Crow: Welcome everyone. I’m glad you dropped by Auntie Crow’s Corner. Today you’ll hear the second part of my interview with singer/songwriter and song doctor, Mike Williams. He wrote the 1969 hit song John Denver recorded on his first RCA album, “Catch Another Butterfly.”
What’s the most unusual way you’ve met someone destined to be a great friend?
I never dreamed I’d meet Mike meet under a tree on campus in Austin,Tx. Mike was a guy with a broken guitar, broken arm, and broken motorcycle. My husband and I sort of adopted him. . . and the fun began.
He was a trailblazer for lots of folk performers. The man knows a good song.
Mike, you blew us away with your music and performance. Then you formed a recording label and started recording excellent folks BF Deal Records. Nanci Griffith, Bill and Bonnie Hearne, Allen Wayne Damron, Tim Henderson, and Ladd Roberts. Tell us about it.
Mike: I was WAY happy to have helped those artists, and delighted to have been making enough of a music-gig living to afford to be an idiot record mogul who cared 100% about the music and 0% about the business.
Crow, in the same way, that meeting you was a key to my music career, there was a magic instant that was key to the whole B. F. DEAL Records adventure. 1975 in Denver, I had a manager who had been booking me for four years but the string was running out. He and I were married to sisters (one each) and I had an infant daughter so he felt compelled to keep me above water. This was in the days before people without major label connections made records. My manager asked me to put together a demo tape of three or four songs that he could use to get me gigs.
Crow: Wasn’t that expensive for you to take on in 1975?
Mike: I had $700 to spend, so I called two musician friends, one in Idaho and one in West Virginia, to come help me make this demo tape. The guy from Idaho I had met just once but immediately bonded with in early 1971 at an all-night jam session in a hotel room in Aspen, Colorado, the day John Denver recorded “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” John came to the party and sang it. We loved it, and each time somebody new came into the party, “Hey, John, sing ‘Country Roads’ again!” We made him sing it seven times.
But I digress. In 1975 my sidemen Dennis Coats and Steve Hill flew into Denver (wiping out most of the $700) on a Sunday, with return flights booked for the following Saturday. My wife brought vittles and we three pickers hunkered in the living room working up tunes.
Tuesday I rented two hours’ recording time at an 8-track studio in Denver. This was when 8-track machines were just coming out, and the guy running it had no idea what he was doing. Dennis and Steve and I recorded four songs and went to the alleged control room to listen to the playback. It sounded like somebody had thrown a blanket over the microphones and beat on it with a broom during the songs.
We went home in despair Tuesday night. There was no more money. There was no way to record a decent-sounding demo tape.
Crow: Aw Mike, most pickers would have quit. Was that mess transformed into a good album?
Mike: Not really but… because of another accidentally-recorded album, instead of my career winding down and me getting a job at a car wash, I was able to gig regularly, sell albums and B. F. DEAL tee shirts at shows, record two more albums of my own songs, and also produce and release on B. F. DEAL the very first albums by Nanci Griffith, Bill & Bonnie Hearne, Allen Damron, Tim Henderson, and Ladd Roberts.
Wednesday I went to my manager’s office to sit on his desk and sing tales of woe.
When I came in, he was chatting with the boss of one of Denver’s radio stations. This station was sponsoring a series of shows where they would put a local band into a major-class Denver recording studio and do a live one-hour show, and the radio station would edit it down to 30 minutes and broadcast it, and the band got to keep the original tape.
This radio station guy said to my manager, “When is Mike going to do our radio show?” I looked at my manager and said, “Yeah, when am I going to do his radio show?”
My manager whipped around to the radio guy, “Yeah, when is Mike going to do your show?”
The radio guy said, “Well, we had a band booked in the studio this Friday, but they had to cancel. It’s short notice, but could you . . . .”
Dennis and Steve and I went into high gear rehearsing songs for the next two days. Friday morning I woke up with a cold. The recording session was at noon. Half a dozen friends gathered to be a live audience for the one-hour session. The studio was a big cold dark cavern. My nose was stuffy and I was hoarse. The engineer, a wild-haired 23-year-old kid we’d never met, was going to record us two-track, mixing on the fly. There could be no remix afterward, we’d only be able to cut and splice the tape.
Dennis and Steve and I perched on stools around a tight clutch of mics in the middle of the big empty room. The tiny audience sat on the rug. The tape rolled, and we started playing, no false starts, no second takes. We did 14 songs in 59 minutes.
We went into the control room to listen to the playback. I was hoping there would be three or four songs worth salvaging for a demo tape. The engineer started playing the tape and we listened . . . and we all looked at each other and started grinning. It turned out we had eleven keepers. We had been in such a fever to get ready for the show and to play through the hour, that we weren’t aware we had peaked at exactly the right time.
So I didn’t have a demo tape. I had an album. Recorded in 59 minutes on a budget of $700.
If you have an album, it has to be on a record label. One day I noticed that the Whole Earth Catalog was published by T. F. Much, Inc… that was the impetus for B. F. DEAL
Crow: Hooray. I love it when the magic works. Forty percent of the world population plays guitar. I bet all players and pickers can identify with your story whether or not they’ve made an album. Hmmmm mmmmmm This was fun. Thanks so much.