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Don McNatt: Bio

Bio - Don McNatt

( This is the longer version, for those who like more details. For a highlight account, go to the link to cdbaby.com for a shorter version.)

"When I'm on the stage, I wear my cowboy hat, and stage clothes, and I'm not shy about showing off, because that's what people came to see. When I come off the stage, I take my hat off. Nobody likes a guy who acts like that all the time". Speedy McNatt

Don McNatt grew up in Memphis Tennessee, the son of Grand Ole Opry fiddler, and partner to Eddy Arnold, Speedy McNatt. It was fun being Speedy's son, at times. We have a picture of Don mounting Gene Autry's horse at age five, and when the Opry came to Memphis, at Ellis Auditorium, Don's mother would get Minnie Pearl to watch Don while she went out front to see Speedy's part of the show. There were occassionaly people that would come to visit, when Don was a little guy, like Little Roy Wiggins, Gabe Tucker, and even Eddy Arnold, but to Don and his brother Jim, they were just Dad and Mom's freinds. Don was much older when he realized that there were music icons who knew him as Speedy's little boy. Don's dad didn't really want him to follow in his footsteps as a musician, but he had so much music and show business in him, that he spilled sage advice. It was about being an entertainer, and keeping a life as a person, and it poured out in the same way he overflowed the ashtrays, that he warned Don not to use. Don was performing from the earliest grades of elementary school. He played drums, worked up an act as a ventriloquist, and eventually discovered the guitar. His dad could see that he would have a hard time keeping him away from the bars and the life that sometimes comes with being a musician, so he tried his best to steer Don in other directions. Speedy had given up living on the road, to obey his heart and live a sober life with his family. He didn't want to see Don fall in the same pitfalls that had been so hard for him to overcome. In Junior High School Don was sneaking out to play at the local YMCA, and by the time he was in high school, he was seen on George Klein's Talent Party on WHBQ TV in Memphis, with a band called the Delvantes. The ultra conservative religious school Don was in at the time saw it too, and it caused problems, because the Principal said that he was fast becoming a public figure, and would give the school a bad name. It was actually quite a well dressed and well behaved band, but it was, after all, Rock and Roll.

We may have spent a great deal of time on those formative years, and their events, but this is important, if we look at Don's performing career. Some will say he's always been a die hard, and never would give up on performing, whether it was going well, or in a slump. Don not only accepts that criticism, but is proud of it, and this part of his history perhaps explains that to some degree.

Howard "Speedy" McNatt, was pleased when the new school Don now attended said they had noticed an exceptional talent, that they thought may lead to a future as a actor. He saw this as a way to see Don perform as he knew he was driven to do, but actors didn't work in bars, and seemed to be wearing tuxedos when you saw them on television, so he thought this could be the solution to seeing Don live a wholesome life, and also know the joy of entertaining. He encouraged Don's efforts toward acting. During those last 2 years of high school, the Speech department had Don on the road some, representing the school in Dramatics contests. With the exception of one contest in Shreveport, Louisiana, Don won every contest he was sent to. He went back to Shreveport the next year, and won that contest too, beating the guy who had won the year before, the only one to ever best Don in one of these tournaments. His Senior year, Don held the title of Tennessee State High School Dramatics Champion.

The McNatt's were not a wealthy family, and Don's dad was out of work for some of the period of his high school years. Don passed an audition to work for Front St. Theatre, a local professional resident company, but had to turn the job down, because the younger actors would not get paid, and Don felt he had to earn some money to help out. George Tuliatos, the director of the theatre at that time asked Don to audition again, for a group of out of towners, and the Ford Foundation gave Don a grant to work, and study at Front St. Theatre for a season. Being paid to work as an actor was a dream come true. Many of the company at that time are well known from film careers now, and gave Don a chance to be exposed to an extremely professional approach to the work. Working in that professional atmosphere at this stage of Don's development would affect him for the rest of his life. The Ford Foundation spent their money well.

