It sounds like a “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” line: Who wrote Hank Williams’ greatest songs?
The obvious answer is that Hank Williams did. However, there are a small number of people who, quite sincerely, believe that—at least in the case of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1949) and “Cold, Cold Heart” (1951)—the answer is Paul Gilley.
Country music has more than its share of arcane mysteries and might-have-beens, and I warn you up front that my answer to the curious case of Paul Gilley is not going to be cut-and-dried.
As Williams wrote in one of his other songs (one whose authorship is, so far as I know, uncontested), “This story happened a long time ago.” The only people who definitively knew the answer to the question we’re considering were Williams and Gilley; the former died in 1953 and the latter in 1957. Other people who might have known, such as Williams’ producer/publisher Fred Rose and Gilley’s occasional songwriting partner Carter Gibbs, also are long gone. None of them left any conclusive written record, so the question will have to be settled, to the extent that it can be settled, on the basis of probabilities, pro and con.
That said, let’s look at the facts.
A Big Talent
There’s no dispute that Paul Gilley was a talented guy who, in a short life, displayed obvious talent, a passion for country music and a strong desire to be part of its world.
Born on Oct. 1, 1929, in tiny Maytown, Kentucky, Gilley was hard to miss—by high school he stood 6-foot-9—and had a way with words. As a teenager he published poetry in the local newspaper, and it wasn’t long before he realized that poetry and song lyrics were more or less the same thing, but the latter were more salable. While still in college he began to hawk his lyrics, and to successfully place some of them with country artists; he also began working as a promoter, organizing shows that featured major talent such as the Stanley Brothers.
He also began telling people that, in addition to such minor songs as “I’ve Found a New Love” and “Tonight I’m Dreaming,” he also had written some major hits—but had sold them, on the condition that his name wouldn’t be on them and he wasn’t allowed to officially claim authorship. These included such country classics as Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” (1956), Johnny & Jack’s “Just When I Needed You” (1949) … and three songs recorded by Hank Williams: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me” (1950) and “Cold, Cold Heart.”
Gilley made these claims directly in conversation, but on paper he was circumspect. In a letter of Sept. 11, 1951, to “Deloris,” for example, he wrote that, for legal reasons, he couldn’t claim authorship of songs he’d sold directly to singers: “Therefore I cannot give you anything on such songs as ‘I Overlooked an Orchid,’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ or ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies,’ but on songs with BMI such as ‘I’ve Found a New Love,’ ‘The White Rose’ and ‘Tonight I’m Dreaming,’ I can name them without breaking [my] contract.” He doesn’t say he didn’t write those songs—he implies that he did—but he doesn’t quite say that he did.
Gilley may well have had evidence to support these claims—notably his copies of those contracts that prohibited him from talking about his authorship of these songs—but, after he died in an accidental drowning on June 16, 1957, his mother is said to have burned all his papers, destroying virtually all direct evidence that he had anything to do with any of those songs.
That concludes the narrative on which everyone seems to agree.
Matters of the Heart, and of the Wallet.
This would probably never have been more than a local rumor in and around Maytown, Kentucky, if it weren’t for Chet Flippo’s Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams (Simon & Schuster, 1981). Flippo stumbled upon the Gilley claims, and gave them wider publicity in his book.
I’ve ordered Flippo’s book, but haven’t yet read it; I’ll update this post when I have. However, the general consensus on it is not positive. Most seem to agree with Kirkus Reviews, which eschewed its usual generous commentary to call Flippo’s work a “garish hash.” The unnamed reviewer reports that Flippo not only makes up dialogue and thoughts for his real-life characters, but interpolates fictional characters and puts words in their mouths. He or she condemns the book as “less biography than biographical novel–a bad novel at that, with soap-opera prose.”
Others have pointed out numerous errors of fact in the book, so Flippo’s espousing the Gilley claim does not increase my faith in it. I’ll make up my own mind, and encourage you to do so as well.
Before proceeding to analyze the evidence relating to specific songs, though, I must say that there are two overarching issues of human psychology that, to me, are red flags in this particular case … and one well-established fact about country-music history that makes Gilley’s claim at least worthy of consideration.
