From Playing Hee Haw’s `Georgia Quacker’ to Multi-platinum Country Songwriting Success and a Pair of Powerhouse New Albums
NASHVILLE – While the famous “Nashville Sound” became popular with fans and radio beginning in the early 1960s, it was a different sort of sound that first brought the No. 1 hit songwriter Gerald Smith to Music Row from Statesboro, Georgia about 15 years later.
That was the unmistakable sound of a duck quacking with supercharged speed and humor, which Smith somehow magically made with his hands and his mouth. Once viewers of the immensely popular country comedy and music variety program Hee Haw heard Gerald quack along to popular hits and add his unique comic timing and persona to the telecast, Smith was asked back often.
“I came up with that noise when I was about 10 years old,” Smith recalls in a conversation at Jamie Creasy’s thriving Melody Roundup Music on Music Row, Gerald’s music publisher and record label. “I wanted to come up with something different than the other kids, and everyone in my family – my father, my mother, my sister and brothers – were all musical.”
Hee Haw, which ran on CBS beginning in June 1969, was one of the Top Ten-rated television programs when the network made the boneheaded decision to drop it in July 1971. But as Earle Marsh and Tim Brooks write in The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present, “like Lawrence Welk, which was dropped by ABC, Hee Haw promptly went into syndication with all-new shows and became a major hit on a non-network basis.”
Smith and a banjo-playing buddy drove north to Nashville to watch a taping of Hee Haw. Afterwards, Gerald summoned up the nerve to speak with the show’s producer, Sam Lovullo, and ask for an on-the-spot audition. His pal played banjo and Smith quacked out a musical version of “Cripple Creek” in, of all places, the ladies restroom.
“Sam loved it,” Smith says, smiling.
Lovullo recognized the potential of the quacking routine for country audiences, and added the bit – by then called the Georgia Quacker – on an occasional basis. Viewers couldn’t get enough of it. Smith also played the part of an animated duck on some of the popular Hee Haw cartoon segments.
For the then 24-year-old Gerald Smith, fresh out of the Air Force, his experience as a part-time guest on Hee Haw soon became his personal education to Music Row and the country music business from some of the greatest artist the format has ever produced, including show regulars Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Roy Clark, and Buck Owens.
All four are now in the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s tough to imagine a more distinguished group of country mentors.
“There were such living examples of what country music should be,” says Gerald, who still often goes by the nickname Georgia Quacker or simply Quacker. “I learned a lot from folks like Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl. I really enjoyed being around them.”
He also loved being around his highly musical family, centered around Shorty & The Pea Pickers. Shorty Smith was Gerald’s dad and one of the Quacker’s real-life heroes in all aspects of life. “Shorty Was A Big Man” is the first radio single from Gerald Smith - Born Again, his highly praised Gospel album.
As a must-see family group, Shorty & The Pea Pickers performed at county fairs, nursing homes, churches, and countless other venues – all the while giving young Gerald valuable, real-world experience in the ups and downs of showbiz and the road.
“My father was really a funny guy,” Quacker recollects. “He was a showman. He demanded your attention.”
Statesboro was a marvelous place for Gerald to grow up. The mid-sized city in the Low Country of the Peach State is home to Georgia Southern University and a global leader in the production of Sea Island Cotton. Statesboro is also the county seat of Bulloch County, with an ornate downtown courthouse that is truly a Southern showplace.
Right before he moved full-time to Nashville, Gerald earned a B.S. in Education from Georgia Southern.
The blues pioneer Blind Willie McTell put the town on the musical map in the 1920s with his composition “Statesboro Blues,” which fifty years later became a favorite when it was covered by another iconic Georgia act – the Allman Brothers Band.
One of the magical parts of Gerald Smith’s music is his flair and gift for comedy, the type of family-friendly country humor which has been a Southern tradition for centuries and continues to shine brightly in the Quacker’s work.
One lighthearted example is the first single from Gerald’s new album, Melody Roundup Music’s Out Standing In My Field album which has something of a Hee Haw look and feel, is a novelty number called “You Play Like Chet” that is already creating major buzz.
