Music City: LDS top charts in Nashville

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Early in American history this city by the Cumberland River attained lasting fame as the home of two presidents, Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk. But in the 20th Century, even that distinction was overshadowed by Nashville's emergence as "Music City," the country music capital of the world and, with Los Angeles and New York, one of three great entertainment meccas in the United States.

In 1925, the legendary Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting in Nashville and is today the nation's longest-running live radio show. (The Mormon Tabernacle Choir program in Salt Lake City, the longest running network broadcast, began in 1929). The famous Ryman Auditorium, home of the Opry from 1943 to 1974, is a downtown monument. Renovated in 1994, it is still a star venue, partly because of its acoustics, which tour guides are likely to boast as being "equal to the Mormon Tabernacle for quality."

Latter-day Saints have made their mark on Nashville's music scene, albeit relatively recently, according to Tony Martin, bishop of Nashville Stake's Hendersonville Ward and himself a country music songwriter with a decade-long string of hits.

Church members have gotten in and out of "the business" over the years, said Bishop Martin, whose family moved to Nashville when he was in the third grade. "But I would say that today, we have the highest concentration we've ever had here of LDS people in the music business who are doing well."

They run the gamut from traditional to contemporary country — and not all are strictly in the country genre.

They include the likes of Charlie Walker, a Grand Ole Opry member since 1967 and a convert to the Church, and SheDaisy, three young LDS women from Magna, Utah, and a current sensation among younger fans in America.

Exemplary Latter-day Saints have achieved stature in the music industry here while keeping their feet firmly planted on the gospel bedrock. It gives them constancy and stability in a heady world where success can be ethereal, fleeting and intoxicating.

The Church News recently visited four such Church members. Notably, all are products of the Music Department at BYU except Bishop Martin. (He also graduated from BYU, but in journalism.) Here are glimpses into their lives:

Dan Truman

In the notes on the cover insert of the "Diamond Rio Greatest Hits" CD, keyboardist Dan Truman acknowledges his debt to his parents, Delmont and Karol; his wife Wendee; and three BYU music faculty members: Newell Dayley, Randy Boothe and Ron Simpson.

"If it weren't for any one of those six people, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in today," said Brother Truman, who was a BYU student at the same time as such eventual luminaries as Sam Cardon and Kurt Bestor.

Dan and Wendee met, in fact, as members of Young Ambassadors, a performing group at BYU, in the late 1970s. As a child he had been trained at his mother's tireless urging in classical piano and had garnered a spot in the university jazz ensemble Synthesis; she was studying piano performance. (Both Trumans readily acknowledge that of the two, Wendee is the better sight-reader.)

After Dan returned from his service in the Florida Tallahassee Mission, Randy Boothe took him aside one day and admonished him that if he wanted to achieve his ambition in music he would have to learn to "show better," and would have to start practicing more. Dan took the advice to heart.

Wendee went to Nashville in 1982 as a singer at the now-defunct theme park, Opryland USA. By Dan's account, she paved the way for his coming, recommending him to various contacts. He hired on in 1983 as a pianist and band director.

It was at Opryland that he hooked up with the musicians who would later form Diamond Rio. The six-man band hit with the song "Meet Me in the Middle" in 1991. There followed a string of hits, including one of Dan's compositions, the popular "Norma Jean Riley," in 1992.

"I'm really lucky that all these guys are family guys," Dan reflected. "Even though they're not LDS, for the most part they're dedicated to the same principles and ideals that I have. And that has made it nice."

In fact, Dan and Wendee, who are members of the Nashville 1st Ward, took bass player Dana Williams to the Nashville Tennessee Temple open house, prior to its recent dedication. And in response to the Trumans' invitation, lead singer Marty Roe came to the open house with his entire Church of Christ Bible study group and were given a special tour.

Today, the Trumans' living room is decorated with Gold and Platinum Records, the recording industry's awards signifying multi-million dollars in sales. But interspersed are pictures of the couple's four children. It's the family that keeps Dan focused on proper priorities when he is away on tour.

Tony Martin

Tony Martin didn't start out with with aspirations to be a professional song writer.

"That's what my dad did," he said. "I was going to do something else."

But sometimes the southern pecan doesn't fall far from the tree.

He and his wife, Amethea, graduated from BYU and were living in Chicago where he was working as a newspaper reporter when country star George Strait recorded the first "serious" song Tony had written, "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye." Released in 1988, that hit helped propel Tony to the point where, as he expressed it, "you realize your hobby is paying more than your gig."

Working as a correspondent for the Tennessean in Nashville, he made ends meet while making the transition from journalist to songwriter. He admits he can't read music and rarely puts pen to paper in his compositions. (He hires musicians to make demonstration tapes of his songs so he can pitch them to publishers). Even so, his lyrics and melodies, often written in partnership with others, have immense market appeal.