First, as Danny Dill and Mel Tillis wrote in “Detroit City” (1963):
Home folk think I’m big in Detroit City;
from the letters that I write, they think I’m fine.
There’s a natural instinct for people to want their hometown friends and family to think they’re doing well—whether or not they really are. Lots of people paint a brighter picture of their career at the high-school reunion than they did at their neighborhood bar the week before. It’s human nature.
It would make sense for Gilley, a teenager clawing for a grip on the Nashville gravy train, to exaggerate his success—to claim a more grandiose stature than his few published songs would allow him. His claims to pretty local girls and to fellow musicians in his home town that he had written songs that everybody knew, even though they had other people’s names on them, probably were taken with a grain of salt by many who heard them (“big guy, big talker”). We shouldn’t be more automatically trusting than they were.
Second, it doesn’t make sense to me that a mother grieving the loss of her only child would burn all his papers, especially if they represented proof that, though he’d died young, he’d nonetheless accomplished a great deal. And especially not if there was also the possibility of significant amounts of money going forward, whether from legal action in pursuit of authorial credit or from marketing of previously unsold songs. Most parents in such a situation would preserve those papers and seek public acknowledgement of the genius of their brilliant but unknown son.
It’s awfully convenient that any such papers that may have existed no longer do. Especially since our knowledge that his mother burned them is entirely second- or third-hand, since she died less than a year after her son.
That said, there are reasons not to dismiss the Gilley claims out of hand. The fact that his claims could easily have been youthful boasting doesn’t mean that they were; and nobody who isn’t the particular mother who has outlived her only child can really know how she might respond to his death. Matters of human nature are of their nature subjective, and nobody can really claim to understand another person.
There’s also one big reason to take Gilley’s claims seriously: In the early days of country music (and Hank Williams died barely 25 years after the famous Bristol Sessions sparked what became today’s country music), such things actually did happen, and not infrequently. Many of country’s classic songs bear the names of people who didn’t write them; sometimes the songs were stolen outright, other times they were purchased.
In the latter category, for example, it’s widely known that Roy Acuff, “the Father of Country Music,” didn’t write the enduring “As Long as I Live” (1946)—it was the work of songwriter Jim Anglin, one of a sheaf of songs he sold to Acuff in 1945. Nobody cheated anybody; Anglin knew that Acuff (who wasn’t a songwriter) would put his name on the songs, but was paid accordingly and didn’t mind.
Another example: There are many people acclaimed as authors of the classic “You Are My Sunshine,” memorably recorded by Jimmie Davis in 1940. On nobody’s list is Davis himself, who nonetheless held the copyright and is listed as its author on every recording made since 1940. The fact that there were three other recordings a year earlier—by the Pine Ridge Boys, the Rice Brothers Gang and the Carter Family—doesn’t matter at all. Davis bought the song from the Rice Brothers, who may or may not have written it, and copyrighted it in his own name. End of story, for him.
Given that no firsthand evidence is available, and that the authorship of country songs in the era under discussion is notoriously hard to nail down, the Gilley claims must be assessed on the basis of indirect evidence and the preponderance of probabilities. The answer may thus be different for each of the songs—if it could be proven that Gilley wrote, say, “Cold, Cold Heart,” it doesn’t in any way prove that he wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” or that he didn’t. If he conclusively didn’t write one of them, it doesn’t mean he didn’t write another one, or that he did.
Each claim must be considered on its own merits, in short. This applies to all of the songs claimed by Gilley or his advocates and credited to someone else, but I’m not a scholar as such—I’m a musician working on a show about Hank Williams—so I’m going to confine myself, at least for the nonce, to the three Williams songs involved.
‘They’ll Never Take Her Love Away from Me.’
The Gilley claim for this song, which Williams recorded in 1950, rests on two bits of evidence, each problematic.
In a 1951 article about Gilley in a local newspaper, for which he seems to have been the only source, author James Owens writes: “His first song was published in 1948. Since then he has had [illegible—“25?”] songs published and recorded. In addition to ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ Mr. Gilley has written the words to such hits as ‘I Overlooked an Orchid,’ ‘Please Don’t Let Me Love You,’ ‘They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me’ (which Mr. Gilley reports as his best song) and another current hit, ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies.’”
