The Riley Watkins Interview
By James Calemine
Alabama-born, songwriter/guitarist Riley Watkins epitomizes an obscure talent. Watkins wrote songs and performed his own blend of rock, country and blues all over America for decades. Watkins performed in various bands with country music songwriter Gary Stewart over the years. He also played music on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, Gary 'U.S.' Bonds, Lonnie Mack and Little Anthony and the Imperials.
Gary Stewart enjoyed success with country hits “Drinkin’” Thing”, “Out of Hand” and “She’s Acting Single (And I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”. Stewart sadly passed away in 2003. In 1969, Stewart worked at Owen Bradley’s Barn where Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, J.J. Cale and many others recorded hits.
Stewart enabled Watkins and his band—Riley—to record Grandma’s Roadhouse at Bradley’s Barn, which included songs written by Watkins and Stewart. 500 copies of this album were printed, and it quickly disappeared for 40 years until Mark Linn released it last fall on his Delmore label.
Grandma’s Roadhouse counts as a lost classic. Last fall, when the album was released, I conducted this interview with Mr. Riley Watkins. In the last 25 years, Watkins played music only in the church. In this Q & A, he discusses early career moves, Gary Stewart, Grandma’s Roadhouse and the dawn of his new career…
James Calemine: You were born in North Carolina in 1944, right?
Riley Watkins: That’s right. When I was a baby my family moved to Hackleburg, Alabama. That’s Sonny James’s hometown. As a matter of fact, my mother went to school with him.
JC: When did you first start playing guitar?
RW: At 11-years old I started to play.
JC: What were your early influences?
RW: As far as guitar, my influences were Duane Eddy, The Ventures and Link Wray. I started the Imprints when I was 15—1959.
JC: You guys backed up Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison…
RW: Yeah, that was 1963. Before we went to Florida, we had already backed up Little Anthony and the Imperials, Gary Bonds, Del Shannon and The Angels. Down in Florida, we backed up Ray Stevens and we did a show with Lonnie Mack down there.
JC: Florida is where you met Gary Stewart…
RW: Right. We were playing in Fort Pierce. Gary’s wife was working in the club and Gary came in, and he liked us. He asked if he could sit in with us and we said yes. We liked him. We’d go into a club and stay there six nights a week or two or three months. So, Gary was in there a lot. He wanted to join the band, but there was no space for him at the time. Later on, when we needed a bass player we’d call him, and he’d say ‘I’m on the way’.
He met us somewhere up north, I can’t remember where, but he stayed with us for quite a few months—maybe 6 months. Gary never got over hating the road. He hated traveling. Even living in Nashville he didn’t like traveling back down to Fort Pierce in Florida. He was just satisfied staying at home, writing songs in Nashville.
JC: When did you guys go to Muscle Shoals to cut demos?
RW: That was 1965. At that time Gary was in the band. He knew Fred Burch (legendary songwriter who wrote "Rambling Srose") there in Nashville...
JC: What was going on the next three years before Grandma’s Roadhouse?
RW: Gary was writing songs. I was writing songs. In those years he was playing with us on the road. Then he went back to Florida. I got a new bass player and stayed on the road. In 1966 I left the road for a while. My first child was born in 1966 and I was in New York. I came home and was with her and the baby for two hours and then I was gone again.
After months of that I had to quit. I went back to Michigan and got a job. Then I formed another band. During that time Gary and I were recording a lot. I’d drive down to Nashville with some of the musicians that were playing with me and we would record some of Gary’s songs and some of my songs. Some of that stuff is gone and I don’t know where it’s at.
JC: Did you and Gary ever write songs together?
RW: We didn’t write any songs together. He wrote songs, and I wrote songs. Then, we’d get together and record, but we’d get together and record, but we didn’t collaborate whatsoever.
JC: Was he working at Bradley’s Barn then?
RW: No, not at that time. In 1969, he got to Bradley’s. The trio that recorded on Grandma’s Roadhouse joined in 1969. That’s the guys on the album…
JC: Eventually, when Gary worked at Bradley’s Barn, y’all were able to go in and record for free. How did that come about?
RW: We recorded a lot of songs over a period of two years. We were a full-time band six days a week for 50 weeks a year. We were always working. We finished up on a Saturday at 2 am, and then drive down to Nashville and record and drive back that night, so we would be ready to work on Tuesday night. We did that several times over a period of about two years. I couldn’t tell you how many songs we recorded. I have some of the songs. Mark Linn has some of the material too...
JC: Grandma’s Roadhouse is an amazing record. I like it all, but “Picture” and the bonus track “Cows & Dogs, Ducks & Hogs just floors me. “Picture” should be a hit right now…it’s better than most of the stuff out there. So, explain how this record disappeared for 40 years…
RW: I had to move on. Bradley wasn’t satisfied with it, and I left Gary copies of it. We took our copies back to Michigan. Gary was supposed to shop them around because Owen, like I said, was not happy with it—I don’t know why. I have no idea why. Shortly after that, Gary got signed and Grandma’s Roadhouse got pushed off to the side, and was never heard from again. We never even discussed it again. I played some of the songs until the band broke up, and then I never played the songs again. That was around 1973.
JC: I’m sure that was disappointing. What happened next?
RW: Well, we’d gone to Berry Gordy at Motown, and he wasn’t interested. I was frustrated. We were making a living, so we just kept doing what we were doing. That’s all I did—play bars, and I made a good living. My bass player and drummer played with Gary later. My drummer played with Gary when he was working with Charlie Pride. I got back with Gary in 1979. Gary was doing writing off and on in Nashville, and he hated it—he hated being in Nashville, and being away from Ft. Pierce. I stayed on the road all over the U.S. playing clubs and backing up other people. Gary and I stayed in contact. Then I moved to Austin, Texas in 1978. he wanted me to come back and play with him, and put together a group with some musicians from Ft. Pierce. My agent booked me into Oklahoma for two weeks. I was supposed to rehearse this band and get them ready. It didn’t work out, so we got a group out of Texas called the Drug Store Cowboys…
In 1981, I went back doing solo gigs. In 1983, I moved to Las Vegas. Some friends of mine owned a casino out there and they invited me to play out there. I played there for a while. Then I played in another casino, but I got sick of Las Vegas and I moved back to Austin. I played around with a lot of friends in Austin, but I didn’t go back out on the road after that. In 1987, I was totally out of it, and I got saved. On Saturday, I’ll play my first non-secular gig in 25 years. I’ve been playing in churches for 20 years, and I love it. I just got sick of the music scene.
JC: Are you still writing?
RW: I haven’t written any songs since 1978. The bass player I had after Novesky, he and I wrote a lot of songs. We recorded them in Pueblo, Colorado. I’ve got the tapes on that stuff. Jim Snead and I are thinking about playing more shows. The Grandma’s Roadhouse material…my band was a hard rock band. So, we had a mixture of hard rock & country rock. The mixture came out real good—but nobody else did (laughs). I’m very happy with the way it’s going now.
I’ve got some good stuff in the can, but I want to re-work them. Musically at the time we were a hard rock band and that’s the way we wrote them. I’m going to deconstruct them a little bit. We may go to Europe, but we’ll see what happens…