The 100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers limited series podcast gives music fans a front-row seat for conversations with songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of yesterday and today. You’ll learn the stories behind the songs from the people who wrote them. Each episode will focus on one writer: sometimes, they’ll just talk about one song, other times, they’ll talk about a number of hits.
New episodes will be released each Monday through November of 2020.
100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers special podcast series is produced in partnership with Beasley Media Group, XPERI (HD Radio), and BMI in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast.
Chris Layton was the drummer of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, but he didn’t usually write songs for the band. Until their last album, that is: he was one of the co-writers on “Crossfire,” one of Stevie Ray’s last classics off of In Step. He told us the story behind the song, and how the label asked if they could ditch the guitar solo to get it to top 40 radio.
So let’s talk about “Crossfire.”
I was having a conversation with [co-writers] Bill Carter and Ruth Elsworth, who are really songwriters by trade. And we were talking about the idea of [Double Trouble keyboardist] Reese Wynans and [bassist] Tommy Shannon and myself and the two of them getting in our production studios and spending a week [together], and that we would work on all sorts of ideas and then we would see what we ended up with.”Crossfire” was one of a number of songs… we wrote nine songs. This was as we were a couple of months out from beginning the In Step record. We just said, “Let’s do the business splits now and then whatever happens, happens, and we’ll all be writers, owners, if you will, of the properties when we’re done.”
So that being the agreement, we went into our space. And we just started working. “Crossfire” originated with the bassline that Tommy Shannon plays on the song. He and I, we developed a groove really based on that on his on his bass line. And we got together and kicked around things like chords, chord structure. Bill Carter and Ruth Elsworth actually wrote the lyrics to the song.
The band had gone through a bunch of different difficulties with substance and whatnot and had come to a point where we had made a decision to take a different tack in the way that we were going. In the direction in our music, our lives, everything else. And so we discussed the things that had, you know, tempted us, plagued us, inspired us, troubled us. The list goes on and on.
And they came back with lyrics that kind of expressed all of that in a simple way. And we took that and we developed that into what became the finished song as a demo. We took it into the studio and we changed it a little bit more.
I remember seeing Stevie Ray right before In Step came out. He popped up at a Living Colour concert with just his electric guitar. I think he played “Tightrope” and something else before Living Colour came on. It just seemed like he was sort of rejuvenated. I think there was an awareness with that ans that he had gotten through some substance stuff at that time. And I guess that was part of the energy of that record.
Very much so. He was in Dallas. He had reconnected in a real significant way with one of his old oldest friends, Doyle Bramhall. That’s the father; not Doyle Bramhall II, who we were later in the Arc Angels with.
We were all like one big kind of extended family. But they had reconnected and they were sitting around talking about their experiences with life and with substance abuse and whatnot and they they spent long hours just sitting in Stevie’s living room with guitars. And they developed [those conversations] into songs. So when we got together, he said, “Hey, I’ve got these songs.” One of them was “Tightrope”… that was a groove that Tommy and I actually developed and said, “Here, take it up to Dallas if you want to see what you guys can do with it.” So those songs were kind of connected, but “Crossfire,” Stevie didn’t have any part of [writing].
And when we played it for him, we talked about the lyrics. He goes, “What is the song saying? ‘Save the strong, lose the weak?'” We said, “No, that’s in jest. The idea is that what we don’t want to do is just save the strong and lose the weak.” And he said, “Yeah, I get that.”
He took the song and he said, “I have to live with it for a minute. to see if I really connect with everything about it,” which is really a great thing about him. That’s why I can go back and listen to all the music that we recorded. And every bit of it is is really focused on intent and meaning. And there was really no other consideration to the music that we ever did.
But he did sit with it for about a week and he came back. He said, “I got it. Let’s let’s cut it. “And so we did.
When that record came out, the two songs you would hear on the radio most were “Crossfire” and “Tightrope.” And later on, I think “The House Is Rockin’.” I’ve heard stories of artists who don’t have to write all their own songs, but they want the singles to be the ones that they wrote. Were you surprised to see that “Crossfire” was one of the first singles from the album?
Stevie never treated songs that way. He usually didn’t care about money, which could be a little bit of an issue at times because, you know, we were while we were a band, we were also trying to run a business. We have to care about money because if we don’t care about it we’ll suffer for that. So there was not a conversation, “Well, I wrote this one, so that’s got to be the single.” I always heard that as one as, that could be a single… and a really good one. And it did become that.
