The Past With A Personal Touch: Billy Arr

As far as I’m concerned, Billy is the best joke-teller in the world.  He’s also one of my favorite songwriters.  I’ve known Billy for over 40 years.  After leaving the Air Force, I came to Nashville to write country songs, late ’68 or early ’69.  In the last part of ’70, or the early part of ’71, I first met Billy Arr.  We hit it off right away.  We’ve been friends every since.

 Billy was born and raised on good ‘ole country music in Dixon, Mo.  The only instrument he could play by the time he reached his freshman year in High School was the triangle.  Guess what? He played it in the school band.  However, Billy could dance and sing, so at the age of 14, he sang with a band, five nights a week, near Fort Leonard Wood Army Base and danced with the Lee Mace Square Dancers at the Lake of the Ozarks Theater.  The dance group often worked the Red Foley Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo., and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.

Dixon was a very small town, a whole lot like Mayberry on the Andy Griffith TV show, so Billy escaped in 1954 by joining the United States Army.  He served in France, taught himself to play the upright bass and guitar.  While playing doghouse bass and standing beside the piano player, (a job I know too well), for almost two years, he closely watched the piano player’s finger positions on each and every song they played.  Billy watched for years how the piano man placed his hands upon the keys, and believe it or not, he learned how to play the piano by watching song after song being played over and over again.  After learning the piano, Billy could imagine himself being the next Jerry Lee Lewis, he could finally sit his butt down and get off that darn doghouse bass.

Billy made his first 3 day trip to Nashville in 1970, taking only eleven of his 300 + songs with him.  Luckily, the first day in Music City, through the kindness of the artist Bobby Bare, he was able to walk in and play his songs for the great songwriter, Curly Putman.  Curly, a writer of many hit songs, including “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” and “Green Green Grass of Home” was glad to meet Billy.  Curly owned Green Grass Music at the time, and Tree Publishing Company was working his catalog.  Curly listened to all of Billy’s eleven songs, then selected nine of them for publishing in his company, scheduled a demo recording session for the next day, and asked Billy to sing his songs.  After the recording session was over, Billy returned to Topeka, Kansas, and began the terrible waiting game.

Four weeks later, Curly called Billy to let him know that he had a Charlie Walker single, a top 20 song entitled, “Let’s Go Fishing Boys, the Girls are Biting .”  He fondly recalled that Curly called him the very night that Charlie debuted his new single on the Grand Ole Opry.  Obeying Curly’s instructions, Billy left the stage where he was performing, went out to his car at about 9:30 PM and listened to Charlie Walker, “Live on the Grand Ole Opry ,” sing the first song Billy had ever recorded.  This was a real hoot for Billy, I know the feeling.  When the song hit the national charts, Billy sold the clubs to his partner, packed the furniture, his wife and two children, and moved lock, stock, and barrel, to Music City, USA, Nashville, Tennessee.  It was September, ’70.  Billy says, it’s been over 40 years now, and yet every December, the BMI royalty statement that he receives still pays on that song.  Radio stations still play this great song every spring during fishing season.

It was slow for Billy as a writer in Nashville at first, like it is for most writers, so he put another band together and toured the U.S. club circuit.  He was booked by the famous Buddy Lee Agency.  His band was called, Billy Arr and the Arrsonists.  While doing this, he recorded for both Rice Records and GRT Records.  A couple of his singles did very well.  After a year or so on his own, he signed on as front man, road manager and also played piano, for Dave Dudley for two years, then worked the same gig for Billie Jo Spears, Wayne Kemp, Dickey Lee, Del Reeves, and a few others.  Some people thought he couldn’t keep a job.  Actually though, Billy says he had a low tolerance for boredom.  He says he would get tired of their song line-up repetitions, so he had to move on.  Somewhere in between these road jobs, Billy accepted a job as music director and the No. 2 speechwriter, for George Wallace during his run for the Presidency.  Billy says that was a lot of fun and after that, he came back to Nashville just to hit the road with another band.  Along the musical way this time, a few more of his songs was being recorded by some great artists such as Mel Tillis, Faron Young, Loretta Lynn, The Wilburn Brothers, The Kendalls, Freddy Hart, Mickey Gilley, Gene Watson, Bobby Lord, Bobby Lewis, Dave Dudley, and many others, even the ‘ole cowboy, Roy Rogers, did one of Billy‘s songs. His songs were also recorded internationally.

Billy also delved into a couple of Music Row bars as owner, and soon met Barry Sadler of “The Green Beret” fame, the day Barry hit Nashville.  They became great friends and co-writers of books and screenplays, Two of these were published, and one, (Nashville with a Bullet), was sold for the movie rights.  After Barry died, Jerry Reed and Billy became close friends and later wound up writing four movie scripts and two screenplays together.  Billy told me, Jerry was one very funny dude.  He got Billy so tickled at Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson’s wedding causing him to spit food into the cleavage of Loni’s beautiful wedding gown.

Edna and I met with Billy and his lovely wife, Wanda Kay, the other day at one of the local clubs in Nashville.  After nearly forty years in Nashville, he and his wife resides now in Branson, Missouri.  He is retired from the road, and now has over 800 songs in his catalog, he continues to write songs and plays a few writer’s nights in the clubs.  He still loves to produce records, publish music, and sometimes plays a few dates each year just to keep himself tuned up, as he was raised, on good ‘ole country music.



Story by Hank Beach 


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