Don went to Memphis State University, ( now University of Memphis ) with a major on a BFA program in theatre. He was constantly performing, both for classes, and for public showings in serious drama, and comedy, but kept working in bands the entire time. He also kept a job during that time working in a music store owned by Cecil Blackwood, of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, and had after hours recording privileges. He was recording demos through the night in the Blackwood?s radio studio with his friend and co-writer, David Beaver. (D.Beaver, Gentrys) Then the theatre department started producing Rock Musicals, where he could involve his love of acting, and his love of music in a common project. The faculty at the school was exceptional at the time, and was given the rights to do some plum projects. Long before the movie, they were granted the rights to stage "Tommy" from the WHO, and had the first theatrical production of that material. Don played Tommy's father, and when not featured, ran down to add another guitar to the band. Then the school was the first College allowed to do "HAIR". At the time, doing it at all in the South was controversial. It ran to sold out audiences, and became a major news event. NBC had a crew shoot a documentary of the production, "When Hair Came to Memphis" which won an Emmy award. The cast was invited to play other events after the closing, including the Atlanta Pop Festival, where the "inside the gates" crowd numbered 250,000 people. Don played ""one of two lead roles, and the publicity involved gave him more opportunities in rock and roll. Tar Baby, a band Don joined that included Brad Webb, Jimmy Nolen, Larry Walters, and David Smith, played clubs and one nighters all over the Southeast. They won the Band Contest at the Cotton Carnival in Memphis. The musicians were great, and Don's job was to have a very good time, so that everyone else would.

Gerome Ragni, one of the authors of "Hair", who had played Berger, the same part Don played, in the original cast, came out to hear the band, and Don was included in the cast of "Billy Hill". This was Ragni and Rado's next musical, produced at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. The show was slated to go to Broadway, so Don reluctantly left the band to do the show. A movie deal for "Hair" changed Ragni?s plans at the end of the run, so "Billy Hill" never went to Broadway, and Don's place in the band had been filled.

Don was back in Memphis, and looking for a Gig. He ran into Murphy Odom, who had been a friend, and shared in bands since they were kids in various groups. Stockbridge, one of the first bands Don was in that played their own original music as a policy, during the college years, was one, and "Dawn", also had Murphy as one of 3 lead singers. Don, Mickey Caughron and Murphy fronted a band a la 3 Dog Night, singing harmony, and performing vocal arrangements in front of a band, that included Jimmy Stevens on bass, and Jody Stevens (Big Star) on drums. With that band, they had signed a one song record deal with Shelby Singleton, to record a song the record company thought would be a novelty hit, but it was never released. It was a great combination because Murphy, Don, and the Caughron Brothers ( Mickey and Rick ) had literally sang together since grade school, along with Billy Miller. They were all from the same neighborhood, and grew up singing together, so it was a very natural sound. Over the years there were several combinations formed that were made from this pool of boyhood friends.

This time another high school friend was in town. Keith Sykes had taken his first guitar lesson from Don, but then traveled the country playing and learning everywhere he went. He had come home with 2 Vanguard LPs to his credit, and was well thought of as a songwriter. Don had written songs all his life, but considered himself a performer, not a writer. He loved Keith?s songs and he and Murphy came to be the start of the first Keith Sykes Band, with Don on guitar, Murphy on bass, and both on harmony vocals. Band members changed after a while, and Ray Lloyd Barrickman ( Hank Jr.- Bama Band) came to replace Murphy on Bass, but Don stayed on the road with Keith for over a year. They had fun, traveled all over, and played great places. Keith was a friend and co-writer with Jimmy Buffett, so they stayed at Buffett's home in Key West when they played down there. In short, it was a great experience, and audiences loved the band. They only played Keith's material, as that was the nature of the band, but Keith let Don play one of his in the show, and Don was content playing Keith?s songs, because he really loved Keith?s music.

At a point where Keith was tiring of the road, and looking at his options, work slowed to a standstill. It was a productive time for Keith, as he was writing, and building his publishing company, but for the band members, it meant being out of work, so when Don got a call from long time friend and Guitar player Brad Webb ( Blind Mississippi Morris) that included an offer for him to front a band again himself, he joined "Quo Jr."

Roland Robinson had played bass with all the great soul artists from Stax records, Hi Records, and even some of the Motown artists. He had played with Buddy Miles, and was recorded with Jimi Hendrix, on "Spanish Castle Magic". He had been named the #6 bass player in the world by Downbeat Magazine, and he was putting together a rock and roll band. Brad Webb was the lead guitar, and had recommended Don to front the band and sing the leads. With Steve Fries on Drums, they started Quo Jr. As usually happens, gradually band members changed again, and before he left the band, Don had a chance to sing with Hubby Mitchell on keys, Velvert Turner on guitar, and Jerry Norris on Drums. These were all rhythm and Blues legends who had played with all the great soul acts from Al Green to Ann Peebles, to Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and more. When they decided to play rock and roll, they did it better than anyone Don had ever seen. Don counts this as the most educational period in his musical career. "Every time I stepped in front of these guys to sing, it was a learning experience. They had so much talent, and more information on how music should be played, than anyone I?ve ever met" Don says." I hope their influence on me will always be seen, and I'm proud to say I was able to learn at least a small portion of what they knew from them." The band played clubs, but also some concert dates, notable among them the PUSH Concert that drew 35,000 fans in Memorial Stadium in Memphis.(see picture)

