Country Music Producer and Songwriter Billy Sherrill Dies at 78

Billy Sherill Dead
Jason Moore/ZUMApress/Newscom

Billy Sherrill, the longtime Nashville record producer and songwriter who crafted countless hits for George Jones, Tammy Wynette and others, died on Tuesday, as first reported by the Tennessean. He was 78.

Sherrill was a key auteur of the countrypolitan sound, and his recordings were seminal in shaping country music into an accessible, lushly produced genre that could compete with other pop strains on the charts. (His impact on country’s sonic landscape was often compared to Phil Spector’s on rock ‘n’ roll.) Among his biggest hits were Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” (which he also co-wrote) and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “The Grand Tour,” and Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl” – all of which still stand as landmarks of the genre.

As songwriter Bobby Braddock, who co-wrote “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” told Variety: “Genius is the most overused word in the music business, but with Billy Sherrill, you can’t use it enough.”

Michael Kosser, author of the book “How Nashville Became Music City, U.S.A.,” added, “No Nashville record producer ever dominated his era the way Billy Sherrill dominated the ’70s. His secret was recording great songs. As he was known to say, quoting Shakespeare, ‘The play’s the thing.’”

Born in Alabama, Sherrill initially pursued a career as a blues musician, though his life’s trajectory changed in 1962 when he was hired by Sam Phillips to help manage Sun Records’ Nashville studio. Shortly thereafter, he became an inhouse producer at Epic Records, and scored his first country smash with David Houston’s “Almost Persuaded” in 1966.

That same year, Sherrill signed Wynette after a cold audition, and initiated her long string of hits with “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” which culminated with six country No. 1s from 1967-69. Her “Stand by Your Man” not only topped the country chart, but also broke into the top 20 of the pop singles chart, and reached No. 1 in the U.K. several years later.

Wynette’s husband Jones was already an established star by the time he and Sherrill crossed paths professionally at the start of the 1970s, but it was under Sherrill’s production that he cut his most enduring singles. Working with the producer for two decades, Jones hit the top of the country chart with “The Door,” “The Grand Tour,” “Still Doin’ Time,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “I Always Get Lucky With You,” as well as several duets with Wynette.

Rich, Barbara Mandrell, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Cash and Tanya Tucker were among Sherrill’s many other noteworthy collaborators, and artists from outside Nashville also acquired his production expertise, particularly Ray Charles for 1984’s “Friendship” and Elvis Costello for 1981’s “Almost Blue.” Sherrill’s lone solo album was the 1967 oddity  “Classical Country,” which reimagined Buck Owens songs with a string quartet and harpsichord.

Sherrill won two Grammys as a songwriter, for “Almost Persuaded” in 1966 and Rich’s “A Very Special Love Song” in 1974. He was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010, and was named BMI’s Country Songwriter of the 20th Century in 1999.

Steven Gaydos contributed to this report.