Songwriting Legends Roger Murrah and Keith Stegall Share the Stories Behind Their Hit Songs

Nashville Songwriting Legends Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah

“Music City was built on a song, and it all begins with the songwriter,” says songwriting legend and Franklin resident Roger Murrah. It’s not every day you meet the songwriting duo responsible for some of the biggest hits in our lifetime. Roger and his songwriting partner Keith Stegall met us at The Harpeth, downtown Franklin’s luxury boutique hotel for this fascinating interview.

Roger and Keith are unsung heroes in our book. Together and individually, they have written songs for some of country’s biggest artists including Alan Jackson, Alabama, Waylon Jennings, George Strait, Conway Twitty, The Oak Ridge Boys, Wynonna, Lee Greenwood, Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, and more.

The team behind Luke Bryan’s hit “Someone Else Calling You Baby.” Co-writer/producer Jeff Stevens, Luke Bryan, Ron Cox, Cooper Samuels, and publisher Roger Murrah. (Drew Maynard)

With an astounding fourteen #1 hits, Roger Murrah is in the Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was awarded BMI’s prestigious “Songwriter of the Decade” for the 1980s. Murrah Music, Roger’s independent publishing company produced hit after hit and introduced a young Luke Bryan to the big leagues of the music business with his song “Good Directions,” sung by Billy Currington. His first single as an artist, “All My Friends Say,” made it to #5 on the Billboard charts and was another Murrah Music success.

Keith Stegall is best known for being the genius record producer behind Alan Jackson and the Zac Brown Band’. Alan’s traditional style of country music has bridged the generation gap and cultivated an appreciation for the greats like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones. In addition, Keith is responsible for launching the career of Randy Travis.

You will love the video interview above with these songwriting legends. It’s full of laughter, tears, and a genuine friendship between Roger and Keith spanning over forty years.

Roger Murrah Brought Muscle Shoals to Music City

Growing up in the midst of the cotton fields of Athens, Alabama, it makes sense Roger Murrah would one day be inspired to write a hit song called “High Cotton” for none other than the state’s superstar band Alabama. When he was a young boy, his father traded the family pickup truck for an old piano. Roger and his siblings learned to play by ear. When he was 13, he began writing his first songs.

Writing had gotten in Roger’s blood, and even though he enlisted in the Army after high school, he began a path of songwriting success. Legendary producer Rick Hall signed a young Roger as a staff songwriter for his Muscle Shoals FAME studios. He later opened his own studio in Huntsville. It was great training ground, but Roger had his sights even higher – Nashville, Tennessee.

Roger made the move to Music City in 1972 after Country Music Hall of Fame singer/songwriter Bobby Bare signed him to his first publishing deal. He was influenced by fellow songwriters like Dallas Frazier who wrote “Elvira” and Curly Putman who had huge hits like “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Roger would go on to help mentor other up and coming songwriters.

Country Music Hall of Fame in the 1970s

It was WSM-AM announcer David Cobb who christened Nashville “Music City U.S.A.” while on the air in 1950. This was long before Nashville would become a mecca for music recordings of all categories from country, pop, rock, blues and gospel.

But back in the 1960s and ’70s, Nashville’s music scene was becoming big business. In 1967 the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened on Music Row long before it would make the move to downtown three decades later. Paul Hemphill’s book, The Nashville Sound, described Music Row in 1970 as the area “where almost all of Nashville’s music-related businesses operate out of a smorgasbord of renovated old single- and two-story houses and sleek new office buildings. This historic district is still located between 16th and 17th Avenues but has now become a shell of its former self as corporations have taken over many of the record labels and publishing companies.

April-Blackwood Music

It was during this time in the late 70s that Roger met a young singer named Keith Stegall. Their office was located at the CBS Music Publishing Company (April-Blackwood Music) directly across from RCA Studio B on 17th Avenue in the heart of “Music Row” in Nashville.

Historic RCA Studio B

Roger would become his songwriting mentor and together they would pen hit songs that not only crossed genres but united generations of people. In 1981, Roger and Keith would write one of the greatest love songs of all time.

The Greatest Love Song Even Written

Roger Murrah and Al Jarreau

Keith and Roger had been working on a new song. It started with Keith putting together a fabulous melody. As the lyrics were coming together, they were stuck on one line in the chorus which was originally, “like cherries on the vine, it gets sweeter all time.” The problem was cherries don’t grow on vines.