The title of one of his numerous chart toppers became the name of a network television show, "Third Rock from the Sun."

"And yes, they pay to use that title for the TV show," he said. "They pay every week. It's a nice part-time job, let's put it that way."

As bishop of the Hendersonville Ward on Nashville's northern outskirts, he often is in a position to counsel Latter-day Saints trying to "make it" in the music industry. His guidance consists of solid gospel principles and wisdom served up with country-fried wit.

"When people in the business come to me for financial advice, all I do is dish out the Doctrine and Covenants and the prophet," he said. "Live below your means; avoid debt."

At last year's Mormon Arts Festival at BYU, Bishop Martin told aspiring musicians: "Don't come to the Hendersonville Ward and say the Lord told you to come to Nashville; the Lord also told Joseph Smith to give the manuscript to Martin Harris."

Church members in the audience laughed heartily; they understood immediately what he meant.

"I was being jovial," he said in recollection. "But in other words, maybe He did tell you to come, but I don't know how long you've been bugging Him about it; maybe He told you no the first time."

Would-be professional musicians should set proper priorities, seek and obey the Lord's guidance, and realize that success, if it comes at all, may take a while, he said.

"People think they can write one number-one hit and become a millionaire. I've had seven number-ones, and I'm not a millionaire."

Jason Deere

As a youth in Oklahoma, Jason Deere wrote his first song. It was about his grandfather.

"It was awful and wonderful at the same time," he said. "I went in and played it for my parents. They were crying at the end, and I was crying. I thought, 'Well, there's something to this.' "

His test came shortly after he began serving in the Nevada Las Vegas Mission in 1988. Someone had sent a tape of his songs to a publisher in Nashville. The publisher contacted him and said he would love to release some of his material.

"I went to my mission president, who was Gerald Scott, a great, incredible man. And he said, 'Elder, I promise you that if you will let this opportunity pass, and all of the ones you may have while you are on your mission, you will be blessed ten-fold and you will be able to do anything you want in this business.' "

He took the advice to heart and gave all his efforts to his mission.

At BYU he soon met and married his wife, Sonia. They both finished their education at the University of Oklahoma in his hometown, then came to Nashville. "Inside of two weeks, we met these three girls from Magna, Utah."

He started to write songs and produce for them. "I was too young and naive to realize I couldn't do it," he said.

But as it turned out, their joint venture was a success. The three young women became SheDaisy, and two years ago they were signed with the Disney company's Lyric Street label. Brother Deere thinks the fact that they were all LDS was an advantage, because the label was looking for an act with a wholesome image.

"They went platinum a few weeks ago and have had two top 10 singles and are on their third one now," he said. "It's kind of opened everything wide open for us in a town where it's hard to get the door swinging open. We've been really lucky and very blessed, and I hinge it all back on my mission president's promise."

Ron Saltmarsh

Ron and Calene Saltmarsh looked hard to find a house with a basement they could buy. They needed a place to put his studio. They found one, and his arsenal includes half a dozen guitars, electronic keyboards, a computer, sequencer and a studio microphone.

Watching him operate the gadgetry is something akin to seeing "the man behind the curtain" in the movie "The Wizard of Oz." Only Ron Saltmarsh is a bona fide wizard, using the equipment to produce professional-quality recordings for various clients.

With close friend Dan Truman of Diamond Rio fame he has recorded a compact disc of contemporary jazz instrumentals, "This Way That." A couple of the song titles are quite telling with regard to his background: "Lehi's Dream" and "Hangin' with Newell," the latter a nod to Newell Dayley, his music professor back at BYU.

It was there in the 1980s that he played in the university jazz band Synthesis and met some other soon-to-be-famous music students, Sam Cardon and Kurt Bestor. Together, they started the Jazz Ranch, the first recording studio in the former Osmond complex in Orem.

And it was at BYU, in a music history class, that he met Calene, just home from serving in the Canada Calgary Mission. They were in Young Ambassadors together and married in 1991, the year he started the Jazz Ranch.

When he was completing his last year in his MBA course work, the Saltmarshes were fasting and praying for direction. One morning, he dreamed that he was taking a final and the secretary ran up to him and said: 'Your wife is having a baby! You've got to get out of here now! Go!"

He awoke in tears and said to Calene, "I know what we're supposed to do; we're supposed to start our family." Today, they have four children.

The Saltmarshes interpreted the dream as direction to follow the commandments of the Lord in whatever aspect of life they confront. For them, it meant that Sister Saltmarsh, whose university degree is in piano pedagogy, was to remain home and nurture the children while he supported the family by pursuing a livelihood "in this crazy industry."

"We've found that as we've been prayerful and faithful, the Lord has found ways for us to use our talents, be in the industry, but to be able to maintain our Church lives and our family," said Brother Saltmarsh, who is bishop of the Nashville 3rd Ward.

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