All this confirms, however, is that Gilley said he’d written the song. If he provided Owens with any evidence to back that claim, it wasn’t included in the article.
Betty Jo Lowe claims to have once had incontrovertible evidence. In a 2013 report on Gilley that aired on Kentucky Educational Television, Ms. Lowe, identified as “Family Friend of Paul Gilley,” reports that, when they were teenage neighbors, one night Gilley said to her, “I’m going to give you this paper; I want you to keep it, because there’s going to be a song come out. It’s a song I’ve written, and you’ll know that I did it.” “When she opened it,” she says, “it was ‘They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me.’”
If this could be confirmed—if it didn’t rely on her memory of events then already more than 60 years in the past—this would be powerful evidence. However, Ms. Lowe doesn’t display the paper during her interview, so presumably she no longer had it. Without questioning her recollection, it can’t be regarded as definite without some form of supporting evidence, and apparently that does not exist.
As it happens, Hank Williams is not credited as the author of “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me.” It is credited to Leon Payne, a prolific singer and songwriter who in 1948 made the first recording of the song; he also wrote and first recorded “Lost Highway” (1949), another Hank Williams hit.
The Owens story reports that Gilley sold his first song in 1948, so it is barely possible that he sold the lyric to Payne in time for Payne to record it later that year. It would have been a difficult sale, though, because Payne was blind. Gilley, a teenager with no songwriting credits to his name, would have had to meet Payne somehow; persuade him to pay attention to him; read the song lyric to him; make the deal; and then presumably read it to him again, slowly, often enough for Payne to memorize it.
It also is hard to imagine why an established songwriter like Payne, with so many songs to his credit (he also wrote “I Love You Because” (1949) and “You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart” (1950), among others), would turn to an unknown teenager for help with lyrics.
As with most of the evidence in matters involving Gilley, his claim to “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me” depends on Gilley’s unsupported word and on a document that’s unavailable to be inspected. Until such time as Ms. Lowe’s paper is made public, I’d judge Gilley’s claim to the song to be, as the British legal term has it, not proven.
‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’
Gilley’s claim on this Williams classic derives primarily from the testimony of Carter Gibbs, a local musician with whom Gilley sometimes wrote songs. However, Gibbs himself seems to have made no public claims on this subject, and died long ago—we have only the testimony of his son, Dewey Gibbs, who was a child in 1949.
Unlike Ms. Lowe, the younger Mr. Gibbs has documentary evidence in hand: a lyric sheet to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” It’s an intriguing document, with misspellings and numerous differences from Williams’ final lyrics that might mark it as a draft version of the song. For instance, here’s Williams’ second verse:
Did you ever see a robin weep,
when leaves begin to die?.
That means he’s lost the will to live.
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
Here’s that verse as it appears on Mr. Gibbs’ lyric sheet:
Did you ever hear a robbin weep
when the leaves begin to die
Like me it’s lost No will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
The differences aren’t huge, but they’re interesting.
The problem is, the lyrics aren’t in Gilley’s handwriting; they’re in the elder Gibbs’ handwriting. The sheet doesn’t say “by Paul Gilley” or “by Carter Gibbs,” though Gibbs’ name and home town are written very large on the page, almost like a doodle. There’s nothing specifically to link this paper to Gilley, or to Gibbs as a songwriter: If Gibbs had actually written music to these words, I’d expect to see chord notations over at least the first verse, but there are none.
Moreover, while the differences between Williams’ version and Gibbs’ would be consistent with a draft version of the song, they’re also consistent with a transcription off the radio. I also have a lyric sheet, in my handwriting, and it doesn’t mean I wrote the song; my version’s errors have all been corrected, but that’s because I copied it down off a CD, and had multiple listenings to make sure I had it right. If I’d copied it off a single hearing on the radio, my lyrics might well have resembled Gibbs’.
If this sheet were dated to before the release of the song, or if it even claimed authorship on behalf of either Gilley or Gibbs, I’d regard it as a strong piece of evidence. As it is, it might be useful confirmation of other evidence, but on its own it doesn’t really say anything about who wrote the song.
