Max D. Barnes: One Time Trucker Who Now Rates High on Nashville's 'Hit' List
Ranking high in the contemporary U.S. songwriting stakes with a succession of hit-making songs (some written in the company of another Nashville hit-maker, Troy Seals), Max D. Barnes is also an entertainer with recording credits. Here he talks to Alan Cackett about his life and career, as well as looking towards Britain as part of future activities
Max D. Barnes doesn't resemble the preconceived image of a country singer and is even less like the usual picture of a highly successful songwriter. The first impression gained is of a man who has spent the greater part of his life working; the lines on his face show that he has experienced his fair share of struggles, yet his easy-going smile is that of a contented man. He has a right to be contented, for during the past ten years he has made his mark in Nashville as a songwriter, penning hits for singers like Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, Porter Wagoner and John Conlee, but the road to that success wasn't an easy route.
One of nine children, Max D. Barnes was born in the small town of Hardscratch, Iowa, on July 24, 1936. A year later the family moved to Logan, Iowa, but life for the Barnes' family was far from easy. His father was an auto mechanic who worked out of their home, and more often that not his income was hardly enough to provide for the family.
“It was a hard life,” recalls Max, “but we were happy. I can remember going to school in hand-me-down clothes, and the soles of my shoes had to be stitched with wire to hold them together. It seemed that for the first 15 years of my life we lived on a diet of beans and home-made bread; occasionally we would have a treat of fried potatoes.”
Though they were hard times, Max always had music, and he can recall learning to play an old guitar which only had three strings. He learnt the songs of Roy Acuff and other country singers from the Grand Ole Opry, which the family always tried to listen to on the radio on Saturday evenings. When he was just entering his teens, Max found his family life very much in tatters. His parents were divorced and Max, together with his two younger brothers, moved to Omaha, Nebraska.
Max went through a traumatic period of his life at this time. Without the stability of a proper family life, he went off the tracks and got involved with a tough motor-cycle gang, drinking heavily and taking pills. Luckily his music kept him out of serious trouble. He dropped out of high school and took a job in an Omaha nightclub, working there for about two years, but it was a tough place to work.
“I think I spent almost as much time fighting on the dance floor as I did performing on the band stand,” Max remembers. “It was frightening, more so now than back then, but it was just a way of life. For several years life seemed to be an endless party of music, drinking, pill-popping and moonlight rides on our motor-cycles—usually with a different girl every night.”
It was the formation of his own band, named The Golden Rockets, that saw Max take his life a little more seriously. “I was about 17 at the time, singing in honky-tonks and clubs with this band. We decided we needed a girl singer, and that was how I met Patsy, who not only sang with the band, but also became my wife.”
They continued playing the clubs until the birth of their daughter, Jenny, and after the birth of their first son, Patrick, a year and a half later, Max gave up the uncertainty of the honky-tonks and took a job with a concrete company. A year of working in the damp and cold was more than Max could take, so he moved his family out west to Long Beach, California, where he got a job as foreman in a lamp factory. Whilst out on the coast he maintained his interest in music by singing in clubs at the weekends.
In 1962 Max and Patsy became parents for the third time—another son was born, whom they named Max Troy. That same year they took their savings and entered into a partnership with some friends, buying up a nightclub around Lake Okifobi, Iowa. They formed another band and played the club almost every night, but sadly after eight months the club closed, having made heavy losses. Max moved his family back to Omaha and became a truck driver, a job he was to hold for close on ten years. It was his life as a trucker which led to his first break into the big-time of music. The life on the road gave him an insight into situations which he was able to work into songs.
“I really enjoyed driving the trucks, but it was a lonely life. And then there's also the boredom. You have to fight that constantly. I used to listen to the country radio, and I thought, I don't know, I'm sure I could write better songs than some of the pop-country trash that was being played. So I began making up my own songs as I drove along. I'd sing them over until I'd got them right, then when I stopped I would write them down. It seems strange now, but that was how I got started as a songwriter.”
Eventually he secured a publishing deal for his songs, and in 1971 he made his first recording in Nashville for the small Jed label. It was titled Ribbons Of Steel, a truck-driving song with a moving narration that became a minor hit. A year later he became friendly with Kent Westberry, a successful songwriter, who signed Max to Willex Records and helped him with his second record, You Gotta Be Puttin' Me On, coupled with Growing Old With Grace, a song co-written by Max, wife Patsy and Westberry.
