Famed Wilson County songwriter Curly Putman dies

Staff Reports • Oct 30, 2016 at 8:39 PM

World-renowned songwriter Curly Putman, whose hits included “Green, Green Grass of Home,” died early Sunday morning following a long battle with illness. He was 85.

Born Claude Putman Jr. on Nov. 20, 1930 in Princeton, Ala., in Jackson County, he was the son of a sawmill worker. He and his wife, Bernice, moved to their Wilson County farm between Lebanon and Gladeville from Donelson in 1972.

Beginning with "Green, Green Grass of Home" that was released in 1964 by Porter Waggoner, Putman has wrote or co-wrote an endless stream of smashes, including "My Elusive Dreams," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," "Blood Red And Going Down," "It Don't Feel Like Sinnin' To Me,” "It's A Cheatin' Situation" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," just to name the No. 1 songs.

“In a city of great songwriters, Curly Putman was one of the finest,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. “‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ was just one of his memorable hits. He wrote a ballad for my campaign for governor in 1978, ‘If the Right Man Was There,’ for which I will be forever grateful. Curly was a great friend, and I will miss him.”

The Putmans raised sons, Greg and Troy, at their Wilson County farm, and they enjoyed having their grandchildren frequent house and farm. The life mates grew up near the state line, Bernice on the Tennessee side in tiny Huntland, and Curly in Alabama.

“I was born on Putman Mountain where my family settled about five miles from Princeton, Ala. [near Huntsville]. My dad was in the timber business,” Curly Putman told Wilson Living magazine in a 2009 story.

He played basketball at Paint Rock Valley High School, and, at 6-foot-4, helped his team finish second in the state tournament. He tried higher education for six months at Southern Union College before joining the Navy for four years, which led to two trips to war-torn Korea on the USS Valley Forge in 1950-51. Upon his discharge he headed back to Alabama where he met the love of his life.

“I was playing hooky from high school one day and went to Princeton where I just took up a conversation with him and that was that,” Bernice Putman said in Wilson Living.

She was 16, and he was 24. They married a year later.

After his discharge from the Navy, Putman started picking with a band in Hunstville, Ala., and there during one of his gigs, he met his future wife, Bernice. Soon, they started dating and were married in 1956.

"We moved to Chicago, but I didn't like it there too well, so I moved back to Alabama, working in the sawmill with my dad and going to trade school in Decatur, tried to learn piano tuning…anything to stick to music in some way,” Putman said on his website. "We were barely getting by, so we moved to Huntsville, and I went to work for the Thom Mcan Shoe Co.

Eventually, Putman had a couple of songs recorded by Marion Worth and Charlie Walker, so he jumped at the chance to sell shoes in Nashville. After a short time in Nashville, however, he was transferred to Memphis.

"I was so discouraged about having to leave Nashville," Putman said on his website, "that I quit Thom Mcan in Memphis and went back to Huntsville and took a job in a record shop owned by a local radio personality. At night, I played steel in a local band.”

In fall 1963, Putman’s luck took an abrupt change for the better. While visiting Nashville, during an annual DJ convention, he ran into Tree Publishing company executive Buddy Killen, whom he had known slightly in earlier days. Killen casually mentioned that Tree might have a song-plugging job open after the first of the year.

"I came to talk to Buddy and Jack Stapp [the owner of Tree at the time] and started working for them in January 1964,” Putman said on his website.

"I guess I learned as much about writing by plugging songs for Tree as anything else I've ever done.”

Then, one day about a year later, a bit of sheer magic struck.

"One Sunday afternoon, I came up to Tree's office,” Putman said on his website. “No one was around. I just started fooling around, and suddenly it fell in place. The surprise ending about dreaming made the song. I guess I worked on it for about two hours. I felt like I really had something, because it touched me very deeply. But, I didn't know how commercial it was because it was such a down-home song."

The down-home song was "Green Green Grass of Home.”

"I played the song for bunches of people over five or six months before it was ever cut, first Johnny Darrell," said Putman on his website. “Then things began to happen.”

Wagoner covered the Darrell record and had a top-five country hit. Then, Jerry Lee Lewis had a chart record on the song. Tom Jones heard Lewis' cut and was so impressed that he recorded it. His record became a top five pop smash in the United States and No. 1 almost everywhere else. The Jones record sold between 10 million-12 million copies throughout the world. Since then, more than 400 other artists have recorded the song in most of the world's major languages.

The song was covered by Roger Miller, Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers, Don Williams, Burl Ives, Darrell, Gram Parsons, Joan Baez, Lewis, The Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Roberto Leal, Merle Haggard, Bobby Bare, Joe Tex, Nana Mouskouri and Jones.

In 1974, the Paul McCartney & Wings hit, "Junior's Farm," was inspired by their short stay at Putman's farm in Wilson County.

It’s estimated he wrote or co-wrote more than 800 songs, and Sony/ Tree, his music publisher, once presented him with 60 compact discs that held 20 songs apiece.

While his honors include membership in the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Putman admitted it was a thrill in October 2008 to have a 40-mile stretch of Highway 65 from his hometown of Princeton, Ala. to the Tennessee line named the Curly Putman Highway. And a rest stop along the way was dubbed Curly Putman Park.

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