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Billy Yates first cut as a songwriter was the George Jones' smash, "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair", but that initial success was the culmination of years of hard work and thin times, as well as an uncompromising commitment to the power of country music.
Born in Doniphan, Missouri, Yates was raised on a small farm five miles outside the town of 1,700 located near the Arkansas line. "We pretty much lived off the land", Billy recalls. "I remember the big gardens we would plant. We had our own milk cow for milk and butter and raised our own beef, pork and poultry."
Both of Yates' parents came from musical families and he got an early initiation into performing live during a regular Sunday morning broadcast on KDFN-AM in Doniphan. "My dad would play guitar and the rest of us would sing on a 15-minute radio show we'd do before we went to church". Country was all Billy ever knew, whether it was the country-gospel music or just the reality of his upbringing. "I suppose we were fairly poor, even in that small community, but we always had everything we needed and I wouldn't trade my childhood for anything".
Yates began singing harmonies while digging into his parent's record collection -- a stack which included plenty of Jim Reeves, Ernest Tubb, George Jones, Mac Wiseman, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers. "That sort of evolved into listening to artists like Emmylou Harris and Don Williams later on," Billy says.
Although Yates would occasionally sing a song or two at weddings or the county fair, he insists he was still too shy to feel comfortable performing in public. That reluctance changed suddenly after his high school graduation when he visited the Lake Wappapello Opry, a family oriented show in Wappapello, Missouri.
"I watched the show and I remember my stomach being tied in knots because I wanted to be on that stage so bad," he explains. "After the show, I went to the lady who owned the place and somehow got the courage to ask, 'When do you hold auditions?' This was in the early part of the theater's season, so I figured they weren't looking for another singer anytime soon."
Yates wasn't prepared when the owner responded, "We can do an audition right now, so come backstage". He says, "I was thinking, 'What am I gonna do now?' I went backstage and all the people who were in the show were standing in a circle. At that point in my life, these people were bigger than life to me". After an impromptu performance of "Cryin' My Heart Out Over You," Yates was hired on the spot and started working there the next weekend.
During his three years on the show, Yates began making trips to Nashville before going to West Plains, Missouri to be a regular performer at another music theater. "It was sort of a spin-off of the Branson-type shows," Billy admits. "But it helped me work through a lot of the nervousness of performing while figuring out what an audience wants. You get your chops as a singer by singing, so that was a great place to learn".
With the intention of securing a college degree, Yates later moved to Poplar Bluff, Missouri. "I enrolled in a junior college, which I attended for about two weeks", he says. "I had a reading problem. School had been hard, but I always had a lot of friends and was involved in all the high school activities. But college was really difficult for me".
He had noticed a barber school around the corner from his apartment. "Dad was a barber and had always encouraged my brother and I to learn a trade."
He enrolled, got his license, and returned to his hometown, where he cut hair for five years in his own shop just down the street from his dad's two-chair business. "I was cutting hair, playing music on the weekends, and working seven to midnight at the local FM station, KOEA, in the same building where we had done the Sunday morning broadcast years before on the AM station.
I really grew up in that radio station. In my spare time, I'd go back to the record library and start pulling old records to learn the names of all the musicians and producers".
After years of contemplating a move to Nashville, he arrived in town in 1987. His father's advice about learning a trade was useful. While singing demos and learning the songwriter's craft, Yates used his barber's license to support himself and his wife, Nancy.
He eventually landed his first writer's deal with Hori Pro Entertainment Group. "When I got there, I only had a song or two that was any good," he admits. "Within just a couple of months, I had written probably 10 or 15 songs".
Out of those first few songs came the George Jones hit and 1993 CMA Vocal Event of the Year, "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair" along with the title cut of that same album, "Walls Can Fall".
Getting George Jones to record your song is perhaps the most coveted honor for any Nashville songwriter. Those who have written countless hits for other artists openly admit that a track on a Jones album is their greatest dream.
After years of struggling in Nashville, the initial recognition made Yates realize the importance of unceasing optimism in the midst of hard work. "Had I given up within my first five years here, nothing would have happened", he says.