“Worried Man Blues” (Carter Family, 1930).
I have a theory about this song. I’m struck by the lines “I went across the river and laid me down to sleep. When I woke up, I had shackles on my feet.” Clearly the narrator has crossed a river and ended up in the wrong place, a place in which he is automatically a prisoner. To me this sounds like a runaway slave who has made it across a river to freedom—perhaps the Ohio River, famously the border between slave-state Kentucky and free-state Ohio—but has strayed back across and been recaptured. If that’s the case, the song can date from no later than the 1860s, and probably earlier.
This is not consistent with the later verses, but that’s not unusual in the folk process, in which multiple singers put in their own ideas through the years. There’s a famous recorded interview with Maybelle Carter in which she talks about her signature song, “Wildwood Flower,” and admits that she isn’t sure what it’s about and speculates that somebody got the words wrong somewhere along the way. This feels like more of the same.
Here’s the Carter Family performing the song, with Sara Carter the lead singer and Maybelle on guitar.
“Keep on the Sunny Side” (Carter Family, 1928).
Songwriters get their ideas from all over, but the best ones keep their ears open, knowing that any random phrase they hear might be the germ of a great song. In the case of lyricist Ada Blenkhorn, she had a nephew who was disabled. She would take him out for walks, pushing his wheelchair, but he was particular about which side of the street they walked on. “Keep on the sunny side,” he told her … and a classic song was born.
If you visit A.P. Carter’s grave in Mace’s Spring, Virginia, you’ll notice that there’s a gold record embedded in the headstone. A closer look reveals that it’s “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
Here’s the Carter Family’s immortal 1928 recording. They recorded it many times thereafter, often with better sound quality, but the power of the original is unmatched.
“I’ve Got Stripes” (Johnny Cash, 1959).
The funny thing about the attribution of this song is that the credited authors, Cash and country D.J. Johnny Williams, definitely didn’t write it; they either revised it substantially or listened to someone else’s substantial revision, but couldn’t be considered its authors. However, the person generally credited with actually writing it probably didn’t think he had.
Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949), the great folk/blues artist who performed as Leadbelly, recorded “On a Monday” in 1939, but he was a folk singer who didn’t claim authorship of most of his songs. “On a Monday” probably had been around for longer than Ledbetter had. Whoever first created it simply never thought to copyright it. (Cash and Williams weren’t nearly so lackadaisical about it.)
“The One on the Right Was on the Left” (Johnny Cash, 1966).
I love this song, but it’s a pretty depressing one, if you think about it, because it so neatly captures one of the worst things about our country today.
It’s a song about a conservative, a liberal, a moderate and a nonconformist (in Cowboy Jack Clement’s original, he’s a Methodist who burns his driver’s license and ends up getting drafted; in mine he’s a populist who forgets to vote and ends up driving an Uber). Together they’re better than the sum of their parts, an amazing band whose musical gifts vault them to national fame … but they break up in dissension because their political views clash and they can’t get past that.
I grew up in a house where my Republican father and my Democrat mother didn’t agree on much of anything, politically speaking, but our family worked. I’m a centrist (which means that I’m more conservative than my liberal friends, more liberal than my conservative friends and rarely in agreement with anybody), and I’ve made music and theater with people of every ideological stripe from Trump voters to Bernie boosters, and it’s worked out. We’ve all come away happy with the results and, yes, friendly with each other.
That’s the way our country has always worked. Not long ago John McCain and Ted Kennedy were ideological opponents who were personal friends and, surprisingly often, colleagues in pushing bills that they could both support. Nowadays I see less of that. It’s hard enough to find Democrats who agree with other Democrats, Republicans who agree with other Republicans, let alone ones who reach across the aisle to shake hands.
It’s hard to see that any of us are better off for that.
Here’s Cash singing Clement’s song. Enjoy!
“Crazy” (Patsy Cline, 1962).
