“Dandy” Don Meredith’s Country Music Heart

When “Dandy” Don Meredith died on Sunday, he was remembered as many things: Dallas Cowboys football player, commentator for Monday Night Football, actor in dozens of movies and TV shows. But one element you may not hear much about is his involvement with country music, and specifically, good Texas Outlaw country.

I’ve had Dandy Don on my list as a man to feature for a long time, and it depresses me that his death is the event that finally gets me to see it through. First and foremost, Don was a music lover. While playing football, he would occasionally break into song while in the huddle. He was good friends with Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Roger Miller just to name a few. He also sang and performed himself, sharing the stage with Willie and Roger on a few occasions, and he cut two country records of his own. Former teammate Walt Garrison pulled out a 45-rpm on Monday and proudly read the names of the songs: “Travelin’ Man” on one side, “Them That Ain’t Got It Can’t Lose” on the other.

Meredith’s biggest contribution to music was using his celebrity to promote it, sometimes in subtle, but important ways. And as you’ll hear in the horribly 70’s-produced video below while introducing his buddy Jerry Jeff Walker, he had taste as well.

“There’s a lot of country music that I don’t particularly care for. Let’s put it this way, there’s some country music I care for much more than others. But the thing that has always fascinated me the most is I love to meet guys that are both songwriters, and can sing, and I like guys that are a little bit out of sync. You know, just a little bit out of sync? I hate ordinary.”

In other words, Dandy Don doesn’t go for pop country.

Man is Jerry Jeff lit, and likely resenting being dolled up for TV.

This second video is classic, because it’s Don trying to figure out how to ask Jerry Jeff to play Mr. Bojangles. At the time, Jerry Jeff was known to not only never play the song he wrote, but would get outright angry if you even asked, one time apparently urinating in a potted plant to prove his point.

Maybe the easiest example of Don’s subtle promotion of good country was when he would sing “Turn out the lights, the party’s over” whenever it was curtains for the losing team on Monday Night Football. “Turn Out The Lights” of course is a Willie Nelson song. Here’s a funny story about Don, the song, and Willie, from the Willie Nelson autobiography with Bud Shrake:

…we landed at the strip in Santa Fe to pick up Roger (Miller), and he wasn’t there. I went walking along the road toward town . . . Here came what looked like a taxi with a driver in the front seat wearing a cabbie’s cap. Roger was slumped in the back. I jumped in and said something like, “Airport, buddy, step on it.”

We roared off in the taxi, showering sand and rocks. I grabbed for something to hang on to and was about to shout at the driver when I noticed he looked sort of familiar under that cap. He turned around to me and said, “How about all them royalties you owe me for making you famous? I’m here to collect.”

Then I got a good look at his face and realized it was Don Meredith. I had known Don since back in the sixties . . . I used to watch Don play football, and he’d come to my shows and get onstage. Don had career ideas as a country singer–he cut a couple of records, in fact.

As I recall, I had sent Don a bouquet of roses the first night he sang “turn out the lights…” on Monday Night Football. Then he kept using the song, year after year, I was thoroughly enjoying it, or course, but I thought I would kid him about it. I had my office put together a thick stack of royalty statements and sent them to him with a letter that said, “Look Don, I know how badly you need material, but my family has got to eat.”

A couple of weeks later, Meredith sent me an accounting of the royalty statements I had unloaded on him. “Turn Out The Lights” had shown a sharp increase in sales in the years Meredith had been singing it . . .and by rights, I owed him a percentage.

This was the first time I had seen him since.

Don said, “No shit, now, Willie, I want my royalties. I’ve made you so famous you’ve got a jet plane, and I’m reduced to driving bums around in a taxi. Give me my money.”

I said, “Well, first I’ll have my people take lunch with your people. I think the truth is you owe me money.”

Don was kidding, of course, about him needing money.

Don Meredith became a virtual recluse around 1984, retiring to Santa Fe, right down the road from where Saving Country Music started. I’ve always wondered if his reclusiveness was from realizing there were deeper things in life, and he didn’t need to sell Lipton Tea or TV movies. These days cross-marketing and promotion of music is everywhere you go, but Dandy Don might have been one of the very first. He did a lot of good for good country music simply by having good taste and not being afraid to hide it.