So, one day Roger was driving down I-65 in Brentwood, Tenn. and noticed a row of berries on the side of the road. He immediately changed the verse to “like berries on the vine it,” and it worked like magic. The song was pitched to Warner Bros. Records but ended up in the hands of jazz singer Al Jarreau by accident. It was meant for one of his labelmates.

It must have been destiny, because after Al did his version of the song, it launched his career into superstardom that lasted his entire career. It was the first single released from his album, Breakin’ Away and became his first and biggest chart hit spending 24 weeks on the pop charts. You can still hear the song on adult contemporary and soft rock stations around the world.

14 #1 Hits and Counting

After being on the staff of award-winning songwriter Bill Rice’s Magic Castle Music, Roger signed with Tom Collins Music in 1984.

Roger Murrah

BMI awarded Roger “Songwriter of the Decade” after a string of fourteen #1 country hits. His first chart topper was “Southern Rains” by Mel Tillis, followed by “Life’s Highway” by Steve Wariner and “Hearts Aren’t Made to Break (They’re Made to Love)” by another Franklin local, Lee Greenwood.

The Oak Ridge Boys gave Roger his next two number #1’s, “It Takes a Little Rain (To Make Love Grow)” and “This Crazy Love”. Then a string of #1 with the boys from Fort Payne, Alabama that helped solidify one of country most iconic bands, “High Cotton” followed by “Southern Star” and then mega hit “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)”. He also penned Clay Walker’s #1 hit “If I Could Make a Living Out of Loving You” with Keith Stegall and Alan Jackson

But it was his little ditty with Keith and Alan Jackson that became ASCAP’s Song of the Year in 1992. “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” spent 20 weeks on the charts and brought in a brand-new generation of country music lovers thanks to its clever lyrics. Roger said, “I knew when we had ‘George Jones” and the ‘Rolling Stones’ in one lyric, we were on to something!”

“Goodbye Time” is a special song written by Roger and James Dean Hicks. Originally, they wanted Reba to sing the song, but it was too close to home. So, it was recorded by Conway Twitty with Vince Gill doing background vocals. Sixteen years later, Blake Shelton recorded the song.

A Man Called Hoss – An audio-biography by Waylon Jennings and Roger Murrah

In 1987, Roger had one of his favorite collaborations. Waylon Jennings wanted Roger to help him write and commemorate his life story. A Man Called Hoss, an audio-biographical album that included a song Roger and Waylon wrote called “If Ole Hank Could Only See Us Now.” 

Murrah Music Publishing

So many other artists have cut Roger’s songs over the years including Conway Twitty’s “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn”, Oak Ridge Boys’ “Ozark Mountain Jubilee,” Ronnie Milsap’s “Stranger Things Have Happened”, Kenny Rogers’ “Love Is What We Make It”, Wynonna’s “Only Love”, Tanya Tucker’s “It’s A Little Too Late.” and Travis Tritt’s “Where Corn Don’t Grow”.

In 1990, Roger started his own independent publishing company, Murrah Music. By 1992 it was named Billboard’s Independent Publisher of the Year. The roster including incredible songwriters like Mark Alan Springer, Neal Coty, Rachel Proctor, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Steve Azar, Phillip White, Rachel Thibodeau, Michael Mobley, Jimmy Melton and Jon Henderson.

Luke Bryan and Roger Murrah

A young Luke Bryan on his staff wrote the mega-hit “Good Directions” for Billy Currington along with his first personal hit “All My Friends Say” while at Murrah Music Publishing. Tracy Byrd’s Song of the Year “Keeper of the Stars” and Rascal Flatts’ “I’m Movin’ On” solidified Roger as a major player in Nashville’s publishing industry.

Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame

If there was ever someone who deserved being in Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame, it’s Roger Murrah. In 2005, Roger was inducted into one of Nashville’s most prestigious clubs and served five years as chairman along with servings as President of the Nashville Songwriters Association International.

Roger is in good company with some of the greats like Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Bobby Braddock, Mac Davis, Paul Overstreet, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton. These prolific songwriters built Nashville into “Music City” as we know it today.

Roger has two ACM “Song of the Year” awards, two CMA “Song of the Year” nominations, an ASCAP “Song of the Year” award, and many BMI awards. He’s also honored to have a star in the Walk of Fame at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

Roger Murrah & Keith Stegall at Franklin’s Harpeth Hotel

We are proud that Roger calls Franklin home at The Residences at Harpeth Square. He loves the walkability to downtown Franklin. In fact, when Roger was just starting out, he worked at the Georgia Boot plant in Franklin. He says it was the beginning of the inspiration for some his songs since he would sing while he worked,

Now let’s talk about how Roger and Keith Stegall became one of Nashville’s greatest songwriting partnerships and Keith’s success as a masterful record producer.