Walker’s big objection to the song was that it was “too girly”—that the character was weepy and despondent, lacking in strength or manliness. When producer Owen Bradley offered the song to Decca star Roy Drusky, Drusky said the same thing. Apparently neither of them had ever heard a Hank Williams song.
Personally, I’ve never felt that obsessive, self-harming romantic infatuation was a female-only condition. In any case, since then the song has been covered by such artists as Elvis Costello, Julio Iglesias, Slim Richey, Steven Tyler, Neil Young and Nelson himself. So far as I know, none of them objected to its “girliness.”
Hard to argue with Patsy Cline’s version, but you’ve probably heard that one before. Here’s Nelson doing his own song.
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (Willie Nelson, 1975).
As anyone who’s read my April 20 blog post, “That’s Not How It Goes,” is well aware (and you can read it right here if you like), Nelson didn’t actually cover all of Rose’s song. As performed by Acuff in the original recording, the song had two verses and two choruses; Nelson turned the second verse into an instrumental (I’ve followed him in this). For completeness’s sake, though, here’s that second verse:
Now my hair has turned to silver
All my life I’ve loved in vain
I can see her star in heaven
Blue eyes crying in the rain
Acuff may not have liked the verse either, of course. Rose was his partner in the legendary Nashville music-publishing firm Acuff-Rose, and he may have not wanted to insult his friend and partner by cutting a verse.
“Get Yourself a Redhead” (Hank Penny, 1946).
Hank Penny was born Herbert Clayton Penny in 1918 in Birmingham, Alabama, and—unlike many country artists named Hank—didn’t borrow his name from Hank Williams, because he was already working under that name by the time Williams emerged after World War II. Penny was a singer, banjo player and comedian who worked mainly in the genre known as Western Swing, which was basically swing music with country instruments. (Glenn Miller in a cowboy hat, if you will.)
If you’ve never heard of Penny, it may be because he had a key flaw: a weakness for jazz. He was several times bounced from radio and live-performance jobs because he had hired jazz musicians who kept sneaking jazz into the country arrangements. The happiest day in his life probably came in 1949, when he co-founded the Palomino Club in Los Angeles, which soon was considered one of America’s premiere jazz clubs. Penny himself sometimes sat in with the artists playing there, but only occasionally. Basically he was too jazz for country, but also too country for jazz.
Penny spent most of the 1950s in Las Vegas, headlining at the Golden Nugget. During this period he served a mentor to another up-and-coming singer, banjo player and comedian. Roy Clark played in Penny’s band, and Penny and his band backed Clark on his first album. Clark, of course, went on to fame as the longtime host of Hee Haw, and has been a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame since 2009.
Here’s Penny singing “Get Yourself a Redhead,” my favorite of his songs.
“A Fool Such as I” (Hank Snow, 1952).
It’s not unusual for songwriters to vary their choruses from verse to verse, sticking in one or two different lines to keep it fresh. Sometimes it’s because they can’t decide which version is cleverer. In “Me and Bobbie McGee,” for example, Kris Kristofferson ends the first verse with an iconic chorus:
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
Nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free.
Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobbie sang the blues,
Feeling good was good enough,
good enough for me and Bobbie McGee.”
In the chorus to the second and final verse, however, the second line becomes “Nothing left was all she left for me.” Both lines feature clever wordplay; with only two verses, there was no danger of the chorus getting stale, but I think Kristofferson simply couldn’t make up his mind which he liked better. So he used both.
Some kind of record is surely scored by Bill Trader, however, in his chorus for “A Fool Such as I.” Trader alters not a single line, not a single word, but a single letter! And yet the change is significant. If you were listening closely, you may have noticed that the first chorus goes:
“Now and then there’s a fool such as I am over you.
You taught me how
to love, and now
you say that we are through.
I’m a fool, but I’ll love you, dear, until the day I die.
Now and then there’s a fool such as I.”
In the second verse, he changes only a single letter:
“Now and then there’s a fool such as I am over you.
You taught me how
to live, and now
you say that we are through.
I’m a fool, but I’ll love you, dear, until the day I die.
Now and then there’s a fool such as I.”
