My Favorite Things

I did a great show last weekend in Deer Park—and I should emphasize that I did a show I’d done many times before, something like the 25th performance of Tennessee Walt’s The Other Great American Songbook, and did it neither better nor worse than usual; it was the audience that made it great, by being lively, engaged and a thrill to sing to.  Afterward an older woman said that she’d noticed I’d changed the lyrics to the song I use as my finale for that show, Kris Kristofferson’s “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams” (1976).

She was right, of course. I do the chorus as Kristofferson wrote it, but the verses are mostly mine.  Kristofferson’s song has eight lines of verses where mine has 16, but only six of my 16 are his; setting aside the last line of each verse, only two of mine are his.

I’ve loved this song since I first heard it, back in 2010, on The Essential Kris Kristofferson (Monument Records, 2004), a two-disk compilation that is, well, essential to anyone who loves the work of today’s greatest living country songwriter.  (He’s also a good candidate for the greatest living American songwriter, rating in my personal Top 5 with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon and Stephen Sondheim.)

I loved the song even more when I did some reading about Kristofferson and his work, and realized that it was widely misunderstood in 1976 (and subsequently).  Kristofferson, the former Rhodes scholar, is a complicated writer, with layers to his best songs that escape many observers.  That’s what you’d expect, I suppose, from a man who has written classic country tunes that draw on Voltaire and John Steinbeck, among others.

Back then the consensus opinion was that Kristofferson’s song was a sneering rebuttal to fans of other genres who look down on country music.  It’s still widely seen in this light—notably by Hank Williams Jr., who performs the song as a near-rant—but that’s never what it was.

If you look at Kristofferson’s original lyric, you’ll notice that, along with shout-outs to Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Hank Williams, Kristofferson also name-checks Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the Rolling Stones, people who in 1976 were widely seen by the country establishment as archenemies.

Grouping both groups of artists together, Kristofferson sings: “I think what they’ve done is well worth doing,/and they’re doing it the best way that they can./You’re the only one that you are screwing/when you put down what you don’t understand.”

In other words, the line that closes each verse (“If you don’t like Hank Williams, you can kiss my ass”) is both sincere and ironic.  It’s a sincere slap against people who can’t stand country (including me, in 1976 and for about 40 years thereafter), but it’s also an ironic refutation of the idea of writing off any artist or any genre—including country, but by no means limited to it—without giving it a fair listen.  The song trashes Rolling Stones fans who think that Hank Williams is a boring old dead guy, in short, but it also trashes Hank Williams fans who think that the Rolling Stones are nothing but a bunch of long-haired kids making noise and shaking booty.

(One thing I’ve always loved about the version on The Essential Kris Kristofferson, which I believe is a live performance, is that, during the extended jam that ends the song, Kristofferson and his band members offer literal shout-outs to musicians they love, ranging from the classics (“Ernest Tubb!”) to obscurities (“My cousin!”).  I can’t do that right now, because I don’t yet have a band, but when I go on the road with the Crazy Tennesseans, count on hearing an updated version of that jam.)

OK, so if I love the song so much, why mess around with the lyrics?

The main reason is that songs involving real people are always susceptible to new meanings based on subsequent developments in those people’s lives.  Ernest Tubb stopped singing his hit “Blue-Eyed Elaine” (1940) in 1948, when he divorced the woman for whom he’d written it, and didn’t sing it for another 30 years. Johnny Cash didn’t stop singing “I Walk the Line” (1957) after his divorce, but it has a different meaning now that we know he didn’t walk that line.

In the case of Kristofferson’s song, the issue isn’t divorce or infidelity, but simply the passage of time.  When “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams” was written, the 10 artists mentioned in the song (outside of Williams himself) were young and active; when I started performing it in 2016, half of them were dead and the other half were elderly.  If I sang it in its original form today, a song intended to say, “There’s a lot of great music coming out today, country and otherwise,” would instead say, “Anything worth hearing is by people who are old and/or dead.”

I know Kristofferson, despite being 81 years old, wouldn’t want to make that claim.  He’s always been interested in artists who are younger—the only time I’ve seen him live, one of his songs was about Sinead O’Connor—and who work in a variety of different musical genres, and I daresay he still is.

