“The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” (Cal Smith, 1972).
I’m currently reading Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music, the 2016 memoir by the author of this song, who’s been a county star and Grand Ole Opry mainstay since the late 1950s. In it, he writes that he and his then-wife were having dinner at a restaurant that happened to be right across the street from the church they attended, and were enjoying a glass of wine apiece when they looked up to see several church members coming in. Anderson reflexively pushed his wine glass to one side so that it was behind a menu, but his wife declined to follow suit, saying “The Lord knows I’m drinking.”
“I got mashed potatoes and gravy all over my elbow,” Anderson writes, “falling across the table reaching for a paper napkin, while Becky finished her meal. I totally lost my appetite. I was too busy writing on the napkin the words to a song.”
I’ve had that experience myself, but I don’t know that it’s ever led to so good a song as this.
My favorite version is this one, by Ernest Tubb. The original recording was by Cal Smith, a Tubb protégé, and it’s also great. Anderson himself also does the song well. I’ll take Tubb’s version, though.
“The Wreck of the Virginian” (Blind Alfred Reed, 1927).
I always remember one detail about this story, because the wreck coincidentally happened on my birthday, 34 years to the day before my birth.
The account provided by Blind Alfred is entirely accurate, though it leaves out an interesting detail: Presumably because both engineers braked hard when each saw the oncoming train, the passenger train and the freight train ran into each other, but neither derailed. The only deaths were Aldrich and O’Neill, who were scalded to death when their engine burst.
Here’s Blind Alfred Reed, accompanying himself on the fiddle.
“The Wabash Cannonball” (J.A. Roff, 1882).
Train songs—which date back almost to the first train (the Baltimore & Ohio, chartered in 1827, was America’s first railroad)—are divided into two subgenres. “The Wabash Cannonball” is a great example of the first, an encomium to the speed, power and dynamism of the railroad train. It was an obvious reaction to people’s first impressions of the new invention: In 1789 it took George Washington more than a week to travel from Virginia to New York; a century later, you could travel from New York to Los Angeles in less time—and in much greater comfort.
The other subgenre, of course, consisted of gruesome accounts of train wrecks, which fascinated listeners at least as much. It wasn’t until the 1940s that train wrecks became rare, and every one seemed to have inspired a song. (I grew up listening to Vernon Dalhart singing “The Freight Wreck at Altoona” (1926) on an Edison record player in northern Michigan; the wreck in question took place in 1925.)
Both elements of railroading—the speed and power, and the danger—were integral to the railroads’ hold on the American imagination from the 1830s into the 1950s. It was the coming of air travel and the interstate-highway system that changed the nature of travel and shunted the railroads onto a siding.
Here’s first the Carter Family singing “The Wabash Cannonball” in 1929 and then Roy Acuff’s 1936 version. Acuff sang the song for the next half-century, but he’s not the singer here—that would be Dynamite Hatcher, not a famous name. Acuff’s contribution is his uncanny vocal imitation of a train whistle, which is really quite impressive. The Acuff version is the standard, and mine is based on it.
“The Wantagh Cannonball” (Tennessee Walt, 2018).
In the years since the 1950s, of course, the railroad has been domesticated. The romance of high-speed, long-distance travel has been replaced by the tedium of slow-moving mass transit. There are still people who obsess over railroads and their paraphernalia, but they’re anomalies, historic oddities now. Today people’s obsession over trains is mainly limited to why they can’t stick to their announced schedules. Most people riding a train never look out the window.
That’s the contrast that drives this song, which has been one of my most popular since I introduced it two years ago.
“Folsom Prison Blues” (Johnny Cash, 1955).
“Crescent City Blues” (Gordon Jenkins, 1953).
Discussion of these two songs tends to focus on the unlikely fact that nobody except Cash—including Jenkins, who wrote “Crescent City Blues”—seems to have realized that “Folsom Prison Blues” was based so closely on the earlier song, despite it being a No. 4 country hit in 1955.
(Cash later said that at the time he’d told Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records, that his new song was based on the earlier one, but that Phillips laughed it off, saying that the song was so little-known that it didn’t matter. This may be so—Phillips knew a hit when he heard one, and Cash’s song definitely was a hit—but it’s hard to believe that the owner of even a small record company would deliberately set himself up for an almost-unwinnable lawsuit. I think this is probably Cash’s later rationalization for a bad choice with which he somehow got away for 13 years.)
