Bobby Tomberlin

omg: Bobby, you’ve been in the industry ever since you were a kid, starting in radio. Tell us about that.

Bobby: Well actually, I had a make believe radio station in my bedroom when I was, like, five years old. I literally would do the weather forecast and tune into the local radio station. I would record their commercials, and I would do the funeral announcements. I was just preparing. At age 11, I actually began working at the local radio station, and I did that all through high school and even a few years after that. It was one of the most fun times of my life. I remember after being in radio for about a year, I found a Billboard magazine resource book. In that book, it had Johnny Cash Enterprises, Hank Williams Jr. Enterprises, Tammy Wynette- her office number. So, I just randomly called their numbers, and at that time, you could get interviews easier than you can now. I remember with Johnny Cash and Hank, I remember their people saying, “Yeah, Hank’s going to do some interviews next Wednesday, and we can get you in for ten minutes at 2:00pm for a phone-in interview.” I just started doing that, and my goal was to do an interview everyday. Any newcomer that I could get an interview with, I would. I was able to get interviews with the legendary artists, as well. Then, I would go to concerts. I’m from a small town in Alabama-it’s a three stoplight town- but Montgomery was the closest city. My parents would take me to concerts, and I would walk in with a little cassette recorder and go to the press conference of, like, the group Alabama. Everyone would look at me like, “What’s this kid doing here?” *laughs* That was one of the greatest times of my life, looking back. After high school, I was going to go to college, then I bailed and went to Muscle Shoals for a couple of years and worked in radio there. My roommate there was a guy by the name of Mike McGuire, who’s the drummer for Shenandoah, and they were just kicking off their career. That was like an education- that was my college. It led me to Nashville.

omg: Your first publishing contract was with the legendary Mel Tillis. How did that come about?

Bobby: The first song that I ever had published was in Muscle Shoals at the legendary Fame Studios. Rick Hall, who passed away earlier this year, signed a couple of my songs, but I didn’t sign a publishing deal with him. I started writing with Steven Dale Jones, who was a loan officer at a bank. I worked at the radio station, and we would get together at lunch and talk about coming to Nashville. He’s the guy I ended up writing “One More Day” with for Diamond Rio. That friendship and professional relationship goes way back. I also met a guy there by the name of Jim Martin, and we started writing songs. He was attending college at the time there in Florence, Alabama, and he moved to Nashville and was an intern for Mel’s publishing company. Mel heard some of our songs, and he signed Jim to a publishing contract. I drove up here for one of the demo sessions, and Mel was like, “Hey, do you want a deal, too?” And I’m like, “Really?” I hadn’t had any success, but he gave me a deal for $100 per week. I went and gave my one week’s notice at the radio station and moved here. I knew that I couldn’t make it here on $100 a week, so I went to a Kroger grocery store and worked for another $100 a week. I lived on an apartment down here on Music Row. Oh my gosh, what a time. At Kroger, people like Brooks and Dunn, Diamond Rio, Patty Loveless, Crystal Gayle would come through my check-out line. They were encouraging when they found out I was a songwriter. Little did I know at the time that Diamond Rio would be the ones that really kicked off my career in a big way.

omg: And it all started at Kroger!

Bobby: *laughs* All at Kroger! I didn’t pitch songs there, though. I wanted to, but I never did. I remember one day Mel asked if I wanted to ride with him to see the legendary producer Owen Bradley, who produced Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb and so many greats. I said “Sure, but I have to go to work at Kroger at 4:00pm.” He said he’d write me a note for being late. I was running about three hours late, and he wrote a note and signed it “Mel Tillis,” and the manager was a huge fan of him. She was like, “Oh, it’s fine. I’m going to keep this and frame it.” *laughs* I would give anything to have made a copy of it.

omg: Tell us the backstory of “One More Day.”

Bobby: It was during the holiday season, and I wasn’t thinking about writing a song. My uncle, who had shown me chords on the guitar had passed away during the time. I’ve heard many people who’ve lost loved ones, including this uncle’s wife say, “if I only had one more day…” I didn’t think that was a hook, because it’s so simple. It’s a really universal thought. I just started thinking about people that I’d lost and relationships I’d had that had gone south and mainly just friends that I really missed. That first verse really just fell out, and I thought there was something to it, and I recorded it. The next day, I was writing with Steven Dale Jones, and he totally connected with it. He was thinking about a couple of people he’d lost. You know how it is during the holiday season- you miss them a little more. We finished it, and we immediately thought Diamond Rio would be a great group to pitch it to. We had been blessed to have a couple of songs recorded by them, so we had their ear already. They put it on hold, and I remember right after they’d put it on hold, it went on hold for Mark Wills, and it was on hold for Alabama. But Diamond Rio were the ones that went into the studio with it and recorded it.

omg: That song has touched a lot of people.

