Country Songwriter Drifting Towards Homelessness Gets Hand Up

There was a time in country music when the best songs would rise to the top, no matter whose pen they sprang from. The system on Music Row was determined to sift through the reams of attempts at quality country songs, find the ones worth an audience both critically and commercially, and pair them with the right performers to result in country music Gold.

From full-time performers, to journeymen tunesmiths, to housewives with some musical training and a few smart ideas, the country music songwriting community sustained a wide population of contributors who as long as they could land a few cuts every year, encouraged them to continue the pursuit towards penning that #1 hit that could pay off a mortgage.

Beginning in the 00’s though, all of that began to change, and by the early 2010’s, the population of country music songwriters had contracted by as much as 90% by some estimates, as the royalties that helped sustain these writers also began to dry up both from the abandonment of country music’s older catalogs, and the digitization of music that has seen songwriter royalties dwindle. Now, most of country music songwriting is accomplished by the same tight knit group of familiar names, while the idea of an outsider scoring a hit or even an album cut is beyond uncommon.

Hugh Prestwood originally from El Paso, TX was one of those career songwriters, plying his craft every day, hoping to land that next cut that could make it onto country radio. Instead of moving to Nashville to pursue his songwriting dream, he pointed his nose towards New York where he knew a friend on Broadway who thought they could help him get started in the business. In 1978, Judy Collins heard Hugh Prestwood’s song “Hard Time For Lovers” and fell in love with it. She liked it so much, she made it the title track of her 1979 album, and recorded a second song from Prestwood for the album called “Dorothy.”

This was the spark that Prestwood needed to launch a songwriting career, and soon he was deep in business, even though being based in New York meant he was at a competitive disadvantage to his Nashville-based peers. Prestwood hit his peak around 1990 when a host of popular artists found success with his songs. Shenandoah had a hit with his song “Ghost in This House,” which Alison Krauss also recorded later on. Highway 101 had a hit with “Bing Bang Boom.” And Randy Travis recorded Hugh Prestwood’s “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart,” which gave Prestwood that coveted #1 song every songwriter yearns for. In fact, the song stayed at #1 for four weeks—an unprecedented run in country that hadn’t been accomplished in 12 years at that time.

Tanya Tucker, Don Williams, The Judds, Michael Johnson, Jerry Douglas, and more recorded Hugh Prestwood songs over the years, while he also spent some 20 years teaching songwriting classes and workshops at the New School in Manhattan. Hugh Prestwood’s body of work was considered worthy enough for him to be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 with Jimmy Buffett—Buffett being another artist who recorded Hugh Prestwood songs. In 2020, English recording artist Rumer released and album paying tribute to the songwriter called Nashville Tears – The Songs of Hugh Prestwood.

But Hugh Prestwood had fallen on tough times recently. Settling on Long Island outside of the city, Prestwood was able to sustain for a while with his wife, even as the songwriting opportunities and royalties dried up. But as time has gone on and the working class neighborhood where he lived began to gentrify, things began to become unsustainable.

“Based on the old business model I had assumed those royalties would continue and provide a reasonable retirement income, but it was not to be,” Prestwood explains—a problem plaguing so many of country music’s former professional songwriters.

“So we slowly began sinking into credit card debt and by 2012 we were forced to sell our home we’d bought in 1984, and began renting another home we have been in ever since. I was also eventually forced to sell my song copyrights. The proceeds on the home and copyright sales kept us afloat for several years but were gone by 2018, and since then we have been—as the saying goes—living on a shoestring.”

Things got worse recently when the landlord for Prestwood’s home decided the house would make more sense as a short-term vacation rental, and gave them a move out date of March 31st. Prestwood had a plan to move back to his native Texas where rent is much cheaper, he still has family, and he and his wife could afford to live on their fixed retirement income.

But then to add injury to insult, Prestwood explains, “Last April I was filling a backyard bird feeder when the ladder I was on collapsed, and in the fall I crushed a vertebra in my spine, which then had to be removed and—long story short—I now have two titanium rods in my back and am pretty much disabled (even walking a few feet is very painful). This has made it virtually impossible for me to do all the box-lifting and packing required to move.”

Faced with the ultimatum to have to move out by the end of March, but with the costs associated with moving across the country and his mobility issues, Hugh Prestwood’s back was against the wall.

This is where the story turns positive. It turns out that despite being mostly forgotten by the country music industry like so many of country music’s songwriters have been, Hugh Prestwood hasn’t been forgotten by his fans, and some of the artists who recorded his songs, or his fellow songwriters.

Starting a Go Fund Me drive titled “Elderly and Drifting Toward Homelessness” to hopefully raise the $25,000 it will take to move him and his wife from New York to Texas, as word spread about Hugh’s plight, donations began pouring in. People connected with Hugh’s story all across the music community, and soon the $25,000 goal of his Go Fund Me drive seemed like a humble estimate.

At the time of this post, the drive to move Hugh Prestwood from New York back home to Texas has now surpassed $70,000, and counting.

Going through the names of those who’ve donated, you see many names from the country music industry, including current hit songwriter Josh Osborne who donated $500, Luke Laird who donated $2,000, producer and songwriter Buddy Cannon who donated $1,000, songwriter Josh Kear donated $2,000, singer John Conlee donated $500, producer Garth Fundis donated $500, and so on an so forth across the music community, with so many fans donating $25, $50, or what they can to the cause.

The general public may not longer buy physical albums and only be willing to pony up $9.99 for a Spotify subscription each month, and mainstream country music may no longer pay attention to once venerated songwriters. But when it comes to taking care of their own, in this case, country music came to the rescue. Hugh Prestwood is coming home. And there’s nothing more country music than that.

© 2021 Saving Country Music
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