To me, though, there are two more important points. First of all, “Crescent City Blues”—and Beverly Maher’s performance of it—are remarkably good. That it didn’t score a hit I can attribute only to the fact that Jenkins’ Seven Dreams was a concept album tied together with narration and sound effects that made it less likely to get radio play. But it’s a terrific song, terrifically sung.
The other point is how brilliant a job Cash did of adapting this song about a small-town girl dreaming of the lights of the big city into a song about a prisoner longing for freedom. He changed less than half of the lyrics and left the melody alone, and yet it really is an entirely different song. Cash’s song has absolutely no sense that it’s a pastiche or a knockoff—it has integrity all its own. I like them both, and that’s not normally the case when someone rips off someone else’s song so thoroughly.
Synthesis is a form of creativity, and “Folsom Prison Blues” is a perfect proof of that.
“I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Don Gibson, 1957).
This is a strangely structured song, basically chorus-verse-chorus. Gibson rarely wrote long songs, but even for him this is a short one. And it’s a song in which nothing happens: The whole point of the song is that the singer is stuck in the past, adrift in an endlessly recirculating stream of memory.
The key to my performance (at least as I intend it to be) is a difference of emphasis—of rhythm—in the first line of the chorus. In the first verse, coming out of a brief, three-measure introduction, the emphasis is, as it usually is, on the downbeat: “I can’t stop LOVING you.” What can’t I stop? Loving you is what I can’t stop.
The verse offers an apparent solution to his anguish—“they say that time heals a broken heart”—but the solution doesn’t work for him because time doesn’t pass. He’s stuck in an endless repetition of a particularly agonizing moment: “Time has stood still since we’ve been apart.”
Out of this surges the second chorus, with a different accent: “i CAN’T stop loving you.” It’s a fierce rebuke of “they,” an insistence of the undeniability of his own experience. “Why don’t you stop loving her?” “I can’t stop loving her.”
I don’t expect an audience to track this sort of thing—it’s not overthinking in a singer, but it would be overthinking in most audience members. But that’s what’s in my head.
Here are the two classic versions of this song, one by Kitty Wells and the other by Ray Charles. My favorite is Wells’, but I know I’m in the minority. Charles is an all-time great artist, but his embrace of the elevator-music Nashville Sound as “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” sets my teeth on edge. They’re modern sounds, all right, but they’re not in country music; I’m not an expert on western music, but they don’t sound like cowboy songs either.
“Sweet Dreams” (Don Gibson, 1955).
Another short (and, yes, sweet) song by the great Don Gibson. His songs are short because he has a genius for cutting to the chase, getting his idea across and getting out. If I tried to express this idea, I’d do it in three verses, three choruses and a bridge; the verses would probably be six lines long, maybe eight, and the chorus four or six. Call it 36 lines over all.
Gibson gets his job done in 12 lines, and it’s one of the best songs ever written. His version is 1/3 the length of mine, and three times as powerful.
I could point you to Patsy Cline’s immortal performance of this song, but you can find that on your own—it’s everywhere. Instead I’ll send you to Gibson’s own version, from 1955, and Reba McEntire’s live version. They’re both great. (No surprise, Gibson’s runs 2:17 without rushing; McEntire’s runs 3:09, almost a whole minute longer.)
“Back to December” (Taylor Swift, 2010).
I get a lot of pushback from people—especially the people who love the kind of music I love—when I say that I consider Swift the greatest living songwriter under the age of 50. They also give me the stinkeye when I say that she’s one of the greatest country songwriters ever.
But I’m not engaging in rhetorical excess. I think that Swift’s first three albums, Taylor Swift (2006), Fearless (2008) and Speak Now (2010), are easily better than any other country artist’s best three albums in the new century, and rank with some of the best country albums of all time. Kristofferson (1970) is a better album than Fearless, I’ll admit, but not by much—and that’s setting the bar awfully high. And I revere Kris Kristofferson, but I’m not sure that, in his whole career, he’s put out three albums that are as good as the three Swift had put out by the time she was 20. The Silver-Tongued Devil and I (1971), yes, absolutely—but then what?