After Quo Jr., Don had a new energy. He had learned a good deal, and knew more people than the last time he was on his own. He was missing some of the feeling that used to exist singing with the guys from the neighborhood. No matter where Don played, he still had to maintain that the guys he grew up singing with, we?re still some of the most talented people he knew. They had grown up now, and had responsible jobs. They had gone to college, some dental school, and had set out on occupations that would be secure and profitable in the future. One night at a party, the Caughron Brothers, two of the most talented singers anywhere, and Linda Caughron, (who was married to Ricky, but had her own musical credential on keyboards, and was a family friend of Don?s because her dad, Ozzie Blumberg, was a great violinist that played jobs regularly with Don's dad, Speedy ) had Don over to dinner. Conversation about Don's present situation, looking for a band, led to the Caughron family saying they really missed playing, and would do anything to get back in, but thought they never would. Don told them that if they were serious, he could get agents to book it, and they could start a band. The condition was, however, that if they were really serious, Don said, they would all have to go in the next day and quit their jobs, to do this full time. He really wanted them to play, but thought this would stop it short if this was just party talk with old friends.

The next day all three Caughrons contacted Don to let him know they had quit their jobs, and were ready to do whatever the next step was. It was decided that everyone wanted a bigger band for the music they had in mind, with lots of harmony, so they recruited Don's High school music teacher, Beverly Mask to join them on Keyboards and vocals. Bev had been the band director for the cast of "Hair" among other credits, and was also ready to completely dedicate herself to the project. Josh Anzeroot , Wayne Moore, Mitch Mitchell, Larry Walters and Steve Fries all did a stint as the drummers. Mick would be the bass player. He played a little guitar, but mostly had been a traditional lead singer slinging a tambourine, or a microphone as his main instrumental contribution. He was a very hard worker, and quickly had his bass playing sounding professional, and the band on it's feet. His singing was always great, but he also came to be a very good bass player, and after playing small clubs in small towns for a short time, the band had a groove and a sound. "Surrender" seemed an appropriate name for the band, and they toured the Southeast, got better and had fun. Audiences loved the family feel of the band, and the variety of lead singers, with great harmonies.

"The Spiral Staircase", who had the hit "I love You More Today than Yesterday" had gone through changes, and all but one of the original members was ready to retire from the project. Harvey Kaye was the last member, and had actually started the band, so he owned the name, and wanted to keep the band going. He played a B3 organ.

Surrender had recently changed managers, and he also had the Spiral Starecase in his roster. He approached the band about taking the spots in the Spiral Starecase with Harvey. Harvey wanted to hire the entire band to work with him in the new Spiral Starecase. They would instantly make twice the money, stay in better hotels, etc., so after a hard two years of band building this was a great opportunity. The style of music with the Spiral Starecase was also admired by Surrender, and they wouldn?t have to change their style to fit the act. They did their own show, then added "I Love you More today than Yesterday" and Harvey Kaye's great B3 to the show, and poof! They instantly became the Spiral Starecase. With the band on Columbia Gold series, the Surrender folks thought they would be going back in the studio to make more records. Surrender had original material, and this seemed like a good plan for it. Harvey was now the bandleader, however, and he was content to play for the money of the Vegas Style showrooms where the Spiral Starecase was always a hit. The band traveled all over the country and Canada, but after a year it was apparent that Harvey would not lead the band to recording, so Surrender left to be Surrender again, and spent a couple more years on the road. Surrender didn't have the marquee value of the Spiral Starecase, but now the people in those venues had seen their act, and were happy to have them back as themselves.
(see photo page)

Once again it came time to move to other projects, and Don went out West. He lived in San Francisco for about 6 years. He was learning to play as a single, and had decided to get serious about writing the songs. He played in some folk clubs, but mostly in venues that featured comedy. They always liked to have an opening act, and Don loved the comedian's audience, because the really paid attention to every word. There were also some great songwriters like Steve Seskin and John Palm, who also played these rooms, like the Holy City Zoo, and Don loved hearing them while he was working on a more serious approach to his songwriting. He opened each Friday for a year for "Papaya Juice", an improvisational comedy group that sometimes included Robin Williams, Dana Carvy, and others that are now household words. He was also studying acting again, with Larry Menkin, in San Rafael. This was a class aimed at working actors and pretty soon Don was in the Screen Actors Guild, and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, and was working in films, TV shows and Commercials in San Francisco. He could be seen briefly in episodic TV, like "Crazy like a Fox". "Partners in Crime", "Black?s Magic", "Trapper John, MD" and "Falcon Crest", which were all network shows at that time. He made a series of industrial films, and his first Commercials.

