In West Texas
Jim Chesnut was born in Midland, Texas, on December 1, 1944. He graduated from high school in 1963, left home and attended McMurry College in Abilene, Texas, and Odessa College in Odessa, Texas. While enrolled in Odessa College, he discovered broadcasting, one of his career paths, and served as student station manager at the 5,000-watt campus radio station, KOCV-FM. After completing his coursework, he entered Elkins Institute in Dallas, Texas, where he became a licensed First Class Radiotelephone Broadcast Engineer.
From 1966 until 1968 Jim was a full time student at UT Austin and also worked full time at KVET-AM. In 1968 he returned to West Texas to pursue other opportunities in radio and television. While working as a TV weatherman at KCTV in San Angelo, he was performing in a summer musical production where he was noticed by Jerry Bridges, a local businessman.
"I'd like to take you to Los Angeles to meet my brother who is in the music industry," stated Bridges.
"Yeah, right!" Chesnut thought. "Like anybody in San Angelo knows anybody important in L.A."
Two weeks later, with the financial assistance of Bob Workman, another local businessman, Chesnut found himself sitting across the breakfast table from Leon Russell, Jerry Bridges' brother. Russell produced and played on sessions with Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike and Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Ventures, Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton, Sam Cooke, Johnny Mathis and many records with Herb Albert and Tijuana Brass. It turned out that someone in San Angelo knew someone important in California after all!
Russell thought Jim to be too inexperienced to be of interest to the major labels at the time but was very supportive and encouraged him to return home and get more live performance experience. Taking his advice, Jim returned to San Angelo and began performing locally and was eventually noticed by Benny Bellamy, manager of a local country radio station. Bellamy introduced him to Mike Harrell, an innkeeper from Dallas, who gave Chesnut his first job as a professional singer at the Holiday Inn in Carrollton, Texas, in 1970.
For the next six years, Chesnut performed first as a single and then as a duo, teaming with Rodney Crowell in Nacogdoches, Texas. Crowell taught Jim's first wife, Linda, to play drums, and the three played as a trio for several months in East Texas until Rodney moved to Nashville to expand his horizons.
"I knew from the first moment I saw Rodney on the steps of his dorm at Stephen F. Austin that he was a star," proclaims Chesnut. "He is loaded with charisma and talent, and I feel so privileged to have known him and worked with him for the short time we were together."
After Crowell departed for Nashville, Chesnut went to the West Coast to pitch his songs. On one such trip to L.A., MGM A&R Executive Bob Webb, songwriter Jimmy Webb's father, listened to Jim's material, offered constructive criticism and suggested Jim try Nashville. So, the next trip was to Music City USA.
The first couple of trips weren't successful, but on the third try, Jim presented some material to Charley Pride's office in Nashville, and a staff member liked Oklahoma Morning. A few weeks later, a publishing contract for the song arrived in the mail, and Jim finally had some leverage.
Once Oklahoma Morning was released, Jim flew to Nashville to interview record companies and publishers.
"I was getting nowhere until the day before I was to return to Texas when I called Acuff-Rose, Nashville's biggest music publisher at the time. I asked the receptionist if there were people who listened to new material, and she placed me on hold for a moment.
"'This is Don Powell,' said the voice on the phone. 'How may I help you?'"
"I explained that I would like to play some songs and that Charley Pride had just released one of my tunes," continued Chesnut.
"If you can come on over, I can listen this morning," said Powell.
Once Jim arrived he was warmly greeted and taken into a conference room with walnut paneling and built-in Voice of the Theatre studio monitors. Powell listened to the first of several songs, stopped the tape, and said he would return shortly.
Within a few minutes, the conference room filled with Acuff-Rose executives including President Wesley Rose and Vice President Ray Baker. The group listened intently to all of Jim's material and Baker asked, "What do you want?"
Chesnut explained that he wanted publishing and recording deals, and the Acuff-Rose team went to work on the details.
It was 1976, and Chesnut's big break had finally come.