In fact, as it went up, the album oriented radio charts, it hung at number one for quite a while. Sony Music wanted to do an edit in order to cross it over into contemporary hit radio because they thought it could be like actual real national chart topper.
And that’s a funny story. They said, “It’s a great song. And it would really do everything that [a hit] needs to. But we’d have to get rid of the guitar solo because that that kind of stuff doesn’t really work on contemprary hits radio. And Stevie said, “Well, I thought we were a guitar band.” So anyway, it turned into a little bit of a heated discussion because they were really pushing for this.
He said, well, “Let me think about it.” And so after about six or seven weeks, right as the song started going back down the AOR charts, Stevie said, “Well, OK, I think we could do that.” They said, “Well, it’s actually too late now. We’ve lost the momentum anyway.”
The album did great anyway. And a lot of fans would have gotten upset by that edit.
Yeah, well, that was kind of always his main consideration.To change that would be to change something fundamentally that really wasn’t us, you know. So that’s one of those things where you could say, “Well, yeah, but we could maybe make a lot more money. We could sell tons of records.” And it was like, “Yeah, but are we changing what we’re about?”
And that’s where he always had a really good head about him to say, “Well, I don’t want to change us fundamentally.”
So you guys co-wrote “Crossfire” on the last album, and he co-wrote songs with Doyle. Did you ever talk about writing together?
After he got sober, clean and sober, he went to spend more time with his mother because she lived in Dallas. Doyle lives in Fort Worth, so they were just visiting [each other] and that kind of turned into songwriting as opposed to, “I’m going to go write with him and not with ya’ll.” Because we all had lived here [in Austin] and he bought a house in Dallas because he wanted to have a closer relationship with his mother. So it just kind of sprung up pretty naturally as opposed to being a planned idea.
I was there the night you guys got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. It felt like there was a whole block of seats bought by people who came up from Texas just to see you guys. How did you feel about that night?
I had just come from Europe, I was in the middle of a tour in Europe. I’d been over there for almost a month already. So I just kind of landed and walked right into all of it. So there was that. But like you said, when we got there, we were like, “Is half the place from Austin?”
We never really endeavored for things like, “Well, what if we can get a Grammy?” I’m not saying that those things never crossed our mind. That would be a lie. But we never strived for any of that. We were never really any different than we were when we were playing 100 seat bars in Texas. We just had to learn how to do it in front of a lot of a lot more people on bigger stages.
So that night, it was surreal. That’s probably a cliche way to describe it, but it was surreal. I’ve written my acceptance speech [in my mind] several times since then. It was it was a lot of fun, it was very well put together.
They seemed to put so much care into your segment. And I thought they did such a great job. I mean, the whole thing was perfect and moving.
Yeah, I did, too. I went back and looked at “Texas Flood” from the performance. It was really good. Jimmie [Vaughan] and John Mayer’s speech, I thought was just fabulous. I really thought it was really wonderful. And playing with Jimmie and Gary Clark Jr. and Doyle and everybody.
How does it feel for you to have a guy like John Mayer, or Johnny Lang or Kenny Wayne or Susan Tedeschi play your music… it must be pretty cool to see young people coming out and still being really into what you guys did.
You know what blows me away? None of this stuff ever even crossed my mind, you know? When you’re playing some little lounge somewhere and some funky part of town in your hometown, you’re like, “Will I be able to pay rent next month?” You don’t think about this kind of thing.
But you can lose sight of what you’re doing if you’re really struggling to get yourself together to pay the bills and make ends meet.
I interviewed John Mayer before he released [his breakthrough, 2001’s] Room For Squares, and he told me Stevie was his biggest influence, even though he wasn’t playing much electric guitar yet. I asked him about that and he said, “Wait until my next album.”
I wondered about that, you know, about John Mayer hitting the scene and announcing himself like, “Hey, I’m going to be the next guitar dude.” The way he talked about Stevie. He was just awestruck with the what he could get out of a guitar, the way he could express himself. He said, “I have no idea how he was able to do that.”
So when people come up to me… they are a generation, two, even three generations younger, and they go, “Man, that guy was just…” I go, “Yeah, he was special.” And we were all fortunate. We were all fortunate together.