In the early ‘80s, Robert Ellis Orrall was a pop star whose band opened for U2, The Kinks, the Go-Gos and other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. He also had a top-40 hit, “I Couldn’t Say No,” a duet with Carlene Carter. Orrall produced and wrote No. 1 songs for many country stars, ran a punk rock record label, and is primarily responsible for helping a young singer-songwriter named Taylor Swift land a recording contract.
Now, at age 65, when many musicians are contemplating getting out of the business and relaxing on the beach, Orrall, a 1973 Lynnfield High graduate, has just released “467 Surf and Gun Club,” his first solo album since the early ’90s — and his first recording with his old ’80s bandmates since those glory days.
After 30 years in Nashville, Tenn., where he and his wife Christine (Leverone) — a ’75 Lynnfield High grad — and their two sons and a daughter have been living, the Orralls are back on the North Shore, settling into an historic 1889 house in Manchester-by-the-Sea. The high-school sweethearts were married 41 years ago at Hammond Castle down the road apiece in the Magnolia area of Gloucester. They winter in Florida.
Orrall’s new album is pure pop bliss, bringing to mind the Beach Boys, Beatles, and Todd Rundgren. Years ago, Orrall developed an appreciation for country music and what’s now called Americana. He went to see Ricky Skaggs in concert at the Wang Theater, Dwight Yoakum at the Channel. He loved what Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle were doing.
“In ‘86, ‘87 I started writing songs for others. I looked at Billboard (magazine) and saw that the artist often didn’t write the song that was on the charts,” said Orrall. “For three years I made many trips down to Nashville, armed with a pocketful of hooks … and I’d go to the songwriter hangouts.” While drinking beer and watching football at the Longhorn Steakhouse, he chatted with songwriter Curtis Wright. One day Orrall sang the first two lines of one of his many half-finished songs: “Ridin’ down the road in my pick-up truck/Ya’ better be ready ’cause I’m pickin’ you up.”
Wright, on the spot, added “Barbecue chicken in aluminum foil/Just enough money for my gas and oil.”
That co-write, “Next to You, Next to Me,” became Orrall’s first No. 1 hit. Country band Shenandoah took it to the top of the charts in 1990. “It hit No. 1 the week we moved to Nashville,” Orrall said with a smile. Rascal Flatts covered it; it’s become a country standard. Orrall was the city boy to Wright’s country boy. The pair released an album that earned them a Country Music Association Duo of the Year nomination.
More songwriting success followed. Orrall has written hits for the likes of Reba McEntire, Eddie Rabbit, Olivia Newton-John, The Judds, Ronnie Milsap, and Taylor Swift.
In 2014, he set up a showcase for then-14-year-old Swift at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Cafe. Scott Borchetta, an industry bigwig, saw her that night and signed her to his new Big Machine Record label. Orrall co-produced Swift’s 10-times platinum debut album and her follow-up EP “Beautiful Eyes.”
“I flew my parents (the late Roy and Mable Orrall of Wing Road) down for the show,” he said. “I knew Taylor would get a deal that night, and I wanted them to be part of it.”
Orrall’s own story begins in the rock clubs of Boston. Back in the 1980s he made three rock records for RCA that were influenced by Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, and his band was first-rate: guitarist and fellow Lynnfield High grad Kook Lawry, bassist Don Walden and drummer David Stefanelli (and later keyboardist Brian Maes of Lynn).
When Orrall decided to make “467 Surf and Gun Club” in Florida — just as the pandemic began — he contacted Lawry, Walden and Stefanelli, who recorded their parts up here. Orrall worked his Pro Tools studio magic; almost every song on the record has at least 28 tracks of vocals.
The late Leon Russell adds vocals to one song, “Welcome to Paradise.”
“Leon was a friend of mine,” said Orrall.” “Leon, John Hiatt, Michael McDonald … Our kids all hung out together.”
Orrall formed his first band while in the third grade. “It was the JB 4 — Jeff and Bob — but we never found a three or a four,” he admitted. “Then in sixth grade, I got my first taste of performing live. Even then I knew I’d definitely be a songwriter and record my own songs.”
Older classmate Lawry lived on Main Street. Orrall said he ran to his friend’s house, walked up to the front door, and said, “I have a band. Do you wanna be in it?” “Yeah,” said Lawry. “But what about my friend Don here? He plays bass.”
“Yeah. OK. He’s in, too.” Stefanelli came aboard later.
Al Gore, the former vice president, lived down the street, too. One day a neighbor phoned Orrall and asked him to host a dinner with them and another couple the next night. That other couple was Al and Tipper Gore. “For five hours we ate and drank and had a ball,” said Orrall, chuckling. “Tipper ended up downstairs playing my son’s drum kit. (My other band) Monkey Bowl recorded a song “Al Gore Lives on My Street” about his having the presidential election stolen from him. I played it for them and they loved it. The song is on Spotify and YouTube.”
Will the old band get together for a tour, now that Orrall is back in New England? He laughs.
“Donnie (Walden) and I have left the door open for something next year,” he teased. “I think it’d be fun to re-learn favorite songs from those first three records and a bunch of songs we never released back then. But it’d be a lot of work…”
The new album was released on CD and streaming services Aug. 27. A limited vinyl run of 500 copies is on the way.
The title “467 Gun and Surf Club” refers to the Nashville building that was headquarters for Orrall’s punk rock Infinity Cat label, which released 125 albums, including LPs by JEFF the Brotherhood, featuring Orrall’s sons, Jake and Jamin. The now-demolished building at 467 Humphreys St. had also served as a community center. “It was a safe place for a bunch of young adults, artists and fans to run wild,” said Orrall. “And I was the old man … getting swept up in the energy and music.”
Orrall said that, when he began writing his new album, he imagined himself as a bartender “who soaked it all up from his side of the bar — which he sees as a larger metaphor for his decades-long career.
“I’ve probably written songs with more than 500 people,” he said. “I’ve loved the experience of meeting my co-writers, getting to know a little bit about them, and creating something together. I’ve realized my life as a songwriter really parallels what my life could’ve been as a bartender, because both jobs are all about meeting people and finding what their story is all about.”