BROKEN BOW, Okla. (KTAL/KMSS) – Gail Davies’s groundbreaking career as the first female country music producer has spanned over 20 years with multiple Billboard top hits. She shared her journey on how she became one of country’s most influential artists.
Davies was born Patricia Gail Dickerson, in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, in June 1948. Davies has loved music for as long as she can remember. Her biological father, country singer Tex Dickerson, played on the country music radio and television show “Louisiana Hayride.” During that time, her brother Ron was born in Shreveport, La.
Some of her fondest memories of growing up in Broken Bow are times spent with her grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.
“I just remember when I was a kid, I’d help my grandmother do things like churn buttermilk—sitting on the back porch steps churning buttermilk forever. We had hens and chickens and collected eggs. You know, all that stuff that you did back in the day.”
After her parents separated, her mother moved Gail and her siblings to Washington State. There, her mother met and married Darby Davies, who adopted Gail and her brothers, Jimmy and Ron. She says their love of music was encouraged by their parents.
“My mom always had music. We were always around music, and my stepfather bought a jukebox and put it in the living room of our big old farmhouse. And it had everything from country music to Nat King Cole, to the Mills Brothers, to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Hank Snow. So, we’d listen constantly to a nice eclectic group of music.”
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When she was 11, their adoptive father bought Ron a guitar, and her mother taught him to play. She and her brothers started performing in talent contests together when she was 14, covering tunes from the Everly Brothers, Ink Spots, and others for audiences throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“When I was in the 7th grade, I think Ronnie would have been in the 9th grade, we played the Rhododendron Festival in port towns in Washington, and we had so many encores from the audience that we sang every song we knew. We kept singing and singing and people kept shouting and yelling for more, and, of course, we won the contest.”
Gail and Ron moved to Los Angeles, where he signed a record deal and penned hit records.
Ron wrote “It Ain’t Easy” for David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” album.
His songs were recorded by artists such as Joe Cocker and Three Dog Night, who named one of their albums “It Ain’t Easy” after his song. Ron also wrote “Long Hard Climb,” which became Helen Reddy’s platinum-selling album.
While Ron was becoming a highly sought-after songwriter, Gail was singing background and harmony with Glen Campbell and Neil Young. There, she met Joni Mitchell’s recording engineer, Henry Lewy. “He caught me one day, he said, ‘You know you’ve got really good instincts. You should produce music,’ and he started working with me.”
She moved to Nashville, where she recorded her self-titled debut album with CBS/Lifelong Records in 1978. “Gail Davies” earned her three Top 20 Billboard hits, but she was unhappy with the album’s producer.
“The producer of my first album treated me very disrespectfully. He acted like I was a background singer instead of the person who wrote 80% of the songs and arranged the other two. So, I just determined right then and there that I would never ever work with another producer again. That was it.”
Davies signed a contract with Warner Bros. Records and became the first female record producer in country music history with the release of her self-produced album “The Game” in 1979.
The single Blue Heartache became her first Top Ten Billboard hit. Later that year, her song “I’ll Be There” (If You Ever Want Me) hit #4 on the charts. Her first independent record was a huge success, with three top Billboard hits. Davies was awarded Best New Vocalist by DJs of America in 1980.
Her next album, “I’ll Be There,” scored another three Top 10 Billboard Hits with “Grandma’s Song,” “It’s a Lovely, Lovely World” and “I’ll Be There.”
Being the first woman to produce a country album did not come without challenges to her career. Davies said she butted heads with a lot of ‘good ol’ boys’ to get where she wanted to go.
“It was very difficult. I was blackballed by some of the musicians here in Nashville back in the 70s who refused to work for a female producer. So, I hired some old friends of mine from L.A. whom I knew loved country music, like Leland Sklar, who played with James Taylor. He and James were huge country fans and would listen to George Jones and Hank Snow on their bus.”
As she continued to produce hit records and her career grew, some of the pushback started to fade.
Davies recorded 24 Billboard hit singles from 1978 to 1989, was nominated for a Grammy, and won an IBMA Award in 2002 for her duet with bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley. Davies said she had some good male friends in the music industry who stood beside her from the beginning.
“I was friends with Ralph Emery, who was a radio personality and had a show called ‘Nashville Now.’ A very popular TV show. And I told him one time I was so fed up with some of the guys and some of the good ol’ boys that I’m thinking about going back to L.A. And he said, ‘You need to toughen up, little girl.’ He said, ‘Do you think Patsy Cline would have let those boys run her ass out of town?'” Davies laughed. “I’ll never forget that. ‘You need to toughen up, little girl.'”
Davies returned to Broken Bow in the summers to visit her grandparents until their deaths.
She was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2018 and said the music she wrote for her family is the most meaningful to her.
“Grandma’s Song was written about my grandmother in Oklahoma in Broken Bow. And in the beginning of the song, I had a tape of her. She came up to visit us shortly before she died. She was in her 80s, and my mom had a desk tape recorder, a Sony desktop tape recorder, and recorded her singing an old Irish folk song that her Irish grandmother taught to her, which is hundreds of years old. So, when I wrote Grandma’s Song for her, as a tribute to her, on the beginning of it, I spliced on her singing this old folk song. So that’s probably my favorite because it’s so personal.”
Another favorite, Bucket to the South, has been recorded and covered by other artists.
“And, of course, Bucket to the South is a song I wrote about going back to Broken Bow and reconnecting with my family. And that was a big hit for another artist, a girl named Ava Barber, and then Lynn Anderson cut it.”
Keeping a promise to her brother Ron, Gail recorded a tribute album in his memory after he died in 2003. The star-studded lineup included Alison Krauss, John Anderson, Dolly Parton, Jeff Hanna and many others. She says the most special song to her on the album is “Steal Across the Border.”
“‘Steal Across The Border’ was a song that Ronnie and I used to sing as a duet. And, after he died, I had a version of him singing and playing guitar, and I hired a string quartet to back him, and I sang harmony,” Davies said. “We always sang so tight together. So that’s probably my favorite song on the record.”
Her son, Chris Scruggs was born in 1982. Scruggs became a popular singer, songwriter and guitarist. Chris is the son of songwriter Gary Scruggs and the grandson of popular banjo player Earl Scruggs. He plays with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.
“My son’s a famous steel guitar player. In fact, one of the old timers said, other than himself your son is probably the best in the world,” Davies said. “I’m very proud of him.”
The “old timer” who said that to Davies was none other than Kayton Roberts who played with Hank Snow.
When Chris was young, Davies said he came to her and asked if she would teach him how to play guitar. She taught him a few chords, and from then, he was off. Scruggs accompanied Davies to Oklahoma when she was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. They co-produced her last album, where he played the electric and steel guitar.
“We’ve been on the Opry together a couple of times singing duets. In fact, one time, we did “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers after Don Everly passed away. So that was kind of a tribute to him.”
Her eight-year-old grandson is already following in the family’s footsteps. Davies said he is a skilled drummer and shares her love of the Everly Brothers.
“He can sing any of my songs. He just gets in the car and goes, ‘I want to hear Nana.’ So that’s what we play.”
Davies loves many artists she’s worked with including Amy Lou Harris and George Jones. When asked who she’d like to collaborate with, Davies answered:
“Probably Martin Knopfler. I’ve always been a fan of Martin Knopfler and would love to collaborate with him or Keith Richards. Or some of those rock n’ roll guys who love country music. I think, probably Keith Richards because he’s dabbled at playing steel guitar.”
You heard the lady, Keith.