Sharon Vaughn: Around the World and Back Again
Acclaimed songwriter Sharon Vaughn, known for her country tunes, returns to the hometown where so much of her music took root.
Vaughn at her home in College Park. “I always had this yearning. I never put a name to it. It wasn’t someone. It was something.”
You may not recognize the name Sharon Vaughn. But if you’re a country music fan, chances are you’re familiar with her songs.
Four decades ago, the Orlando native wrote “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,’’ which was recorded first by Waylon Jennings, then became a No. 1 country hit for Willie Nelson in 1980. The song went on to be immortalized that same year in the film The Electric Horseman.
It was a high point in a career that has earned Vaughn international acclaim as a songwriter and has planted her in Nashville, New York, London, Ireland and Sweden. Yet, amid all the success, something was missing.
“I’ve been everywhere—I always had this yearning,’’ Vaughn says. “I never put a name to it. It wasn’t someone. It was something.”
That missing something was a sense of home and a feeling that she needed to return to her roots. So she contacted a builder friend to begin renovations on the College Park cottage her grandparents had bought in 1926, and she prepared to move from Stockholm to Orlando.
The timing of her return was providential. The oldest of six children of an Orlando farming family, “I lost my baby sister right after moving back home” in 2016, Vaughn says. “I think that was part of the vortex pulling me back. At least I had time with her before I lost her.”
At her home, Vaughn tips her hat to a photo of some horsemen and cowboys she idolized while growing up in Orlando. (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)
Sitting in her home off Edgewater Drive recently, surrounded by family heirlooms, this self-described “swamp girl’’ reflected on her whirlwind life.
Vaughn’s journey began with a fortuitous encounter. An Edgewater High School graduate, she started her career as a singer, with her father—who played guitar and “had a voice like a Vince Gill”—serving as her inspiration. “I was working full time at WDBO radio, and then I was working at a country station and going to college at night. I also sang at the Ponderosa Steakhouse Lounge on Saturday nights, and I sang at the San Juan Hotel downtown.
“Part of my job at the radio station was to be a liaison to the artists who came into town,” she recalls. This particular day, “it was Porter Wagoner, Mel Tillis and Jim Stafford. A bunch of huge artists were on this venue. I just marched up to Mel Tillis and I said, ‘Why don’t y’all come to my show at the Ponderosa Steakhouse Lounge?’ ”
That night changed everything. “I’m up there singing my little heart out, and lo and behold, here through the swinging doors—and they really had swinging doors—marches Mel Tillis and his whole entourage. So we sang together all night long.”
When she went back to Ponderosa a couple of days later to pick up her $30 check, the bartender alerted her to a call from Tillis. “He said, ‘I think you’re the best harmony singer I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Would you come and record with me?’ So he sent me to Nashville. That started the whole thing.” It was 1969. Vaughn was “green as grass” and 22 years old.
She started as a session singer with The Lea Jane Singers, The Jordanaires and The Nashville Edition and sang at the Grand Ole Opry with Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Vaughn also wrote and sang jingles, which earned her notoriety in Nashville as the Ray Batts furniture store girl. “I was one of those annoying people you see after the news. I was selling furniture. I sang a little jingle that I wrote.” And there Vaughn’s story took another crucial turn.
Her producer, who had taken note of her songwriting skills, asked Vaughn to write a “cowboy song’’ for Bobby Bare in hopes he could sell it to the singer for his new album. Channeling her early life among Florida ranchers, Vaughn thought back to the match horse races she attended Sundays after church on makeshift tracks across pastures. She thought about Roy Rogers, the quintessential symbol of the American cowboy and the object of her lifelong obsession. As she revisited those iconic characters and venues in her mind, she had a vision that inspired “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”
“I’m known for the story value of my songs,” Vaughn explains. “I see movies in my head, and I kind of transcribe what I see. When I wrote ‘Heroes,’ I pictured an old, worn-out cowboy lying on a sheetless mattress in a flophouse. He was lying there with boots on. They were beaten up with dirt on the soles, and the toes were curled up. He had his feet crossed at the ankles. He was lying there, hands folded behind his head, looking at a light bulb hanging from the ceiling.” And the words flowed:
I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy
And lovin’ the cowboy ways
Pursuin’ the life of my high ridin’ heroes
I burned up my childhood days
I learned all the rules of a modern day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
Just take what you need from the ladies, then leave them
With the words of a sad country song
My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are, it seems
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of
Themselves and their slow movin’ dreams
To her and the producer’s surprise, Bare passed on the song. So on a lark, Vaughn drove to Waylon Jennings’ office and asked the receptionist for a meeting. “She said, ‘Waylon, the Ray Batts girl is here.’ Well, unbeknownst to me, Waylon Jennings had a crush on the Ray Batts girl. I walked in, and there he was in that big chair. He whirled around and went, ‘Well, hello,’ ” she imitates with a hint of a purr.
Vaughn played a tape of her singing the song. An incredulous Jennings rewound it and listened repeatedly. Then he called noted producer Cowboy Jack Clement. “He flew in that night and [Jennings] recorded it,’’ Vaughn recalls, “and it was Cut 1, Side 1 on Wanted! The Outlaws album, which was the first million-selling album in country music history.” Willie Nelson and the movie would bring more fame to the song a few years later.
The hits have kept coming, with lyrics sometimes waking Vaughn from her sleep. She estimates she has written “at least” 4,000 songs—sometimes lyrics only, sometimes with music thanks to her knowledge of chords and her good ear. The artists who have recorded her songs reads like a Who’s Who of country music: Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, Jimmy Buffett, Martina McBride, Patty Loveless, Willie Nelson, The Oak Ridge Boys, Kenny Rogers and Trisha Yearwood.
