Thanks to Garth Brooks, a very, very green Christmas is in the offing for songwriter Rex Benson of Tustin and his partner, Steve Gillette.
"Unto You This Night," a song by the veteran songwriting duo, is one of the 11 tracks on Brooks' just-released Christmas album, "Beyond the Season." Brooks, the country singer who has emerged as the hottest-selling pop figure of the '90s, told Billboard magazine recently that his label, Liberty Records, expects to sell 3 million copies by Christmas. That would translate into a six-figure songwriters' royalty for Benson and Gillette to divide.
"I just want to be able to get my credit card bills down now," said Benson with a chuckle, who with Gillette has written songs recorded by Kenny Rogers, Don Williams, Mel Tillis and the Oak Ridge Boys, among others. "The money's great, and it'll open a lot of doors," he said. But the real thrill, Benson said, is simply having one of his songs sung by Brooks and recorded by the star's producer, Allen Reynolds. "These guys are the pearls of Nashville. It's a cut that every writer in Nashville would love to have."
Benson, 39, is a songwriting specialist rather than a performer. Gillette, 49, ranks as the dean of Orange County folk singers, with a performing career that began in the mid-'60s in local clubs, including the old Golden Bear. He now lives in Vermont but returns to Orange County annually to visit family and play concerts. The two usually collaborate by telephone. Gillette's writing credits, apart from collaborations with Benson, include songs recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Waylon Jennings, John Denver and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
There's an interesting story behind how Brooks came to record Benson and Gillette's Christmas composition--one that could be titled "The Christmas Song That Almost Wasn't."
Benson says that personal links to Brooks helped them get their songs considered in the first place. Benson first met Brooks before his comet had really taken off: at his first Orange County concert, an April, 1990, show in which he played for a less than half-capacity audience opening for Holly Dunn at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim. When Brooks, by now a pop phenomenon, returned for a show at the Crazy Horse Steak House in December, 1990, he and Benson renewed their acquaintance.
Benson says he met Brooks at the club the day of the show. The singer asked the songwriter where he might be able to buy some Western clothing, and Benson wound up chauffeuring the star for several hours on a tour of local cowboy haberdasheries. In April, 1991, Brooks was back at the Crazy Horse, this time to have a meal before the annual Academy of Country Music awards ceremonies in Los Angeles. Benson says he approached Brooks at the restaurant and handed him a demo cassette of "The Songs of the Season," a Christmas song he and Gillette wrote about five years ago.
As Benson tells it, Brooks loved the song and planned to use it when he got around to making a Christmas album. But last February, Benson said, he and Gillette learned that Reynolds and Brooks had decided not to use their song after all.
"When you get some bad news you take a while to mourn, so we hung our heads about a day," Benson recalled. "Then Steve said, 'Why don't we try to write another song?' "
The partners began by trying to figure out why "The Songs of the Season" had been rejected, and "we decided that maybe it was too secular" for Brooks' needs. "It's about the way you feel when you hear the songs of the (Christmas) season, how you felt when you were young, and how it brings you back.
"Our thinking was maybe they wanted something more traditional," Benson continued. "Country music is very Christian-oriented, there's that Bible-Belt connection. So we decided to do more of a hymn. We decided to write something about the birth of Christ. Much of it is right out of the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke."
The chorus lyrics:
And they sang glory to God in the highest,
Dawning that first Christmas morn.
Peace on Earth and tidings of great joy,
For unto you this night a child is born. Benson said he sent a demo tape of the new song to Brooks and Reynolds on a Monday last March, and Benson learned by the following Friday that they had gone ahead and recorded it for the album.
Brooks sang the song with harmony help from country star Trisha Yearwood and a 25-voice choir.
When Brooks played the finished tape to Benson last April, when Brooks was again dining at the Crazy Horse before the ACM awards, "he gave me a huge hug," Benson said.
"I wish I could live that moment once a week to remember what it was like," he said. "I don't expect to feel like that again. It's like seeing the Emerald City for the first time."