Great, isn’t it?
Also, as a grammatical purist, I’d like to thank Mr. Trader for not calling his song “A Fool Such as Me.” Country music would have let him get away with it, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
Here are two versions of this song, by Hank Snow and Elvis Presley. Hard to argue that Presley doesn’t have the better voice, but I prefer the Snow recording.
“I’ve Been Everywhere” (Hank Snow, 1962).
Geoff Mack, an Australian singer/songwriter, wrote this song in 1959, and it was a hit for an Australian singer named Lucky Starr in 1962; it was probably Starr’s version of the song that Hank Snow heard and loved. The thing was, the song was entirely a string of Australian place names, which wouldn’t make sense to an American audience. So Snow got in touch with Mack and asked him to make an American version. Mack pulled down an atlas and, browsing over the maps of the 50 states, came up with the song as we know it today.
So yes, ironically, “I’ve Been Everywhere” was written by a guy who hadn’t been anywhere—he’d never visited a single one of the 92 places mentioned in its lyrics. At the time he wrote it, anyway: Snow’s recording became a huge hit, and Mack came to America the next year, where he met Snow in Nashville and was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Some years ago I heard Lea Salonga sing it at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. That song has been everywhere.
“D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (Tammy Wynette, 1968).
The thing I’ve never gotten about this song is the artists who have covered it since Wynette made the original version: Liz Anderson, Rosanne Cash, Norma Jean, Peggie Little, Dolly Parton, Dottie West etc. Other than a couple of parodies (notably Billy Connolly’s 1975 takeoff), everyone I’ve ever heard of who recorded it was, yes, a woman.
People seem to regard this as an iconically female song, like Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a-Drinking” (1967) or Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” (1968). I don’t see why, though. Don’t fathers love their children? Is a wife whose husband leaves her automatically more heartbroken than a husband whose wife leaves him?
In at least one way, the song works better for a man: When I sing it, I change a single word in the lyrics, changing “Me and little J-O-E will be going away” to “You and little J-O-E will be going away.” This reflects the fact that, more often than not, courts give custody to the mother in a divorce—but it also makes the song sadder, the heartbreak more understandable. Losing your spouse and your child is worse than simply losing your spouse.
I learned this song for my upcoming show, Three Chords and the Truth: Country’s Greatest Songwriters, and it quickly became one of my favorites. I have absolutely no trouble connecting with the emotional content, and it amazes me that more male artists haven’t covered it.
Here’s Wynette’s classic version.
“Because You Asked Me To” (Waylon Jennings, 1973).
Billy Joe Shaver’s songs are widely admired in country circles, but haven’t often penetrated the pop market. They’re too quirky, too individualistic—and Shaver himself is notoriously difficult to deal with. Dozens of country artists have recorded Shaver songs, but very few pop artists.
This one is an exception, thanks to Elvis Presley, who recorded it in 1975. Of the three most interesting versions, Presley’s clearly has the best voice—even this late in his life, he still had an instrument that couldn’t be denied. Waylon Jennings’ is the most successful, a perfect match between singer and song. And Shaver’s presumably is how he envisioned it being sung, and has a loose-knit charm all its own.
I vote for Shaver, narrowly, but all three are excellent recordings. Take your pick.
“Black Rose” (Waylon Jennings, 1973).
In my head, the story of this Shaver song is about a man whose wife is compulsively unfaithful—it reminds me of the movie Black Snake Moan (2006). As I said introducing it, it could be about a lot of different things; I think Shaver intended different people to find emotional power from seeing it in different ways. He’s a great songwriter. If he wanted to write a modern version of “The Wild Side of Life” (1952), with everything explicitly laid out, he could have; he just didn’t want to.
One of the reasons I like it more than “The Wild Side of Life” and any number of other “my girl is a slut” songs in the country repertoire is its take on responsibility. My favorite two lines in the song—“The devil made me do it the first time;/the second time I done it on my own”—are an explicit admission that it’s his fault as much as hers (“fool me once … “), and his prayer is not for her to get her just punishment, but for him to find the strength to resist her charms.