Her success has been no surprise to longtime friends. Ed Cargill, her music teacher at Howard Middle School and Edgewater High, remembers her as a standout. “I would say, ‘Watch her, and encourage her,’ ” he recalls. “She was destined to stardom.” Cargill and his wife were in the audience in 2017 when Vaughn was honored at a Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Poets and Prophets” event in Nashville.
While Vaughn remembers adolescent indecision about her career, fellow Howard student Ray Palermo remembers her “single-mindedness” about music. “Many years ago she told me, emphatically, that she was going to be successful in music. She was confident of her future success, and she has achieved what she set out to do.”
Eventually, Vaughn grew restless in Nashville. “I thought the only way I was going to stay fresh and motivated and current was to jump ship. So I went to New York because I wanted to get into musicals. I thought there also was a pop world there. I had started going back and forth to Europe, and I was writing there.”
Vaughn successfully adapted her trademark storytelling lyrics and introduced them to pop. The 2009 Swedish chart-topper “Release Me,” recorded by Agnes Carlsson, was “the biggest hit I ever had in my career,” Vaughn says. “It’s dance pop…and it’s very heart-wrenching. They weren’t used to that depth of lyrics with a dance track.”
Even through her years of writing European pop songs, Vaughn never let go of the idea of writing musicals. Her friend John Rich of the country duo Big & Rich introduced Vaughn to one of her musical heroes, Melissa Manchester, and the two—along with composer Rupert Holmes—wrote a musical titled Sweet Potato Queens, based on a book series by Jill Conner Browne. It has been performed widely in theaters across the country.
“What’s so interesting is I have now come full circle because drama was my first passion,” says Vaughn, who was in Edgewater High’s theater program. “It’s so funny how life jerks you back to where you thought you wanted to be in the first place.” She is working on another musical with British songwriter and musician Ian Dench.
Vaughn remains a prolific songwriter, working out of the studio she converted from the garage where her grandfather once worked on cars. Recently she took on a lyric-writing project for a song performed by Russian pop star Sergey Lazarev and backed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Lazarev was chosen to represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest 2019, which took place in May in Israel. The song Vaughn wrote, “Scream,” won third place and was downloaded more than 5 million times in just over a week, she says.
Yet, Vaughn says, she regrets “there is only one of me. There is so much more I want to do”—including writing fiction books based on her life experiences—“but I have run out of the ‘me’ to do it.”
In her mind and in her songs, she often hearkens back to her days hiding in a sabal palm fort along the Little Econ River to get peace from her many siblings, and to the afternoons spent watching match races in pastures. She laments she gave up horseback riding. “That might be the only serious regret I have,” she confesses. After all, her heroes have always been cowboys.
Editor's note: On Aug. 7, Sharon Vaughn was selected for induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Click here for details.
- “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” Waylon Jennings, 1976; Willie Nelson, 1980
- “Maybe,” Kenny Rogers and Holly Dunn, 1989
- “Til a Tear Becomes a Rose,” Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan, 1990
- “Lonely Too Long,” Patty Loveless, 1996
- “Out of My Bones,” Randy Travis, 1998
- “Trip Around the Sun,” Jimmy Buffett and Martina McBride, 2004
- “Right on Time,” Randy Travis, 2004
- “Too Late for Hallelujah,” Boyzone, 2010
- “A Good Day for Love to Die,” The Wanted, 2010
- “You First Loved Me,” Kimberley Walsh, 2013
- “You Gotta Love the Life,” Melissa Manchester, 2015
- “My Heart is Heading Home (This Christmas),” Claire Richards, 2018
- “Scream,” Sergey Lazarev, 2019
(COURTESY OF SHARON VAUGHN)
The Day Her Dream Came True
Sharon Vaughn has hobnobbed with Swedish royalty and has worked with some of the top names in the music industry. But only one person ever made her feel starstruck: legendary singer and actor Roy Rogers, known as “King of the Cowboys.”
“I had a total obsession—a recurring-dreams obsession,’’ Vaughn says. It started at her family’s farm in Orlo Vista, where as a youngster she watched a skinny cowboy named Arlie “breaking’’ yearling horses—training them to be ridden. At night, she would have dreams about sitting on the edge of the corral during that ritual—but the cowboy riding the horses was always Roy Rogers.
“In my dream, I had on a red velvet gown with a plume on my hat. Every time Roy would go around and pass me, he would tip his hat.”
Fast forward about 30 years. “I’m at the BMI Country Awards in Nashville. Somebody said, ‘Roy Rogers is here,’ and I went, ‘Oh my gosh.’ So I saw the photographer for BMI, and I said, ‘Alan, come here. Roy Rogers is here. I’m going to go see him, and when I do, you have to be there and take that picture.’
“I had on a green velvet gown with feathers on the shoulders. I walked up to him, and I was shaking so hard that the feathers were flapping. I held out my hand to him, and I said, ‘Mr. Rrrrr . . . Mr. Rrrrrr . . .’ ” She didn’t want to call him Mr. Rogers because that brought to mind the children’s TV show host, and Roy sounded too familiar.
“He took my hand in both of his hands and said, ‘Sweetheart, what are you trying to say to me?’ I said, ‘My name is Sharon Vaughn. I have loved you my entire life. I wrote “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” because of you.’ And he sang my song to me. Alan goes ‘click’ right then. I almost died. I don’t remember anything past that. It was like a moment frozen in time. I have the picture to prove it.”