johnny Dee. When guitarist-produced Chet Atkins recorded his “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” he invited Loudermilk to visit Nashville, where he met songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Encouraged by their success as full-time songwriters, Loudermilk soon began experiencing his own success with his compositions. The 1956 version of “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” was a Top Ten pop hit for George Hamilton IV and would go on to be recorded by several other acts, including, in 1999, Marilyn Manson. His next big hit, “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” was the first chart record for rocker Eddie Cochran in 1957.
A 1958 deal with Columbia netted Loudermilk little success as a solo artist but three years later, he signed with RCA and earned a Top 40 hit, “Language of Love,” which also reached the U.K. Top 20. His biggest solo country hits were “Bad News” in 1963 (later cut by Johnny Cash) and “That Ain’t All,” a Top 20 entry two years later. In 1963 he scored another George Hamilton IV pop and country smash with the co-written “Abilene.” The 1967 Casinos pop hit “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” was a Number One country hit a year later for Eddy Arnold and was subsequently cover by Glen Campbell, Neal McCoy and Joss Stone, among many others.
But it is the 1971 Paul Revere & the Raiders recording of his “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)” that would be his biggest hit. The platinum-selling single topped the pop chart and would later be referenced in Tim McGraw’s 1994 hit “Indian Outlaw.”
Loudermilk’s quirky sense of humor not only surfaced in some of his songs, but also in his storytelling. During the Poets and Prophets interview in 2007 he recalled that at the time the Raiders were on the charts with “Indian Reservation,” he had tricked American Top 40 host Casey Kasem into believing – and telling listeners – that he was inspired to write the song after getting stranded in a snowstorm and picked up by a group of Native Americans. According to Loudermilk, they petitioned him to write about the government’s unfair treatment of their people.
Other tunes in Loudermilk’s impressive body of work include the oft-covered “Break My Mind,” “This Little Bird,” (Marianne Faithfull) “Ebony Eyes,” (Everly Brothers), “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” and “Norman” (Sue Thompson), “Talk Back Trembling Lips,” (Ernie Ashworth, Becky Hobbs) and “Waterloo” (Stonewall Jackson).
In a Facebook tribute, Braddock recalled his initial encounter with the songwriting legend: “When I first met John D. nearly forty years ago at a small party, he was wearing a brown business suit and tie, and had a little mustache, and I thought he looked like the father in some 1930s comedy film. Within a few minutes he was standing on his head doing yoga, just as natural as if he had been dipping Ritz crackers in the pimento cheese.”
Loudermilk is survived by his wife Susan of 48 years and other family members.