And, no, I don’t know what the Dominicker hen is doing in the song. Poets must have their secrets, and Billy Joe Shaver is nothing if not a poet.
“Always on My Mind” (Willie Nelson, 1982).
People are often surprised to learn that Nelson didn’t write this song, and that in fact it had been recorded by a number of people a decade before Nelson got to it. In part this is because the song seems to fit Nelson’s own story so well: He’s a four-times-married singer who has blamed the failure of his first three marriages on his not being there, owing to his passion for the life of a touring musician. (In his late 80s, Nelson is still on the road for most of the year.)
This overlooks the obvious: Nelson isn’t the only touring musician out there, and the life is pretty much the same for all of them, whether they sing country, rock, pop or opera. The song captures a dynamic common to the lives of nearly every touring musician, the same way that Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (1969) did, and it’s no surprise that hundreds of musicians have covered each of these songs.
Songwriters Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson knew that life firsthand, as did Brenda Lee and, yes, Willie Nelson. It’s about Nelson’s life, yes, but it’s about a lot of other people’s lives as well.
Everyone’s heard Nelson’s version, so here’s B.J. Thomas’ version, which was the first one recorded (in 1970), though not released until years later.
“Ring of Fire” (Anita Carter, 1963).
The Carter Family’s fingerprints are all over this song. Co-writer June Carter said that she’d been inspired to write the song when she was leafing through a book of Elizabethan poetry which had belonged to her father, Eck Carter (husband of Maybelle, brother of A.P.). He habitually underlined phrases that caught his imagination, and one of them was “Love is like a burning ring of fire.” (I’ve been unable to identify the source poem, so this account may be apocryphal.)
It was originally recorded by Anita Carter, one of the all-time-great voices in the history of country music, but didn’t score a hit. A few months later Johnny Cash recorded it in a version that featured trumpets (supposedly because he’d had a dream in which he heard the song with a Mexican horn section). It isn’t the horns that made the new song a hit, though, as much as it is Cash’s simplification of the original song’s rhythm and his acceleration of its tempo. The revised version has a drive and power that the original simply didn’t have. Cash performed the song regularly on tour, with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters providing backup harmonies.
It has been rumored that, some years later, after Cash and Carter had married, Cash had a brief affair with his sister-in-law, Anita. Plenty of room in that ring of fire, it would seem.
You already know Cash’s version, so here’s the Anita Carter original.
“I’ll Fly Away” (Chuck Wagon Gang, 1948).
This classic of the gospel genre is also a country staple, having been recorded by dozens of major country stars. It’s characteristic of such religious country songs as the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (1935) and Red Foley’s “Peace in the Valley” (1951) in depicting life in this world as a chore that must be gotten through before the singer reaches true happiness in the next world.
This was a theme that resonated with people living in the rural South (and elsewhere), people for whom life was harsh and unrelenting. These songs have an exultant quality that reflects the grinding realities of that life and the anticipated joy of release into a new world—one which remains vague and undetailed, but will definitely be way better than this one.
Hank Williams’ life was defined by poverty, marital difficulties, addiction and physical pain. It’s no wonder that he related to “I’ll Fly Away,” which he performed frequently in live shows and on the radio.
Williams surely knew this version, a terrific rendition by the Chuck Wagon Gang, a personal favorite act of mine for the past decade or so.
“Why Don’t You Love Me” (Hank Williams, 1950).
This song was a No. 1 hit for Williams in 1950, and remains one of his most popular songs. It’s been covered by a host of other artists, including George Jones, Connie Smith, Tom Jones, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Like many of Williams’ songs, it’s about his troubled relationship with his first wife, Audrey Williams. He had three kinds of Audrey songs: When they were getting along, he wrote passionate love songs such as “Hey, Good-Looking” (1951). When they weren’t getting along, which was most of the time, he alternated between despairing songs of anguish (“Cold, Cold Heart,” 1951) and comic songs laughing at his own despair.