With a new marriage, and a few of these credits, it seemed like time to go to Hollywood. Don continued to work in film and Commercials, Notably a part in "The Beverly Hillbillies" movie with Jim Varney, and Cloris Leachman among the Clampetts. There were a series of characters "from back home" that had funny stuff shot for the movie, but in the end, the studio felt the movie moved better stripped down closer to the storyline, so Don and some other characters are not featured in the scenes that were shot of them. You'll still see Don in the movie several times, in back home scenes, on the plane, and in Beverly Hills, as the banjo playing Billy Bob, from back home. His name is still in the credits, even though his lines were cut. (see photo)

During this time period, Don was also blessed with 2 children, Jesse and Anna, who from a very young age were performing kids - members of the Screen Actors Guild, and were featured in music videos, and a series of national commercials.

While this was going on, Don had again formed a band. This time, they would carry Don's name to front the band, and sing his songs. He had seen how long it takes to build a band, and how hard it is each time you change the name of the act, and have to build a whole new reputation. In San Francisco Fans had yelled out "Don McNatt - Simple as that" and it stuck. It evolved into a license plate spelling of SMPLZAT and came to be the name of Don's production company. The new act was called "Don McNatt and the SMPLZAT Band". This was also the name of the new Album Produced by Don, and engineered by Joe Braus. Leo LeBlanc ( Jerry Jeff Walker- long list of others) played steel, Wade Marlay and Dan MacNamara were on Drums, at different times, and Rob Wait played Bass. James Mason added electric guitar ( Don was playing again, on acoustic guitar ) The band played around Southern California, at places like the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Don was also hosting "Don McNatt's Sunday Jam" right outside of Los Angeles in Kagel Canyon at a place called "The Hideaway". Don kept this jam going, that boasted some of Los Angeles' finest players, every Sunday afternoon for over 3 years. During this time period the California Country Music Association nominated Don 4 years in a row for both Male Vocalist of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year, for Los Angeles. Don won the Male vocalist category on 2 of those years.

Don received a phone call during the Presidential campaign that was going on from Ross Perot's campaign, wondering where he wanted to sit at the rally in Long Beach. Don had no idea why they thought he was expected there."Didn't you know?" they asked him,"Ross is using ACT OF CONGRESS from the SMPLZAT Band CD in his all of his rallies." Don didn't know it, and of course was never paid for it, but he did show up for his seat at the rally, and it was a treat to hear the song played for the very crowded stadium of Perot supporters.

During this time, Don was really concentrating on the Songwriting, and making trips to Nashville. He would come to songwriting events in Nashville, and knew he would someday have to return there. Nashville folks made Don feel welcome, and he appeared on a local cable television program produced by Charlie Fields. It was a good program, and Don enjoyed this style of shooting. When he returned to Los Angeles, he was asked to do guest spots on a couple of other local cable programs there, and it made Don wonder what it would take to produce a show of his own. He had a particular format in mind. The "rounds" that songwriters often played in Nashville, that had come from the guitar pulls in homes, were against every rule of show business and staging, but somehow worked anyway. Don thought it was because of the intimacy involved in seeing writers on stage, even when they are not playing, and the feeling of getting to know the people who wrote the songs, in some sense. TV could be the most intimate format of all, so with this concept Don started shooting "Writers in the Round with Don McNatt and Friends" for local cable in Los Angeles. Like Nashville, Los Angeles had some great writers, (sometimes the same ones) and over the next few years a large number of them joined the roster of those that had played one of these programs. The program was also being played in Nashville, Austin, Memphis, and up and down the California coast on occasion. At one time it was in over 1,000,000 homes.

On a couple of trips to Nashville, CATV was kind enough to allow Don to fly to Nashville and shoot the program there, using Nashville writers. No offense to the great writers in Los Angeles, but for sheer numbers of extremely talented and skilled songwriters, there?s no place like Nashville. Writers have given up everything to move to Nashville from all over the world, and it's recognized there as a legitimate profession. Songwriters could even buy homes there, and not have to hide their profession from lending institutions. It is also an environment where you can be exposed to the songwriting greats, on a regular basis, and is sometimes called Nashville University by songwriters who have realized that 4 or 5 years there listening to, and playing with those writers amounts to an education.