While Gerald loves comedy, he is very serious about the craft of songwriting. His Hee Haw days helped inspire a full-time move to Music City in 1985, but he moved here as a songwriter, not as a comic.
He paid his dues, working a day (and often night) job at Dixie Wire in West Nashville to support his fledgling writing career.
“It comes real natural for me to write songs,” says Smith, who also clearly had a huge talent for the difficult craft.
While on his shift or during breaks at Dixie Wire, Quacker would start coming up with song ideas, lyrics, melodies, or concepts.
“The next day I would come in, and that’s really where I learned to write,” Smith says. “I would rewrite the song ‘til it satisfied me. I got to the point where I could know whether it was good or bad.”
He also had a superb writing mentor and co-writer, the late Wayne Perry (1950-2005). Wayne’s credits include Tim McGraw’s “Not A Moment Too Soon” (No. 1 Billboard country single, 1995), and Toby Keith’s “A Woman’s Touch” (No. 6, 1996).
“Wayne Perry worked the room,” Gerald recollects, smiling. “He did his job as far as trying to get connections around town. Wayne was a mover and a shaker.”
Perry also was one of the first on Music Row to recognize Gerald’s writing gifts. Soon, they had written “What Part Of No,” a female attitude song that became Lorrie Morgan’s second career No. 1 Billboard single in 1993.
Quacker co-wrote that smash while he was a staff writer at Muy Bueno Music Group, the publishing company owned by George Strait’s gregarious and brilliant manager, Erv Woolsey, whose multi-colored cowboy boots are a Music Row tradition.
The “What Part Of No” pitching process gave Smith a first-hand lesson in the art of songplugging.
“I personally got that cut while I was at Muy Bueno,” Quacker says. “Richard Landis produced Lorrie. I sent the song to Richard and sent it to Lorrie’s drummer. I also gave it to her brother and Lorrie’s secretary.”
The song had been turned down already by Martina McBride and Reba McEntire, but Gerald – who had come up with the title – knew he had a hit on his hands.
With its empowerment lyric – “what part of no don’t you understand?” – the Smith/Perry co-write was way ahead of its time. But it was a smash in its own time as well, with country radio and fans immediately recognizing its appeal.
“You can’t get discouraged when you’re plugging if you believe in a song,” Smith says.
Even before Lorrie’s “What Part Of No,” another Perry/Smith co-write, “Every Second,” was the ideal follow-up to the No. 1 “Love, Me” for the Epic recording artist Collin Raye, a fine tenor and class act from the small town of DeQueen, Arkansas.
Collin’s recording of Wayne and Gerald’s “Every Second,” an irresistible tempo tune, quickly zoomed up the Billboard country charts after debuting in Feb. 1992, peaking at No. 2.
Smith has had other compositions cut by superstar artists including George Jones, George Strait, Johnny Rodriguez, and the two-time Professional Bull Riding champion, Justin McBride.
Quacker’s list of current co-writers reads like a Who’s Who of top Row tunesmiths, such as Wynn Varble, Curtis Wayne, Bill Whyte, Kevin Denney, and the Bluegrass wizard John Pennell – to name a few. With his irresistible sense of humor and easygoing style, Gerald Smith is an ideal collaborator.
Clinton Gregory, the massively talented singer and fiddle player and fellow Melody Roundup Music artist from Martinsville, Virginia, has already charted nearly a dozen Billboard country singles on independent labels. Clinton cut two Gerald Smith co-writes on the Too Much Ain’t Enough album.
Just in time for Christmas, a very special pair of Gerald Smith solo albums – the country Out Standing In My Field and the Gospel Born Again – gives Quacker fans of all ages a rare gift this year, the chance to hear some of the finest recent work from a personality and a songwriter whose work they’ve already known for decades – Gerald Smith, the Georgia Quacker.
By PHIL SWEETLAND, Music+Radio contributor, The New York Times