Accordingly, I decided to drop the deceased artists from the song (and one or two who are largely inactive) and replace them with current musicians.  Not having a band, I couldn’t really do the song as a jam number, so I also decided to double the length of the song, from two verses to four.  In the process, I decided to stretch the genre boundaries a bit further than Kristofferson did in his original, putting in a variety of contemporary artists whose work I admire, even if their genres are not mine.  I’d be surprised if Kristofferson didn’t like most of them too.

The version Kristofferson sang is a shout-out to the musicians a country singer loved, some of whom weren’t country at all; mine is exactly the same thing, even if the names are different.  I hope Mr. Kristofferson won’t mind.

*****

To help understand what I’m talking about, here’s an annotated version of the song as I sing it.

 

I go for Bob Dylan (1) and I dig Taylor Swift (2),
I think Eminem has a genuine lyrical gift (3)!
Hearing Tony Bennett (4) sing is a seminar in class,
and if you don’t like Hank Williams, brother, you can kiss my ass.
Because I think what they’ve done is well worth doing
and they’re doing it the best way that they can.
You’re the only one that you are screwing
when you put down what you don’t understand.

I dig Lady Gaga (5), Alan Jackson (6) and Norah Jones (7),
Shotgun Willie Nelson (8) and those rocking Rolling Stones (9).
Renée Fleming (10) has a voice that very few surpass,
and if you don’t like Hank Williams, brother, you can kiss my ass.
Because I think what they’ve done is well worth doing
and they’re doing it the best way that they can.
You’re the only one that you are screwing
when you put down what you don’t understand.

I love Gilbert & Sullivan (11) and Idina Menzel too (12),
Paul McCartney (13) and Loretta Lynn (14) are the best at what they do!
Hearing Aretha Franklin (15) feels as good as smoking grass,
and if you don’t like Hank Williams, brother, you can kiss my ass.
Because I think what they’ve done is well worth doing
and they’re doing it the best way that they can.
You’re the only one that you are screwing
when you put down what you don’t understand.

I love Stephen Sondheim (16) and Kris Kristofferson (17),
anything the Dixie Chicks (18) put out has a shot at Number One.
Love the Metropolitan Opera (19) and I love the Canadian Brass (20),
but if they don’t like Hank Williams (21), brother, they can kiss my ass.
Because I think what they’ve done is well worth doing
and they’re doing it the best way that they can.
You’re the only one that you are screwing
when you put down what you don’t understand.

 

 

dylan76

Great in 1976, Great Now

dylannow

(1)  Then as now, Bob Dylan (b. 1941) was an iconic, genre-spanning songwriter whose work has hugely influenced generations of songwriters, Kristofferson (and Tennessee Walt) included. In the original song Kristofferson referred to him as “Bobby Dylan,” which was OK for a 35-year-old singer/songwriter but seems a bit bold in referring to a Nobel laureate.

swift

New Kid in Town

(2) Taylor Swift (b. 1989) is my candidate for the greatest living songwriter under the age of 50. I perform two of her songs these days, and hope to add more to my repertoire as time goes on.  She’s wandered away from country in recent years, but we hope she’ll find her way home soon.

(3)  Marshall Mathers III (b. 1972) is the rapper known professionally as Eminem. I usually don’t find rap of much interest—it’s music minus melody and harmony, which is minus a lot—but when I was first exposed to a substantial dose of Eminem’s work in the movie 8 Mile (2002), I was impressed.  The man has an undeniable, well, lyrical gift.

 

eminem

New Kid in Town

(4)  Tony Bennett (b. 1926, born and raised about a mile from where I’m writing this) first made a name for himself with a pop cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart” (1951). His durability—he’s still working today, at 91, and sounds great—is impressive, but so is the elegance he brings to even the most banal songs.

(5)  Stefani Germanotta (b. 1986), who performs as Lady Gaga, has a remarkable voice and an interest in the music of earlier generations that’s unusual in a contemporary pop star. Her duet partnership with Tony Bennett, 60 years her senior, is a striking manifestation of that interest. She has a Bennett sketch tattooed on her arm—and it’s of Miles Davis’ trumpet.

(6)  Alan Jackson (b. 1958) was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. His music is considered by many fans of classic country (including this one) to be one of today’s most authentic country sounds.