Keith Stegall’s Musical Heritage

Keith’s father Bob Stegall played steel guitar on this tribute album.

For Texas-born and Louisiana-raised Keith Stegall, music has played a major role in his life. In fact, his father, Bob Stegall, was an artist on Abbott Records and a Louisiana Hayride performer in 1950s alongside Jim Reeves, Hank Williams, and Johnny Horton. He later played steel guitar for Johnny who had married Billie Jean Jones, the widow of country-music singer Hank Williams.

Keith’s father owned a Louisiana recording studio. He taught Keith to play guitar, which led him to begin performing on stage and having his first recording session at eight years old.

From Texas East to Tennessee

Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings

A chance meeting during his college years with another famous Texan, Kris Kristofferson, inspired Keith to move to Music City. “Show me what you got!” Kris told Keith backstage at a Kristofferson show. Keith played a couple songs, to which Kris remarked, “Son, you need to get your ass to Nashville and hang out with other writers. They will break you down and make you the best you can be.”

Keith high-tailed it to Nashville in just three months after that conversation in 1978. He found early success through co-writing his first hit, Dr. Hooks’ 1980 smash “Sexy Eyes.” With that early success, Keith’s songs became sought after by top acts like Helen Reddy, The Commodores, and Johnny Mathis, As mentioned earlier, his biggest hit during this time was with Roger Murrah and Al Jarreau’s “We’re in This Love Together.”

Later, he signed a record deal as an artist with Capitol Records and later Epic Records. Keith released a pair of albums in the early 1980s with minor chart success. “Because I grew up in the studio,” Keith recalls, “the mistake I made was they told me to produce myself.” In the process, he learned how to produce other artists by producing himself. This would prove invaluable.

On the Other Hand

While trying to get his own artist career off the ground, Keith was asked to help a struggling nightclub singer and cook at the Nashville Palace named Randy Ray. He was asked to produce an independent album to sell at his local gigs.

Randy Ray (Randy Travis) Live at the Nashville Palace

This project led to Keith producing “On the Other Hand” and “Reasons I Cheat” on Randy’s debut album, Storms of Life. Randy Ray changed his stage name to his new moniker Randy Travis.

“I wasn’t able to accomplish what I wanted to do until I became a producer,” Keith says. “When I did, I told myself, `this is where I belong.’” The success of Storms of Life convinced Keith that a life as a producer was a smarter career choice.

Gone Country

Record Producer, Singer/Songwriter Keith Stegall

Keith’s highest succuss was just around the corner. A young songwriting partner and friend Meanwhile, asked Keith to produce a tape to play for record companies in hopes of getting a record deal. That friend was none other than Alan Jackson. He had been working in the TNN mailroom and moonlighting as songwriter. With Keith’s help, Alan became his first artist signed to the newly formed Arista Nashville, a branch of Arista Records owned by Clive Davis.

Alan’s 1990 debut studio album Here in the Real World had four hit songs including the title track, “Wanted,” “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” and “I’d Love You All Over Again.” Traditional country had never sounded better.

But it was Alan’s second album that Keith and Roger would collaborate on one of Alan’s biggest hits, the title track “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” It became ASCAP’s “Song of the Year” with three more #1 songs on the album including two songs penned with Keith, “Dallas” and “Love’s Got a Hold on You”. Alan’s haunting Hank Williams’ tribute “Midnight in Montgomery” was also on this critically acclaimed album.

Because of Keith and Alan’s commitment to keeping the steel guitar and the fiddle, their partnership helped bring a resurgence for traditional country. They mixed catchy tunes with authentic “Alan Jackson” themes: country music, cars, and a little river called the Chattahoochee. That next little ditty won CMA both awards for “Single of the Year” and “Song of the Year.”

With Keith in the producer’s chair, Alan would go on to sell over 50 million records and have 35 number one hits! But there is one special song Alan wrote that changed America. Here is the debut of “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” at the 2001 CMA Awards:

No More Mercury Blues

Like Chet Atkins, Keith would become both an artist and an executive producer. In 1992, Keith received an offer to head Mercury Nashville’s A&R department and a chance to release another album as an artist. “I thought this is not my gig. I’ve spent half my life fighting with record labels,” recalled Keith.