Again, at best unproven.
‘Cold, Cold Heart.’
This is the Williams song that Gilley most often claimed to have written, and the one for which there’s the most convincing evidence that he did.
As mentioned, Gilley claimed in both his 1951 letter to “Deloris” and in Owens’ 1951 newspaper article to have written the song, but that doesn’t amount to much, as the reporter cites no evidence to support that claim.
However, Gilley contributed an article on “Getting a Song Published” to the Summer 1949 issue of Inkpot, a magazine published by the English Department at Morehead State University. On the “Contributors” page, he is identified as follows:
PAUL GILLEY’s talents as a lyric writer were publicized in a recent Trailblazer article. He is a freshman, and plays basketball. Inspiration for his “Cold, Cold Heart” may have been a referee.
Presumably Gilley himself provided the information for this blurb, so it doesn’t really tell us any more than that Gilley claimed to have written “Cold, Cold Heart.”
The date is interesting, however. If the magazine was published in Summer 1949, it appeared almost two years before Williams recorded “Cold, Cold Heart” (on May 5, 1951) and more than a year before Williams’ first draft of the lyrics, which in his notebook is dated November 23, 1950.
This does not prove that the song Gilley is talking about is the same one that Williams recorded—it’s a fairly generic title—but it certainly seems to support the claim. He later claimed to have written the Williams song, and it seems unlikely that he happened to have a song with the same title that Williams would use a year later.
There are at least two cautionary notes, however. First of all, if Williams had bought the lyrics from Gilley, presumably they were already written out. Why would he copy them over into his song notebook? It wasn’t in order to fake having written them, because (by Gilley’s account) he’d bought them lawfully and was entitled by contract to put his name on them—there was no need to fabricate evidence. It seems unlikely.
More important, Williams’ source for “Cold, Cold Heart” is well known and legally established: It was lifted from ”You’ll Still Be in My Heart” (heard here in an Ernest Tubb recording), written by Ted West and revised by lyricist Buddy Starcher in 1943 and recorded by T. Texas Tyler in 1945. (The copyright holders on “You’ll Still Be in My Heart” sued Williams; in 1955 (two years after Williams’ death) the court found in their favor.)
The tune is lifted more or less exactly. The lyrics are not lifted part and parcel, but there are clear similarities. Starcher’s first verse begins “There was a time,” which is the beginning of Williams’ fourth verse, for example. Starcher’s first verse ends by rhyming “far apart” and “heart,” as does Williams’ first verse. Starcher’s final verse ends by rhyming “teardrops start” with “heart,” as does Williams’ second verse.
It’s not impossible that the idea of lifting the Starcher/West lyric originated with Gilley, but nobody has suggested that any of Gilley’s lyrics, claimed or confirmed, weren’t original with him. Williams, on the other hand, performed a very similar job of larceny on Alfred E. Brumley’s “He Set Me Free” (1941), taking its tune exactly and its lyrics in bits and pieces for “I Saw the Light” (1947). Moreover, Williams knew the country repertoire well and surely knew Tyler’s song; he was a canny enough negotiator that he wouldn’t pay a teenager for lyrics that looked to have been lifted from someone else; if he wanted to hijack someone’s song, he’d do it himself.
I’m troubled by the appearance of “Cold, Cold Heart” in Gilley’s 1949 author bio, but I can account for it in only two ways. Either a) Gilley happened also to have written a song with the same title as Williams would write the next year, which is entirely possible; or b) Gilley lifted Starcher’s words (and likely West’s tune as well) and then sold the resulting song to Williams. I’m not entirely happy with either hypothesis, but the evidence from Williams’ notebook is convincing to me, and I lean toward scenario a).
In any case, I can only conclude that here, too, the case is unproven. As far as I’m concerned, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Leon Payne wrote “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me”; that Hank Williams wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”; and that Hank Williams did a substantial rewrite on Buddy Starcher and an outright theft on Ted West to create “Cold, Cold Heart.”
I’m leaving the door to Paul Gilley ajar just a bit, though, especially where “Cold, Cold Heart” is concerned, because I love the nooks and crannies of country history, whether or not I believe them.