No matter what type of music you might be listening to these days, there's a good chance you've heard something that Robert Ellis Orrall was involved with.
Orrall's musical career began back during his days at Lynnfield High School (class of '73). "I was writing songs when I was in high school for sure," recalled Orrall, who around that time also played some shows around New England with classmate Doug Millett.
In fact, one song that Orrall wrote during that time may have had a big influence on more than just his musical career. He wrote a song called "Christine" about a former girlfriend, entered it in a contest run by former Boston rock station WCOZ, and won.
"That girl Christine from LHS Class of '75, she's been my wife for 31 years," said Orrall, referring to Christine Leverone, whom he has actually known since junior high.
Early Days Of His Career
From there, Orrall recorded an album by himself in 1977 at Studio B in Boston. In 1980, he was signed to RCA and recorded three albums with them. Another Lynnfield connection to this story is guitarist Kook Lawry, who was a year ahead of Orrall at LHS and who was later a bandmate. In fact, Orrall recalls that in high school, Lawry was already known as a formidable guitarist and that he was actually a little bit afraid at the outset to ask him to join his band.
Another well-known area musician, Brian Maes, played keyboard on Orrall's third album. Lynnfielders may have recently seen the Brian Maes Band, with Lawry on guitar, this summer at one of the town's concerts on the common (see attached video footage).
His first band was simply called "Robert Ellis Orrall" and it played at numerous spots that Boston music fans of a certain age would remember well, including the Rat and the Paradise.
In fact, it was at the Paradise that Orrall met Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash from her first marriage. June Carter Cash was a well-established country music star for much of her life, and she later became the wife of the legendary Johnny Cash.
Orrall recorded a duet with Carlene Carter that would go on to become his first nationally charted single, called "I Couldn't Say No."
Co-Writing, Producing, And Nashville
Toward the end of the 1980s, Orrall began to focus more on co-writing songs, which in turn, led to his decision to move to Nashville. "It made sense," he said. "In 1990 we moved here. We loved Boston, I said we'd come down for five years."
However, things didn't quite go that way - in part because he got his first number one hit on the charts his first week living in Nashville. "It was a great way to start things off for sure," said Orrall. That hit was "Next To You, Next To Me," by Shenandoah.
Since moving to Nashville, Orrall has written for numerous performers, including Ashton Shepherd, Martina McBride and the Judds, to name a few. He had a song in the Hannah Montana movie as well as an untitled one in the recent remake of "Freaky Friday."
He also co-wrote with Liz Rose on Taylor Swift's first album after her parents brought her to Nashville from Pennsylvania at the age of 13, and co-produced her first two albums. "She turned out pretty well," he remarked.
While Orrall started off as a rock musician, he has worked extensively with country music stars and even did some country recordings of his own. Still, he maintains that he is not wedded to any particular musical genre. "I'm just a songwriter," he said. "I don't really have a genre, and I own a rock label now."
Orrall was referring to Infinity Cat Recordings. Under this label, he recently produced albums for up and coming bands Art Circus and The Little Bear, while another upcoming project is a single by Massachusetts-based bluegrass band The Roys. In his current capacity, Orrall says that his main job is to develop talent, write with them, and produce their albums.
"What I try to do is write a song that works in any genre," said Orrall, noting that his own country music recordings were the result of an offer that came up at a time when he had three young children to feed. "It was five minutes in my career - I grew up on rock, I made rock records," he said. He also points out that Nashville has grown beyond its traditional country music image, and now attracts many rock bands and other acts to come and record - including Jack White, formerly of The White Stripes, who he has also done some work with. "It's the home of music in America," he said. "It's really transformed since I got here."
Family Ties In Lynnfield And Nashville
Orrall's two sons, Jake and Jamin, have followed in his footsteps somewhat with their band Jeff The Brotherhood, which recently appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show and which also recently signed a new deal with Warner Brothers.
"I work with them but they're on their own," said Orrall. "I'm not telling them what to do." He reports that Jeff The Brotherhood currently plays about 250 shows a year and will be making a tour of Europe soon.
"I'm so proud of them," he said, noting that Jeff The Brotherhood has already recorded six albums. Another point of pride for the family is that Orrall and his sons both share the distinction of having performed at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium, which has hosted many music greats since its construction in 1891.
Orrall also has a 20-year-old daughter, Justine, who currently studies at the Art Institute of Chicago.
During his own youth, Orrall's family was not particularly musical. His father owned a printing business and his mother was a housewife. "I didn't know anything about music except that I wanted to do it," he said.
Orrall's parents, Roy and Mabel, still live in Lynnfield, and he comes to visit them every couple of months. He recalled how during his last visit, he went for a walk in the Wing Road area and enjoyed checking out some of the town's old historic homes.
He maintains ties to Lynnfield High School as well - last school year, school chorus members stopped in to visit Infinity Cat and got to meet his sons as well. In the spring, members of the LHS band are expected to visit.
"I feel really lucky to have grown up in that community and I still love it," said Orrall.
For more about Robert Ellis Orrall's career, including his discography, check out this Wikipedia page.