Kye Fleming, who has been writing songs since she was a teenager, has succeeded in her career because of her passion, drive, and, she says, the good grace of God.
The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer and BMI Awards collector, now 67, created hits for the singers that recorded them: Johnny Cash, Steve Wariner, Willie Nelson, Marti Jones, Amy Grant, Sylvia, Bette Midler and Tina Turner, to name a few. And the songs she’s penned with co-writer Dennis Morgan are classic country-radio staples: Barbara Mandrell’s “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” and “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” Charley Pride’s “Roll On Mississippi,” and Ronnie Milsap’s “Smokey Mountain Rain.”
On June 5, the Arkansas Country Music Awards presented Fleming with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. The only living recipient of this accolade, Fleming is in the company of the posthumously honored Conway Twitty, Jimmy Driftwood, The Wilburn Brothers and Patsy Montana. The winners are testament to the rich musical legacy of the Natural State.
These days, Fleming’s interests are more aligned with mentoring the careers of up-and-comers. I caught up with Fleming after last month’s ACMA ceremony to talk about songwriting, serendipity and how her Arkansas roots contributed to her writing success.
Can you talk a bit about your formative years in Fort Smith? Were you from a musical family? What do you recall?
I was an only child. My Dad was in the Navy, and after moving around a bit, we settled on State Line Road in Fort Smith. My family got together and played music, singing gospel stuff. Every time we had a get-together there were guitars and fiddles. They did their thing and I just watched and listened. At the time, I was more into folk music, but I appreciated being from a musical family. My uncle, Calvin Carter, was a player, a Martin man. My other uncle was a Gibson player and played electric and regular acoustic, more strumming and picking, a la Chet Atkins electric. He was a mechanic and traded $20 worth of work for a 1927 Martin for me.
You mentioned singing gospel at home with the family. Were you heavily involved in the church, and did that affect your musical expression?
My experience was largely non-denominational. We lived on [Navy] bases, that was my experience. My grandmother was Pentecostal, which ended up being a big part of my life, but I had to find the real deal on my own. Mom and Dad ended up in Assembly of God. I backed off church all together in ’69 when hippies and that whole flower power thing was going on, in my 20s. So many things about it didn’t sit right with me, but ultimately my relationship with myself and God wasn’t and isn’t about the church.
Your songs with Janis Ian, “What About the Love” and “Ruby,” both point to the image of piousness in organized religion. Did this come directly from your experience?
Well, yes they both draw upon my experiences. Around 1986, after my early commercial success, I wrote with Janis Ian, and we both wanted to say how we felt from our heart about church, religion and how we grew up. We wrote “What About the Love,” and Amy Grant wanted to cut it! We met on common ground and had a great talk about religion and her feelings.
In 1978, I had personally had what can only be described as a near-death experience in that through a series of coincidences, I was led to an awakening. I had been in Nashville a month, and felt I had gotten all I wanted at age 26, but that something was missing. I went to one church after another one Sunday, and shortly after attended an Assembly of God service. When it’s alive, it’s really alive: the singing, the praying, people each in their own vibrational mode personally connecting to their God. A power took over me and my body became electric. I don’t know how to describe it. I just opened up and surrendered.
You seem to have been in the right place at the right time more than once. What was one of your more memorable brushes with fame that advanced your career?
I was about 20 years old. So I was playing this club in Tulsa, at the time living in Fayetteville. On one of my breaks, these guys called me over to their table. They were Elvis’ band: Jerry Scheff, bassist; Ron Tutt, drummer; and Glenn Harden, piano and one other band member. Jerry Scheff said, “We are going to be in L.A. Maybe you should come out in a couple of months, and we can see what we can get going on.” Everything I was singing in all these places was original music. Jerry set me up, I signed with a publisher and shortly after a song of mine was performed by a teen duo, on the Sonny & Cher Show.
Shortly following your stint in L.A., when you were leaving New York City for Arkansas, Scheff once again intercepted?
Yes. In a good way. Jerry was going to Nashville and suggested I meet him there. I bought a ticket, signed with Pi-Gem Music, met Dennis Morgan and began writing. I had never co-written a song, but Nashville is a co-writing town. Dennis had been there five years from Minnesota playing at the Holiday Inn. So we wrote a song. That day. I didn’t write country music, I wrote folk. The combination between us was perfect. He was more country, he came from pop, and I came from folk. Tom Collins produced Barbara Mandrell and within three months we had written “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed,” plus he had a deal with Ronnie Milsap, who cut “Smoky Mountain Rain,” and with Charlie Pride on “Roll on Mississippi.”
How did you approach co-writing with Dennis?
Dennis and I came to an office to write, all day, everyday. He’d play great guitar, we would work out a chorus, and I could see where the story would go. We just did it over and over five days a week, eight hours a day at the office. Most people didn’t write in offices, but that’s where we would get together. No more booking gigs. Being paid to write songs was enough; I was in heaven. Every now and then Tom [Collins], who produced at Pi-Gem, would come in and give us an idea to write, and that was the case with “Sleeping Single.” I thought, ‘Well, his grandparents still sleep double in a single bed! I can just flip that idea.’ And that’s what we did.
What impressions or memories from your remembrances of your life in Arkansas found their way into your songs?
Arkansas is who I am and it comes out in the music, whether the song is about Tennessee or the Mississippi River. You draw upon what you know.
What about Arkansas talent? I know you love mentoring young artists and helping them to get to the next step.
I love young artists burning with passion to write. I was judging a song contest a few years back for NSAI [Nashville Songwriters Association International] when a family band called “Eden’s Edge” sang. There were five of us writers who were actually judging. I said, “Good God, are you guys hearing what I am hearing?” They were from Little Rock and Russellville. I helped them get up to Nashville, and when I got into the Hall of Fame, they sang a medley of my songs. That night, Taylor Swift’s Big Machine [Records] label showed interest, and they got signed.
I noticed you talking to some of the female ACMA nominees and winners: Bonnie Montgomery, Erin Enderlin, Savannah Morris. Do you have any projects you are thinking of initiating with them?
I’m not writing much anymore, so not on that level, but we talked a bit about being a woman in what is still largely a man’s world and starting a support team meeting here [in Nashville]. I am just amazed at their level of talent and I feel like a proud mother.