So, when life changing events said it was time to leave Hollywood, Don headed for the place he thought he should be, and moved to Nashville. He became a regular on CATV with his "Writers in the Round" ( WIR) program, and it continues to play in Nashville 4 times per week. Don still produces and hosts episodes of WIR and has featured many Hall of Fame songwriters, many writers with number one hits, lots of writers with a list of great cuts, and several writers that Don just felt are talented and should be heard. Some of those have gone on to have hit songs, and sometimes songs played on the program have become hits, not because of the program, but because these great writers and songs will eventually be noticed, and in some cases, Don has spotted them first.

The quality of the songs in this environment increased it?s importance in Don's mind. He had this history where although the music was important, he says he sometimes felt like he was "shaking his butt" for a living. He had always tried to write better songs, but now in Nashville, he worked even harder on that, and stopped pitching songs, for a time, in favor of just writing more, working on them, and playing at the Writer's nights that Nashville is famous for. The next time he was actively pitching, he wanted to be well armed with new material.
He was playing one of those writer's events at the Broken Spoke Songwriter's Cafe, when he started to notice a particular seat always seemed to have the same smiling face. Karen June Dean was coming out for all of Don's sets. She was a songwriter herself, but having 5 children, had offered lots of opportunities to play for family, and friends, but never in a club, or commercial setting. It had simply never fit in the schedule of a woman with this size family. Now, she was single again, and her children were mostly grown. She had been listening to the great Nashville writers, and gathering her courage to play these rooms herself. She loved Don's music, and he found himself aiming some of the songs at her part of the room.

Bobby Adams was hosting the Broken Spoke nights when Karen asked what time Don would be playing one evening, and Bobby told her Don had already played, and had to leave. Karen asked if there was a way to contact Don, to see better what his schedule was, and Bobby gave her Don's card, that he had been given earlier in the evening. Karen Emailed, "You probably don?t know who I am"... to which Don replied "I know where you sit!" Don had also been single again for a number of years now, and no one had sparked his interest again until Karen. (There were a number of very sad songs written.) Don and Karen dated for a few months, were engaged for an hour and a half, and got married.

Karen let Don know she was interested in writing, but had not played for him until they had been going out for a while. When he heard her, he was shocked. He knew she had an interest, but because she wasn?t playing out, he assumed it was mostly as a fan. Turns out she was really good player, and a good songwriter. With the confidence that would come from playing her songs for an audience, Don knew she could be great, so he encouraged her to start booking herself at the Nashville venues. She did, and now Don and Karen get to play together, and can be seen that way on many occasions. They've played weddings, which works out, because the songs have come out decidedly romantic over the last couple of years, and are featured at most of the writers rooms in Nashville.

The last few years have also offered the opportunity for some travel again. Don and Karen, traveling together, have played in the United Kingdom, Berlin, several villages outside Munich, in Bavaria, (several times now, with thier freind, the Bavarian Johnny Cash, Fred Guggenburger), Bermuda, Hawaii, and other islands, including Australia, where Don was recently awarded the People's Choice Award, for "Favorite International Artist" at the Canberra Country Music Festival.The Australians have been more than hospitable, and we should see more trips there. They keep radio airplay going, and recorded radio interviews to go with the songs, when the McNatts were there in November.

In the USA, last year alone, the McNatts had short, and extended stays, in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Colorado, Montana, Missouri, Kentucky, Alaska, Hawaii, and of course, Tennessee. The term "Performing Songwriters" has become an accurate description.

Although some really good productions are done there, Nashville is not a center for actors, like Hollywood was, so Don has done only one play since coming to live there. It was a new musical about Dogs. There's a line or two in the press section from the Nashville papers about Don's performance there.

The CD "The Dog in My Dreams" is one of Don's proudest works. Check it out at cdbaby.com. It's an album that could not have been done, without the history outlined here. The latest CD " Have Songs Will Travel" is a true songwriter album, featuring the many styles Don writes,.. even a Christmas Song. Some of Nashville's most talented musicians lent their talents to these Albums.

All of these roads have lead to the songwriter and performer that Don is today. We hope you'll check out the CDs and come to hear Don play when he's in your area.

This experience has also led Don to author a book on performing, called "Things I've Learned from the Audience", available at Amazon, or wherever downloaded books are sold.

Don McNatt is a member of SAG, AFTRA, AFof M, ASCAP.