Bobby's One Hit Wonders: Volume 17: Keith Stegall - Pretty Lady

Very rarely, anyone in the music industry who fails to achieve long-term success in one field can make it in another. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples is Keith Stegall, a onetime singer who turned to production. Here we discuss his career and his only hit "Pretty Lady" from 1985.

A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Stegall began playing piano at age four. He held several local gigs by his teenage years, and was ultimately encouraged by none other than Kris Kristofferson to move to Nashville. Stegall got his first break in 1979 when he co-wrote Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show's "Sexy Eyes." Coincidentally, one of the song's co-writers was Holly Dunn's older brother, Chris Waters — at the time an aspiring singer who abandoned that career in favor of a fruitful songwriting career.

In the same timespan, Stegall had inked a deal with Capitol Records, but none of his four releases made it out of the mid-50s. Nonetheless, he was an in-demand songwriter. Levon Helm cut Stegall's "Hurricane," which was later a top 10 hit for Leon Everette, and Mickey Gilley took "Lonely Nights" to the top of the charts. Al Jarreau, Stevie Woods, and Juice Newton were among the artists also recording his songs, no doubt giving Stegall the name recognition to sign with Epic in 1984. 

After three singles made the middle regions of the charts, Stegall achieved his only Top 10 hit with "Pretty Lady," which appeared on his 1985 self-titled album. With its reverberant production and his soft, high voice, "Pretty Lady" is as solid a song as could have come out of Nashville in the post-Urban Cowboy era. That said, the genre was inundated with pop-leaning males, and one could be forgiven for thinking that Gary Morris, Eddie Rabbitt, Steve Wariner, Michael Martin Murphey, or Dan Seals was behind the mic.

However, the genre was on the brink of a major shift. That summer, a young North Carolinian named Randy Travis had just signed with Warner Bros. Stegall had presented Kyle Lehning, the producer of his debut album, with an independent live album that Randy recorded in 1982. Stegall and Lehning co-produced Randy's first Warner Bros. cut, "On the Other Hand." Although Stegall declined any further production work at the time due to his desire to keep recording, that production work primed Stegall for what was to come. "On the Other Hand" peaked at a mere #67 its first time out, but a re-release less than a year later took the song all the way to #1. Travis would go on to be one of the front runners in the late 80s-early 90s movement back to a more traditional sound.

But for Stegall, the hits soon dried up: three more singles for Epic failed to take off, and almost no other artists were cutting his songs. The dry spell came to an end when Stegall found himself playing a key role with another new talent: this time, Alan Jackson. Once again, Stegall was assisting a veteran behind the boards: Scott Hendricks, currently known for his work with Blake Shelton. And once again, success was not instantaneous: Alan's first hit, "Blue Blooded Woman," only made it to #45. However, Jackson quickly rose through the ranks to become a neo-traditionalist torch-bearer not unlike Travis a few years prior. Also, Stegall's songwriting prowess came back in the form of Ronnie Milsap's #2 hit "Stranger Things Have Happened."

Stegall stuck with Jackson for the next 20-plus years, producing or co-producing everything but the experimental 2006 album Like Red on a Rose. Stegall also co-wrote a handful of Jackson's singles, including "Don't Rock the Jukebox," "Dallas," and "Love's Got a Hold on You." In 1992, Stegall became head of Mercury Nashville's A&R department, where he also produced albums by Mark Wills, Terri Clark, and Sammy Kershaw. He also teamed up with pop songwriter Dan Hill to compose Kershaw's "Love of My Life" and Wills's "I Do (Cherish You)," which was later a smash pop hit for the boy band 98 Degrees. In the middle of all this, Stegall made a one-time return to the other side of the mic in 1996, recording Passages for Mercury and falling just short of Top 40 with "1969." The years of kinship with Alan Jackson no doubt rubbed off on Stegall, as "1969" proved to be an effective, highly detailed story-song of a newlywed couple struggling to get by in the era of flower power and bell bottoms. Stegall stayed with Mercury until the early 2000s, but the Jackson albums alone proved to be more than enough to keep him in the forefront. (Although writing a song as clever as George Strait's "I Hate Everything" sure didn't hurt.)

While I personally wouldn't mind seeing what else Stegall is capable of as an artist and/or songwriter, his production work — a clean, "keep it simple" style that's never bombastic or overly loud — has been a constant presence on radio, with the eclectic Zac Brown Band being the current front-runners (Along with stellar work with Bigger Picture Group, where he serves as the Creative Director). Record producers have long been underappreciated for their work in the genre, but in my book, that underappreciation goes double for Stegall; as it turns out, there's more to him than meets the eye.