“Kent proved to be a great help in showing me the ropes as far as songwriting was concerned. He had years of experience and he gave me advice and eventually encouraged me to move to Nashville. At the time of those early records I was still driving a truck. I recall when You Gotta Be Puttin' Me On was out, I had just arrived in New Orleans, and whilst the truck was being unloaded I was sitting there waiting for the guys to get through and the song came on the radio they were listening to, and I couldn't resist. I said: 'Hey, you guys, that's me,' and they said: 'Sure it is.' They just didn't believe me and wanted to know what I was doing driving a truck. They thought if I was recording I should have been making a fortune.”
The move to Nashville in 1973 came at just the right time for Max and his family. Jenny, his daughter, had just married, and Patrick, his eldest son, joined the navy. With only Max Troy at home, the family could take the risk of a lower income until Max could establish himself as a writer.
Within a few months he had secured a writer's contact with Roz-Tense Music, a publishing company owned by Charley Pride. The coloured singer became the first major name artist to record a Max D. Barnes song, when he put The Man I Used To Be into the country charts in the early months of 1974. Max can recall the way that song came about very clearly.
“When I was driving a truck from the Mid-West to the coast; and I remember distinctly when I first started writing songs. I'd written a few things before, but I got the idea for this song on top of a mountain called Sherman Mountain, and that's just west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. It's 20 miles down into town, and I had this thing written in my head by the time I got down to Cheyenne. I pulled into a truck stop and I wrote it down on a napkin.”
The song was a fine piece of jog-along country and perfectly suited to the Charley Pride style. Max proved from the beginning that he was talented lyricist. Simple, to the point, superficially sing-along, but not without some depth. Pride also recorded another of Max's songs, the slower ballad I Don't See How I Can Love You Anymore, and both were featured on the album, “Country Feeling”.
“I really didn't believe it was all happening. I had heard he had cut the songs, but I didn't believe it until his wife Rozene sent me a taped copy of the songs that they had made in their living room.”
It was another five years before Charley was to record another Max D. Barnes song. In the meantime, the songwriter really established himself as one of Nashville's most successful and prolific writers. He signed a short-term contract with Gary S. Paxton Music, then towards the end of 1974 he met up with Troy Seals, a man who at the time was enjoying great success as a writer, Troy signed Max to Danor Music and during the next two years the pair collaborated on a whole host of hit songs.
“It was an exciting period,” recalls Max. “Somehow we just hit it off, and together came up with a bunch of really good songs. Troy was so easy to work with, and his contacts in Nashville meant that almost every song we wrote together was recorded.”
Max would be too modest to add that at one point he had five of his songs in the charts at one time. Amongst the songs that the pair wrote were Honey On His Hands, for Jeanne Pruett, Don't Take It Away, originally recorded by Jody Miller and later a number on hit for Conway Twitty, In Our Room and The Fire Of Two Old Flames for Roy Head, Neon Lady for Bobby Wright, and Fool, Fool, recorded by Dobie Gray, Pure Prairie League and Brenda Lee.
After years of struggling, Max D. Barnes had finally realised a long ambition and was making a living out of music. His family no longer needed to worry about constant financial problems, though it must be added that those initial years in Nashville were far from easy, but once the royalties began flooding in, Max could take things a little easier. Then tragedy hit the Barnes family in 1975, when their eldest son, Patrick, was killed by a car whilst hitch-hiking to Omaha.
“It was a great shock and at first I just wanted to give up. I didn't feel like writing at all. Then I realised that he would have wanted me to carry on. He was very proud of me and believed in what I was doing. So I just kept on trying and writing more. Though the void left in our lives by his death could never be filled by money, or success, I just knew I had to go on.”
A new writing contract with Screen Gems Music in October 1976 led to even more success. Though he was still writing occasionally with Troy Seals, a new co-writer, Rayburn Anthony, came into the picture.
“You know I'd always respected and admired Rayburn as a singer and writer,” Max explains. “When I first met him I knew that we would get on well together. I just said to him that I thought we could write together, and he said: 'Well Let's just give it a try.' And it’s been a lot of fun working with him.”
Together they've come up with some classic songs, like She Loves My Troubles Away, Max's most recorded song, which has been cut by John Conlee, Charley Pride, Rayburn Anthony, and of course Max himself. Then there are other songs such as Rainbows And Roses, Send Me Back To Caroline and Fort Worth Featherbed, a little known gem recorded by Donnie Rohrs.