Bobby: It has, but you know, that’s not something you think about when you’re writing a song. You don’t set out to do that, because if you do, it doesn’t usually work. We knew it was special, but we had no clue that it would have the impact that it has. We still get emails, almost daily- I mean, it’s amazing that after all this time it’s still going- that it was just used in a funeral, a memorial service. That’s been one of the biggest blessings. Not an ego trip, it’s just knowing that something that you’re apart of could help someone going through that. I look at it as a blessing. I always say the really good ones are just a gift and we hold the pen. They come from God.

omg: You’re still so humble.

Bobby: It’s true, though. They’re gifts from Him. I’m a huge fan of other writers and artists, too. You can quote me on this, too. The biggest turn-off to me is when a writer will go on an ego trip after one hit. I’ve seen that- most of them don’t- but I have seen it. I want to say, “Hey, let me introduce you to Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, who has had hits in seven decades. He’s one of the most humble men you’ll ever meet. Go hang around Bill. Go hang around Vince Gill. Vince Gill will call you back in 30 minutes." With some of these people, it’ll be two weeks before you hear back. With Vince Gill, he’ll call you back in at least an hour. He and Bill- so humble. You know, I was Bill’s sound engineer back in the day. This is really a crazy story that just shines a light on who he is. He didn’t know me, except I’d interviewed him for radio. I approached him at the Grand Ole Opry one night and handed him a cassette of five songs. I said, “I know you don’t need another co-writer and I know you don’t need me, but if you’re interested, my number’s on the tape.” He called me the following Monday morning. He said, “Well, you know what you’re doing. Let’s set up a time.” I stayed up until 2:00am, preparing for this writing appointment. It worked, and it was enough to make him want to continue writing with me. He asked if I wanted to quit Kroger and be his sound engineer. I’m actually writing with him tomorrow. And you know, he’s so humble. So many people have recorded his songs, and not just in the country market. He’s had songs recorded by Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, James Brown- and again, he is so humble and very talented.

omg: Speaking of records, you put one out. Do you have a favorite off of that album?

Bobby: My favorite would be the Grand Ole Opry song. Bill [Anderson] came in and added a little part on the song and Vince Gill sang harmonies on it. I can’t believe either one of them did that. There was nothing in it for them. I’m just an indie singer/songwriter. I’m forever grateful. It is hard to pick a favorite though. Another that really means something to me is the one with Bobby Bare called “The Songwriter.” He’s a hero. He really changed the landscape. Most people, if they were signed with RCA, they recorded at RCA. He said he’d sign with RCA if he could record where he wanted to. He’s the one that really changed that. But that was cool, getting to write a song with Bobby and a guy by the name of Terry Faust. He tends to the graves of Hank Williams Sr. and the family. I’d stopped by there on my way back to Nashville to pay my respects. I’d stopped there many times, and Terry said he had a song idea. He shared it and you just never know where a song will hit. I mean, at Hank’s grave-- I think Hank whispered the idea to him. Hank is, no doubt, why I picked up a guitar and learned to play.

omg: I’m sure things have changed a lot during the time you’ve been here, especially Music Row.

Bobby: Yeah, I’m not too happy about that. I’m not one of those, all stuck in the past, but it’s sad to see some of these buildings, where classic songs were written, or where a big artist started out, not even here now. I’ve said for years that I wish the buildings here would do like Hollywood. Put a plaque out front that lists songs that were written or recorded there. I wish they would do that.

omg: You’ve been very successful down here, Bobby. Do you have any advice for our readers?

Bobby: I guess as far as songwriting, write what you know. Write from the heart. I heard a great story the other day. It was about a writer that wrote for Rick Hall’s company in Muscle Shoals. This writer wrote a song about being a truck driver, and he’d never been in a truck. Rick called him in and had him sit down. He got on the phone, called a trucking company and asked if it was possible for him to have a songwriter go out on the truck for a day. He made a point. And I used to do that, especially when I started out. I would write about being in the rodeo, when God knows I couldn’t imagine even being on a horse. I guess some people can pull that off, but I think it helps to write what you know. I guess the other thing is that now, It’s more competitive than ever. You need to be in a writing community, and be out meeting people. If you’re not here, you’re not going to be taken as seriously. People are here, working hard and sacrificing, and giving up a lot to do so. It’s not like in five years, you’re guaranteed anything. If you really love it, go for it. If you’re in it just trying to be a star, it might not happen. I mean, I love it as much, if not more, than I ever did. That’s a strong statement to make after all this time, but I really do.