John D. Loudermilk, a prolific Nashville songwriter whose best-known songs, “Tobacco Road” and “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” were covered hundreds of times and evoked heartache and a gritty side of the South, died Wednesday at his home in Christiana, Tennessee. He was 82.
He had prostate cancer and respiratory ailments, said his wife of 45 years, Susan Chollette Loudermilk.
Loudermilk began as a teenage performer in his native North Carolina, and he occasionally cut records as a hybrid rock-folk-country singer and guitarist. But he found much greater success for what he wrote than for what he sang.
One of his first hits came in 1957, when his single “Sittin’ in the Balcony” reached the Top 40. But it made the Top 20 when it was re-released the same year by rockabilly star Eddie Cochran.
When Loudermilk moved to Nashville in 1958, he took to heart the advice he received from a record company executive: “Don’t save all your best songs for yourself.”
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Loudermilk composed songs that would be recorded by such diverse artists as Lou Rawls, the Everly Brothers, David Lee Roth, Johnny Mathis, Chet Atkins, Nina Simone and Norah Jones. In 1971, the rock group Paul Revere & the Raiders had a No. 1 hit with Loudermilk’s “Indian Reservation,” about the Cherokee people.
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He was named to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976 and was “as big a pop writer as a country writer,” Pat Alger, the chairman of the hall of fame said Thursday in an interview.
Loudermilk’s songs were recorded by country superstars Dolly Parton, George Jones and Johnny Cash, but his music was easily adaptable to other styles. The ballad “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” sounded touching whether performed by country star Eddy Arnold, rhythm-and-blues singers Solomon Burke and Bettye Swann, or the pop group the Casinos, whose 1967 version of the song reached No. 6 on the Billboard chart.
Loudermilk’s most famous tune, “Tobacco Road,” which he first recorded in 1960, grew out of memories of his childhood in the tobacco town of Durham, North Carolina. The bluesy tune has been recorded more than 200 times.
Loudermilk received a Grammy Award in 1967 for best liner notes for his album “Suburban Attitudes in Country Verse.”
John D. Loudermilk Jr. was born March 31, 1934, in Durham.
Survivors include his wife and three sons from his first marriage.