What Swift did in her country years was exactly what Hank Williams did, what Loretta Lynn did, what Kristofferson and Willie Nelson did. She took emotionally powerful stories, mostly from her own life, and set them to music with wit and passion and a recklessness that has been missing from Nashville since … well, at least since the 1970s.
I don’t say this easily, because to me most of contemporary country is an artistic wasteland, having ceded to hip-hop the artistic courage, the emotional freedom and the simple sincerity that characterized the best country of the 1920s through the 1950s. I stumbled across Swift in 2009 while making a survey of contemporary country, looking for artists who spoke to me the way Williams, Tubb, Snow, Lynn, Nelson and Kristofferson did. By and large, that survey was depressing; it convinced me that my rejection of country during my youth in the 1970s and 1980s was largely reasonable. But I kept an open mind, and this teenage girl from Pennsylvania gave me hope for the whole thing. I don’t write the way she does (I’m a 59-year-old man from New York), but she’s one of the reasons I write. She proves that you don’t have to be a dead white Southerner from the 1930s or earlier to be a great country songwriter.
And that she was a voice for young women in Nashville, a city which has precious few of them, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t “sound like country.” Country used to want to sound like the real world and, last I heard, young women were real people. It’s country that doesn’t sound like country any more.
Swift is a good-enough singer, not a great one, and her songs are often overproduced. Not all her songs measure up to her best (whose do?). Her recent detour into pop music has been deeply disappointing. But I’m hoping that she comes back to country, because it needs her desperately.
But enough from me. Listen to Swift’s “Fifteen” (2008), “Mean” (2010) and, yes, “Back to December” (2010), and meet me back here later on. Then we can talk.
“Mama Tried” (Merle Haggard, 1968).
This seems like a prison song, which is a country subgenre that goes back to even before the Bristol Sessions—think Vernon Dalhart’s “The Prisoner’s Song” (1924), the first country song ever to sell 1 million copies—but it’s actually something else. It’s a beloved-mama song, which has been a staple of country forever.
It was a favorite song of the Grateful Dead, who played it at Woodstock.
Here’s Haggard’s classic version. And here’s the Dead with a jaunty cover.
“Lady’s Man” (Cy Coben, 1952).
One of the reasons I’ve always loved Hank Snow is for his deadpan sense of humor. A lot of country stars are pretty dour, so Snow’s laid-back, Canadian humor has charmed me first I since came across him.
Coben wasn’t strictly a comic songwriter—the Beatles covered his “Nobody’s Child” (1949), for example, another song originally sung by Snow—but he did more than his share of funny songs. Here’s Snow doing “Lady’s Man” and, just for kicks, Mac Wiseman doing Coben’s goofy “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” (1969).
“Tennessee Waltz” (Pee Wee King/Redd Stewart, 1947).
For the record, this is what the original version, sung by Redd Stewart, sounds like; Pee Wee King is leading the band. Their collaboration actually foreshadowed the collaborative method used in much of today’s pop and rock ‘n’ roll: King wrote the music and did the band arrangement; Stewart basically wrote the lyrics to King’s existing tune, shaping them to fit his own singing style. It was an unusual arrangement then, but today borders on the norm.
As is always the case in the music business, success engendered imitation. Probably all of the other 49 states promptly got their own waltz, sometimes by very credible musicians: Even the great Hank Williams didn’t hesitate to put together an “Alabama Waltz” in the hope of cashing in—as he cheerfully admits in this live radio performance. Neither his knockoff nor anyone else’s approached the immense success of the King/Stewart song.
Yes, everybody knows Patti Paige’s pop version. For completeness’s sake, here it is. I don’t know why she lapses into an Irish accent occasionally.
“Any Old Time” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1930).
I love this song, and have been working on it, off and on, for the past three years. Only recently has my piano playing caught up with how I think the song should go, so this is the first time I’ve ever performed it publicly.
Rodgers’ 1930 version is, of course, the definitive one, but I love this one by Alison Krauss as well. I wish I could play the piano like this; maybe someday.
“Welcome to My World” (Ray Winkler/John Hathcock, 1962).
My lovely wife offers an unusual interpretation of this song which may, nonetheless, be accurate.
She observes that the center section (“Knock, and the door will open … “) is adapted from Matthew 7:7-8:
Ask, and it shall be given you;
seek, and ye shall find;
knock, and the door shall be opened.
