Legendary Nashville Songwriter Kye Fleming

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[Kye Fleming was an unknown singer in her mid 20s when I saw her perform in a tiny coffeehouse on Long Island in 1977 and published the following rave review. That same year, she moved to Nashville and today, more than 30 years later, she is a country music legend. A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, she is a three-time BMI Country Songwriter of the Year recipient and the author of numerous number-one hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and many others. Her songs have been recorded by Willie Nelson, Crystal Gayle, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner, Wynona and countless other artists.]

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Kye Fleming, c. 2009

At Long Island’s modestly sized wine-and-cheese clubs, particularly those that operate sans cover charges, you don’t often find much in the way of entertainment. Many such places do offer operative, well-stocked jukeboxes, and some of them present nervous-looking college folkies or groups who know how to fake their way through “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or “I Am a Rock.” But that’s about it.

When a young woman recently took guitar in hand at Selden, New York’s Hobbit Hole, therefore, few in the audience turned to look at her. Even as she began to sing, most of her listeners continued to sip their drinks and talk. After all, this was a freebie show, designed mainly just to provide background atmosphere, and couldn’t be very good.

Or could it?

About a minute into the singer’s performance, that question apparently entered the minds of nearly everyone at the Hobbit Hole. Shortly thereafter, as loud cheering followed attentive silence and surprise mingled with delight on many faces, it became clear that the audience had found an answer.

Over the next 45 minutes, the willowy singer delivered a frequently stunning set of country-flavored acoustic folk. Her guitar playing seemed just adequate, but her rich, fluid vocals proved uniformly excellent. The professionally assembled show, which profited from the performer’s strongly projected, effervescent personality, featured seamless segues between the mostly mid and uptempo tunes. I can’t tell you any of their names, since she interrupted the musical flow only once, to introduce herself as “Kye” and to say that she’d written everything in the set. But I can report that the lilting, evocative material—which seemed redolent of Joni Mitchell yet left its own special mark—added up to the strongest collection I’d heard from a newcomer in quite some time.

At the concert’s conclusion, therefore, I hightailed it to the bandstand to find out just whom I’d been admiring.

As it turned out, her full name is Kye Fleming, her age is 25 and her musical interest is both intense and longlived. Raised primarily in Fort Smith, Arkansas, she first got excited about performing when, as a ninth-grader, she received an “old, beat-up guitar” from an aunt.

“I’d already taken a couple of years of piano,” Kye recalled. “But it hadn’t done anything for me. When I got the guitar, though, I said, ‘This is my instrument!’ I started signing and playing and writing all at the same time. I just went crazy over it. And I knew then that the interest wouldn’t die out. It was too exciting. By high school, I realized I’d be able to push it as far as possible. I really couldn’t see anything standing in my way.”

Since then, Kye has indeed encountered few roadblocks to a full-time musical career. After finishing high school, she did work briefly at a drive-in hamburger place to earn money for a quality guitar. And not long ago, she spent a month as an employee of a New York City Sam Goody’s outlet “just to see what a ‘job-job’ would be like.” With these exceptions, however, she has managed to support herself solely through music since 1969.

At first, she played in bars around the college town of Fayetteville, Arkansas and, as a performer on the National Coffeehouse Circuit, at universities throughout the Midwest. She moved to Boston in 1975, and sang at clubs near Harvard Square. Then, after nine months in New York City, she settled on Long Island and–with more than 200 original songs now in her repertoire—turned her sights to the big time.

“What’s really important to me is the writing,” she emphasized. “My soul would be satisfied if I could just sit back and hear other people do my songs. As for the singing, I’m not completely satisfied with the way I sound. But I love what I can do with my voice, the control I have over it. And I’ve gotten so much positive feedback. People encourage me, so I keep going.”

Particularly in recent months, that encouragement has come from some important places. Producer Lenny Waronker (Gordon Lightfoot, et al.) is among several music-business luminaries to express strong interest in her work. WRVR disc jockey Les Davis, another fan, has signed on as Kye’s manager. After hearing her perform the original “I Am the Dancer,” meanwhile, the president of KLH cited portions of its lyric in a current Stereo Review ad. Radio personality Jonathan Schwartz has been playing Kye’s taped rendition of the same song on his WNEW-AM Sunday morning show.

These hopeful signs notwithstanding, however, the singer has yet to garner a record contract. We’ve talked to a bunch of labels,” she noted, “but I’ve been getting  a runaround. Someone from Epic paid for a studio and then disappeared by the time we’d done the demo. Arista apparently thought I sounded too much like Jennifer Warnes. And so on. But I’m still very confident. I really feel like it’s just a matter of hanging around and meeting the right people and being at the right place at the right time.”

While waiting for such a combination, added Kye, she has been writing new songs and rehearsing a band in New York. “When the group’s music gets to where I want it to be,” she stated, “we’ll probably play at the Lone Star, a new club in the city. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to work as a solo on Long Island. I’ll be at the Six Pence Pub in Coram, for example, for the next eight Saturdays.

Where else on the Island might she soon perform?

“Well,” said Kye, as Hobbit Hole manager Rob Padden arrived to join our conversation, “I might be here for a few more Wednesdays if this guy means what he says.”

“I sure do,” exclaimed Padden. “If you keep playing like you did tonight, this place is yours just about any time you want it.”

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