“Pretty Lady” became a Top 10 Hit for Keith

Songwriting was still a priority for Keith. In 1997, he teamed up with Dan Hill (“Sometimes When We Touch”) for two #1 records. Sammy Kershaw’s “Love of My Life” and the country-pop crossover hit “I Do (Cherish You)” for Mark Wills and 98 Degrees.

The song was also included in the soundtrack for the 1999 Julia Roberts film Notting Hill.

The Legends Never Stop

George Jones and Keith Stegall

Keith’s next project was with “the” country music legend George Jones who also made Franklin his home. That album Cold Hard Truth was certified Gold and included “Choices” which won a GRAMMY. They would go on to record three more albums together including an album featuring yet another legend, Merle Haggard.

Muscle Shoals, Alabama is the “Motown of the South”. FAME Studios founder, the legendary Rick Hall helped discover and package the “Muscle Shoals Sound” he launched in the late 1950s. His six-decade career coined a new style of funk that was missing in the music business. Huge hits were recorded at FAME including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You”), The Staple Singer’s “I’ll Take You There,” the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” and Bob Segar’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

To pay homage to this epicenter of cool, Keith helped produce an 18-track collection album titled Muscle Shoals…Small Town, Big Sound. With the help of Steven Tyler, Alicia Keys, Chris Stapleton, Demi Lovato, and more they re-cut these classics for a whole new generation. Grace Potter’s single, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” reached #1 on the Americana charts.

“This record has been a full-circle moment for me,” says Stegall. “It’s the music I grew up on and that impassioned me to become a writer and a record producer and the music to which I owe my love and deepest respect. It’s where I started and where I’ve ended up.”

Keith Stegall and Steven Tyler

The full track listing took shape over five years. Michael McDonald lent his voice to Etta James’ “Cry Like a Rainy Day,” while Alan Jackson brought “Muscle Shoals spirit” to the Stones’ “Wild Horses.” The 1969 track for Clarence Carter’s “Snatching It Back” featured Kid Rock. Steven Tyler added his rendition of “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones.

How Do You Like Your Chicken Fried?

Even with Keith’s success, he was always on the lookout for the next undiscovered talent. In 2005, he was invited to a show by an unsigned Georgia band called the Zac Brown Band. Keith had incredible success with his last Georgia boy, so he was willing to take a listen.

He explains, “Zac had already been passed around Nashville a little bit. He had been Nashville’d to death.” After watching their performance, he knew they were something very special and he was willing to take a chance on them.

Keith became the perfect producer and mentor for Zac. They both proved the naysayers wrong, and their first nine singles went to #1 on the country charts. Three platinum albums and millions of single downloads quickly followed and made the Zac Brown Band superstars.

Zac Brown Band’s GRAMMY win for Uncaged

Keith had never won a GRAMMY, so he decided not to attend the L.A. awards when the Zac Brown Band was nominated that year. Wouldn’t you know it, Uncaged earned Keith and the group a GRAMMY for Country Album of the Year! Keith said, “Maybe, the key is for me not to show up, and then I will win.”

Keith continues his passion to this day by keeping a regular schedule at his Berry Hill recording studio. His focus is recording, producing, and artist development at his Dreamlined Entertainment company. With fifty-five #1 hits as a producer and/or songwriter, forty million airplays as a songwriter, producer of over 70 million records sold, multiple CMA and ACM awards and a GRAMMY, his career is extraordinary. You might even say unimaginable in most young people’s minds when they first come to town to chase their own neon rainbow.

Songwriters at The Harpeth

Songwriters at the Harpeth

In spite of Keith and Roger’s incredible success in the music industry, they remain two of the humblest, unassuming men you will meet. They have worked with legends and helped launch the careers of some of the most important acts in the music business. Their songs have touched the hearts of millions and are still being played on stations all over the world. We cannot wait for Roger and Keith’s next big hit. We know there’s more to come!

Keith Stegall, Brandon Baril, and Roger Murrah

One of the ways they give back is through their event “Songwriters at the Harpeth” which features other singer/songwriters like Jimmy Melton and Connor Myers along with the stories behind the songs.

Keith Stegall, Buffie Baril, Roger Murrah

Many thanks to Franklin’s beautiful Harpeth Hotel. Thank you to Todd and Tanner Hibbs for creating this special video of these two songwriting icons. We also appreciate Trenton Lee Photography and his stunning photos.

Sharing the backstories of historic Franklin with love,

Lovely Franklin Brandon and Buffie

About Lovely Franklin

About Buffie

About Brandon

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