His association with Rayburn Anthony led to Max signing a recording contract with Polydor Records in the summer of 1977. The first release coupled Allegheny Lady and All The Way Inn, a record which just scraped into the charts. This was followed by two more releases for the label, Rain All Over You and the first version of She Loves My Troubles Away, but they both missed the charts.
It was during this period that Max met up with producer Brien Fisher, a man who was to play an important role in the singer-songwriter's most recent activities. Following his success with The Kendalls, Brien Fisher was asked to open up Ovation Records' Nashville offices, and shortly afterwards he signed Max to the label.
The first release was Dear Mr. President in December 1979. It was a patriotic recitation that was completely at odds with anything that Max had done previously, or for that matter has done since.
“That one started off just as a poem. It was just the way I felt at the time. An average American guy just putting his point of view across. I remember I called Brien before the session the next day. He worked out a special musical arrangement and it all turned out pretty good.”
In fact the record created a lot of interest from both the media and the public, although it never made the charts. A little later Max was back in the studios laying down the tracks for his first album, ROUGH AROUND THE EDGES. Produced by Brien Fisher, it was a stunning debut album, offering a compilation of excellent material penned by the singer.
Able to communicate musically and lyrically, his voice howls like a cold wind—with truth. His songs echo honesty. Outstanding are Patricia, a song written in the studio especially for his wife, Heaven On A Freight Train, Don't Ever Leave Me Again and the title tune. There can be no favourite songs on this album, though, all are unique experiences, all are parts of life, all are living. Here was Max D. Barnes: creative, imaginative, poetic, raw and gutsy. And though the album failed to give him a major hit single, it certainly created a lot of interest for him in Britain.
Unfortunately a year after the album saw the light of day, Ovation Records got into all kinds of financial troubles. It was the old, old story of an independent label trying to grow too quickly. They dabbled in rock and pop music and lost a lot of money in the process. It meant that Max was without a contract, but amazingly, he was signed by Country Roads Records in Britain to a world-wide contract, and was back in the studios last summer recording a second album with Brien Fisher.
It was to promote this album, PIECES OF MY LIFE, that Max was in Britain last autumn, One of the major problems that Max faced with his second effort was endeavouring to equal, let alone better, his dynamic debut of 1980, Of Max's new material, a robust Let's Hear It For The Working Man, and a neat, sensitive Rolling River are most impressive. The mistake made with this album was the inclusion of songs that were similar in both tempo and feeling. But I must admit that the more I play PIECES OF MY LIFE the better it sounds.
Songs of personal experience and remembered feelings are the forte of Max D. Barnes, a really talented singer/composer. Many of his songs deal with the working man, and though he is a successful country songwriter, he still considers himself first and foremost a working man.
“I've worked most of my life, so I feel I'm writing from experience. We all owe a great debt to the working man. Where would we be without him? I still think of myself as a working man. I get up and work, just the same as a farmer, a trucker, or a guy in a factory. Sometimes just as hard, too.”
His song, Let's Hear It For The Working Man, as well as being used as the theme for the Miller Beer commercials in America, also proved to be a big hit at the beginning of this year for Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley. More recently it's been recorded by Scotland's own Gerry Ford, and heads off this artist’s latest album release. Other standout songs that Max has written during the past eight or nine years would have to include The Man From Bowling Green, recorded by Tammy Wynette, Johnny Paycheck and Bob Luman, Bordertown Woman, a hit for Mel McDaniel, and one of my favourites' The Arizona Whiz by Porter Wagoner.
Now he seems to be making a bid to establish himself as a singer, and like all songwriters, he is naturally worried that being on the road could seriously affect his writing abilities.
“Since I've been over in Europe, I've not written anything at all. It seems as if my feet have hardly touched down. Songwriting is my main occupation, and though I enjoy recording, I wouldn't like being on the road to the extent that my writing suffers badly.”
Having seen Max D. Barnes work on stage, those words are spoken with a lot of sense. On record he is a fine country singer, though he is distinctly his own composer-singer, one cannot help comparisons to Merle Haggard and even Don Williams. When it comes to live work, his limitations begin to show through too strongly. He seems unnatural on stage, and without a smooth flowing repertoire his performance was all too haphazard to work successfully.
He could work on his stage show, but would it be really worth the effort? I think not. He has it made as a successful songwriter, and if he can be allowed to record the occasional album, then I feel that Max D. Barnes should be content. To stretch himself further, could harm his writing output, and that would be a great pity, for he is one of Nashville's best 'straight' country writers of the last ten years.