Gary Gentry is one of the most acclaimed traditional Country songwriters today. His songs have been recorded by the best of the best in traditional Country music like George Jones, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Del Reeves and John Anderson leaving him with many hit songs to his repertoire. Gentry has earned two gold records, 'The One I Loved Back Then' (also known as the Corvette song) and 'We Didn't See A Thing' along with a platinum record for 'The Ride'.
Gary's family moved around a lot because his father was a preacher in several different churches. Gentry alwayw felt blessed to be surrounded with people from all walks of life. Gary realized he was a writer at the young age of 14 years old when he started writing stories. His first job was working for Mamma's Truck Stop. Because the cops wouldn't stop a 14 year old boy, Mamma, the owner, would often send him out to get her moonshine. Gary used to watch the truckers walking in with a sort of strut and swagger and the pride they emanated stayed with him forever.
As a young boy Gary was interested in R&B and Blues until one night watching his little black and white TV, the Jimmy Dean Show came on. George Jones was singing a song Dicky Lee wrote, 'She Thinks I Still Care'. Gary didn't know who George Jones was at the time but when he heard him singing it with his heart and soul, Gary was, at that moment, converted to traditional Country music.
At the age of 18, Gary enlisted in the Navy and in 1976, he was stationed at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii driving trucks. During his spare time, he wrote songs, played in bars and clubs and backed up Country stars who came over to perform. He left the Navy to peruse his music career but when Vietnam was raging, he reenlisted. This time he was stationed at a NATO base in Naples, Italy. While he was there, he entered a songwriting competition in a magazine, The American Song Festival, and he came in second place and with this win, Gentry headed straight for Nashville, Tenn.
Nashville didn't welcome Gary Gentry with open arms and he struggled for a few months living in his vehicle until he got a job as night manager in a liquor store and selling real estate. This turned out to be a major turning point in his songwriting career. Gentry met everyone in the music business at the liquor store and he didn't waste any time pitching his songs to them. At one time, Johnny Paycheck came in complaining about his D.U.I. He said he had to give up driving because he sure wasn't giving up his drinking. Johnny Paycheck was the first Country star to record one of Gary Gentry's songs, 'Drinking and Driving' which is still #68 in the world's 100 top drinking songs.
Gary Gentry met and befriended, Billy Sherrill, who was one of the the greatest songwriters and producers in Nashville. When he first met Billy Sherrill, Gary addressed him out of respect as Mr. Sherrill. Billy asked him if he was from East Tennessee or East Texas? Gary said East Tennessee and Billy said “I thought so and Mr. Sherrill lives in Alabama, I am just Billy. Let me congratulate you on your manners”. He received priceless advice from top producers such as Billy Sherrill and Buddy Killen who was the former owner of Trinity Broadcasting Network and Tree International Publishing. They told him, “Who you know is only half the formula, if you can't write a hit, we're not going to help you. We are in the business of putting out the best material to these artists”. Billy Sherrill was behind several of Gary's hits being recorded by the biggest names of the times.
Gary received advice from so many successful stars as well. Tom T. Hall said that when you become successful, your friends will turn against you, they will drift away. Jimmy Buffet said “Once the music bug bites you, you live with the stain.” When Gary met Stephen King in the early '80's, Stephen said “As a writer, you must get an emotional reaction from the people”. Competing against your self is to do the very best you can.
One day a guy came into the liquor store to buy some little bottles of liquor to take to his job site. Because it was so hot out, Gary talked him into getting a bottle of water. As he was leaving, the man turned and said, “it's hotter than a $2 pistol”. Gary saw immediately where that line was going and the Corvette song evolved. When Gary heard George Jones do the walk up on “She's hotter than a $2 pistol” , he literally hugged George.
Ray Charles was in town recording an album of duets. Billy Sherrill contacted Gary for some songs. Gary, at the time, was with Ronnie Milsap and often times Ronnie would jest about himself being blind by saying things like “I had a heck of a time driving to work today”. With this in mind, Gary wrote “We Didn't See A Thing” for Ray's duet with George Jones. Ray absolutely loved it and Chet Atkins sat in and played guitar for the track. Gary also co-wrote 'Who Cares' with Billy Sherrill for the duet with Ray Charles and Janie Fricke.
This one particular day, as Gentry was driving down a country road, the car in front of him stopped at the crossroads and he noticed that the driver was Johnny Cash. He quickly jumped out, tapped on Johnny's window and asked if he had listened to the song he gave him. The following day Gary followed up with a phone call and Johnny's sister said that he searched all night for the song until he found it. Johnny Cash recorded “Chicken in Black” which was released in 1984.
The first big hit that Gary Gentry had was in 1979, 'Lady In The Blue Mercedes' recorded by Johnny Duncan and it went to #1 in California followed by hits like “1959” recorded by John Anderson. Del Reeves recorded 'The Girl on the Billboard', and 'I Got A D.U.I. Over Y.O.U.'. 'The Ride, ' a haunting tribute to Hank Williams, Sr, was recorded by both David Allan Coe and Hank Williams Jr.. Tim McGraw also sings 'The Ride' in his shows. Miss Audrey once said to Gary Gentry as he was leaving her house and thanking her for showing him where Mr. William's lived, “You don't have to call him mister, the whole world calls him Hank.”
In 1984, Tom T. Hall and his brother took Gary Gentry to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting which was another turning point in his life. While he was sitting and listening, he understood the spiritual side of AA's and has been straight, clean and sober ever since.
Country music was changing in the '80's when the New Country of modern music arrived. This is where the traditional Country music began to quickly lose ground. Now, even with his royalty cheques coming in, it wasn't enough to keep up with Gentry's lifestyle. Having had the experience of driving trucks in the Navy, Gary went to Big Rig School for six weeks and is at present driving for McElroy Truck Lines. Gary loves truck driving and it brings him back to the memories of when he was a kid working at Mamma's Truck Stop. Truck driving gives him the freedom, a good income and allows him to spend lots of time writing songs. He says, “I have a guitar, an old typewriter and when I'm not rolling, I'm writing”.
Gary Gentry lives with his family in Madison, Tenn. He also teamed up with his longtime friend who is a steel guitar player and songwriter, Tommy Minniear. Together they are working on Trucking and Biking songs.
Gary says he was blessed to be working with the best of the best in the history of Traditional Country Music. He also says it is the greatest escape from reality, songwriting, and it satisfies your soul more than your wallet, and more than anything else, it rests your soul.
By Jacqueline Kellock