My wife (who holds a degree in religious studies from Oberlin College) suggests that, while this is generally seen as a love ballad, it may instead be a devotional work, representing the ever-forgiving voice of God.
I don’t know much about Ray Winkler and John Hathcock, the credited songwriters (there is some controversy over whether Winkler actually took the credit for a tune by Eddie McDuff). However, a list of the songs that each wrote (they were not regular partners) doesn’t suggest an affinity for religious subject matter.
So I’ll pigeonhole this as an intriguing speculation which remains, as the British say, “unproven.”
“You Win Again” (Hank Williams, 1952).
The impact of Fred Rose’s suggestion to change the title from “I Lose Again” to “You Win Again” is immeasurable. “I Lose Again” feels like whining, self-pity, wallowing. “You Win Again” has a rueful tone, as if the narrator is looking at his own situation from the outside, seeing his own helplessness and grimacing.
The final “I love you still” comes as a shock, one of the greatest kickers in country history, but of course this isn’t what popular songs usually mean by “love.” What Williams is talking about is not idealized romanticism, but fatal attraction. His narrator doesn’t remotely idolize the woman to whom he’s singing—he sees her as a succubus, a monster without heart or shame. True love is in this song, but it flows only from the men to her. There’s no reciprocity here, only a doomed, obsessive fascination with no way out.
Songs this dark don’t usually become hits, but this one did. Country music isn’t like most other kinds of music—there’s room for a lot of darkness there.
“The River” (Garth Brooks/Victoria Shaw, 1992).
Let’s be honest about this. “The River” is a song with a beautiful tune and an inspiring message, but it doesn’t really make sense.
The central message is to pursue your dreams, not to let anything stand in your way: “I’ll never reach my destination/if I never try,/so I will sail my vessel/till the river runs dry.” We are warned, “Too many times we stand aside,/and let the waters slip away/ … /so don’t stand upon the shoreline/and say you’re satisfied,/but choose to chance the rapids/and dare to dance the tide.”
That’s a great message, and it hits home to someone who radically reordered his life in his mid-50s to become an aspiring country musician. But it’s also wildly inconsistent with the opening of the song, which tells us that “A dream is like a river,/ever changing as it flows,/and the dreamer’s just a vessel/that must follow where it goes.”
Which is it? Is a dream an irresistible force that will sweep you where you are bound, or a fleeting opportunity that must be seized? Is the dreamer being carried along by the river, or is she standing on the shore, hesitant to take a chance?
The imagery is directly contradictory, and gets only more confusing with the last lines “with the good Lord as my captain, I can make it through them all./So I will sail my vessel/till the river runs dry.” Isn’t it the captain who sails the vessel? We seem to be back with the dreamer as a vessel, being steered by the captain through rough waters … but wait, aren’t those waters the dream itself?
This can’t be resolved. It’s a beautiful song, but not a coherent one. If you’re a person who gets a general feel about a song without fully knowing the words, let alone thinking about them … this is a good one for you. Sail on!
“Goodbye, Little Darlin’” (Gene Autry/Johnny Marvin, 1939).
OK, so about that extra verse. Let’s stipulate that the lyrics for the first four verses are as follows:
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
Goodbye, little darlin’, we’re parting.
I know it’s hard to say goodbye.
You’ll find someone new
and he’ll be good to you.
Goodbye, little darlin’, goodbye.
Goodbye, little darlin’, I’m leaving.
Give me one tender last goodbye.
I found out just now
I’m in your way somehow.
Goodbye, little darlin’, goodbye.
Goodbye, little darlin’, don’t worry,
parting don’t always mean goodbye.
You will always be
in my memory.
Goodbye, little darlin’, goodbye.
Goodbye, little darlin’, I’ll miss you,
miss you like the stars would miss the sky.
Though we have to part,
you’re always in my heart.
Goodbye, little darlin’, goodbye.
All clear so far? OK, in the movie there’s a fifth verse, and it goes like this:
Goodbye, little darlin’, we’re parting.
We’ll meet beneath the Texas sky.
I don’t know when or where,
but, darling, I’ll be there.
Goodbye, little darlin’, goodbye.
I submit that this makes absolutely no sense in the context of the previous four verses, which are clearly about parting forever. This has the feel of an extra verse slapped on by the movie studio, which wanted a pop song, not a country song—and, in pop songs, the boy always has to get the girl.