This is one of the latter, and it’s a real treat—especially in Williams’ own performance. Especially if you don’t think too hard about what it means.
Detail to note: Normally the structure of a four-verse song is either verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus or maybe verse-verse-chorus-verse-verse-chorus. Williams chooses verse-chorus-verse-verse-chorus-verse. It’s the only song I know of that uses this structure.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (Hank Williams, 1949).
One of Williams’ earliest recordings, this is perhaps the song which most defines his public image as a despondent poet of lonely train whistles and hopeless love. Technically it was the B-side to “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” (1949), but it was immediately recognized as the better of the two songs and drove the record’s rise to No. 4 on the country charts.
The power of the song comes from its simplicity. It’s a long-line waltz sung so slowly that it loses all of its dance qualities, its ¾ time instead reading as a pulsing 1. The vocal (which Williams claimed originally was intended to be a recitation, not sung) drifts over the beat without a clear sense of direction, mirroring the lyrics’ narrative inertness—there’s no story here, only a sense of despondent sadness so deep as to deny even a flicker of hope.
It’s not until the penultimate line that we even learn that the song is, to some degree, a love song, and we know that the person to whom it’s sung doesn’t hear it and never will. The imagery begins with the haunting evocation of a lonesome whippoorwill and a train at night and, instead of zooming in on the narrator and his specific cares, widens outward to encompass the night, the end of summer and, finally, a falling star, a silent flicker on the horizon, gone as soon as it’s seen.
Williams’ reputation as a poet, as “the hillbilly Shakespeare,” rests on this song more than any other. It’s well-deserved.
“Daddy Sang Bass” (Carl Perkins, 1968).
Of the five pioneer rockabilly stars, Buddy Holly died as he was only just reaching his prime; Elvis Presley moved into pop and stayed there, though he continued to sing country songs for the rest of his life, both for personal pleasure and on his records. (The 2001 compilation album The Country Side of Elvis includes 51 songs, among them songs associated with Eddy Arnold, Kris Kristofferson, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Hank Snow, Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, Bob Wills and others.)
The other three—Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins—had been left behind by rock ‘n’ roll by the early 1960s, and had returned to country. They had never left it, really, and it didn’t take much for them to reconnect with the music with which they had grown up.
Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass,” which was originally recorded by Cash. is the most explicit statement of the link between country and rockabilly. It’s an unabashedly rockabilly song, emblematic of Perkins’ alienation from the late-1960s rock of Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and Sgt. Pepper, that is built around a sample—before the term was used—of the Carter Family’s signature song, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (1935).
It’s also deeply autobiographical, evoking Perkins’ beloved brother (and frequent musical partner) Jay Perkins, who had died in 1958 as the result of injuries suffered in a catastrophic car crash in 1956, a crash which almost killed both brothers. (To make the story more closely match Cash’s own background, which also included a lost brother, Perkins left out his brother Clayton, a bassist who lived until 1973.)
“A Song About You” (Tennessee Walt, 2019).
Back in April I noticed that a country singer named Sam Grow had premiered a song called “Song About You.” I haven’t heard it, so I don’t know if it’s anything like mine. For the record, I debuted mine during a show at the Manhattan club Don’t Tell Mama in July 2019; so, if one of us stole the song, it was him.
Probably not, though, because a lot of songwriters have specific other people to whom they return again and again in their songs, to the point of obsession. To Hank Williams it was his first wife, Audrey Williams—according to his second wife, Billie Jean, he was driving with her when he was inspired to write a song … about Audrey. (Granted, that song was “Your Cheating Heart”; I didn’t say that it’s always love songs you write.) For Hank Williams Jr., it’s his father. For John Lennon it was Yoko Ono. For painter Andrew Wyeth, it was Christina Olson. Creative people are like that.
