Paul Craft, Songwriters Hall of Famer, dies at age 76

Singer-Songwriter Paul Craft

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Paul Craft, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer whose sparkling wordplay was a reflection of his intelligent, irony-drenched, amiable personality, died Saturday morning at Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital after years of deteriorating health.

Craft was 76. His songs traded on humor and heartache, with lyrics that often elicited chuckles and sighs.

“Leave me alone, don’t try and ease me,” he wrote in the ballad “Walking Home In The Rain,” his personal favorite of his hundreds of compositions. “I’m not too lonesome to handle the pain/ Too few lovers don’t leave me/ I’m getting used to walking home in the rain.”.

Though “Walking Home In The Rain” was Craft’s favorite self-penned song, it was far from his most successful. In the bicentennial year of 1976 alone, country artists released seven of his songs as singles, and two of those songs — “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life” and the wry and rare football-themed gospel number, “Dropkick Me, Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)” — earned Grammy nominations.

His “Brother Jukebox” was a No. 1 hit for Mark Chesnutt in 1991, and he also wrote Top 10 songs for T. Graham Brown (“Come As You Were”), Gail Davies (“Blue Heartache”) and Moe Bandy (the aforementioned “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life”). Ray Stevens charted with Craft’s “It’s Me Again, Margaret,” a howler that became one of Stevens’ signature songs.

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The Eagles recorded Craft’s “Midnight Flyer” for their “On The Border” album and Linda Ronstadt memorably performed his “Keep Me From Blowing Away” on her “Heart Like A Wheel” album.

Craft is also among the most-successful bluegrass songwriters. Alison Krauss sang his “Teardrops Will Kiss The Morning Dew,” The Osborne Brothers sang his “Fastest Grass Alive,” Charlie Sizemore sang “Nothing Happening Every Minute” and The Seldom Scene — the progressive-minded group that just entered the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame — recorded standout versions of his “Raised By The Railroad Line,” “Through the Bottom of the Glass” and “Keep Me From Blowing Away.”.

With the exception of “Nothing Happening Every Minute” (penned with Pat Alger), all of those songs were written solely by Craft, not carved out as collaborations.

“Back then you didn’t need to tell anyone you wrote a song ‘by yourself,'” he wrote in 2002, in the liner notes to his “Raised By The Railroad Line” album. “This was before the current Nashville practice of ‘co-writing.’ Some of the reasons for this activity I can only guess at. But I can’t help feeling that if Ernest Hemingway had been forced to ‘co-write’ The Sun Also Rises, it wouldn’t be the same book and that would be a shame.”.

Craft knew his Hemingway, and plenty more. He was the rare roots musician to join American Mensa, an organization only available to those who score in the top 2 percent of the general population on an intelligence test.

That intelligence, and Craft’s unique — even quirky — perspective showed in his lyrics. “If you’re gonna walk around my mind, honey take your high heels off,” he wrote. In another song, he wrote that the only family he had left were Brother Jukebox, Sister Wine, Mother Freedom and Father Time.

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He wasn’t interested in sheer cleverness, though: Craft dealt in poetic specificity.

“The clickety sound of the southbound freight and the high-speed hum of a passenger train/ Becomes a part of the soul and the heart and the mind/ Of the boy that’s raised by the railroad line,” he wrote. And in his Ronstadt-recorded sinner’s prayer, he wrote “Lord, if you hear me, touch me and hold me/ And keep me from blowing away.”.

Born in Memphis and raised in Arkansas, Craft taught himself to play various instruments as a kid. In his early 20s, he paused his studies at the University of Virginia and went on the road playing banjo with Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys. He also served six years in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, graduated from U.Va., Attended law school, recorded with Martin for Decca Records, managed a Memphis music store, played in a band and, at age 28, began writing songs.

While in Memphis, Craft found kindred spirits in Dickey Lee and Allen Reynolds, who formed a publishing company and began publishing Craft’s songs. In 1968, they placed Craft’s “Somewhere With Me Sometime” with country star Skeeter Davis, and Craft was, officially, a professional songwriter.

In Virginia, he’d met banjo player Ben Eldridge and singer-songwriter John Starling, and when those two formed The Seldom Scene with Mike Auldridge, John Duffey and Tom Gray, they began recording Craft’s songs. The first cut on the Scene’s first album, 1972’s “Act One,” was Craft’s “Raised By The Railroad Line.” And other Craft-penned songs were recorded by Sam the Sham, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jack Greene, The Osborne Brothers and others.

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In 1975, Craft moved to Nashville, formed his own publishing company and recorded for RCA, signed to the label by Chet Atkins, who became a dear friend. But Craft’s songwriting success eclipsed his recorded work, as he became an in-demand song-scribe, with 35 recordings of his songs in his first Music City year. He also succeeded as a publisher, ultimately publishing four top-charting country songs.

A 1978 Associated Press profile by Joe Edwards described Craft as “a cross among Tom T. Hall, Steve Martin and Lenny Bruce,” and that rings true through the years: Craft shared Hall’s storytelling sensibilities, Martin’s elevated sense of absurdity and Bruce’s tendency toward satire and, at times, sacrilege.

After many Music City years, Craft came to be considered among modern country and bluegrass music’s most inventive and impacting writers. An up-and-comer became a veteran, and Craft’s peers came to consider him as Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame material. He was nominated numerous times for the Hall, and was finally voted in this year, along with Gretchen Peters, John Anderson and Tom Douglas.

On Oct. 5, Craft arrived at the Music City Center for his Hall of Fame induction. He had his photo taken with his fellow inductees, then was rushed to Saint Thomas Midtown after falling ill. He died 13 days later.

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