Keith Stegall: His "Passages" Emerge


Reprinted from Centenary Today, Spring-Summer 1996

Contact: Lynn Stewart, Centenary News Service
318-869-5120 or 869-5709

SHREVEPORT, LA -- When you've really got the music in you, it will never leave you alone. Ten years ago, singer-songwriter Keith Stegall '77 turned his back on a performing career to produce the star-making records of Randy Travis and Alan Jackson and to write chart-topping songs for Travis Tritt and Clay Walker. But his creative urge was too strong to lie still. This year, Stegall has returned as an artist with Passages, the album of his lifetime.

Literally, Passages is the snapshot of a life in progress, a deeply personal work of a man looking back at lost innocence, gazing at an uncertain present and looking ahead toward the unknown.

"I wish I could talk to that kid I was, and tell him what's ahead of him," says Stegall. "It seems like it took forever to get here, but looking back on my life, there had to be all that pain for me to become the writer that I am today."

"You get tired of hearing the phrase, "mid-life crisis," but I don t know what else to call it. It is a point in your life where you stand in the road to look at where you've come from and forward to where you're going."

"What happened on this album is something that could not have ever happened at any other time in my career. Artistically, I felt like things finally focused and channeled on this record. With songs like 'My Life,' 'Middle-Aged Man' and 'Baltimore Street,' I've zeroed in on a style that's pretty close to the bone. And it's been the greatest learning experience I've ever had."

Passages does more than chronicle Keith Stegall's adulthood -- it is the sum of the vast musical, production and singing skills that have long been at his disposal. Stegall has written seven No. 1 country songs, won dozens of composing honors and produced artists ranging from Alabama's Shenandoah to California's Karen Tobin. As a division chief at Mercury Records, he is the only Music Row label executive who also competes as a singer, producer, songwriter and instrumentalist. And none of his peers have been involved in music as long.

The Wichita Falls, Texas native has been playing piano since he was four. His father Bob was a steel guitar player for country legend Johnny Horton, and Keith was attending country shows at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport before he was in school. At age 8, Keith Stegall made his stage debut at a local hoedown in Tyler, Texas.

Keith took up guitar and joined a rock and soul band call the Pacesetters when he was 12.

At age 15, he turned to folk sounds and began writing his first songs. In high school he toured in a folk group called the Cheerful Givers and began writing gospel tunes. During his years at Centenary College in Shreveport he worked in both churches and bars, honing his conducting/arranging skills in one and his showmanship in the other.

Keith went backstage at a Kris Kristofferson concert in 1975 to play the legendary songwriter some of his original compositions. After the third song, Kristofferson shook Stegall's hand and said, "You re pretty good. You really ought to go to Nashville." Keith moved to Music City to become a bona fide songwriter in 1978. Three months after arriving, he co-wrote his first hit, Dr. Hook's 1980 pop smash "Sexy Eyes."

Helen Reddy, the Commodores, Johnny Mathis and other pop acts rushed to record the new kid's songs in L.A. Notable among them was Al Jarreau's huge hit with Keith's "We're in This Love Together." In Nashville, Conway Twitty, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed, Eddy Arnold, Moe Bandy, George Strait and Steve Wariner recorded Keith's country compositions. By 1985, Mickey Gilley ("Lonely Nights") and Glen Campbell ("A Lady Like You") had both taken Keith's tunes to the top of the country charts.

He scored just as quickly as a recording artist. Keith Stegall bowed on the country charts as a Capitol Records artist in 1980. A 1984-86 stint with Epic Records yielded his big solo hits "Pretty Lady" and "California" (the latter became one of country music's early music videos). In 1985, Keith Stegall competed for the Top New Male Vocalist prize at the Academy of Country Music Awards.

But by then he was disillusioned and ready to return to his first love -- composing. A lifetime on the road had taken its toll. Keith Stegall wanted out.

"I was going in circles," he recalls. "I had the bus and all that stuff; I killed myself on the road and watched my career spiral to the point where I was just breaking even. I started thinking, I'm a songwriter and I'm out here losing money. This ain't right. So I quit performing."

"Then my career really went into a slump. The songwriting dried up. Everything went away. It was a real tough time for me. So I kind of went home and licked my wounds. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to get by nose back on the grindstone instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself."

A Nashville nightclub singer billed as "Randy Ray" asked Keith to produce a $5,000 album to sell at his local gigs. Keith also co-produced two songs on that artist's first major-label LP, Storms of Life. Among the tunes was the star-making Randy Travis song "On the Other Hand."

Keith got back on his songwriting feet when Ronnie Milsap took "Stranger Things Have Happened" up the country charts in 1990.

Meanwhile, one of his songwriting partners kept asking him to produce a tape to pitch for a record-label contract. In the 1990s, Keith Stegall has made history with that songwriting buddy, superstar Alan Jackson. Keith has produced all of Alan's albums and has co-written three of his No. 1 hits, including Don't Rock the Jukebox.

Shenandoah, Turner-Nichols and Karen Tobin further enhanced his reputations as a producer. His 1990s songs became hits for the likes of Clay Walker ("If I could Make A Living Out of Loving You") and Travis Tritt ("Between An Old Memory and Me"). But when Keith Stegall hit 40 last year, a burning frustration boiled to the surface. Turmoil in his personal life and a performing career that had been shelved 10 years earlier resulted in the songs of Passages.

"I got up one night in the middle of the night and wrote 'Middle-Aged Man.' It was something I just had to say. And after writing it, I remember I sat there and cried. It was like therapy. There are a bunch of new tunes like that. This is a grown-up record."

Mercury Nashville President Luke Lewis took a strong interest in Passages, as well as in its creator. To Keith's shock, Luke wanted him to not only record his album, he wanted him to take an executive position, too, as Vice President of Artists and Repertoire.

"I thought, 'This is not my gig. I ve spent half my life fighting with record labels.' So I went to Alan Jackson and he said, 'Half the reason I wanted to work with you is that you are an artist and you understand. I want you to make your record. Go and do it. I hope it is a smash.'

"So as crazy as the whole thing sounds, here I am."

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