(7) Jazz singer Norah Jones (b. 1979) comes by her musical gifts naturally: Born Geetali Norah Shankar, she’s the daughter of the iconic Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. Her breakthrough album, Come Away with Me (2002), was an impressive fusion of jazz, pop and country elements, and she continues to break musical barriers without any obvious effort.  (The original song cites the late George Jones, so I only changed one word here.)

nelson76

Great in 1976, Great Now

(8)  Another carryover from the original song. Willie Nelson (b. 1933) is, of course, a country legend. In 1976, however, he had only just broken through, with the album Red-Headed Stranger (1975), after years of songwriting success and performing failure.  Beaten down by years of failure, he had actually retired briefly in 1972, leaving Nashville for his native Texas.  Kristofferson’s lyric alludes to a Nelson song that had been briefly popular but is seldom heard today, “Shotgun Willie” (1973), but I’ve kept it for old time’s sake.nelsonnow

(9)  Another carryover: The Rolling Stones (b. 1962) are, of course, one of the two iconic bands of the “British Invasion” era of rock ‘n’ roll. I’m a Beatles guy, and make no apologies for it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the work of Mick Jagger (b. 1943), Keith Richards (b. 1943) and the other Stones.  If only because I never got to see the Beatles live, but I did catch the Stones at Nassau Coliseum back in the 1980s.

stones76

Great in 1976, Great Now

 

stonesnow

 

 

(10) Renée Fleming (b. 1959) is considered by many to be the greatest operatic soprano America has ever produced. A mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera for many years, she has also ventured into Broadway and jazz in recordings and in concerts.

fleming

New Kid in Town

(11)  W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) were the preeminent masters of the operetta form and progenitors of much of what today is called musical theater. Of all the names I’ve inserted, these are the ones most likely not to be on Kristofferson’s list of favorites, but their importance in my life cannot be overstated.

(12)  Idina Menzel (b. 1971) is a Broadway singer and actress who had assured her immortality as the original Maureen in Rent (1996) and the original Elphaba in Wicked (2003). Then she voiced Queen Elsa in Frozen (2013) and sang the Oscar-winning, Grammy-winning “Let It Go.”  I still remember Rent and Wicked, but her immortality has moved on.

(13)  Paul McCartney (b. 1942) was the co-lead singer and bassist for the Beatles. Then he wasn’t, and it took him awhile to get over that, but he’s better now. I’ve seen him several times live, and he puts on as good a show as anyone out there.

(14)  Health problems have slowed Loretta Lynn (b. 1932) in recent years, but she’s still got a great voice and will always be country’s first and greatest female singer/songwriter. I’ve seen her live three times and, while her shows have been inconsistent, when she’s on, there’s no one better.

(15)  Aretha Franklin (b. 1942) has been talking about retirement for years, in the face of a series of health problems, but she always seems to bounce back. Let’s hope she keeps doing so, because that once-in-a-generation voice is still a marvel.

(16)  Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930) is the most important musical-theater songwriter of the second half of the 20th century, a master lyricist and underappreciated composer. His string of legendary hits includes A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), A Little Night Music (1970), Company (1971), Follies (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and Into the Woods (1987), as well as the lyrics to West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959).

(17)  Kris Kristofferson (b. 1936) is … well, you probably know that by now. Suffice it to say that he’d never put a shout-out to himself into the song (the way Hank Jr. does), but I’d never not put him in.

(18)  Founded in 1989, the Dixie Chicks’ classic lineup includes sisters Martie Maguire (b. 1969) and Emily Robison (b. 1972) and singer Natalie Maines (b. 1974). They’ve run into flak for assorted reasons through the years, but most of it boils down to the fact that they’re more country than a lot of people think women ought to be.

(19)  The Metropolitan Opera has been America’s foremost opera house—though not always its best—since it was established in 1880. From the 1960s into the 2000s, its national broadcasts (always sponsored by Texaco) were the soundtrack of my family’s Saturday afternoons.  It’s hard to say how that has influenced the music I perform today, but I’m sure it has.

(20)  The Canadian Brass, founded in 1970 in Toronto, were favorites of my early teens, when—amid my indoctrination in Gilbert & Sullivan, musical theater and Episcopal church music—I was a tuba player in some very good bands at Garden City High School. The Canadian Brass, with their brilliant, insanely precise sound, were dazzling—and they had a tuba player, Charles Daillenbach (b. 1945), who to this day is the group’s sole remaining original member.

(21)  Hank Williams (b. 1923) is … well, let’s just say that he is country music and that, if you don’t like him, you know what you can do.

If you aren’t listening to these people, what are you waiting for?

 

 

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