This song may or may not be about a particular person in my own life. It’s really about the phenomenon of coming back to another person again and again, trying to use your art to work out your relationship with him or her. It’s natural, if you think about it: Human beings use their thought processes to analyze their relationships, and for songwriters—or painters, poets, playwrights or whatever—creativity is the reflexive channel into which our thought processes flow. It’s more surprising, perhaps, when a creative person doesn’t use his or her art to explore those relationships.
The obvious answer song is “Not Another Song About Me”; maybe someone will write it sometime.
“A Short Time Here, a Long Time Gone” (Tennessee Walt, 2017).
I wrote this song while in the midst of working on Bristol & Beyond: The Birth of Country Music, which is about the Bristol Sessions and country music as it stood in 1927. I was listening to a lot of Carter Family music, and that doubtless inspired this song, which is more old-fashioned than my usual work.
From the beginning I heard it as a duet, with the harmonies as you hear them in our performance. I’ve done the song occasionally as a solo, and it works fine that way, but everybody seems to like it best as a duet, and my lovely wife and I have performed it live on numerous occasions.
She’s a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, with a degree in vocal performance, and is a much better singer than I am, and also a much better pianist. If she took it into her head to try, I daresay she’d be a better songwriter too. (She’s mainly a novelist, author of A Thousand Dances: A Novel of the British Blues Boom (Coral Press, 2018).) I don’t let her perform with me too often, because she makes me look bad.
“Michigan” (Tennessee Walt, 2018).
I wrote this song in about five minutes in July 2018, while driving north on Rt. 31 in Petoskey, Michigan, on my way to Bay View. I wasn’t at all thinking about writing a song—I was arriving in Bay View for the first time that summer, and was running over my list of things to do to get settled in—but these things happen.
I thought at the time that it might be the chorus to a song, or maybe the first of several verses, but so far that hasn’t proven to be the case. Maybe it will in the future, but for now it’s just a very short song.
“Alanson” (Tennessee Walt, 2019).
Writing music is relatively new to me, but I’ve written lyrics regularly for the past 40 years, including song parodies, rock songs, five original musicals and a variety of other incidental work. In all that time, I’ve been a very disciplined writer, sitting down and banging out the words for my various composers on a tight schedule.
Country songs aren’t that way for me; I’ve tried being disciplined, and it simply doesn’t work. The songs come to me, in various forms of completeness, when they want to, not when I want them. I write them down as they occur, the music always right along with the lyrics; sometimes songs show up all at once, sometimes gradually over weeks or months, but it’s always on their schedule, never on mine. I’d no more promise someone a new song on a particular date than I would promise them specific weather on that date.
Which is a long way of saying that I have no idea why this song is about Alanson, or why it’s a love song. I have no particular ties to Alanson—I’ve driven through it many times, but I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped there—and I certainly was never involved with a woman from Alanson. That’s how the song came to me, though, pretty much in complete form, so that’s what it is.
“I’m Wearing the Boots that Can Do It” (Tennessee Walt, 2016).
This is the first song I ever wrote that ever spurred me to say, even before it was finished, “Wow, that sounds like a hit.” My personal aesthetic isn’t especially commercial, and I’ve never gone and listened to country radio to see what people were listening to or what record companies were putting out. Some of the songs that occur to me have some degree of commercial potential, I’m sure, but none of them were written with that in mind.
Nonetheless, this one has always gotten a strong audience response—more and more, in fact, as my piano technique has improved through the past four years, to the point at which I feel I’ve finally caught up with this song. There are only a handful of my songs from 2015-2016 that I still perform, not because I don’t like them, but simply because, if you write songs for five years, it seems likely that no more than 20% of the best ones will be from the first year. Ideally less, because you’d like to think that you’d get better as you went along.
And yes, this is largely autobiographical. I’m the guy who objects to loud people at the next table and tells annoying people at movies to be quiet or shut off their phones. (I’m also the guy who runs out of the theater to tell a staffer when the sound goes off or the booth light is left on. I’m an active participant in my own life.) Everything described in this song has happened, including the auditorium applauding me for getting someone to turn off his phone; the only exception is, surprise, the people in the theater bursting into song. You’ve got to allow me some poetic license!