Here’s Autry at work, in the original recording of the song.
Extra credit: If you disagree with me that the first four verses are classically country, compare and contrast this song—and especially the second verse, with its “I found out just now/I’m in your way somehow”—with Dolly Parton’s classic “I Will Always Love You” (1973).
“Your Cheating Heart” (Hank Williams, 1952).
I guess Audrey Williams’ bee in her bonnet about this particular song must have stemmed from its being such a big hit, because her husband painted far worse pictures of her in other songs (“You Win Again,” anyone?) that, so far as we know, she let go.
I’ve been tempted to work up a new arrangement for this song, one that’s more country, for some time. This one feels kind of cabaret to me, and that’s not what I’m going for. I have enough troubles convincing people that what I’m doing is country.
Nonetheless, I’m sentimentally attached to this arrangement as my first step along a road that has taken me to any number of arrangements that I like better. In my first days as a country singer, I felt like an impostor, someone pretending to be a piano player; it’s only in the past six or eight months (aided by a rigorous practice regimen thanks to the lockdown) that I’ve felt like I actually am a piano player. Maybe my discomfort with this arrangement is because it reminds me of those early days, but I also feel a tie to it, as people do to their earliest childhood memories, even if those memories are trivial or embarrassing.
We’ll see what happens in days/week/years to come.
“Taking the Easy Way Out” (Tennessee Walt, 2019).
This is autobiographical in a general sense, but not in a specific one. I’ve never been in a situation exactly like this, but when I was young I had a tendency to avoid confrontations and awkward situations by keeping my head down and letting things sort themselves out … even if it hurt everyone else involved except me. Or maybe including me.
This song is about a specific thing, not a general one, because songwriting thrives on specificity and strangles on generalities. Which would you rather listen, a song called “Coal Miner’s Daughter” or “Working Parent’s Child?” But the emotional power for me comes from a general thing, not from the specifics of this particular story (which, in my head, involves an unintended pregnancy).
I think I’m better than I was in this regard, though you’d have to ask those around me.
“(It Isn’t that I’m) Getting Old” (Tennessee Walt, 2020).
The chorus of this song. “It isn’t that I’m getting old, it’s that I’ve gotten smart,” is a catch phrase that I’ve used in conversation for many years now—I think I originated it, but maybe I heard or read it somewhere, I’m honestly not sure.
One of the nice things about getting old (and there are surprisingly many of them) is that you realize that you don’t have to do things that you don’t want to do, things you used to do because you wanted to look cool or you didn’t want to look scared or whatever. Broadly, you realize that other people’s expectations and opinions of you aren’t as important as you thought they were, back in the day.
That may not sound like much of a consolation, if you’re a young person reading this, but I assure you that, in years to come, you’ll find that it is.
“The Eclipse” (Tennessee Walt, 2017).
The origin of this song is exactly as I recount it prior to singing it (I always worry that, if I don’t, people won’t understand what’s going on in the song, and the governing metaphor—as I understand it, with the singer himself being eclipsed—won’t be understood).
I assure you, it has no autobiographical basis whatever. I’ve never been involved with a woman in Nashville, and I look forward to revisiting the city the first chance I get.
“That’s Just Some Guy” (Tennessee Walt, 2016).
I always wonder, when I’m singing this song, whether the audience members are envisioning the photos in question. I am, but I’m not telling you what they depict.
For the record, this song isn’t autobiographical in any meaningful sense. I’m pretty sure there are no nude photos of me on the internet. If there seem to be, well, that isn’t me, that’s just some guy.
I did have a weird internet experience about a decade back, when in one of my periodic searches for my own name on the internet (I’m looking for copyright infringement, reviews of my book, that sort of thing—I can do that because I have a very rare first name) I came across a California Angels fan site on which someone had posted a photo of an Angels “rally monkey”—costumed in a Boston Red Sox uniform. The person posting the photo had labeled it, “This is so wrong its name should be Gayden Wren.”
The most likely explanation for this is that it was posted by an Angels fan, outraged by Red Sox fans’ appropriation of an Angels tradition, who was also a Gilbert & Sullivan buff and hadn’t liked my book (which was, and remains, controversial in some circles, though it was generally well received). It was a strange concatenation of circumstances and, when it disappeared off the internet two or three years later, I missed it.